Rishi Sunak will announce £500,000 funding for chess in the near future. The money will provide major support for England’s men and women international chess teams, plus a boost for teaching the game in state schools along with a plan to install 100 chess tables in public parks.
The prime minister’s new move is set to be unveiled at a ceremony featuring a giant set and board on the lawn at 10 Downing Street. For English Chess Federation officials, it marks the successful end to an initiative first launched in the 1990s, when the then sports minister, Tony Banks, was enthusiastic, but Sport England did not and does not consider chess as a sport.
This is different from the great majority of European countries, including France, Spain, and the Netherlands, where chess is recognised as a sport and funds have been used to help rising talents and potential grandmasters.
The ECF hailed Sunak’s move as “potentially transformational”. Part of the money will be used to set up training camps for the national team and talented children, where preparation for international events can proceed with the help of top grandmaster coaches and advanced computer technology like that used by Magnus Carlsen and other leading world players.
The ambition will be to restore England to the No 2 position it held, behind the former USSR, for a decade in the 1980s. That might be an unrealistic target, given the current strength of the US and India. Even without government funds, though, England’s performance in the last two biennial Olympiads has been very respectable.
At Batumi, Georgia, in 2018, England men finished fifth out of 189 teams, while at Chennai 2022, although the team were run out of another fifth place due to an unlucky final round, David Howell won the individual gold medal for the best performance of the entire Olympiad, 7.5/8 with a performance rating of 2892.
Again without government funds, England’s over-50 and over-65 teams have been dominant at European and world championships, while at the opposite end of the age range, eight-year-olds Kushal Jakhria and Bodhana Sivanandan are ranked among the world’s best for their age.
The new breakthrough comes after a vigorous and imaginative campaign by Malcolm Pein, the ECF international director and head of the charity Chess in Schools and Communities It included a revival of the traditional Lords v Commons match and an England v Ukraine series hosted by the Speaker.
The personal contacts of the ECF president, Dominic Lawson, whose father Nigel was chancellor and a political hero of Sunak’s, were also significant. In 2013, 11 Downing Street hosted the closing ceremony of the Candidates tournament, which Magnus Carlsen won before going on to start his decade-long reign as world champion.
Chess and politics may not seem natural partners, yet a handful of parliamentarians have achieved significant playing successes at the highest level. At the very first international tournament, played in London in 1851, the winner was the then world No 1, Adolf Anderssen, but the defeated finalist in an elite field, who lost by an honourable 2.5-4.5 margin, was Marmaduke Wyvill, the Liberal MP for Richmond, Yorkshire. Wyvill defeated the German with fine attacking play in the fourth game of their match.
At the 1937 Birmingham tournament, Julius Silverman, who had already stood for parliament in 1935 and who later represented constituencies in the city from 1945 to 1983, chose the swashbuckling King’s Gambit against Erich Eliskases, who was then close to the world top 10, and was rewarded when the GM’s queen made a fatal b2 pawn capture. Currently, parliament’s best players include two former girl champions, Angela Eagle and the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.
The new funding could have an effect on the British Championship, where, last weekend at Leicester, Michael Adams won his eighth national title, directly challenging the long-standing records of Jonathan Penrose (10) and Henry Atkins (nine). They were both amateurs with full-time teaching jobs, Atkins as a Huddersfield headmaster and Penrose as an Enfield lecturer, yet at their peak were world class. Atkins was third at Hannover 1902 in the company of several international greats, while Penrose defeated the then world champion, Mikhail Tal, at the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad.
Adams could already have had more titles, but in his best years he gave preference to taking on the elite. Now 51, he still is still among the world’s leading 100 players with a 2662 rating. He could expect more British crowns, but that the new deal for chess may increase competition for places in the national team, which in recent years has relied on its core players Adams, Luke McShane, Gawain Jones, and David Howell.
Their average age is close to 40. so that the new funds also provide a fresh incentive for players like Harry Grieve, Dan Fernandez and Matthew Wadsworth, who are all in their 20s and tied for third at Leicester, where the surprise runner-up was the 30-year-old Basingstoke champion, Steven Jones.
The England women’s team, which has often been unable to field all its best players in international competition, is likely to benefit most from the increased funding. In particular Lan Yao, who at 22 retained her British women’s crown and gained the women’s grandmaster title, has an opportunity to raise her game further.
Carlsen was imperious at Baku in Thursday’s second round of the 206-player World Cup (see this week’s puzzle) but some of the elite ran into problems. The biggest casualty was Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 18, the world’s No 2 teenager, who was eliminated by Vahap Sanai of Turkey. The hometown favourite, Shak Mamedyarov, lost to Tin Jingyao of Singapore, and did not have the excuse of jetlag which was possibly the reason for the No 2 and No 5 seeds, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, needing to return for Friday’s tiebreaks. So was losing to Emre Can of Turkey, but found a miraculous endgame escape. The world woman champion, Ju Wenjun, drew both games with Eva Repkova of Slovakia.
The many speed tiebreak games at accelerating time limits start at midday BST on Friday. They should provide an entertaining internet watch, and for English chess fans a chance to cheer on Howell, Britain’s only representative at Baku, who began his World Cup campaign with two draws against Croatia’s No 2, Ante Brkic.
3879: 1 Re8+! Kxe8 2 Qe4+ Ne6 3 Qa8+ Nd8 4 Qxd8+ Rxd8 5 Rxd8 mate.