"THE YEAR OF THE OVER-THE-BOARD PLAYER"
In the March 2001 issue of Chess Life, issued in early February, we find yet another "across the board" message to the membership from USCF President Tim Redman. Sometimes we can gain better understanding of where we are as an organization by remembering where we have been, so it is interesting to contrast Redman's piece with one written over 38 years ago by the legendary Col. Ed Edmondson, then USCF Vice President but running unopposed for USCF President, and eventually the federation's first Executive Director.
Redman's message appears in an issue which announces on its cover, "year of the OTB player." Next to "across the board" it says again, "2001: The Year of the Over-the-Board Player." And Redman's essay is indeed titled "otb chess." But its message about OTB chess sounds decidedly negative, as if we were in the "Year that OTB play is destroyed by online play."
Redman states, as though looking back on a now bygone era of OTB tournaments, "Starting in the mid-60s, club events gave way to weekend tournaments as the most popular mode of play. The Swiss system, with its demands for a more aggressive playing style, was in vogue. Large class prizes led to mega-events, such as the World Open. For many, it seemed as if that era could never end. Few noticed the beginning of the FICS (the Free Internet Chess Server) and fewer saw where it would lead."
Then follows a bold paragraph header, proclaiming "the decline of tournament chess." What an inspirational message for organizers, prospective organizers, potential sponsors, and players- setting just the right tone for the "Year of the Over-the-Board Player." Our President then explains, "Without question, the increased popularity of Internet chess has cut into attendance at over-the-board events." He then goes on at length first on this topic, and then to remind the membership to be sure to collect their "activity points," a program since abandoned by the Executive Board.
Has online play injured tournament attendance? I think it is hurting clubs, because they feature the same type of relatively convenient, quick, low cost play, with no large prizes at stake, that is available online. However, some club organizers report otherwise- for instance, Luis Salinas of the Dallas Chess Club told me that while his club has lost players to online play, it has gained about an equal number who began online and then graduated to OTB play.
Regarding the effect of online play on tournaments, the situation is less clear. The smaller events, which most resemble club play, may be hurting, but some of this could be due to other factors, like slow rating calculation, underrated juniors, or increased TLA fees. Many of the larger tournaments, meaning not just mega-events but also those with about 100 players, seem to be doing a lot better than is generally believed, in spite of these problems. Of course, the decline of clubs and small tournaments could eventually hurt larger events, and the continuing drop in USCF adult membership is a serious concern, but if USCF can replace club oriented members with online oriented members, halting the membership downtrend, the pool of new members recruited by the total of clubs plus online need not decrease. It should increase, and tournaments that offer more than just quick, convenient rated games- those where players socialize with friends they haven't seen for awhile, watch, listen or talk to the Masters in person, play serious, slow games, or play for significant prizes- could actually grow.
You wouldn't know it from Redman's gloom and doom, but many tournaments are still quite healthy. The most recent National Chess Congress, Eastern Class, Vermont Resort Open, Bradley Open and Foothills Open were the most successful ever. The recent North American Open drew 100 more players than the previous year. The 2000 US Open at St Paul outdrew the 1994 US Open at Chicago, despite the huge difference in local base. The National Open, US Amateur Team East, and most CCA tournaments not mentioned above have pretty much held their own, from unchanged recently to minus 5%. It's true that the World Open and Chicago Open had off years, but they had fewer mailings than the previous year, and each has done worse if you go back a few years. And scholastics everywhere continue to boom.
Overall, a case can be made that online play is NOT wiping out tournament play, that such a development is NOT inevitable, and that all that organizers need to do is keep plugging away, running tournaments, and promoting chess. Instead, our President chooses to contribute to the common and false impression that tournament play is on the way out- not exactly a message calculated to motivate players to organize, or organizers to organize more.
Let's contrast Redman's message to the members with this one from Ed Edmondson, which appeared in the November 1962 issue of Chess Life:
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ACTIVITY MEANS MEMBERS
SPONSOR ONE MORE TOURNAMENT THIS YEAR
The year 1962 rapidly draws to a close and the fulfillment of our 10,000 member quota by August, 1963 still is in doubt. This doubt, however, does not appear material since many favorable signs indicate that the U.S.C.F. is gaining momentum and will continue to grow. During 1962 our membership has increased and what is more important woodpushers all over the country have taken a more pronounced interest in rated chess.
1962 has produced tournaments in areas that never before had a rated tournament. Additional areas have plans under way now on tournaments that will be held during 1963.
One of our greatest achievements during 1962 has been the close associations between the U.S.C.F. and various regional and state organizations which previously were cool or in some cases completely antagonistic. These area reunions have proved beneficial to all concerned.
D.R. Cotten, Riverside, Calif.- Dear Ed, The Riverside Chess Club has decided to sponsor "One More Tournament This Year- Our First."
(Congratulations, let's hope this is the first of many).
John Tomas, Omaha, Nebr.- Dear Ed, Enclosed are the names and addresses of some Omaha players interested in a round robin rated tourney. All have joined U.S.C.F. Please send schedules as we are anxious.
(Another tourney under way).
Peter Lahde, Nashville, Tenn.- Dear Ed, We now have 10 active clubs in Tenn. and are pushing for all to be U.S.C.F. affiliates.
William Fahey, Germany- Dear Ed, Can you send us a mailing list for Europe?
(It's on the way).
Hans J. Grun, Grants Pass, Oregon- Dear Ed, We have set the date for our "One More Tournament"- November, 1962.
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And Edmondson did more than just urge the promotion of chess through Chess Life. As Executive Director, if he noticed a new tournament that drew fairly well or an old one that set a record, he would call the organizer, offer his hearty congratulations, and urge more and better things in the future. Sometimes he would call a promoter who hadn't been that active to suggest ideas or encourage more activity. Organizers would call him, too, because they knew that he cared about them. TLAs and membership lists were both free in those days, and Ed may have turned over in his grave when the October 2000 Chess Life announced that the fee for a 3-line TLA in one issue was being raised from $6 to $50.
Did Ed's methods work? Well, I'm not saying Edmondson was the only reason, but he was a prominent organizer before 1960, Vice President from 1960 to 1963, President from 1963 to 1966, and Executive Director from 1966 to 1977, and USCF membership increased every year from 1957 to 1973! And if you think we can't promote membership now because of the cuts in Chess Life pages, consider this: the 2001 issues have so far each had 68 pages. In 1962, the average issue had 25 pages, and no one seemed to mind, because they weren't used to more.
I am not suggesting that Redman, or George DeFeis, can imitate Edmondson. There are far more tournaments now, more members, more affiliates, more problems. I would like to see a USCF employee make such calls, but the budget is tight and the return might not be quick enough. However, in Chess Life, if the federation's leaders can't do any better than hurt morale, attendance, and sponsorship with "The decline of tournament chess," when many tournaments have not declined, can they please just remain silent?
Especially in "The Year of the Over-the-Board Player"?