‘Many clubs are in desperate need of a fresh perspective’

Q&A with Epsom Chess Club’s president Marcus Gosling (pictured above). Kingston’s Stephen Moss, Marcus’s friend and arch-foe in the fight for Surrey club honours, asks the questions

Kingston play in two local leagues – Surrey and Thames Valley. All our rivals in division 1 of each league are dangerous, but some are more dangerous than others. Epsom are more dangerous than most, and in the 2023/24 season they pipped us to the Surrey League title. Their triumph was remarkable in several ways. They had been promoted from division 2 the previous season, so won it at the first attempt. But even more startling is the fact that the club has only existed in its modern form for six years. It was refounded in 2018 by the then 23-year-old Marcus Gosling , the old Epsom club having foundered (like many other clubs) decades previously. In this Q&A, I ask Marcus how he managed not just to get Epsom up and running again, but to turn it so quickly into a powerhouse of Surrey chess.

Q: Cast your mind back to 2018, Marcus. Why did you decide to refound Epsom Chess Club and what did you hope to achieve?

I have always believed I am a creative person, but I probably lack the raw talent, and in truth probably the self-discipline, to be really competent in a particular field. I am always adamant to do things my own way, and that attribute is mainly a curse, but it can also be a blessing. A person’s greatest strength and biggest weakness are rarely far apart. In a competitive sense, my ambition in 2018 was for Epsom to reach Division 1 of the Surrey League within five years. This seemed laughably unlikely, not least after finishing next-to-last in our first season in Division 4.

Q: I believe the old Epsom club had originally been founded in 1929. How long did it exist, what had it achieved, and when and why did it fold?

That’s right. Here, I must pay tribute to the late Surrey League archivist Martin Cath, who was instrumental in helping me delve a little into the history of the original Epsom club, which existed from 1929-67. These records actually dated back to 1931, and it was only thanks to Streatham & Brixton Chess Club sending us a local newspaper cutting from December 1929, heralding the arrival of a new club in Epsom, that we actually managed to trace the club back to source.

The original Epsom club was led almost throughout by a legend of Surrey chess, Hector Marshall. He was quite a strong player by all accounts and was still playing despite failing eyesight until shortly before his death in 2000. I managed to get in touch with his granddaughter, who was pleased to hear that we had reformed. By an unusual twist of fate, the flat where I am living at the moment was built on the site of a large house formerly owned by Hector Marshall. When I looked through the plans before moving in, I could hardly believe my eyes. The only regret is that we don’t have a picture of Hector to hang up somewhere prominent at the club.

It doesn’t sound as though the original Epsom club won much in the way of silverware, only thrice winning the “Waechter Shield” (which may have been the third or perhaps fourth tier of the Surrey League at the time, and is now the trophy awarded to the winners of the Surrey Border League). We certainly never won the Surrey Trophy [the Surrey Div 1 title], our best finish being third in the top tier, or the Alexander Cup, where our best effort was losing to Battersea in the final in 1939.

As far as I am aware, our downfall began when a new chess club in Stoneleigh entered the fray in the 1960s, masterminded by “an ambitious and flamboyant man with a penchant for self-promotion”. Hmm, sounds familiar…

Q: Was there a community of chess players in Epsom eager for the club to be reformed, or were you taking a shot in the dark?

I had no idea, but I figured that there must be dormant chess players lurking somewhere. There are plenty of chess aficionados, and surely Epsom was no exception. The initial plan was to rely on a mixture of loanees from other clubs and home-grown players to get the club off the ground, before gathering enough momentum to stand on our own two feet. Within a couple of seasons, we were able to wean ourselves off the multi-club players and greatly expand our number of teams. We recommended this approach to Chessington Chess Club when their club was launched during the pandemic, and that has brought them moderate success too.

A very hirsute Gosling with some key early Epsom members, including the late Mike Basman (far left)

Q: I believe there you have one member who played for the old Epsom club. He must be very happy to see the club back in business.

Yes, that man is Mike Wickham, who is an absolute delight. Mike played briefly for the original club in the 1960s when it met at the Cricketers pub on the fringes of Epsom, before heading off to university. By the time he’d completed his degree, the club had folded. A mere 52 years later (surely some kind of record), Mike attended our reformation celebration at the Rising Sun pub and played in our first match in 2018 against Dorking. I am pleased to say that Mike has been instrumental in our rise as a club, overseeing our monthly blitz events as tournament controller, captaining various league teams, representing his county, attending the occasional congress and generally being as reliable and supportive a member as any club could hope for.

Q: You could have joined another club and happily played there. Why did you feel the need to start (or perhaps restart) a new club?

After returning from Russia [Marcus speaks and teaches Russian] a second time in 2017, I swiftly joined Surbiton Chess Club on the recommendation of Chris Briscoe, who had run the lunchtime chess club at my school. Surbiton are a fantastic entity, led by the inspirational Paul Durrant and supported by a host of other aficionados. I consider the one season I played for them in 2017-18 to have been an important step, as I was able to observe from the backbenches how a successful chess club is run. Midway through that season, the thought of setting up a new club was already germinating in my mind.

Q: Did you find other local chess clubs unsatisfactory in some way? Best not to name names – we want to keep on friendly terms with all our rivals! But was there really no other Surrey club that suited you?

Surbiton were great, but I would say that almost half the clubs in the Surrey League are poorly run and deeply unappealing to potential newcomers. I could probably go on a long rant here, so here is a short one instead.

Without wishing to appear ageist, many clubs, both in Surrey and around the UK, are in desperate need of a fresh perspective. Many seem to be run by middle-aged men, probably ex-bank clerk types, Luddites trapped in loveless marriages, lacking liveliness, libido and enough holes on their belts, angry at what they believe the world owes them. They use chess as a counterbalance – a way of taking out their frustration and disdain for everyone and everything. Running a chess club is, for them, a power trip rather than a community project and God forbid that anyone should try to challenge them. Everything they touch turns to ice. Now imagine a twentysomething woman in this environment. How long before she turns around and walks straight back out the door? This sounds harsh I know, and I am playfully exaggerating, but I really do think there are clubs who exist like this.

Q: What were your founding principles?

To be the polar opposite of what I have mentioned above. It is very important to me that Epsom Chess Club is a hospitable place with community spirit at its very essence. When a new player rocks up, we try to welcome them with open arms.

Q: What makes a good chess club?

That is certainly a harder question. I think it has to be something to do with meeting the needs of all members and this is certainly an area that Epsom can improve. Some clubs are very competition-orientated with no social element, whilst others are effectively social clubs who happen to play chess. The key is finding a good balance and regularly consulting members to hear what they have to say.

Q: Your Surrey League success has, I think it’s fair to say, been founded on having three IMs – Peter Large, Graeme Buckley and Susan Lalić – on boards 1, 2 and 3. Did you go out of your way to recruit what might be called these “bedrock players”?

It was quite funny when IM Peter Large walked into the club one day, modestly introducing himself and telling us he “played a bit online”. After challenging him to a handful of games and losing all of them, I dared to ask who was the strongest player he had faced in a tournament. “I drew with Smyslov once” was the reply. Safe to say we had a talent on our hands and it wasn’t long before the unfortunate board ones in the Surrey fourth division were finding that out too.

Graeme and Susan are more recent acquisitions, who were perhaps attracted to the story behind our revived club and wanted to be part of it. I would imagine they also saw Peter in our ranks and realised we had at least one player who would give them both a decent game. The trouble is bridging the gap between the IMs and the mere mortals, although with Peter leaving the club soon there may not be a gap to bridge.

Q: You also lured former British champion Peter Lee, who is now 80 years old, back into chess after a 50-year gap in competitive play. How did you manage that?

That was mainly down to Graeme and Susan, who know Peter quite well and live close to where he does. Many thanks to them for their efforts, not least with providing the former British champion (of both bridge and chess) with a lift to matches. As I mentioned previously, strength tends to attract strength, so having three well-known top-class players at Epsom probably had some positive effect.

I am proud that Epsom Chess Club has been able to welcome Peter and reignite his passion to compete as part of a team. He even played on top board for the Surrey Open team earlier in the season, albeit off a Fide rating dating from the early 1970s. For an octogenarian, this is nothing short of magnificent.

Key members of the Epsom committee: David Flewellen, Marcus Gosling and Lucy Emery

Q: Was your intention to grow through proactive recruitment or organically – waiting for players to come through the door?

With the exception of Peter Large, strong players rarely just walk through the door of any club. I reckon in another life I could have been a football scout – part of the fun of running a club is sourcing talent. This is helped by the fact that I am just looking for chess enthusiasts, not necessarily master-level players.

Personally, I enjoy playing in tournaments outside of the Surrey League umbrella, so get to meet quite a few players that way. In the first round of one Kensington Rapidplay event, I was paired with the brilliantly shirted and effervescent GM Stuart Conquest. The game quickly went south, but of course I did not pass up the opportunity to try to reel him in. A bit of a long shot, given that I think he lives somewhere near Heathrow airport (and was probably tempted to jump on a plane following our conversation, or even in front of it), but I would like to think I was playing the long game. Not on the board though of course.

Q: What marketing methods did you use?

A mixture of 21st- and 20th-century methods. It is of paramount importance for a modern chess club to have a strong online presence, including good SEO (search engine optimisation) and this is an area I was keen to get on top of back in 2018. Thanks to another keen member, Anthony Hunter, our website has recently been revamped, and we also have an active Twitter/X feed and a Facebook page. That said, we need to start uploading match reports like Kingston do. Maybe setting up TikTok and Instagram pages will be next.

But equally, we have relied a little on printed flyers and strategically placed banners outside the club on match nights, as well as the occasional public event. Last summer, we set up a few boards in Epsom town centre, but that wasn’t particularly successful. However, one of our most active and supportive members, David Flewellen, was recruited at a sort of village fête.

Q: What innovations did you introduce? I recall your club videos and also your electronic scoreboard at matches. Were you always determined to do things differently?

We can certainly do more in this area, but for sure I am determined for Epsom to remain a lively and innovative club. I always imagine myself as a new member stepping through the door for the first time – would I see a vibrant group of people or a glorified morgue? When I enter the club, would I be warmly greeted and introduced to other members or just ignored? From next season, we hope to bring back a projector screen and also a “welcome board” by the front door, explaining in writing what is going on at the club that night. I also want to introduce club merchandise for extra publicity, which is something that London clubs such as Battersea and Hammersmith do well. Maybe we could even shell out on the odd DGT board.

Q: With so many very strong players, where does that leave the rest? How does a club satisfy the needs of both the elite player and the less strong player? How can a club appeal successfully to IMs, 2000-strength players and 1500-strength players. Can it be one club, or is it a club with two or even three layers which in reality rarely intersect?

In all honesty, that is something Epsom is yet to master and we have paid the penalty by losing one of our IMs [Peter Large] and a few of our beginner-level members. I think Kingston are the gold standard in the Surrey League in this area, in the sense that top players are catered for with invitational events and all other members can attend lectures on a fairly regular basis. Our most successful whole-club events have been our blitz tournaments and Christmas meals, which bring together the whole club. A big thank you to Mike Wickham and Susan Lalić (and not forgetting her husband Graeme Buckley), who have been in charge of those events.

Q: Where do juniors fit in the club? I know you have a junior club and teach chess yourself. Are you satisfied with the club’s junior offering – something which at Kingston we are still striving to get right. Do you feel you have cracked the puzzle?

From unveiling a new Epsom Junior Chess Club with barely a dozen children in October 2019, we now have over 70 pupils attending our junior sessions, which I run with support from our punctilious club secretary David Flewellen and upcoming teenager Maya Keen on Thursday evenings. Both classes have been fully booked every term since the pandemic, and there are even more pupils on the waiting list. I am constantly staggered by the amount of interest, and without wishing to toot my own bugle I am immensely proud of this – it is a very pleasing endorsement of my chess teaching.

One thing I should mention is that I have always run the junior club independently, ie as a business opportunity, and parents pay me directly. I then feed the strongest juniors into the adult club setup (without saturating it). Currently we have around half a dozen children regularly competing in the Surrey League and doing very well. All the adults are immensely supportive of the juniors who play alongside them. This is different to at many clubs, where the junior wing is more closely tied to the adult club and is used as a money-making scheme for it, while the person in charge of teaching the kids is often an underappreciated volunteer.

I have enjoyed writing chess books for children too – probably the best ones I have written are Rambunctious Rooks and Quixotic Queens and Lunar Octopuses Can’t Play Chess.

Q: You have been successful at attracting women players. How have you achieved that?

Yes, I think we have more female players than the rest of the league combined. Just treat women with respect, involve them fully in club events, listen to what they have to say, meet at a comfortable venue in a well-lit area and they are more likely to enjoy coming along regularly. We are pleased that our club treasurer and diversity officer, Lucy Emery, has been asked to join the Surrey League board – a long overdue decision – and I am satisfied that positive steps are being taken to diversify the decision-makers in the SCCA.

Q: What can chess clubs – and the sport generally – do to become more female friendly?

Shut down the bigots more effectively. Unless misogynistic and abusive players and fans are identified and excluded, progress will remain slow and insignificant.

Q: How has running the club affected your own chess? My sense is that you haven’t progressed quite as much as you would have done if you were just concentrating on your own game.

It is certainly true that my own game stagnated some time ago, although that is in part due to teaching chess for a living. After teaching the beloved game five days a week, studying it in the remaining hours feels like a busman’s holiday. That said, I do immensely enjoy playing and I think there is progress still to be made, if only I could be bothered to set my mind to it. I know I won’t reach master level, but I enjoy the game nonetheless.

Q: Do you ever think you made the wrong choice: that you should have concentrated on your own play rather than on running a club?

Chess has never been the most important thing in my life – I have a number of other interests and hobbies – but it is somewhat true that I have neglected many of these to put plenty of effort into running Epsom Chess Club. That said, I get almost as much pleasure out of seeing my students and team-mates play well as I do from my own games. This is probably because my games aren’t especially pleasant to witness.

Q: What are your ambitions now for your own game? To get to 2000 ECF? To beat your eternal rival Peter Lalić?

Yes to both. Reaching 2000 ECF is a realistic target and I am almost within touching distance now. Whether I get there in the near future is another question, but I reckon it can be done. As for failing to beat Peter Lalić, that is surely one of the three certainties of life, along with death and taxes. It is a rivalry that dates back many years to our school days and Friday-evening matches in the Briant Poulter League. Peter and I are similar in some ways (other than sharing a birth year, 1994): I think he is very creative on the board but I am much more creative away from it.

Gosling playing in the Lauder Trophy final against Kingston’s Peter Andrews. Photograph: John Saunders

Q: You are very much all or nothing when it comes to running Epsom. You have high standards and want it to succeed. You have strong administrative allies at the club, but I think it is fair to say that much of the dynamism at the club relies on you. You have admitted that this can be draining. Does the amount it is taking out of you worry you?

I don’t particularly see the point in accepting mediocrity. Creating a chess club was the easy part, but making it successful is a different kettle of fish. I could take the easy way out and leave the dirty work to everyone else, but that isn’t really my style. However, the Epsom committee is superb. I have already mentioned Mike Wickham’s evergreen tendencies, but David Flewellen is absolutely tremendous at putting the club philosophy into practice and engaging with members in a positive way. I should not forget Lucy Emery too, for her hard work behind the scenes, namely managing the club’s finances. I could also mention many more members.

If I were to have a meltdown and step away from Epsom, there would be a plethora of dynamic members willing to drive the club forward. That is immensely reassuring and allows me to delegate responsibility a whole lot more these days, which is a lot better for my own well-being.

Q: Running a club and really trying to push it forward is something of a Faustian bargain: one enjoys the challenge but knows that it is exhausting and often frustrating. Do you ever reach a point of wondering if it’s all worth it?

Winning trophies brings a lot of joy to members, as everyone at the club is invested in how all of our teams are getting on, no matter what level they are. Usually at least one person is able to provide live updates on a particular match via our club WhatsApp group, and members regularly chip in with humorous and encouraging comments. I am fortunate not to be the only Epsom member with drive and determination, so together we are able to share the workload and continue to push the club forward.

Q: The Dutch GM Hans Ree said chess was a game “worth wasting your life on”. Can the same dictum be applied to running a chess club?

I don’t feel I am wasting my time at all, and in fact I am hugely proud of the community that has flourished at Epsom Chess Club – a group of people who otherwise would never have met or be playing chess at all. What matters most to me is that members look forward to attending the club – for some it is perhaps the highlight of their week. As for chess itself, I regularly dream about those cursèd 64 squares and playing in imaginary tournaments in made-up places that have been amalgamated in my mind – I cannot escape chess’s grip for long. I sometimes even “sleep-teach”, where I start reciting the Lucena position to an imaginary audience whilst half-asleep. Perhaps I should be worried!

Q: You have suffered considerable problems with venues since the clubs was reformed. Can you briefly explain the problems and do you feel you now have a venue, the Epsom Christian Fellowship, which will offer long-term stability for the club.

Yes, we have been round Epsom more times than Lester Piggott. The struggle to find a suitable venue is an issue that every chess club knows all too well. Until recently, I was of the opinion that pubs were the most natural stomping ground for chess clubs, with serious matches played in a separate function room and casual games in the bar. However, pubs tend to be more profit-orientated than places like church halls and community centres and of course chess players are naturally ascetic and stingy when it comes to buying drinks.

We were initially hampered by a lack of funds, having opted to keep our annual membership fees low, so I often orbited Epsom searching for quid pro quo agreements with down-at-heel pubs, who were desperate for extra trade. This once led to an embarrassing situation where we spent less than a month at one venue, which turned out to be entirely unsuitable for our needs. However, things are finally looking up, as our current venue – Epsom Christian Fellowship – is ideal.

Q: Is it fair to say that half (perhaps even more than half) the secret of running a chess club is finding a good venue?

Yes, that is probably true. An ideal venue would be close to the town centre and a railway station, quiet, well-lit, not too expensive, accessible to disabled players, junior-friendly, with separate areas for serious and casual games. But of course, it can be nigh-on impossible to tick all those boxes. “The Fellowship” (as we call it) is as close to perfect as we are likely to get.

Q: As you know, Kingston has just completed a hat-trick of victories in the Alexander Cup. Four other clubs have completed that hat-trick – Clapham Common, Richmond, Mitcham and Redhill. Of those, only Richmond still exists and even they are now based in Teddington. I sometimes dwell on this memento mori. Chess clubs come and go. Does that worry you and how does one future-proof them? What is the secret of creating a sustainable club?

Ultimately it comes down to how many people are willing to shoulder the administrative burden. If one key member leaves, does the club have enough cylinders to run on, or will it conk out and splutter to a halt? Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, involving younger members in running the club and listening to their ideas is the best way to prevent stagnation. At Epsom, we also fundraise whenever possible – for example, we regularly make £40-£50 in donations at our blitz events and cleared £70 with an impromptu raffle at our AGM last month.

In the space of just six years, President Gosling has created a very successful and highly competitive club

Q: You have said that winning the Surrey League is just the beginning for Epsom. What are the club’s ambitions now?

Next up is the 4NCL, which is a decidedly tougher world to conquer. The club has agreed to fund the entry fee and there are quite a few takers already. We will have to start at the bottom, but should rise fairly quickly if our stronger players are keen to take on the challenge.

However, we are looking at what other clubs in the Surrey League are doing better than us. For sure, there will be an Epsom Invitational event sometime in the next couple of years, following in Kingston’s footsteps, and we have plans to launch an Epsom Congress in 2025 to counter Guildford’s latest venture.

I also think it should be possible to re-establish a national club knockout competition, perhaps with regional early rounds and culminating with a semi-final and final at a central location. No doubt there are other ideas I have neglected to mention.

Q: You are on the verge of turning 30. Will you be running Epsom with the same energy and will to succeed at 40, or will others have to step up with their own vision for the club? I sometimes jokingly refer to you in match reports when we play you as President-for-Life, but are you?

I never like to look too far ahead actually. I don’t like the feeling of being on train tracks towards a specific goal – my interests and ideas change on a daily basis. I did laugh when you called me “president-for-life” in a recent match report, although I think that is less true nowadays with such an armada of brilliantly supportive members at Epsom. When we reformed in 2018, the joke was that everyone would vote on something and then I would make the final decision. Nowadays, I try to refrain from being too precious about my vision for the club. Maybe one day I will get off the Epsom merry-go-round for good. I just hope I don’t morph into the bitter, cantankerous ex-bank clerk type that I mocked earlier on. If I do, just shoot me.