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A new year’s health check: is our local chess scene expanding or contracting?

Brendan Jamison takes a look at the current state of the Ulster chess scene.

A new year’s health check: is our local chess scene expanding or contracting?

By Brendan Jamison

The presence of global companies such as Citibank and Concentrix have rewarded us with a wealth of strong players, notably Gabor Horvath (Hungary), Søren Jensen (Norway) and more recently Nikhil Joshi and Ranjit Singh (India). The injection of new international players into our local scene, even if only for one season, has created a beautiful vibrancy and it builds a wonderful cross-cultural community.

However, despite the influx of these new players from around the world, some people may still think that local chess has been shrinking over recent years, citing examples such as the dissolution of legendary clubs such as Fisherwick or the closure of Lagan Chess Club and more recently CS Lewis. While some of these players moved to other clubs, many significant players did not. They disappeared and this is a great loss. While membership of the Ulster Chess Union (UCU) is lower than in previous decades, it would nevertheless be short-sighted to only look to the UCU for a new year’s health check. We have 11 clubs operating in Northern Ireland, of which only 7 are currently members of the UCU. Hopefully next season Queen’s University (QUB) will rejoin the union and compete in the league again. They have been greatly missed this year.

For the purpose of these statistics, all QUB players currently on loan to other clubs this season will only appear once, within the figure for their mother club of QUB. This will avoid duplicates. All figures below are the permanent members of each club and the statistics have been compiled through direct contact with representatives from each club and, where appropriate, cross-referenced against the current inventory of active players in the UCU database.

63: Strand (22 adults + 41 children/teenagers) [30 UCU members]

35: QUB (35 adults/students) [8 UCU members, registered individually]

35: Ballynafeigh (32 adults + 3 children) [31 UCU members]

25: Omagh: (adults/teenagers/children)

20: Muldoons (19 adults + 1 teenager) [19 UCU members]

20: Derry (adults/teenagers/children)

19: Enniskillen (adults/teenagers/children) [1 UCU member]

17: Belfast South (all adults) [17 UCU members]

13: Fruithill (12 adults, 1 child) [12 UCU members]

10: Civil Service (all adults) [10 UCU members]

10: Bangor (all adults) [8 UCU members]

3: Club-less Players who regularly compete in UCU rated tournaments [3 UCU members]

A total of 270 players are either attached to a club or regularly competing in local tournaments, of which approximately 139 (just over 50%) are registered members of the UCU for the 2017/2018 season.

The current ‘Active Ratings’ list on the UCU site includes many players who been inactive for a year or more. Therefore the number of 217 in this rating list is a little misleading to the casual observer. However, hopefully in the years to come, the UCU will expand enough to surpass this 200 mark in terms of its active membership base.

One of the greatest factors in terms of club growth has been Ballynafeigh Chess Club, established in 2010. Like a spectacular volcano erupting every year or two, the club has spurted out several successful offsprings. It began in September 2013 when a portion of the club departed to form Lindores under the expert leadership of Calum Leitch. Then in September 2014, another younger group of Ballynafeigh members left the club to reform QUB under the direction of Paddy Magee and Matthew Chapman. The university club grew to 4 teams with a constant influx of freshers every September, now up to 80 on their mail-out list. In Summer 2017, a large portion of Ballynafeigh members moved to East Belfast to form a new adult club at Strand Arts Centre. The children’s wing of the Strand club had already been operating since February 2017 under club director Ross Harris so the addition of adults made for an exciting mix of all ages and enabled 4 league teams.

As director of Ballynafeigh, Damien Cunningham should be applauded for encouraging the expansion of chess to new clubs rather than having almost half of the league teams all based at one mega club on the Ormeau Road. Also, through sending two Ballynafeigh players to Fruithill last October, it meant the West Belfast club was able to field a second team in the current season which is yet another triumph for spreading chess players to other clubs to enrich the league.

While Ballynafeigh remains the largest club in Northern Ireland in terms of working adults and pensioners, Strand Chess Club has become the largest on paper because of its giant pool of under 18 year olds which brings its total membership to 63 regulars. Meanwhile QUB has grown to a similar size as Ballynafeigh, due to their large number of student players.

Over the years, one of the criticisms of the Belfast and District Chess League is that it has neglected the expansion of chess beyond the metropolitan area. However, in June 2015 after being elected President of the Ulster Chess Union, Damien Cunningham had the outstanding idea to expand Bangor Chess Club’s league squads from one to three by incorporating two Bangor Grammar school teams into Division 3. This brainwave saw Andrew Todd run the two teams with great passion and efficiency and all their matches (home and away) were played at Bangor Chess Club on Thursday nights. It made the club so vibrant once again, returning to its former glory of 3 teams, like in its golden age of the 1990s. While it only lasted for one season, due to Andrew heading to university in Aberdeen in September 2016, nevertheless it was the perfect model for how we could get children and teenage teams into the league and into the rating system. Now, several years on, it is not just Strand Chess Club who are playing children and teenagers in the league but a close inspection of Division 2 will reveal that Fruithill and Muldoons have also played children of their adult members. This is such a positive sign for the future development of league chess and the overall expansion of chess in our province. Notably, Omagh and Enniskillen also have a high proportion of under 18 year olds and Derry offer separate coaching sessions for juniors on a different day from their normal club night.

So where are we expanding the most? Without doubt, the category of children, teenagers and students is now as big as all the adults combined. This promises continued growth in the years ahead. Hopefully we will also continue to attract more international players as they come to Belfast to work.

A special thanks has to go to all the club directors who give up so much of their time and dedication to enable their clubs to run from week to week. It is not just the hours of planning league teams each week or chasing members to pay their club and UCU fees but also on the cold wet nights these folks pack their cars with all the chess sets, boards, clocks, score-sheets, spare pens and venture to the club to have everything ready for all the players arriving. They contribute the most to our chess community, without them, our entire chess scene would collapse. Therefore it seems fitting to end this article by saluting the inspirational directors of the 11 clubs in Northern Ireland and may we all enjoy lots of fun chess in 2018:

Mark Newman (Civil Service)

Damien Cunningham (Ballynafeigh)

Martin Kelly (Belfast South)

Pat McKillen (Muldoons)

Rian Mellotte (QUB)

Ross Harris (Strand)

John Monaghan (Fruithill)

Mike McKimm (Bangor)

Anthony White (Omagh)

John Phillips (Enniskillen)

Alan Turnbull (Derry)