It has been one of the runaway success stories of the pandemic, fuelled by the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and an explosion in online play. Now plans to stage Britain’s biggest ever chess festival in Trafalgar Square have been unveiled, with organisers hoping to showcase the game’s inclusivity, attract converts from the poorest parts of the UK, and possibly unearth a future champion.
Thousands of people are expected to turn up for ChessFest, a free event on 18 July in which more than 50 chess coaches will provide free lessons to children and adults, with top British grandmasters taking on all-comers in speed and blindfold chess, and a range of activities designed to show chess is for everyone.
The organisers, the UK charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), also plan to bring the game to communities it would not usually reach – with 300 children from 30 inner-city schools being brought to London to enjoy a range of chess-related activities, including playing games and trying on 15th- and 16th-century armour from the Wallace Collection.
CSC’s chief executive, Malcolm Pein, said he wanted the festival to capitalise on the Queen’s Gambit effect and ignite a chess boom across Britain.
“I’ve been involved in promoting and playing chess for 30 years without getting very far,” he admitted. “And then one day, a television series comes along and transforms the landscape. It’s absolutely astonishing what’s happened.
“For too long chess was made inaccessible by a collection of stereotypes – that it can’t be glamorous, that it can’t be for women, that it is too hard. The Queen’s Gambit has knocked down some of those barriers. I want ChessFest to smash down the remaining ones. I fully expect it to be Britain’s biggest ever chess event.”
Those visiting Trafalgar Square will also be able to see a human chess game based on Alice Through the Looking-Glass, performed by professional actors, and enjoy a casual match in the hundreds of chess tables set up for children and chess fans to play one another.
“We’ll be encouraging complete strangers to get to know each other over a game of chess, celebrating the game’s cultural connections, and trying to emphasise to people that even if you currently don’t play chess it’s easy to pick it up,” said Pein.
“But, most of all, we really want to inspire children from all parts of society. As a charity we try to focus our efforts on areas of Britain that are in the lowest quartile of the index of multiple deprivation. That’s been the benchmark for us since it was set up in 2009.
“And those coming will see fantastic role models like Shreyas Royal, a 12-year-old prodigy who has had his life transformed by chess, giving simultaneous exhibitions.”
The spectacular growth of chess over the past 15 months has seen the world’s biggest chess site, Chess.com, add about 1 million new members a month. Another popular site, Lichess, has seen the number of games played on its server shoot up from 55m in March 2020 to 101m in May 2021. Meanwhile, streamers such as the Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, and Anna Rudolf have also helped take the game to new audiences on Twitch and YouTube, leading to a growth in women playing the game.
Pein said he hoped ChessFest, which is sponsored by XTC markets, would also leave a lasting legacy for London given that CSC is working with local councils to install concrete chess tables in London parks to enable chess to be played all year round as in New York and other cities.
Among the top players taking part will be the country’s No 3 player, Gawain Jones, born in Keighley in Yorkshire, who said he hoped it would change people’s perception of the game.
“For a long time chess had this elite image which a lot of players liked to sustain,” he said. “They’d like to feel smug about it being an intellectual game. But that attitude is changing. Absolutely anyone can learn to play, and to a very high level. Chess really is a game that crosses all boundaries.”