1,000 chess players make the right move to city

chessBS''John Littlewood, who died on September 16 aged 78.
chessBS''John Littlewood, who died on September 16 aged 78.

SHEFFIELD hosts the biggest annual chess festival in the UK over the next two weeks, attracting more than 1,000 players, from novice to grandmaster.

The British Chess Championship, which opens at Ponds Forge Leisure Centre on Sunday, centres on the competition for the national title which is expected to be the most closely-contested for more than a decade.

In addition there is the Major Open, for all nationalities, and more than 20 other tournaments including British titles for age groups under-16s to under-eights and graded events for hundreds of club players.

It opens with a programme of rapid chess (games of no more than an hour) and the championship will begin on Monday, contested by 70 qualifers, continuing through to the final on August 6.

Spectators can watch for free and there will be commentary on key matches by International Chess Master Andrew Martin. Games will be broadcast live online throughout the tournament, which organisers expect to attract at least two million followers and even more in the later stages, especially if there is a close finish.

CJ de Mooi, a familiar face from TV as a member of the BBC Eggheads team, is president of the English Chess Federation and is said to have led a personal crusade to bring top competitors to Sheffield. “We’re bringing the British Chess Championships to a great city and that deserves great players – and they’re coming,” he declared. “There’ll be so much brain power you will pick it up from space.

“It’s the strongest championship for years, perhaps of all time,” agreed Dave Welch, joint manager of the British Chess Championships, largely due to the sponsorship of Darwin Strategics, which for the chess elite made it worth the while attending.

Among the big names are Nigel Short and Michael Adams, who have both competed in world championships and past winners, David Howell, under-21 international and an Olympiad player, and Stuart Conquest.

One of the experts will be providing a display of simultaneous chess, playing multiple games at the same time, at a location outside Ponds Forge

Dave Welch, a retired Liverpool schoolteacher who was born at Brampton and honed his skills at Chesterfield Chess Club, has the responsibility of keeping the operation running which includes making sure they have enough chess pieces –160 sets will be brought along.

As well as the competitors, there are the spectators to be accommodated, he said: “We estimate we will be bringing in to Sheffield about 1,000 people in any one day, many of them friends and families of the young contestants.”

The location of the championships in Sheffield brings added poignancy to the John Littlewood prize of £100 awarded to the most brilliant game played by an U18 Junior in this year’s British Championship.

It is the second year of the award in memory of the Sheffield-born chess expert set up by his widow, Jean, and son Paul after his death in 2009.

He appeared in two Olympiads and several international competitions, winning outright the British Senior Chess Championship in 2006 and finishing equal first in 2008 at the age of 77. He also wrote on chess, including a column in the early years of the Sheffield Telegraph.

The Littlewood family chose to set up an award for under 18s because John, a teacher, was dedicated to encouraging young players.

“My father was director of junior chess for the British Chess Federation, as it then was, and also he liked the idea of sacrificial attack and brilliance so that’s we chose this award,” says Paul, himself British champion in 1981.

He will not be competing this year (“I’m not as good as I used to be and lately I have been more focused on bridge”) but will be studying games online to determine the “brilliance” award.

The event runs from Monday until Saturday, August 6 (with July 31 a rest day) with championship matches each day from 2.15pm and junior tournaments and events for club players from 9.30am.