Every year, there are numerous events for individuals and teams for which players have to be selected, of which by far the most important of these are the European Championships and the World Championships. Every year England fails to send as many players as it is entitled to. This is especially true of the younger age groups and the girls in particular seem to suffer. Some 7 years ago, there was a good deal of controversy surrounding the selection of Luke McShane for the World under-10 Championships. Luke had demonstrated clearly that he was a player of quite extraordinary talent: he had won the British under-9 Championship with a perfect score although still only 7 years old, and had performed very well in adult tournaments. Eventually, despite considerable grumblings from the powers-that-be, Luke was sent to the World Championships, largely because of pressure exerted by Leonard Barden, Chess Correspondent for The Guardian and one of the most assiduous statisticians of junior chess results. Of course, Luke won the event although still officially an under-8, and has gone on from strength to strength, achieving his IM title at the age of 13, which is some 4 years younger than the current World under-18 Champion has done!
This year, the England selectors did send an under-10 to the Boys' Championships, Murugan Thiruchelvam. This was no more than Murugan deserved, as he has in recent months been breaking world records for his performances in tournaments and also became the youngest player in history to play a grandmaster and achieve a draw. However, they failed to send a girl. No English girl has participated in the World or European under-10 Championships for 5 years, a sad fact which reflects the attitude of the selectors rather than the ability of our players. Neither did we send any girls to the under-12 Championships, and again this is not for the want of players of ability.
There were five selectors present at the meeting of 19th April 1998, at which the decisions relating to the selection of individuals for World and European events were taken. The five were Brian Jones, Chairman and BCF Director of Junior Chess; Ian Cowen, Manager of the England under-11 team; Phil Adams, President of the Manchester & District Chess Association and and experienced coach; Mike Haslinger, of Southport, all of whose five children are very strong players; and myself, Chief Coach to the Essex Junior Chess Association. I had been asked to stand in by the British Women's Chess Association as at the time of the selectors' meeting they were without an elected Junior Organiser, who would normally have been on the selection committee. Two other selectors sent their apologies: Grandmaster Chris Ward and Woman Grandmaster Susan Lalic.
At this point I must point out that all of us on the selection committee agreed to a high level of confidentiality and that by writing this article I am without doubt in breach to one degree or another of that confidentiality. However, Brian Jones has acted as spokesman for all of us on more than one occasion and has used that confidentiality as a screen from behind which he has made a number of statements concerning the selection of juniors which implied that all the selectors were in agreement and that all decisions were made by consensus. They weren't, and they weren't. I have decided to publicise my views now because I believe that serious damage is being done to Junior Chess in this country and that this confidentiality should only be used to protect the identities of individual players and not the policy through which selections are made.
The selection process is relatively straightforward. A shortlist of players thought to be strong enough to compete in their age group is drawn up and those players are invited to send in all their results over a period of about 9 months. These results were collated and the selection is based upon them. The general selection philosophy has been that a player would be selected only if the selectors considered that the player would be expected to score in excess of 50%. In addition there are grading criteria which the players must satisfy: their current playing strength based upon games submitted would need to be in excess of 10 times their age. Therefore a player in the under 10 would need to be exhibiting a current playing strength in excess of 100 BCF. The selectors were unable (or unwilling) to identify any girl players in the under-10 and under-12 age groups who in their view satisfied the above criteria and no results for the leading players in those age groups were presented to the selection meeting.
There are problems with both these criteria. It is very difficult to predict which players are likely to score 50%. In order to do this in any meaningful way, an assessment needs to be made of the likely strength of the opposition and the relative strength of the English players available. These are arduous tasks which can only be carried out by a strong player and there is absolutely no doubt that neither of these tasks was tackled. It is, of course, much more difficult to do the younger a player is, as they have no obvious track record upon which an assessment can be based and, although a group of leading players can normally be identified fairly easily, it is very much more difficult to justify the selection of just one individual ahead of his or her peers. It is especially difficult for girls as there are fewer of them playing chess anyway, and to find just one who breaks into the top 20 players in a given age group is fairly unusual.
However, this male domination of the game is largely true of our competitor nations as well. The Welsh selectors showed much more in the way of courage and initiative than did the English. They invited Suzie Blackburn to the Girls' Under-12 World Championship in which Suzie scored a very creditable 4.5/11. There are at least half a dozen English girls in the same age group who have sparred with Suzie on level terms in recent tournaments and of course none of those girls was given the opportunity to play against the best in the world. Given that Suzie will no doubt have benefitted from the intensive coaching given to her for this tournament, as well as the wonderful experience of being steeped in chess at a very high level while she was at the World Championships, I wonder how her English opponents will fare against her in future events?
It must also be stressed that this 50% score target should be used as a yardstick for selection and not a subsequent measurement of success or failure. There is no doubt that some of the English players were in fear that, should they disappoint the selectors, then they may not be selected again. I wonder why it was that one player agreed an 8-move draw in the penultimate round of an 11-round tournament? Could it be that it was because this draw achieved as a minimum the magic figure of 5.5? No-one can win a game of chess to order, much less guarantee that they will necessarily have a good tournament when it really matters, and it is absolutely essential that everything possible should be done to remove the fear of failure and to encourage the players to enjoy themselves through playing their natural game.
It is also true that younger players can improve astonishingly quickly. The World Youth Championships took place during November and the deadline for entries was 30th September, yet the only selection meeting which took place was on 19th April. It would have been a relatively simple matter for the selectors to defer judgment on the younger players and draw up a short list in April in time for a decision in August, after the British Championships. At this stage the key players could have been identified in the light of British Championship results and high level coaching arranged.
With the benefit of hindsight, there can be little argument that the England players who were selected for the World Championships acquitted themselves well and justified their selection: the lowest score by any of our players was 5/11. However, there are many parents who believe that the selectors should have sent far more players than we did. There is no doubt in my mind that at least two, and preferably four, players of each sex should be sent to participate in each relevant age group championship. This would mean a team of 20 - 40 players as well as coaches and parents. The English players who participated were sponsored by Saitek, the company which makes Dixons Chess Computers, and the £10,000 earmarked for this purpose would have paid the bulk of the accommodation and travel costs of enough coaches to allow a ratio of 4 players to 1 coach. The host nation provides accommodation for a number of players from each age group and any more money required should have been found from parental contribution, BCF funds or further sponsorship.
Indeed, fund raising for junior participation in World and European Championship events should be an integral part of BCF policy and an officer appointed specifically for this purpose. Lack of funds should never be used as an excuse for not sending the best players in sizeable groups to important tournaments and as far as possible at least one of each of the younger children's parents should accompany the party. Clearly, not every family has the resources to finance a journey of this sort, and given that there is a tendency for the best players aged 10 still to be the best players when they are aged 17, it is clear that some individuals are likely to be invited to foreign parts on an annual basis. For this reason it is necessary to devote a great deal of time and effort to fund raising as, although Chess Parents as a group are probably somewhat above average income and do include some who are remarkably wealthy, of course there are others for whom this is not true.
One problem with sending so few players is that each individual is under tremendous pressure. To be representing one's country is inevitably a highly stressful circumstance and the fear of failure can often affect a player's form. There is absolutely no guarantee that somebody whose credentials suggest that they are the right player in April will still be exhibiting good form in November, and the younger the player the more inconsistent they tend to be. If there are four boys and four girls selected for each age group then at least that load is shared with others; the BCF has four chances of winning a medal rather than just the one; and if a particular player does have a poor tournament, at least there is someone else competing for England in the same section who can attract the attention for the right reasons.
But one of the most worrying aspects of the BCF selection procedure is the extent to which it is surrounded in secrecy. Of course, where players' and parents' cherished aspirations are at stake, there are always going to be disappointed individuals but that cannot be avoided. As such, confidentiality and deference to the feelings of individuals is of paramount importance. However, when this procedure fails to find suitable players for places to which English Chess is entitled, there is a very public discussion, indeed, campaign, to try to change the selectors' minds about those candidates that the chess-playing public, and especially the parents and local junior organisers, consider should have been sent but whom the selectors overlooked. This unwillingness to select at least one player in each age group therefore leads to the public airing of the credentials of certain individual players, usually young and impressionable, who have not even had the benefit of being selected in the first place. This is certainly not the desired background for continued development.
Most worrying of all, the selectors carry paranoia to ridiculous extremes and refuse even to publish the criteria upon which decisions are made. This is a very dangerous situation in which the decisions taken can never be questioned and selectors can effectively do what they want without being called to account. Of course parents of strong chess-playing children should be aware of the selection criteria and encouraged to use them as targets for their children's chess development. This is only sensible and will give impetus and direction to the coaching of youngsters, the parents of whom may well be completely unfamiliar with chess and what is available in the way of coaching and suitable tournaments.
What is essential for the future is for a 5-point plan to be formulated. Firstly, the BCF should appoint a permanent fund-raising officer reporting directly to the Chairman whose task is specifically to raise funds for World and European events. Secondly, a policy should be developed to ensure that at least two girls and two boys in each age group are sent to each World and European event; thirdly, the selection criteria should be published; fourthly, a strong player / coach should be given the task of analysing games of the various sections of the World and European events and the results of this analysis be made available to all the relevant players and coaches; and finally, the selectors should be prepared to justify their decisions where shortlisted candidates are not selected and offer those players practical advice on how they can improve their future chances of selection.
Southend, December 1998