10 March 2020 - teams from four Shropshire clubs, including one from Telepost Club in Shrewsbury, are squeezed into a small, airless hall in an all-play-all evening of rapidplay. Players shake hands, move from one board to another between games, share the buffet provided for the interval. Squeeze up in their shared cars for the journey home.
15 March 2020 - a number of Telepost players make the trip north to Blackpool Congress. Players shake hands, move from one board to another, mingle in the public spaces of the Imperial Hotel. One of our players develops a touch of a cough.
16 March 2020 - advice is given to avoid non-essential contact and travel, ahead of the first lockdown on 23 March. All over the board chess in Shropshire is suspended.
There is a perception and portrayal of chess amongst the public and in popular culture as a game of the mind, a cerebral activity in which the body plays little part. But those who play the game regularly know different, that it is inherently dependent on touch, close proximity and a keen awareness of the physical presence of your opponent. Two or three hours of touching the same pieces while sitting considerably less than two metres apart are bookended by the handshakes that start and finish the game. Not exactly covid secure.
So, how to keep in touch with our members and with our desire to play the game as we entered the non-touch, distanced world of the pandemic?
John Casewell first joined our club in 1984. Since then it has moved from a local government office block via a crown green bowling club to its current location, a sports and social club where it has been since 1988. Now in his late seventies and having become wheelchair bound over the last four years, John had become totally reliant on others to get him to the club and had sadly decided that he would become an infrequent visitor at the time Covid struck.
Having played chess online for years and having looked at a neighbouring club’s website, John came up with the idea of creating an online club within the club, as over the board had been suspended. A light bulb moment brought the name Telepost Dark Knights as we were in the winter months and John much preferred the comfort of home rather than going out on dark nights. An existing need dovetailed with the restrictions of the pandemic.
A page was set up on the Lichess site and we figured out the mechanics of online competition. We held a friendly match with our town rivals, Shrewsbury Chess Club, organised a number of internal club competitions and entered county and national leagues. One-off events included Lichess arena-based simuls, including one hosted by GM Keith Arkell. Club, county, 4NCL and Five Counties matches meant many of us soon became busier than we had been pre-covid. A calendar of online matches meant we could spectate as well as play.
Shropshire is a large inland county and as a result of promoting the Dark Knights we recruited players within the county who would normally have found it difficult to physically attend our club, and we also attracted players from further afield who had previously lived and played in the county. We even welcomed back one of the club’s original founders, now in his 80s, who played for us from his home in Paris.
Alongside the Dark Knights initiative, we redesigned and relaunched our club website. The site had originally been built by our previous club secretary, Keith Tabner, some 18 years ago, and must have been one of the pioneers of club sites. Nick Holmes took on the redesign as a lockdown project, aiming to make it more mobile friendly and to keep it as up-to-date as possible, both to help existing members keep in touch and in the knowledge that for many prospective new members - including those whose interest was piqued by The Queen’s Gambit - this would be their first impression of the club.
Back in the real world, when Dennis Bonner became Secretary of the club in 2018 we had around 20 members and three teams in the Shropshire League. Dennis publicised the club to attract more players, with a flyer delivered to all the local Shrewsbury libraries and ensuring the club was in the county lists of Shropshire sports activities with all the relevant details. Dennis was very proactive during lockdowns, encouraging members through emails and setting up a WhatsApp group which kept the banter going. The Queen’s Gambit provoked interest from our local radio station and Dennis and our own Beth Harmon, Kate Walker, did a number of interviews about the club and chess in general. We have gradually increased our membership and currently have 33 members and five over the board teams, with four online teams competing in the Shropshire league.
We restarted our over the board activities at the club in June 2021, with the use of masks and hand gel, and vaccinations and lateral flow tests all recorded on forms upon entry. With the increase of members and enquiries we decided to appoint a new Members Mentor to introduce our new members to the club and help with their development.
In a sign of the merger of pre and post-covid chess, the last AGM of the Shropshire Chess Association acknowledged the benefits of online when a separate county online league was set up and a motion passed that blue badge holders within the county should be allowed to play online in over the board matches by being paired with a willing opposition player. Our club competition for this season is running in both OTB and online formats. Players like John can continue their close involvement with the club.
The pandemic has certainly been a challenge for a small club such as ours, but in some ways it has provoked a resurgence. Our efforts to keep in touch through lockdowns generated new members and new competitions and the level of online activity helped many existing members through the darker nights. We’ve now entered a hybrid world that opens up the wonderful game of chess to more people who wish to feel part of a club community and to touch the game in new and inclusive ways.
Nick Holmes - February 2022