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Boom in Junior Chess, Increments and Success for Yorkshire

In 2009 I had an idea which was to start a Grand Prix for chess in Yorkshire. I talked to several colleagues involved in Junior Chess who though it was a great idea and supported it. My aims were twofold. First was to increase participation in the county, and the second was to improve standards. Yorkshire did have a number of strong players – a golden generation at the time of around 10 youngsters who had high grades and had achieved some success nationally. What was obvious though, was they were growing up fast, and there was a huge gulf between their grades and the younger children coming up. There was no structure in place either nationally or locally to drive up standards either, and few places for youngsters to go to receive instruction or meet like minded youngsters. In 2006 I had started Leeds Junior Chess Club with 41 children attending. This had dwindled to only 19 in 2009, but this was largely because we moved locations at that time to our current location in Alwoodley.

In 2010 I ran the first Grand Prix event, attracting 156 children over three events. Average attendance at each event was 59 children. The events proved reasonably popular. Our peak came in 2013 where we attracted 176 youngsters over 5 events, averaging 84, although this was largely helped by a massive event in Sheffield which attracted 112 entries. We learnt a lesson that day though- more is not necessarily better! I decided that to maintain the quality of events numbers would be strictly limited to a manageable size. It is such a shame that we can’t find venues or numbers in Sheffield currently as they were always our biggest events, but I know my colleagues in Sheffield are starting to address this.

In the last three years we have seen a massive surge in numbers of children taking part. We have seen a huge surge in both the number of clubs and the numbers in those clubs, in the number of people getting involved in running them, and in participation in events which are now all selling out weeks in advance. We now have the Yorkshire Junior League which had 20 teams in it this year (and the promise of more next year) and we had a massive success for our county junior team winning the Pennine Cup. Our team beat higher graded teams from Manchester and Merseyside, with teams from Cheshire, Cumbria and the North East taking part. This was a great achievement and was symbolic of how much chess has come on in the county at junior level. What was also interesting was that our team’s average age was also much younger than the other top teams, which means we could be competitive for years to come, and we had three teams in the competition (total of 18 players), who all performed well. Our U11 team came 6th nationally in the EPSCA event last year and we have easily been able to populate a team of 24 players for this year. For a number of years we did not even enter a team.

Leeds Junior Chess Club now has 110 members with a massive waiting list, and I believe other junior clubs are now moving to similar positions in York, Ilkley, Hull and Holmfirth. I am not claiming the Grand Prix brought this on, but I think it has helped, as organisers can encourage their youngsters to have a go in a competitive environment. The format of ability sections is so much better than age groups, because any junior of any age can test themselves in the right ability section.

There is still more to do. Participation by girls is still woeful, and while there are no easy answers to this clubs need to encourage more girls to participate and positively recruit. We may need to go back to girls only events to boost participation as well.

The Grand Prix this year is likely to surpass 2013 in terms of average attendance.

A question I have been asked about recently is the use of increments on clocks. Increments came widely into fashion in the last 10 years and the arguments for using them are compelling. They stop time scrambles largely, making it harder to lose on time when you clearly have an advantageous position, helping slower players and making the result more in favour of the player who has played better moves. We introduced them to the Grand Prix around 2018, and it seemed to work quite well for a time. However, it threw up some issues. First of all, increments mean the game does not technically have a natural time frame, and when a competition needs to run to time, this can delay the next round with 80-100 youngsters waiting to play while they wait for two to finish. Secondly, managing your clock and time is part of rapidplay chess. If you have played your moves more quickly and your opponent runs out of time that is as much of a tactic as playing a clever combination. So yes – rapidplay favours quicker players (the clue being in the name).

Thirdly, even in adult chess increments can lead to frustrating scenarios. Recently I played a classical game where I outplayed my opponent for two and a half hours, to the extent my position was superior and I had 20 minutes left on my clock while my opponent had less than a minute. He started making very fast moves to gain some time from the increments. While I could have taken my time, this would have given him some thinking time too, so I speeded up feeling that if he ran out of time that was his fault. I blundered a piece and lost. Had he not had increments he would have run out of time, and he would have lost. This set me thinking as to who deserved victory here – obviously I was annoyed to lose but don’t bear any ill will – he won withing the rules and used them to his advantage, but he hadn’t managed either his clock well or his position for over 2 hours, and I felt my efforts were wasted. This made me think long and hard and I decided that increments are an unnatural addition to a natural sporting phenomenon – largely that a game is a finite thing and should be completed in a finite time – its almost like adding on a few seconds in football every time you compete a pass – a nonsense.

We abandoned increments after last year’s megafinal where we had the silly situation of 120 kids waiting for a game to finish, and then us having to step in on later rounds and make adjudications – a situation no one wants. This was well before my personal incident, and I am sorry for those who are a fan of the increment – we won’t be going back to them any time soon, as this season I feel our competitions have run more smoothly and to time.


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