No professionals please, we’re British

Last Sunday, the Kent County Chess Association held its AGM, and one of the two main issues which dominated the debate (quickplay finishes was the other, of course!) was the new ECF funding proposals. The meeting voted unanimously to reject these, but an eye-witness report from the Kent AGM also records that “…It was felt by a number of members present that the “grass roots” were being “taxed” to support ECF endeavours which are of no benefit to the average club player, such as contributing towards the cost of the Olympiad team etc.”

This is a depressingly common complaint. The average club player in this country seems to have a very negative and bitter attitude towards professionalism in chess. One only has to look at the regular furores which erupt in local leagues, whenever a club shows a sufficient degree of enterprise and ambition to draft in a titled player, to represent them. Far from being pleased and/or honoured that their local league should have attracted a GM to its ranks, or taking any pleasure in the chance to meet a GM across the board, most of the other clubs in the league can be expected to complain bitterly about such “hired guns” and “paid mercenaries” being brought in. Within a season, one can guarantee that motions will be tabled at the next league AGM, to change the eligibility rules, so as to prevent the participation of anyone who is not “a bona fide club member”, whatever that means. I have seen league AGMs almost erupt into physical violence over the issue, so bitter are the passions which the matter evokes.
Little Ditchford Chess Club unveil their new board one…

And guess who was one of the worst culprits in this regard? Step forward, the Egregious Chess Federation. This, I would remind you, is an organisation whose main raison d’etre is supposed to be to promote the playing of chess in this country. Yet some 30 years ago, they introduced just such rule changes to their National Club Championship, at that time the most prestigious team event in the country, and one which attracted many of the country’s leading players. As a direct result of those rule changes. most of those top players were prevented from playing in the event. Over the years since, the National Club has dwindled to the point of being almost entirely moribund – this year, its Open section had just three (!!) teams.
It is interesting that Olympiads should have been singled out for mention in the Kent AGM discussion. In most sports, everybody agrees that the entire national morale, the so-called “feel-good factor”, is improved by success on the field for England’s football or cricket teams. Yet in chess, there has long been the attitude amongst club players, that the Olympiad is just a very nice paid foreign holiday for a select few GMs, who should have to pay for their own chess, just like the rest of us. It is a bizarre attitude.
But there is one aspect of it where chessplayers have a point.  Even though the success of England’s football side is such a big thing with the public, the FA does not actually expect (or, more accurately, demand) that everyone who follows football should pay £25 per year to join the FA, in order to pay for the costs of sending Cappello and co. to the World Cup. Of course they don’t. This is because the FA, and the other football organisations, such as FIFA, actually market the game of football and bring billions of pounds into the game every year, in commercial sponsorship.
And therein lies the crux of the problem in chess. One of the main functions of a national sports body is to market the game and attract sponsors, but this is something the ECF has never, ever been capable of doing. The last time the hapless ECF attracted a major commercial sponsor to support British chess, they got a telegram of congratulation from the Queen. Prince Albert also signed it… Naturally, chess is a very different matter from football, when it comes to marketing, and nobody can realistically expect chess to attract the millions and even billions that soccer attracts. But a competent national body should have a far better record in this respect than the ECF has. It always makes me laugh, when I see references to the ECF’s Director of Marketing. What a title to have to admit to holding! It must be like being introduced as the architect of the Tay Bridge.
“This could be a nice little earner” 
As to why the ECF’s record is so appalling in this regard, it seems to me that amateurism is again the root cause. There has long been a fundamental failure to understand the difference between sponsorship and philanthropy. Most chess officials think that the way to persuade a sponsor to come into chess is to tell them what a good cause it it, how it helps kids concentrate at school and wards off Alzheimers. If the Chairman of the company concerned happens to like chess himself, then maybe you have a chance of getting a few bob out of him; if not, “Oh well, never mind, can’t be helped”. But commercial sponsorship is not about begging for money for good causes. It is about image, branding, target markets, etc. It is no good trying to persuade the President of Coca-Cola to sponsor chess by telling him what a good cause it is, and what a warm feeling he will get from knowing how much good his money is doing – you need to tell him how much exposure he will get, amongst which social groups and age brackets, etc. You need to convince him that it is going to help his company’s bottom line. If it’s charity you are after, then sit outside a Tube station and wave a bit of cardboard in the air.
The other problem is the terrible amateurism with which the ECF conducts its events. I vividly recall the first time I played in the British Championship, in 1989. The opening ceremony resembled nothing so much as the AGM of the local village cricket club.  The then ECF President got up to make a speech, and stood on stage, mumbling incoherently into his boots, with nobody able to make out a single word he was saying. A succession of other ECF officials followed him, every one of whom made a fool of himself. The local Mayor was the only speaker who was capable of stringing a coherent and audible sentence together. I remember to this day that I sat in the audience, ashamed, thinking to myself just what a total shambles it all was, and imagining what an impression it must create on any serious businessman who had visited this, British chess’s flagship event, with a view to sponsoring it – anyone in that position would have run a mile from this bunch of hapless amateurs. It was all so depressing. And to judge from what I have read of the opening and closing ceremonies of this year’s British, little has changed.
“What do you mean, would I mind saying a few words?”
If chess is to attract serious sponsorship, it needs to be marketed effectively. And that means having a professional organisation, professional packaging, and professional marketing. And that in turn means paying professionals to do the job. So long as the self-styled “grass roots” chessplayers of this country regard professionalism as a dirty word, the game will continue to languish.
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