Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Local Chess Clubs: Can They Survive?

Would tables and sets like this help a small chess club?

I’m not talking about state or national associations. I’m talking about your regular local chess club. Are they a sustainable model? I am beginning to think…….not.

CLUB – noun - ‘an organization dedicated to a specific activity’ – ‘a place where a group of people gather for a specific activity.’
GROUP – noun – ‘two or more figures forming a complete unit in a composition’

So, what’s the problem?  “Two or more is a ‘club’ by definition, right? My last name is not Webster, but I define a club as a larger group of people.

I define it as let’s say 20 to 50 people. And I am not talking about occasional members either. I’m talking about a club where this bunch of members usually don’t miss a meeting unless there is a sickness, funeral, wedding, job crisis or spouse threatens divorce – and even then it has to be if the threat was repeated for the 3rd week in a row!

Less than the number 20 – in my opinion - is a meeting, group, or an ensemble – but not a club. But I am not going to petition to change the name of the LCCC to the LCCG (G for gathering).

You can hold a poker game with 7 to 9 people. That is a gathering. But you can’t hold a tournament or an ‘event’ with that number of people

It’s the same with chess. You can hold a casual chess gathering, but you can’t hold a tournament or a league.

Unless you are in a very highly populated area, I’m beginning to believe it is impossible to sustain what I think is an actual chess “club”.

I was explaining to another chess club president (ACP) my fear that the LCCC Chess League may not go this year due to lack of participation. This ACP had just cancelled his club tournament for the same reason – lack of entries.

ACP blames it on the internet: “Well, this has been typical since the advent of internet chess, so don’t expect it to improve. It is sad that folks just don’t wish to commit to supporting a chess club and it is unsettling for us organizers to keep trying to get blood from a turnip!

Unfortunately for us, there are no young people to take over to pass the reigns to, and I fear, like so many things, our clubs will cease to exist.”

ACP went on to say that he thinks the future for chess clubs like ours is to promote to the senior citizen crowd - heavily.  ACP says – and I concur -  that kids play chess early but then leave chess for other pursuits anyway. In addition, they don’t have the money to support a chess club, no matter how small the cost. So in his opinion, it is a waste to target young people to the club.

I, on the other hand, think kids ARE the future – even though they will move on to other pursuits. You promote to their parents – who hopefully played chess themselves as a kid. You have to teach chess to people early in life. If they like it, they will stay for a while.

Sure other pursuits, hormones and careers get in the way for a time, but if they developed any love at all of the game, they will return - eventually. But you got to teach them early. By the time adulthood rolls around, most people won’t try to put in the effort to learn chess. Adults usually have an ingrained prejudice that chess is ‘too hard’ or is for ‘nerds’.

It's a dilemma to be sure

Do you promote and spend today’s club money on 10 kids on the hope one returns to chess when their regular life building is done? I say yes!

 I was one of those – I came back to chess - only to leave again for the poker boom - but then came back to add chess again. And when I was young,iIt was a chess club that kept my interest in the game alive in me.

I think it is wise to promote to seniors, but I don’t think you can just ‘do that’ and survive. By definition – by just targeting seniors – you will not grow you very large – because as you will gain, you will lose – for a variety of reasons.

But maybe the ACP hit the nail on the head about internet chess killing club chess.

And the internet is cheaper than even a drive to your local chess club.

And internet chess is available 24/7, not just one night a week.

Where internet poker brought more players to the casino, internet chess is keeping the chess players at home. Poker is a much better game ‘live’ due to the ‘tells’ or the theatrics of the moment. Not to mention all the other ‘attention getters’ and attractions at a casino.

Chess on-line is almost the exact same game as chess at a club or a tournament. There is almost no difference in a chess game on line versus one live, and an on line is a lot less ‘stress’ or expense.

I think the chess player's 'conservatism' with expenses and delicate egos are key factors. Poker players have a much weaker attachment to $ than chess players it seems.
Thousands of poker players spend $1000 in expenses to enter a $100 tournament on the slim hopes of cashing for $5000. And they may spend extra $100 a couple more times in other events to lower the overall travel expenses per event.

Not near as many chess players have even an inclination to spend $400 on travel to enter a $50 tournament and maybe win $400 at most. And there are no other close events or even the time to enter other events for the travel $

And the loss of an internet chess game is much less embarrassing to your ego than a live game. Even the loss of a casual game at the club bothers some people. Poker players can attribute a defeat to ‘bad cards’ or bad luck.

Chess players have no such security blanket for their egos.

Now, what is the solution for local chess clubs not in major cities? 
Can we create a buzz can liven up our location and activities even if we had big funding?

Let’s say our chess club built a chess location with a multi-screen TV room, a lounge (bar), a cigar room, a small deli – hot dog/hamburger sandwich shop, internet access, nice tables, leather chairs, perfect lighting, clean spacious bathrooms, and nice chess sets and clocks - provided.

 Maybe we have “Member” cabinets to hold their own chess sets and equipment. And we added a nice tournament schedule, in addition to casual drop-in chess and private chess lessons.

Let’s say all the establishment costs were paid for by a chess-loving beneficiary – so no start-up capital was required.  Could there be membership numbers large enough to keep the club sustainable after the novelty wore off? Would it be possible?

I would love to try it. The target market would be kids and seniors. Are there any beneficiaries out there with some money to venture?


  1. Getting people to join ANY kind of club is much tougher than it used to be. It isn't just chess! There are a lot of reasons for this:

    - Job schedules are a problem for many people. Many companies routinely expect employees to work far beyond the traditional 40 hours. A lot of people now work multiple part time jobs rather than a single full time job. And many companies now run long hours, even 24 hours per day, so many people are now required to work during hours when clubs meet.

    - In the old days it was common for men to work and for women to stay home. These days everyone works, and it is common for spouses to work different shifts, so often one spouse stays home to take care of kids, etc. while the other works.

    - There are often competing activities, especially in families with kids where parents have to take their kids to play sports and such.

    - These days there are a lot of entertainment opportunities at home. For much of the 20th century there was little to do for people who stayed home. But now many people have cable TV with hundreds of channels plus everything available on the internet, so staying home doesn't mean having nothing to do.

    - When the factors above are combined, it means that in many cases married people with conflicting schedules or active kids may go days at a time without getting a chance to spend time together, so when the opportunity comes along many people may stay home just to spend a bit of time with their spouse.

    In your post you talk about how it is mostly people who are retired (or near retirement) that are the most active in chess clubs. This is a problem with most traditional clubs not associated with schools - coin clubs, rock clubs, service organizations, lodges, card clubs, you name it. Think about it. Retired people have more time. Older people still working are more likely to have enough seniority to work day shifts or to get time off, and in many cases their kids are grown up and out of the house. Older people are more likely to be financially stable and in a position to spend more money on their hobbies.

    And it has always been the case that kids who join non-school clubs often lose interest and move on to other things after a period of time, and kids who remain loyal members through high school are often lost when they go off to college, move away, begin working at jobs with conflicting hours, or get married. But often these people will rejoin the hobby years later, even if it is at a different club located far from the original club.

    When talking about the difficulty in getting members to attend, keep in mind that some may be drifting away because they are unhappy with the club for one reason or another. Maybe they don't feel their needs are being met. Maybe they are not interested in the type of chess commonly being played in the club. There could be lots of reasons. So it is important to talk to people to find out what they want in a club. Do they want more tournaments? If so, what kind? Do they want more days with unstructured chess? How about other activities, like bringing in a master to do a simultaneous exhibition? There are a lot of things that can be done, and it is these kinds of activities that keep members coming week after week.