Hackney Chess Club’s award completes journey from pawns to queens
- Credit: Archant
As Hackney Chess Club is crowned the best in England, we took a look at its humble beginnings and heard why it’s not just a ‘stuffy old club’.
Hackney Chess Club has come a long way since competitive matches were played on decorating tables in a pub landlord’s son’s bedroom.
The group has just been crowned club of the year by the English Chess Federation, which in the board game world is as prestigious as it gets.
The judging panel was obviously aware that the club is now as successful as it has ever been. The 60-strong membership is an all-time high, there are eight teams competing in different leagues and there’s men, women and children from a wide range of backgrounds on the books.
“We are thrilled with the award, which reflects our commitment to inclusivity and giving people of all levels an opportunity to represent the club,” said veteran Mark Rivlin, club secretary, below. “We buck the trend. At the London league you’ll see 33 of the 40 people are white, male and over 40. It’s not representative of society.
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“We are the most inclusive, accepting club in the country. It’s fantastic. We have 60 paying members. Most clubs could never manage that.”
It’s not always been smooth sailing, though. An appropriate analogy for the club’s journey might be that of a pawn slowly making its way to the end of the board and becoming an all-powerful queen.
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The club has never had a permanent home. It was started 45 years ago – though no one seems to know who by – and laid its hat in any willing pubs.
Away teams hated coming to Hackney because they had to play in places like the bedroom at The Willow Tree in Balls Pond Road, or on a board balanced over beer barrels at an old labour club in Dalston Lane.
Chess Magazine once referred to it as “the notorious Hackney Chess Club”. You get the picture.
“Peter Thompson really held us together during the ’80s and early ’90s when we were struggling with membership,” Mark continued.
“There weren’t that many good players in the borough but now it’s brilliant.”
Free coaching is given to youngsters and the unemployed don’t pay. In fact, no one pays unless they play five or more league matches. Saturday night is “blitz night” at The Rochester Castle in Stoke Newington High Street.
“It’s just a social thing – anyone who can play can come down,” said Mark. “It can get a bit tasty, too – we’re not just a stuffy old chess club.”
Bob Eames has been captain of the first team, which plays in the national league, for 15 years. He’s been a member for 30, since he was 19.
“There were a lot of bars and upstairs rooms in bars,” he recalls. “And captains before me used to organise tours abroad. You’d have 20 of us going off to Budapest to play.
“There’s a lot more juniors involved now so we don’t do it. And the standard is much better.”
Both agree the game is enjoying a renaissance, particularly in Hackney.
“I just think there’s better players in the borough now,” said Mark.
“Here’s a good example. There’s a woman from Estonia named Maris Salumets.
“She’s been a member for three years and was just past beginner level when she started out.
“The other week she got the result of the year in British chess.
“We played her in a national league team.
“You have to play a junior or a female, and the junior couldn’t play.
“She stepped in just so we wouldn’t lose points for not filling a board.
“It was the equivalent of Leyton Orient playing Real Madrid.
“She got a draw! And she had a win that she missed.
“Malcolm Pein wrote about it in the Sunday Telegraph.
“No other club would have put Maris in that position. She couldn’t believe it – she was so happy.”
The club is looking for sponsorship from local businesses so it can compete at the top end with teams like Wood Green.
If you’d like to play, sponsor the club or have a chat, contact the club at hackneychess.org.uk