Newsletter no.2 - February 2016 - The Hidden Classic

 

The Hidden Classic

 

by Jonathan Bryant

 

"Are you doing this again next year?"

 

 
   
 

   

Around 2pm on Friday 4th December, the first day of this year’s London Chess Classic, I was standing just by the lifts in the foyer at Olympia. This was a couple of hours before the first pawn would be pushed in the Grand Chess Tour event, but I wasn’t there waiting to welcome people as they arrived. I was saying goodbye.

 

There was just one school left to go. As the doors of the lift opened and the teacher ushered her group inside one young lad - he must have been 8 or 9 - turned back and asked me his question. "Are you doing this again next year?"
 Next year? I was going to be doing it every day the following week! 'It' being organising the five hours of chess activities that Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC) had offered free to schools across England.

 

By the time we were done 101 schools had visited, bringing 1718 children with them. The kids played a total of 4141 games of chess in 31 separate tournaments across the 6 playing days. We awarded 24 trophies to schools and 272 medals (133 Bronze, 78 Silver and 61 Gold) for individual achievement. 43 CSC chess tutors worked 151 shifts between them to make it all happen.

 

The CSC schools’ events are probably the London Chess Classic’s biggest secret. They’re a huge part of the festival, but because the children go home before most of the grown-ups arrive a lot of people don’t know that they were ever there. On coming across 300+ school kids playing in the East Hall one afternoon, GM Keith Arkell said that although he’d competed at the Classic since the inaugural event in 2009 this was the first time he’d had an inkling that anything like this was happening.

 

 

So who comes along? Mostly it’s junior schools, although we had half a dozen or so seniors too. A lot of our visitors are from London schools and already signed up to a CSC programme of curriculum time chess classes. This is far from universally the case, however. Three-quarters of the schools this year were London based, but the remainder came from Oxford, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and even Teeside. Thanks to Kajetan Wandowicz - CSC’s hyper-enthusiastic coordinator of activities in South West England - as many as a dozen schools travelled up from Bristol and Bath. The split between CSC schools and those who weren’t already receiving our chess lessons was about 60:40. A much greater proportion of children would have come from our existing schools though, because while non-CSC schools tend to bring members of their chess club, CSC schools usually take the whole class of children that is learning chess with us. This year several CSC schools brought 50-60 children but non-CSC groups could be as small as 3 kids.

 

The days themselves were jam-packed for the children and festival staff alike. By the time schools arrived at 10am the CSC tutors had already spent 90 minutes preparing for the day ahead. There was a lot to get ready but it was very much the calm before the storm. Once the children get to Olympia there wasn’t much time to take a breath. The morning was all about chess training. A chess lesson for the children followed by a simul - a chance to play against the CSC chess tutors and warm up for what was coming later.

 

 

As you might imagine these sessions were very demanding to lead. We knew which schools are coming, but had little idea of the strength of players within each group. Some of the children had only begun learning chess in our programmes a few months earlier; Others were much more experienced and one or two even had grades. Our tutors had to weigh up their group very quickly and adjust their lessons accordingly. The second part of the morning was the Chris and Danny show which was held in the main auditorium. GMs Ward and King - ably assisted by Lateefah Messam-Sparks who deputised for Daniel on the Wednesday - have been running their interactive chess show for years now and this time around it was more popular than ever.

 

The highlight of show was the children getting a chance to get up on stage and play using the sets that the world’s elite would be using later in the day. The boards were already hooked up to the giant display screens at the back of the stage so everybody could follow along. Imagine Carlsen playing Caruana with live Grandmaster commentary battling to be heard above several hundred children in the audience screaming out advice and encouragement for their classmates. Not exactly standard tournament conditions, but it was a lot of fun. After a short lunch break it was time for the main event of the day: the afternoon tournaments. For many of the children it would be their first ever organised chess competition. We divided the events by year group so we had up to six different tournaments running at once. Make no mistake, they were competitive - we awarded medals to the highest scorers in each year group and trophies to the best performing school - although that wasn’t the real point. We worked hard to ensure the emphasis remained firmly on taking part and enjoying the experience.

 

 

To end the day each school got a group photo, the children who came along on the Wednesday being particularly fortunate to get a Super-GM gatecrashing their pictures. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was a great sport. Photographer Ray often got the children to leap in the air as he took their picture. After doing this a couple of times I heard him say "Maxime, you don’t have to jump too". Elite chess player or not, MVL just shrugged and carried on just the same. We squeezed in one last surprise as the children made their way to the lifts to start their journey home: a chess-themed goody bag for everyone. Several schools told us that five hours of chess simply hadn’t been enough and their kids had played with their new pocket sets all the way back to school.

 

 
   

I’m very proud of what we achieved with the schools events at the Classic. “It's been such fun”, “A fantastic opportunity” and “The best party bag ever” were three of the children's comments that stand out. I have to end by thanking the CSC staff who worked so hard to ensure a fun time for the children and a stress-free day for the teachers who accompanied them. Not forgetting all the cleaning up the tutors did at the end of the day to make sure that you’d never know we were there. Like I said, the schools events are the Classic’s biggest secret. And what of my young friend who was getting in the lift that first Friday afternoon? I told him that we’d come back in 2016 if he would. He promised me he’d be back for sure. I feel exactly the same way. Organising a week of schools’ events for CSC at Olympia next December? You try keeping me away.

 

What the Teachers Had to Say

 

All the children had a fantastic day and have already asked if I can book for next year.

Nicole, NJHS

 

… the children had a great day.

Maggie, William Hogarth

 

… thank you for providing the children with an inspiring opportunity. I know they absolutely loved it and were all bursting with joy on the way back to school.

Gamze, Morningside

 

We were delighted to be able to join the tournament … staff and pupils thoroughly enjoyed the day. A bronze medallist was an added bonus!

Catherine, London Fields

 

We greatly enjoyed the day - "It's been such fun" - "A fantastic opportunity" - "The best party bag ever" being three of the children's comments that stand out. Although disappointed to be so close to winning medals but sadly, this year, unsuccessful (only 1 point away for two of them), the children did us proud and were very good sports. … we look forward to next year!

Tracy, Oliver Goldsmiths

 

… thanks again for organising such a brilliant day. The children really enjoyed themselves and have become avid chess players.

John, Godwin

 


 

 

 

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