Chess: England over-50s win European gold
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In one of the last hurrahs for a talented generation, England over-50s last week won gold in the European senior teams at Dresden, completing a double initiated at the world seniors in Italy in June.
The five-man squad did not lose a game, and showed their class against their main rivals Germany and Slovakia.
As survivors from the golden decades of British chess in the 1970s and 1980s, the victors learnt their trade on the weekend congress circuit, whose ethos was survival of the fittest. There were normally six rounds, including three on Saturday when the sessions could stretch from 9am to approaching midnight. Facilities were often basic, but entry fees were low and prizes were generous. Competitors were young, ambitious and creative, as the circuit spawned new openings like the Grand Prix, Barry and 150 Attacks or the DERLD.
England’s current team of Michael Adams, Luke McShane, David Howell and Gawain Jones are all over 30, and since the late 1990s no new players have got anywhere near a world top 100 ranking. This contrasts sharply with the vintage 1970s and 1980s, when England were No2 to the former Soviet Union.
What went wrong? There is no single or simple explanation, but a number of factors contributed. The period between the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972 and the fall of the Berlin Wall was uniquely productive for English chess. It coincided not only with a golden generation of world class talents, but with a favourable sponsorship background. Grandmaster tournaments, open internationals, weekend congresses and junior talent were all supported by corporate backers.
Rising stars took on the Soviet legends in simultaneous matches. Chess was popular as an after-school activity in grammar and public day schools, where St Paul’s produced four grandmasters and several masters in two decades. The BBC2 Master Game programme brought international chess to the living room.
Success was contagious. England won Olympiad silver medals in 1986 and 1988, while Nigel Short beat Anatoly Karpov to qualify for a world title match against Garry Kasparov, and other English GMs reached the world top 10.
The decline started in the 1990s, when it became much easier for Russian GMs to travel to the west. Short lost to Kasparov, sponsors withdrew, chess disappeared from television screens, prizes became smaller and entry fees higher. Junior chess became centred in primary schools, where most players dropped out after 11.
Easy access to internet games in recent years has brought a new chess boom, whose financial rewards are geared to high achievers. English players are again prominent, but this time as commentators, streamers and arbiters rather than as leading competitors.
Magnus Carlsen v Sunya Ganguly, world rapid, Qatar 2016. Black to move and win. In the game, Black chose 1...Rxa4 and only drew.