The problems with junior chess

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Richard James
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The problems with junior chess

Post by Richard James » Thu Nov 26, 2009 12:17 pm

I have been following with interest the discussion on the World Youth Championship thread. Many interesting and relevant points have been made concerning funding, coaching and team selection.

I believe that the paucity of strong players at the top is merely a symptom of a more general malaise in junior chess in this country. In the past 20-30 years there has been an enormous decline in the number of teenagers playing chess, in the overall standard of play compared to other West European countries and in the level of commitment from both children and parents. Neill Cooper pointed out elsewhere (if I remember correctly) that there are currently only 230 secondary school age players in the country with a Standardplay A grade. No one commented on this at the time, but I, for one, find this statistic alarming.

Another factoid for you: The 100th ranked active English player (November 2009) has a rating of 2273. The equivalent figures for some other West European countries are: Germany – 2442, France – 2372, Spain – 2391, Netherlands (with a population less than a third of ours) – 2333.

Of course the reasons for this are largely cultural, educational and political, and, as such, outside our immediate control. But perhaps we need a complete rethink in the way we teach, organise and promote chess for children.

I want to use this thread to outline the problems we face in more detail and suggest ways in which we can move forward. Please feel free to comment, but, if you don’t like the message, don’t shoot the messenger.

Matt Harrison
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Matt Harrison » Thu Nov 26, 2009 12:47 pm

Richard, as ever you make some good points. And almost all sports suffer from a similar problem - but in most cases they 'lose' young people (including the very talented) in the transition from junior to adult player - we lose them much earlier in the transition from primary school to secondary school.

My son's secondary school has just started a chess club to try and retain the keen juniors from the local primaries. But a very real problem is that these juniors are still playing at a pretty low standard. The gulf between players that can do quite well in the annual EPSCA tournaments, Megafinals and Gigafinals and being able to play in even the lowest division in the London or Middlesex league is vast. My son bridged this gap through playing in lots of junior tournaments, but the level of parental support needed for this is enormous. I spent loads of weekends, drove thousands of miles and spent hundreds of pounds each year on this. Clearly I'm not unique, but this is a massive barrier. We need to be able to offer opportunities to play competetive chess and improve without this requirement.

Chess equipment, coaching and support for school clubs will help. But I think we need a competitive base to retain the interest of secondary school age players. I think one possible answer would be to use one of the online platforms to create regional/national leagues and competitions.

And or we could adopt some of the US methods for school tournaments - instead of having team events, have individual events with the best few players from each team determining the winners. Our local primary school moved to this approach for the borough primary school championships - some schools had 10-20 players, others struggled to put together a 6 player team. By having an individual event (this year's event was last weekend), more schools were involved, even if some only sent a couple of players. Getting a team of 6 together for away matches in the National Schools proved almost impossible when I tried to organise it for my son's secondary school 4 years ago.

Mike Truran
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Mike Truran » Thu Nov 26, 2009 12:49 pm

Maybe a good starting point would be to understand how things are organised in Spain/France/Netherlands/Germany?

Peter Rhodes
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Peter Rhodes » Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:13 pm

Richard James wrote:I want to use this thread to outline the problems we face in more detail and suggest ways in which we can move forward. Please feel free to comment, but, if you don’t like the message, don’t shoot the messenger.
Richard, I think you raise valid points and are right to solicit such a discussion.

Something had occured to me recently. Has anyone noticed that when their children reach their 18th birthday they are often targetted by a huge mailshot, usually from local clubs and venues offering discounted terms for a party at their venue.

When students go to university, within the first week they attend a "freshers fair" where all of the activities on campus compete for young peoples time and attention.


Young people have so much to do and organisations realise this - that is why they compete for young adults attention. These organisations know that these young adults will be forming habits and tastes that will be pervasive for years to come.


Then I asked myself, what does the ECF do when adolescents reach 18 ? What support does the ECF give to University and College chess clubs ? I don't know the answer to these questions - but I do know what the answer "should" be.
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Alex Holowczak
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Alex Holowczak » Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:32 pm

Richard James wrote:Neill Cooper pointed out elsewhere (if I remember correctly) that there are currently only 230 secondary school age players in the country with a Standardplay A grade. No one commented on this at the time, but I, for one, find this statistic alarming.
I don't find it alarming at all. I've never had an A grade, yet I play more than anyone I know, be it on the Internet, or at any of the three clubs. While I don't have an A to back it up, I'd say I was commited, trying to improve. The reason I couldn't get an A grade is simple - lack of graded tournaments. I could maybe play 10 graded games per season in the two local tournaments that I knew about while a junior, namely the Warwickshire Championship and the Dudley Congress. That was about as far as my parents were prepared to take me. That was a factor completely out of my control. I know that while at school, I used to give out entry forms to players who I thought were good enough, maybe 3 or 4. One player, Chris Smith, went to my school, and entered the Warwickshire event, not enough to get a grade, let alone an A grade.

The school leagues were not graded. In fact, only about 6 schools were interested towards the end of my time at secondary school. And the gulf was enormous between them, KES, KEFW and KECH dominate. So while very actively involved in chess, they racked up 0 graded games for their 4 or 5 school matches/tournaments per season.

As for senior clubs, I think only Chris and I (and latterly some others now I've left) are good enough to play for Birmingham League clubs. The reason we didn't join until the summer just past was simple - no one had ever told us such a thing existed. Besides, we played for a junior club, so we didn't see the point, because we could still get regular games against friends without having to commit an evening, which could be devoted to other things.

The staff, who have to supervise all this, have to give up massive amounts of their Friday evenings and Saturdays to send teams to places. Saturday tournaments are tough, because half of my team would rather have played rugby, which always clashes.

So while we weren't getting an A grade, we were still hugely involved in chess. I don't think you can conclude that an A grade shows lack of commitment.

The only reason a junior would travel further afield is to play in the UKCC, in my experience. Of course, none of those games are long enough to be graded (standardplay). Unless they're trying to play for England, but then, that's only the people at the top of the tree.
Matt Harrison wrote:But I think we need a competitive base to retain the interest of secondary school age players.
Despite my best effort, this was very difficult. Only four or five turned up to an after-school club. The daily lunchtime club was well attended. It had to be daily, because there would always be rugby, music, drama, netball etc. that clashed with it. So people would pop along whenever they had the opportunity. With some though, their everyday friends would rather play football or cricket on the playground. So they went to join them. I was lucky in that I was often able to drag people in for matches and things. Since a new captain took over, he has been less successful at persuasion. At the end of the day, if people would rather play football at the expense of playing chess, there's not a lot you can do.
Peter Rhodes wrote:What support does the ECF give to University and College chess clubs ?
I've just set up a society at Aston University, and recieved no help. This is to be expected though, since I haven't actually told the ECF about it. They're not mind-readers.

I think though, that no one will bother turning up after a while, unless we have some matches to play. I can't even find any sort of Inter-University competition, which has amazed me. Perhaps the ECF could set one up for University students, if one presently doesn't exist? A weekender on a team-basis, perhaps? Also worth noting, the team of 7 or 8 I have so far for matches includes a Saudi Arabian, Sri Lankan, Russian, German, and three Englishmen, two of which play in the Birmingham League already (i.e. me and a fellow club-mate, who is probably only playing for us because I know him personally).
Last edited by Alex Holowczak on Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Richard James
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Richard James » Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:34 pm

Many thanks for your replies so far.

Matt: all your points are very well made. Yes - there is an enormous gulf between primary school chess and even the lowest level of adult chess. If you've never visited a primary school chess club you'd be amazed at how weak most of the players are and how little they understand about the game. My experience from running internal ratings in Richmond for many years was that most primary school players were round about 0 to -50 (note - that's MINUS not PLUS 50 in pre-2009 ECF terms and I had the statistics to prove it). We were partially successful in bridging the gap by running the Richmond Rapidplays with a Minor section for kids and adult beginners. Kids do need to be on the tournament circuit and playing most weekends to become good, but for many families this is just not possible, sometimes because of the expense (even in Richmond) and sometimes because the family has other children who are not interested in chess.

Mike: your sentence is almost exactly the same as what will be the last sentence in my next post. If I'd had any say in the John Robinson money the first thing I would have done would have been to send someone to find out and report back. There are many on this forum who know more than me, but I'll be returning to this subject in later posts.

Peter: the proiblem is, as Matt pointed out, the 18-year-old chess players just don't exist any more. Again, I'll return to some of the reasons for this later.

Richard James
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Richard James » Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:41 pm

Alex: in the 1970s there were literally hundreds of strong teenagers playing chess on a regular basis. Most clubs in the local league would have had several Under 18s in their team. It's wonderful that you are so enthusiastic and commited, but, as you are finding out at University, there are very few of your age around. Perhaps there are hundreds of teenagers in England playing chess on the Internet but I suspect not: most of them are playing World of Warcraft instead, something else I'll return to later. In the past London University had, I think, at least 3 London League teams. For many years now they have had none. You really can't get enough interest in most universities outside Oxbridge to get anything very much happening. Of course we're never going to go back to what happened in the 70s but I think that if we're aware of the problems we can produce at least a slight improvement.

Peter Rhodes
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Peter Rhodes » Thu Nov 26, 2009 1:50 pm

Alex wrote:I've just set up a society at Aston University, and recieved no help. This is to be expected though, since I haven't actually told the ECF about it. They're not mind-readers.
Congratulations on that.

I was involved with University Chess myself, and also found problems - although to be fair, Cyril Johnson from the Leicestershire league was supportive.

University Chess can be a real problem :

1) The organiser is usually inexperienced and has to juggle academic commitments.
2) Very strong players cannot always find an opponent to give them a challenging game and lose interest.
3) If there is a leadership vacuum the club will often fold.

The real tragedy is that Students Unions will give significant financial support to clubs and societies, but if a club becomes defunct, that finance is no longer available. Once a club has folded, starting one up from scratch is often not trivial. In addition, University chess clubs have access to a free venue and the possibility of cheap venue hire for congresses also exists.

We recently heard of the difficulty of some regular clubs finding reasonably priced venues, and also the problem of having to change their venue. Developing harmonius relationships between local clubs and university clubs seems obvious and I am sure we are missing out on many opportunities.
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Richard James
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Richard James » Thu Nov 26, 2009 2:03 pm

Children now are very different from even 15 years ago. A team at King’s College London led by Professor Michael Shayer has been researching the development of children’s cognitive skills for more than 30 years. In January 2006 they reported that 11- and 12-year-old children in year 7 are "now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago", in terms of cognitive and conceptual development. (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/200 ... schools.uk) And cognitive and conceptual development is exactly what you need to play chess well. At the same time there has been an enormous increase in the number of children diagnosed with problems involving attention, concentration and focus. From my own experience of teaching chess over many years Shayer’s conclusions come as no surprise, and I think that if you talk to most other professionals who have been working with children for the past 20 years they will say the same thing.

This suggests that we really do need a rethink about when and how we teach young children to play chess. Of course there will always be a few children who will start young and pick up the ideas quickly, but these are now in an increasingly small minority. Maybe we should look at the methods used in other countries and see if they work better.

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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by mike healey » Thu Nov 26, 2009 2:11 pm

Richard is of course right, the numbers of young people is indeed worrying.

In the past few years I have been heavily involved in Oxford University's chess club, and while there are certainly many problems running a university club, one of the most obvious has been the shrinking of the pool of freshers each year who are either rated or more experienced. The overall numbers seem fine at the moment, chess is popular with those who want to take up something new at university.

This provides two main challenges: (1) trying to train those who played at primary and secondary schools, but not on the circuit, and (2) persuading the more experienced juniors that they want to get involved in chess at university.

(1) is difficult because we are simply not used to training. Those that are find themselves too busy with study, so it ends up that the keenest beginners and patzers may advance rapidly through blitz and online chess (the current president and varsity captains both being good examples) but without key points of basic knowledge training would provide. Every year we take in many people who ask about training, knowing full well that we cannot seriously provide it. There is the standard book-sharing but we do not have the funds to build up, say, a dvd-library.

Due to recent troubles (2) has a great issue of late, but the terrifying reading of varsity grades over the last few years is a clear indicator. From teams packed with titled players just a decade ago we are currently looking at teams averaging less than 2100. These are the 8 best players in the university, who are generally picked according to grading not by how much they play over the year. It is of course possible that the better young chess players are not attending Oxbridge, which is fair enough. But if not then there is a serious problem.

One of the great things about varsity is the disparate backgrounds on show. There were 10 nationalities for 16 boards last year. Many are not products of the English junior chess system.

I'm sure the club would welcome any help it can get from the ecf, because it gets none from the university. I cannot emphasize the NONE enough.

Steve Rooney
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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Steve Rooney » Thu Nov 26, 2009 2:51 pm

Thanks for starting this thread Richard.

In our county we currently have more secondary school age players than for many years. We have two junior teams in the adult leagues. They did lose most of their matches for the first two seasons and the support of adults in other teams has been critical with a lot of one-sided games early on. But everyone backed the idea of bringing the juniors on and the junior teams are now competing strongly. We have also run a county side as an all- or majority-junior team in the MCCU for the past few years.

In a large rural county, league chess was seen as the best option because we are a fair way from a lot of weekend tournaments.

Our strategy was in part informed by some of your writings, Richard, on the best ages to bring on chess players. Howewer, the problem we have now is a lack of younger players coming up to secondary school age, and although the UK chess challenge can be a help, without keen teachers or other helpers to go into primary schools and facilitate it, the participation rate in our county is very poor.

I heard a report this morning about the positive impact that Andy Murray's success is having on participation in tennis and I think this applies to all sports; there is nothing like success at the elite level to inspire young people to get involved. And events such as the London Chess Classic are undoubtedly a very good thing, as is the new blood that has recently been injected into the ECF board.

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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Matt Harrison » Thu Nov 26, 2009 2:53 pm

This feedback on the state of university chess is very worrying indeed.

Richard, I have been to a primary school chess club, quite a few times over the years and gone with them to the EPSCA events. I'd concur about your assessment of playing strength. But the numbers are there (the club is over-subscribed every year), and they are very keen players. However, it takes a lot of work to progress from that level to even a basic standard, and I'm sure that slightly older players would be better at that learning.

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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Richard James » Thu Nov 26, 2009 3:25 pm

Steve: I'm pleased to hear the number of secondary school players in your county is increasing. In Surrey there has been a successful (mainly) secondary schools league for many years and quite a lot of players from this league are representing Surrey in the county championship. Here in Richmond, 15-20 years ago we were able to run a couple of mainly junior teams in the Thames Valley League but, because most of our members of secondary age go to elite secondary schools, these days there is no way we can get any juniors out on weekday evenings during term time. Outside London, or even Richmond, there seems to be less of a problem with this. Maidenhead often have two or three juniors in their teams when we play them in the TV League. I think that if we can look at different ways of running chess in primary schools (I'll return to this later) then perhaps you'd get more interest in secondary schools.

Mike: Many thanks for joining the forum and contributing to the discussion. I agree with everything you say and had made the same observation from the outside as you had from the inside about the lack of even reasonably strong English/British players coming into Oxbridge. The fact is that the English schools chess system, and everything associated with it, really doesn't work in terms of producing young people with a life-long interest in chess.

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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Leonard Barden » Thu Nov 26, 2009 4:40 pm

The problems with declining standards of junior chess identified in this thread at lower levels are also present at the top.

From 1953 (Stean) to 1990 (Howell) we used to average at least one 2500+ player per birth year, and in the peak years of the 1960s two per year.

And of course some of the 2500+ turned out to be 2600 or even 2700.

A slow decline started after 1971 (Adams) but 1 per year was more or less maintained until the late 1980s (Gordon, Jones, Howell).

However now I don't see anyone who I would go nap on to reach 2500+. Zhou, Ynojosa, Franklin and Clarke have good prospects to become 2400-2450 IMs if they keep at it, and some others (Kilpatrick, Haria) also have chances.

Long-term, this implies the declining standards will hit the national team in 10-15 years time when Short and Adams are into their fifties and Jones has possibly settled in New Zealand.

That's why I think it's important to have such talent as we do possess competing as a homogeneous group in strong events when the chance offers. Strength can breed strength as we have often seen in the past, and we used it as a policy for juniors at Lloyds Bank and Oakham. For reasons given in the World Youth thread that didn't happen there.

So I should like to see as many as possible of the top six prospects above competing in the London Classic GM event which would be an ideal opportunity for them. But at present on the latest entry list that Adam Raoof has supplied only Clarke (the only one of the six who is a non-Londoner) has entered.

Could somebody put this to Adam Raoof and to Malcolm Pein so that these players all have encouragement and financial incentives to take part?

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Re: The problems with junior chess

Post by Alex Holowczak » Thu Nov 26, 2009 4:47 pm

Leonard Barden wrote:Could somebody put this to Adam Raoof and to Malcolm Pein so that these players all have encouragement and financial incentives to take part?
Forget the financial incentives, think of the Headmasters at their schools. It's not just a case of money, it's a case of having Headmasters willing to let their students take time off school. That'll explain why only Clarke is playing so far - he is a bit too young to have to worry about things like coursework and exams. Particularly if they've just had a week or two to go and play chess in Turkey.

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