Luke McShane

Chess players on ice

We are what we do. Alas, in its zeal to suppress the virus, this government would have many people doing not very much. Since March, many musicians, actors, sportspeople and more have had precious few opportunities to perform. In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that the hundreds of live performances played by the Beatles in Hamburg 1960-1962 were a key ingredient in their later success. If he is right, 2020 marks a daunting setback for countless aspiring artists. Government handouts can mitigate the long-term damage to their careers, but they cannot possibly make them whole.

Chess is in the same boat: it’s a communal activity where performance and practice are central. This is particularly true for developing players, for whom over-the-board play is where the rubber meets the road. Poring over a game of classical chess for hours feels intimate and meaningful. Losing hurts: the experience itself is the teacher, as when you fall off a bicycle. Ambitious players in their teens might look to play dozens of slow games of competitive chess in a year. In 2020, that looks impossible, at least in the UK. It is true that there are more opportunities to play online than ever before. But online games tend to be played at fast time limits, and the players usually have less invested in the game. It’s like weightlifting a bag of rice.

Sadly, over-the-board events, in the UK at least, have almost vanished. The British Chess Championships didn’t happen in Torquay in July. In December, neither the London Chess Classic nor the Hastings International Congress will take place. The Gibraltar festival in January 2021 is cancelled too. The 4NCL remains on hiatus. Last month, the 56th Northumberland Congress was another casualty of lockdown in the north-east.

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