Demystifying the chess club: from online chess to over the board

Covid and its attendant lockdowns have seen a boom in online chess. Now some of this new generation of internet aficionados are looking to join real, live chess clubs. Here we offer a beginner’s guide to making that all-important move

Ljubica Lazarevic

Did you take up chess during the pandemic? Were you inspired by the phenomenally popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit? Finding yourself wiling away the hours on chess.com and contemplating your next steps? Then look no further, we’ve got you covered. In this blogpost we’ll outline what to expect when you decide to dip your toe into the world of “over the board” (OTB) chess at your local club.

Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

Step 1: Finding a local chess club

There are many chess clubs in the UK, and indeed around the world. Your first step could be using your favourite web search engine to see if there’s a chess club in the town you live in. You’ll also discover there are many social chess gatherings springing up in libraries, pubs and other social areas. If you’re looking to just keep it friendly, have a chat and meet new people, then these are likely to be a great fit for you. If you’re looking for something more serious, then you’ll find a “proper” chess club will fit the bill.

If you don’t find something in your immediate area, have a look at your country’s national chess federation website. They will typically have a resource for finding chess clubs near you. For example, on the English Chess Federation website, you can use their “find a chess club” tool.

For those of you who are parents of children who are looking to play chess, do be aware there are chess clubs who specialise in having junior members. Many other clubs will be happy to have chess-enthusiastic children visit the club, provided there is a parent or guardian in tow.

Step 2: Visiting the club

So you’ve identified some clubs you’re going to go visit. Great work! Before popping down to the club, be sure to make contact ahead of time. Especially during this uncertain Covid period, you need to make sure there’ll be someone there to greet you. For smaller clubs, they may have home and/or away matches (more on that later), and the night you’re intending to visit, there may be nobody at the venue there to say hi, or lots of people there who are in the middle of a game and too preoccupied to give you the time of day – a common problem in chess clubs. Once you’ve got confirmation that the club is meeting, pop on over and check it out.

Step 3: Figuring out if this is right for you

Pretty much every club will be happy to accommodate your first few visits to make sure the club is a good fit for you. There will rarely be any expectation for you to pay up for membership on your first visit. However, chess clubs have many financial obligations to keep running, such as paying rental for the venue, and buying, maintaining and replacing chess equipment. This was before the additional burdens of the pandemic. If you do decide the club you’re visiting is a great fit for you and you want to keep coming, don’t forget to ask (and promptly pay!) your membership subs. Also, many chess clubs will be in pub/club function rooms. Please be a thoughtful guest, and also buy a drink or two from behind the bar on your way up to the chess room.

Differences between internet chess and over-the-board chess

There are some significant differences between internet chess and playing over the board. Let’s look at some of these, and explain each one in turn.

A slower pace
Unlike playing a three-minute “blitz” game on sites such as chess.com, you’ll notice that games tend to be somewhat slower, even the friendlies. There are just more moving parts (literally!) as well as the risk of knocking things over, and just generally it seems like it takes a little bit more time to take in the physical board. Enjoy the moment.

Use of clocks
A big difference you’ll find is the introduction of clocks. We are very spoilt when playing chess on the internet: yes we have to be conscious of time, but all we have to do is make our move, and the server handles all of the other details for us. Not so with over-the-board chess. You will most likely be using a digital clock, and you’ll have to remember to press the button each time you play your move. Don’t be afraid to ask someone how to set up and use the clocks. Good clock etiquette is to press the clock with the hand that touched the piece, and don’t make a move until your opponent has pressed his or her clock.

Typically used chess clock, the DGT

Quieter during longer games
For longer time controls (ie longer than blitz) you’ll find that it will be quieter during games, and there won’t be much opportunity to chat. Typically it is good etiquette to not speak to your opponent (or your neighbours) whilst longer games are taking place. Once the games are over, it’s always good fun (and an excellent way to improve your chess) to go through your game with your opponent. In chess parlance, this is called a post mortem, though the hope is that no one has died.

Writing down the moves
Another gift internet chess gives us is to automatically record the moves we make during the game. Much like the clock, another thing required of us in certain types of game (when teams from different clubs are playing each other, for instance, in games that will be officially rated – see under league chess below) is the need to write down moves. The notation used worldwide to record chess games is called algebraic notation. As well as checking out the provided link, if you’re not sure ask at the chess club and it can be explained to you. Whilst you can buy a scorebook (stationery to write your games in), most clubs will provide you with a scoresheet to record your game.

Touch move
Another key concept used in over-the-board chess, especially in the formal setting of a chess club, is touch move. The idea is simple – if you touch a piece, you must move it (unless moving that piece would result in an illegal move). Similarly, once you’ve let go of a piece, the move is complete. Don’t panic if you’re new to chess/new to over-the-board chess, for friendlies you will very likely be accommodated for a few bloopers until you get into the swing of things. However, once the serious chess starts, you’ll be held to touch move.

The handshake
It is polite to shake your opponents hand before and after the conclusion of the match (even if wasn’t the ending you were expecting …). In these Covid times, you’re not expected to continue this practice, and indeed, fist pumps, elbow bumps, toe taps, or just a nod and a wave will suffice. Whilst the handshake may not be in use, its sentiment is still there.

Getting competitive – league chess

A common activity at most chess clubs is getting involved in league chess. As the name suggests, these are leagues typically involving clubs located in the same area/region, duking it out across different divisions. Most of these league matches tend to take place in the evenings during the week. There are a few variations depending on where you play, but typically the following will stand for most clubs:

Team chess
Most leagues consist of a number of players making up a team. Typically there can be anything from six to 10 players per team per match (though county teams can be ever larger than that). Whilst chess is very much an individual person’s sport, it’s all about the teamwork when it comes to league matches. Sometimes you might need to subordinate your individual requirements to the team’s needs: accepting a draw to secure a match, for example, even though you are pretty sure you can win the game. The team’s needs come first, so why take the risk you might lose when the draw that seals the match is there for the taking?

Rated games
Most chess federations use an Elo-based rating system for games. This is used to measure a player’s strength, and is used for determining what the team order is for a match. For this, most clubs will require you to have membership of the national chess federation, eg in England you need to be a member of the English Chess Federation (ECF). As a condition of this, you will also be expected to write your moves down. An advantage of being a member of the ECF is that you will also be able to play in weekend tournaments and other events.

Long games
Whilst each league will have variations in how long a game is, they will likely be significantly longer than you’re used to when playing online. For example, each player could be allocated around 75 to 120 minutes each per game. In addition, with the advent of digital chess clocks, each player may be allocated what is called an increment per move. For example, if each player has an increment of 10 seconds, that means each time they complete a move, an additional 10 seconds will be added to their clock. If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry – it’s pretty straightforward. If you’re playing your very first competitive match, your team-mates will be on hand to help show you the ropes. Scoring and managing the clock are be a little unsettling at first, but you will soon get the hang of it and come to terms with the rhythm of over-the-board play. It is vital not to play too fast: try to get into a good position and then you will find good moves flow naturally. There is no point having oodles of time left on the clock if you lose. It’s a contest, not a race, and tortoises often beat hares.

Home and away matches
Much like football and rugby leagues, in chess leagues you have home and away matches. Most chess clubs will have a regular club night, and these will typically cover scheduled home matches. Some leagues will guarantee all teams will have home matches; for others it will be the toss of the coin. For more rural locations, it is common for clubs to organise car pooling to help get team members around to the matches. In more urban areas, people often make their way directly to a match after work, usually powered by public transport or in their own vehicle.

Wrapping it up

We’ve given a broad overview of how to take your next steps from the online world of chess into the physical, but this only scratches the surface. Your friendly chess club will be able to fill in the gaps, and if there’s something you want to know more about, feel free to add a comment or a question on this blog and we’ll get back to you. Good luck with making the move from the virtual chess world to woodpushing reality.

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