Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Chess Clubs are a Broken Cookie

Clubs need the filling!
It’s a strange dichotomy. I think a chess club is two distinct halves of the same cookie - held together by a filling.

Some people think it is the casual chess player that is the backbone of every chess club. But by definition, they are not the steady, hard core players. They are – for whatever reason – part time players. They enjoy the game but it is just another activity – like going to a movie or playing cribbage at the kitchen table. And sometimes other life issues fill their time – going to school, playing other sports, doing other hobbies, raising kids, working and paying the mortgage, etc.
This “club backbone” is as sturdy as over-cooked spaghetti. They fade in and out with the seasons, the fads, the weather, their attitudes, their emotions and their life trials. Chess often takes a back seat to other things in life. This is not a bad thing of course - it is just the way it is.
Some think it is the serious chess player is the backbone of a chess club. One that will fully commit time and effort to play chess, get to chess venues, play in chess tournaments, and shows up in numbers when there is something at stake - and drives the profit in chess. He will shell out money for tournament entry – which is the highest profit generator for most chess clubs.
But serious chess players do not congregate at chess clubs as a rule. They are busy honing their skills privately – on line, in study or working with trusted players of equal or greater strength. When these serious chess players emerge from their training cocoons – they are battle tested - and ready for some “serious” chess.
Serious players are not going to trek to a chess club “for fun” to push wood with beginners or the coffee-house player who just want to play a “friendly” game with chit chat and banter. Their chess time is too valuable - and they leave their study caves to hunt victims - and win tournaments. It is not to make friends necessarily. They know that if they want to play “casually” they can play from their computers at home 24 / 7.
Also, when these strong players do make an occasional visit to the chess club, they often scare away a few casual players - that never knew what hit them (see attitudes-emotions in paragraph 2)! And then the serious player doesn’t return either, since he had no serious challengers. A double hit to the Club.
Never the twain shall meet – but we have discovered that when they do - it’s not good either.  
How do you merge the two amicably?
My opinion is that a Chess Club needs to grow an established roster of “hybrid” players – in numbers of which enough will show every week - as to attract the casual player who decides he wants a chess night out and knows he can find a game “at the club”.
These “hybrids” must have the chess skill to be a teacher and a mentor to new and weaker players, yet be able to “intercept the shark” at the door and give him a decent game should they make an appearance. This club hybrid player need the acumen put their chess night and egos aside and sometimes, sacrifices their chess evening for the good of the club.
Free chess, free parking, free lessons, a good location, great lighting, tables and chairs, a friendly atmosphere and maybe even a free chess set or coffee will attract the casual player. LCCC has all of this. 
Tournaments and club leagues will attract serious players for those events. We have a no-fee league, and are working on possibly holding tournaments. But tournaments don’t build up chess club numbers. They attract sharks.
Maybe it is just a numbers game. How do you attract enough hybrid club players (the cookie filling) to keep the other two parts together and run it all?  How do you attract such a large number of players from which you can cull hybrids from the masses?
By Mike Nikitin, President of the Livingston County Chess Club


  1. People can play chess on line all day long if playing chess is their only goal.

    But chess clubs offer people in love with chess an opportunity to socialize with other players who love the game. Chess has a very long and rich history, and to a chess player a well played game has the beauty of fine poetry and the thrill of a action movie all rolled into one.

    For people with this deep appreciation of the game, the opportunity to get together and talk with others who feel the same way can sometimes be more rewarding than playing the game itself, and it is this crowd that is attracted to chess clubs.

  2. All true Anon. The internal workings of a hybrid.

    Clubs must grow to just maintain their existance and thus a future.
    How do we attract all three parts of the cookie, and really find or better yet, allow people to grow into hybrids?

  3. My 2 cents.....the club is based in Hartland. That is about 30 minutes from about everywhere (by this I mean outer Detroit Metro suburbs, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint--where more players are likely to live). Livingston County will only have a limited number of people within a reasonable driving radius that play chess and would show up on a regular basis. Others may not have the time and/or gas budgets to be a 'regular'. Sure, it is 'centrally' located -but an hour in the car on a work day (Monday) during peak rush hour traffic might deter many.

    Unfortunately, chess is not a popular activity in the U.S. and even the U.S. Chess Federation cannot appreciably grow membership with all the junior program focus they have had over the past 10-15 years. People play chess for different reasons, as you have described in your post. All things considered, I think you are getting a good turnout. I bet it will be better when it is not as inviting in the outdoors (summertime is slow). Graph your weekly turnout numbers--I think you will see a seasonality to them. As a recreational activity, chess completes with many other hobbies.

    In the end, nothing replaces a game with a real person sitting across from you.

    Are you 'marketing' the club with listings in Chess life and other forums (this site is an excellent resource.) Do you have a way to get a list of the MCA membership who live in Livingston County and adjacent areas to potentially contact? There are community websites that include lists of clubs that meet and listings are free of charge (an example is Arborweb). Are there any equivalents in Livingston county to use? And of course, you could try to promote chess in the Hartland schools and get more junior players that are local.

    Remember your 'casual' players lead to your 'hybrids' and they in turn lead to the 'serious' tournament players. There will fewer players at each step in the progression. If you want more 'hybrid players,' find more casual players and 'convert' them. A good mix would be a healthy club, in my view. (For the cup of coffee --I prefer a Bells Oberon--- it MAY be worth....:) -Scott R.

  4. The article makes it seem that stronger players are not casual players. However, I certainly fall into the category of those who are going to school, playing other sports, doing other hobbies, raising kids, working and paying the mortgage, etc. I've also been within 80 points of 2200 USCF. Life has, in my case, clearly allocated only a small portion of my time for chess. While I have no ambition to devote more time to the game percentage-wise, that doesn't mean that I can't or won't maximize the time that I do have to hone my game. I certainly want to improve, but I can't allocate more time. That means that I have to be ultra-efficient with the time that I do have. A "serious" chess club with multiple people of similar strength and circumstances affords a great place to do just that. By "serious" I mean one where improvement of players is given high priority.

    The article says...

    "...Serious players are not going to trek to a chess club “for fun” to push wood with beginners or the coffee-house player who just want to play a “friendly” game with chit chat and banter. "

    This isn't necessarily true. I think I'm proof of that ;-)

  5. Almost nothing is 100% true. But that my statement is close.
    JC, you are a rare breed that is willing to work with the wood pusher.
    Not trying to lay it on thick, but you are a super-hybrid.
    But a club needs all hybrids and LCCC is blessed with quite a few.
    We just want more!