How to improve chess in England
We return to the new season and have to reacquaint ourselves with the quaint custom of adjournments. We were unfortunately reminded of this by our recent match against Surbiton. For readers outside ye olde England, an adjournment involves stopping the game, sealing a move and resuming the game on another day. Adjournments were essential when there were indefinitely long playing sessions. Competitors would stay up late into the early hours analysing the adjourned game. In elite events, they may have benefited from paid analyst assistants whose task was to burn the midnight oil. The tradition lasted for most of the 20th century until the advent of digital clocks. Bobby Fischer won the last game of the 1972 World Championships when his opponent Boris Spassky resigned without resuming their adjourned game. FIDE phased out adjournments for the world chess championship in 1996.
Adjourned position of the 21st game. Spassky (White) had sealed 41.Bd7
Before dealing with the substantive issue of adjournments, we need to deal with the preliminary matter of time controls since the two matters are inextricably bound together. The main function of digital clocks is to implement incremental timing. This has two advantages. First, players are freed from the horror of the flag. As the deadline approaches, the quality of the moves deteriorates. The flurry of moves in the frenetic minutes before the time expires may be entertaining for the spectators but can be heartbreaking for the players. In chess, hours of building up a strong position can be thrown away by a careless move. The Germans call this critical period “zeitnot”. Digital clocks do not eliminate zeitnot, but they reduce its intensity and some of its worst manifestations.
The second advantage of incremental timing is that it enables organisers to ensure that the playing sessions are of a manageable duration. The felicitous invention of incremental time means that we no longer need to trade time certainty for chess quality. The playing session length depends upon the time control. We can choose a time control to be 99% confident that the games will be complete by the time the janitor locks up. So for the vast majority of games, we get the freedom to play as we want, to keep in the zone of flow. Only very occasionally will there be a long endgame to detain the players. In some cases, say as R&B v R, diplomatic negotiation may resolve the matter or, in the worst case, there is an extra charge for room hire.
FIDE properly insists on incremental timing in order to have games recognised for rating purposes. Adjournments are no longer part of the FIDE rules but are included in the guidelines in the appendix to satisfy the British. Incremental timing disposes of the need for adjournments, so why does England persist with this egregious anachronism? The reason is deeply rooted in the history and culture of evening league matches.
We can trace the history of evening league chess back to the arrival of suburban railways at the end of the 19th century which created commuting as we know it today. As the workers ended their long and tiring day, those who were keen to play chess had a choice. They could play near their work or they could travel back home in time for a match at their local club. Hence in London, we had a London league which started early, 6.30pm and various suburban leagues which started later at 7.30pm. It was a similar situation in the conurbations of Manchester and Birmingham. The late start combined with the need to get home and rise early for work meant that the playing sessions were limited to two-and-a-half or at most three hours. This session duration continues to the present in the London league and the leagues surrounding London: Surrey, Thames Valley, Middlesex etc.
The English Chess Federation tried to banish the adjournment option a few years ago (including adjudications – the cruel cousin) but was rebuffed by several leagues who control crucial constituencies in the ECF council. The problem for the leagues is that there are still players who refuse to countenance incremental timing. The fragility of club economics and the practicalities of team selection obliges captains to indulge the resistance. However, it is time to review the situation.
Adjournments cause untold damage to the operation of chess in England. The first major impact is that English chess ratings are incompatible with the rest of the world. Chess club games played under the aegis of the English Chess Federation do not receive the Elo ratings as recognised by the 192 countries in FIDE. Any federation which allows the outcome of games to be determined by chess engines and third-party analysts places its members in an invidious situation as far as international comparisons are concerned.
England has had a proud chess history but is rapidly slipping down the international rankings. It is surprising that the ECF has tolerated this situation for so many years. Curiously, instead of fixing the problem, it is being camouflaged. The latest manifestation of the ECF rating system now has 4-digits to make it look like with Elo. But it’s really not.
The English national rating system stems from a period before computers when transnational chess was rare. There was hardly any need to compare a foreigner with an Englishman. Nowadays some tournaments in England are FIDE rated because they do not allow adjournments but these are elite events such as the 4NCL. There is a disincentive to play in such events because they require paying a higher subscription to the ECF. Surely, the default rating system for England should not involve an extra fee. It is as if England revels in its insularity – pounds and pints instead of kilograms and litres, English chess grading instead of international rating. Sure you can convert, but for goodness sakes why not join the rest of the world?
The second major impact of adjournments is that they complicate inter-club tournaments. If a game is adjourned and the result of the match depends upon the game then the team captains throughout the league are in a state of uncertainty regarding the relative league position of the teams. Bear in mind that games can be adjourned again at the next session. The league tables are usually in a state of permanent incompleteness as adjournments take place in several fixtures in different clubs. Nobody knows if the next match is vital for promotion or to avoid relegation. Sports reporting has to be prefaced by a mathematical description of the possible positions as if we are living in a quantum universe.
The third major impact is on league players irrespective of whether they adjourn. On arrival at a match, the players must decide from a bewildering number of time controls and finishing conditions. Typically there are options for a longplay finish or a rapidplay finish, with or without an intermediate time control. Time controls differ depending upon whether the clock is analogue or digital to accommodate players who refuse to use a digital clock or accept incremental time control.
To make it more complicated, some leagues have a rule that boards must alternate between rapidplay and slow finishes, which involves a rejigging of board reordering in order to satisfy the combinatorial challenge. Furthermore, this restriction does not apply after a certain date in the season (1 May for the Surrey League) when all games must be set to rapidplay. As if this was not enough cognitive overload, there are further options to either adjourn or adjudicate the game.
The Surrey rules stipulate that “When a visiting player arrives at a match, he or she must offer before his first move at least two alternatives of game finish method from adjudication, adjournment or quickplay. The home player shall before his next move select from those offered.” It is not unusual for a player to arrive late and then must have the procedure explained to him or her. Many players are ignorant of these alternative finishing regimes, especially those who are new to league chess or come from overseas.
The procedure continues: “A visiting player failing to make an appropriate offer shall be deemed to have offered all three methods. Should the home player fail to select a game finish method, the visiting player may do so. If neither player specifies a game finish method, the game shall be subject to adjudication.” Note that if the players fail to agree to a more sensible method of finishing the game, then it will be adjudicated – the ultimate threat. This is worse than adjournment because the players have no role in the outcome. At least in an adjournment you can analyse your own position – there is still some personal connection to the outcome. Adjudications are determined by a remote master with a silicon friend.
The visiting player may wish to avoid quickplay and so offers adjournment or adjudication. This leaves the home player in a quandary. Adjournments involve a lot of hassle, but adjudications take the soul out of chess. Hence, adjournments are often chosen as the lesser of two evils. When it comes to the moment for adjournment, there is a search for a sealable envelope (ie the glue has not dried up) which all clubs are required to store. The player having the move seals his move and hands it to the opponent to hold until the resumption.
In Surrey, the visiting player has the choice of the resumption venue. This puts some pressure on the home player to agree a draw even if they are ahead, or resign even if they have drawing chances, because they do not fancy the extra trip. Usually, contact details are exchanged pro tem so that there is a chance to avoid the adjournment in the hope that someone will resign or agree a draw. However, this can give rise to bothersome extended prevarication when one player becomes unresponsive to communications. Nobody is in a rush to resume a losing position.
These arrangements apply to Surrey where the “guidance to captains” includes the duty: “For adjourned games, check that the players who have to make a sealed move have done so and placed them in sealed and signed envelopes. Try to ensure the second session is completed within 28 days.” The players set a resumption date some weeks hence when there is a gap in the calendar not clashing with other fixtures in other competitions, public holidays, bank holidays, religious festivals, personal vacation plans, medical appointments and family events. League players who wish to know the outcome of the match will need to be extremely patient.
If, like Kingston, a club competes in more than one league, then it faces a completely different set of rules in the adjacent league. In the Thames Valley league, a player who insists on playing on shall travel to his opponent’s club premises for the resumption, unless mutually agreed otherwise. So if you are the away player at a hard-to-reach venue you have a dilemma. You reckon that you have a better position but you don’t want to travel again so, therefore, you agree to a draw or concede the game as the case may be. The burden of travelling has a big determinant on the outcome of the game. Hence the rating system is not measuring pure playing strength but instead reflects the vagaries of late-night travel options.
In Surrey, the player sealing his move hands it over to their opponent. In the Thames Valley, the sealed envelope is kept by the person who sealed the move protected only by the signature of their opponent on the seal. Neither of these contrary arrangements seems particularly secure. The contents can be read on the one hand or changed on the other hand with a minimum of stealth. Sometimes two matches are held simultaneously at the same venue from different leagues so the adjournment regulations diverge – a rare situation but one of torment.
The fourth impact, and probably the worst in practical terms, is the headache it causes for the match captains. If playing in the match, their attention is divided by the need to attend to the arrangements at the start and the end of the match as well as if a dispute arises during play. Captains need to record the time controls played on each board and the finishing arrangements. Somehow, league chess has become byzantine in its requirements. All this information needs to be input into the online league management system. The captain needs to keep an eye on each board just in case the players get confused by the complexities of customised time controls and alternative finishing conditions.
In the aforementioned match against Surbiton, there were three different time controls over six boards and a diverse set of arrangements for finishing the games. This bureaucracy means that captains are estimated to perform 200 points less than their official rating. This is one of the deterrents to being a match captain. In Kingston, the number of teams we enter into leagues is constrained by the reluctance of people to volunteer for captaincy.
The period of Covid has allowed time for reflection. The world seems changed in so many ways and it has certainly become more digital. Chess clubs including Kingston have seen some older players retire from active play due to age and the need for caution in public spaces. Previously, hardly any club players knew how to set digital chess clocks. As Generation Z players have started to join the club, we have experienced the converse issue – some don’t know how to set an analogue clock.
The places where chess is played have also been changing gradually. In the cities in particular there is a premium on property prices and convenient meeting places have been disappearing. Community centres, sports centres and church halls were once the social infrastructure which enabled clubs to thrive. However, the insatiable demand for housing and the incessant privatisation of community spaces have made it difficult for chess clubs to secure suitable venues. Many clubs are resorting to pub venues which are mutually keen to secure regular clientele given their perilous financial position.
Pubs are not usually ideal for chess from the point of view of noise, although Kingston is fortunate in having a soundproofed room upstairs at our disposal. Of more concern is that pubs are far from ideal for juniors, and the future of chess-playing culture is open to question. However, another consequence of so many clubs migrating to licensed premises is that there is no longer a tight deadline at the end of the evening. The publican smiles on those who feel thirsty. Hence, the traditional justification for fixed time controls has been dwindling and now is hardly relevant for the typical venues embraced by our leagues.
The time has come to abolish adjournments. They cause considerable disruption to players and captains and impair the management of the game. The English Chess Federation should decline to rate any games which are adjourned or adjudicated. There were once valid reasons for adjournments, but the historical justification no longer applies. Clubs will need to finally switch to digital timing, a policy that should be welcomed by all chess players.
John Foley is president of Kingston Chess Club, has captained all of the club’s teams at one time or another, and was formerly the inter-club tournament director for the Surrey County Chess Association and a non-executive director of the English Chess Federation. @ChessScholar