There is a lot that can be said about the development of juniors in chess. Many of us who have an interest in teaching juniors how to play have strong opinions about this, and the lack of coherent structure in this country. My own experience bringing up a junior rather reflects this, especially as my child was female.
In fact it could be argued that the English Chess Federation does have some coherent policy on how juniors should be developed. On their website you can find information about what you might be able to do if your child is a talented player with a good record in tournaments. You can see what tournament you need to enter to get in the so called England squad and what you could potentially be selected for.
There is not much indication of what this is going to cost you or what support might be available. I have heard ridiculous coaching fees quoted for youngsters who want to be coached by some of the top coaches (so called anyway). As we never really got that far I never shelled out that sort of money. At the end of the day, it is a hobby, and if you really want your child to make a career of it then you are going to have to invest huge sums and huge swathes of time with no guarantee of any returns.
The lack of structure is not so much at the top end, it is at grassroots level that I have my biggest concerns. Each county has its own structure, and in many counties the structure is not easy to identify, and is often non-existent. The point is it depends entirely on someone deciding to have one. You then may get two people deciding to have one and then you will get conflicting structures and vested interest. There is no leadership from the governing body to tell counties (it doesn’t have to be at county level, but it seems a natural boundary that many sports use) what sort of structure to set up. Why is this? Really if you were trying to develop your sport (or game) this is the most obvious way to go about things. Almost all other sports have some sort of structure in place, an overall policy and a set of principles guiding that. You will find no such thing from the ECF. Yes they have an ‘accelerator’ program, but this goes back to my earlier point – you need to be identified for that program and there is little structure to point you in that direction.
Most juniors progress in the game more by luck than any coherent policy. If you happen to come across someone who takes an interest they can advise on the right tournaments to enter and give the right advice at the right time, you might just improve and make yourself into a half decent player. And what more do you really want? A few trophies, earn some pocket money and play for your county.
The problem is it is so hit and miss. If you want to develop in anything you need a methodical approach, a plan and some help. Apart from the lack of county structures, it is the general lack of accessibility to clubs that I really hate. At the Scarborough Congress last year I looked around the room. There were well over 300 players. The number of female players did not reach double figures. The number of juniors was a smattering at best. Then don’t even start about ethnic diversity. The majority of people in the room were white men over the age of 45. This reflect the clubs, particularly in Yorkshire, but I suspect around the country. What is our games’ governing body doing about this? Precisely nothing to encourage any clubs to address this. You can’t even get a DBS check through the ECF for heaven’ s sake, let alone any sort of coaching policy or qualification. The main initiative in junior chess in the UK has come not from the ECF, but from the UK Chess Challenge, which is now set up essentially as a private company. It is not a perfect competition, but it has a structure and an outcome.
What are clubs doing? With some exceptions, many meet in desperate venues (pubs, working men’s clubs) and men drink pints and smoke outside. There is nothing attractive for juniors, for women and girls and apart from the gender and age biases there are also possible cultural biases. This is fine if everyone wants the game to be like that. But then it has no future really.
There is much demand for junior chess though. With a waiting list of 39 Leeds Junior Chess Club is struggling to cope with demand. Perhaps we will examine what is attracting them in a future blog, but essentially chess now really has to address its image in this country. There are plenty of good things happening. UK Chess Challenge and Chess In Schools, just nothing coherent!
I have come to the conclusion that nothing will actually change from the top. All you can actually do as a junior organiser is do what you think is best in your region, and point youngsters in the right direction, although it is not always clear what that direction is!