The 99th British Championships start tomorrow at North Shields. As regular readers of this blog will know, it has been a hugely controversial year for British chess since last year's British at Sheffield, and this has had a significant impact on this year's championship. The fact that the event is taking place at all is a triumph for the local North-East chess community, who have rallied round Lara Barnes in splendid fashion, by no means confining their support to mere words. Many thousands of pounds have been put up by local chess fans, which has enabled the field this year to include seven Grandmasters, despite the absence of any formal sponsorship. It is a great effort.
But there is one aspect of the Championship which appalls me, although it is not the fault of the local organisers. That is the weakness of the overall field. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this must be one of the weakest British Championships ever.
Looking at the field, I see a total of 62 players. The top is respectable enough, with seven GMs and six IMs. But there the good news ends. Only eleven players are rated over 2400, and only four in the range 2300-2399. The 16th highest-rated player - ie. just bottom of the top quartile - is rated just 2275. And no fewer than 34 players, over half of the field, are rated below 2200, 19 of those (more than a quarter of the field) below 2100.
Two years ago, I covered the 2010 British at Canterbury for the BCM. I commented then that the length of the tail would have done credit to a Brazilian aadvaark (and, yes, I could not resist referring to "the Canterbury tail"...). But Canterbury's tail looks like a veritable Stewart Reuben, alongside this year's Michael Jordan.
The truth is that the British Championship has become hugely devalued over the past 20 years. I was discussing this recently with a well-known British chess figure, now in his late 50s. He pointed out that he never qualified for the British in his playing days, despite spending some 25 years, graded/rated in the region of 195/2200. Nowadays, he could expect to be in the top half of the field. And, let's not forget, there has been serious rating inflation over the same period - a rating of 2200 thirty years ago is probably worth over 2300 nowadays.
I am sure what I am about to say will upset a few termites and others, but the harsh truth is that, precocious juniors aside, a player much below 2400 has no place in a national championship, such as the British. I myself played in two British Championships, in 1989 and 1990, scoring five and four points respectively (I also qualified several more times, but did not play). If I remember rightly, I was unrated at the time of the first, with a BCF grade around the upper 180s, and by the second, I had a FIDE rating of 2315. I was not especially young at the time (going on 30), and, in all frankness, should not really have been playing in the British Championship. Yet I was considerably stronger at that time than a lot of the field in North Shields.
The reason for this sad decline is money, of course. After rejecting The Times' sponsorship offer of some 25 years ago, which would have seen the British held as a stand-alone exclusive, all-play-all, amongst the top players, and held in London, the then BCF was stuck with its current model of a general seaside congress, incorporating the British alongside amateur events. The trouble with such a model is that it is unattractive to sponsors, and so the British has to be funded by enlarging the field, and effectively selling places to low-rated amateurs, who are willing to pay an entry fee of £200 or so per head, for the privilege of playing in the Championship. There are various words in the dictionary for such selling of favours; I will let readers choose their own. But the effect has been to produce the sort of British Championship field we see at North Shields this year.
I repeat what I said above - I think Lara and the North East chess community have done wonderful work on the Championships this year, and I am sure all those who play will have a great time. I do not blame them for the weak field. As usual, it is generations of hapless oafs at the top of the Egregious Chess Federation who have produced this situation, just as they have presided over the collapse of the National Club championship, county chess, and just about everything else their reverse Midas touch comes into contact with. I just think it is a great shame, that the sterling efforts of so many dedicated volunteer chess organisers and fans, up and down the country, should end up being p*ssed up against the wall by the game's incompetent, self-interested officials.