Always Look on the Bright Side of Online Chess
The Monty Python chess team: They always look on the bright side, even when they lose to the Spanish Inquisition. (© Wikicommons)

Always Look on the Bright Side of Online Chess

FM timpeterwall

“Some online chess is bad, 
No OTB can really make you mad, 
While anonymous cheats just make you swear & curse, 
When you're dreading banter blitzing, 
Don't grumble, try kibbitzing,
And local leagues’ll help things turn out for the best.”

Yes, the idea for this little ditty is nicked from – sorry, inspired by – the famous song 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Eric Idle, John Cleese and chums are socially distancing (well, they’re being crucified, to be technically accurate) so it seemed somehow analogous to our current situation, where we’re all feeling isolated and uncomfortable to some degree.

 We’d all like to say “I’m Brian!” or “I’m Magnus!” when a lucky few players are released and allowed to play over-the-board in Norway Chess. But sadly, the rest of us are left pining for the fjords and twiddling our thumbs, only able to play from home on an online playing server.

And, let’s face it – not everyone likes playing online.

Lost in lockdown

When my local weekender, the 56th edition of the Northumberland Congress, was cancelled – along with all local over-the-board chess, including our Leagues – due to a strict local lockdown in the North East of England, I decided to try to get a local online league up and running instead.

Although there was some initial scepticism from players who weren’t fans of online chess, it was pretty clear to most clubs that we had to get some form of chess going during the looming winter lockdown, or we would face the prospect of our local chess clubs simply fading away.

So, I made a plan – to make it simple, we copied the format of the 4 Nations Chess League – the equivalent of the English Premier League behemoth in football – with all matches played at the same time: once a fortnight on a Tuesday, kickoff at 7:30pm.

Games would be played on, with a time control of 45 minutes plus 15 seconds, and teams would be of four players each – a nice, low bar to reach, meaning that a few friends could get together and put in a team.

Keeping it local

The key thing we’d be offering would be the opposite of most online chess: we would know our opponents well, as they would be the same friendly folks we play in our local OTB league.

The feeling of emptiness that comes from playing a virtually anonymous opponent is something I have heard many players lament over the last few months of Covid-19 lockdowns. In part, they simply feel that people will cheat against them, because the players do not know each other at all.

So playing locally, online, it seemed to me could solve that problem.

(And not just quick stuff. In normal times, most competitive chess players need and want to play a range of time limits – and I personally feel that the obsession with blitz and even bullet is actually leading to more superficiality in our post-Covid play.)

In short – we are trying to provide some of that normalcy that local OTB league chess brings.

So replicating it online, alongside teammates we know, against friendly local clubs we also know – would be a way to keep us connected as local chess communities.

National and international competitions are fine for some players, of course – but they don’t really offer a sociable experience for most hobby players.

Getting the games rated

To publicise the event, and get the games online rated, we organised it through the English Chess Federation’s League Management System.

Yes, that’s quite a mouthful (trying singing it to the tune of Monty Python’s ‘Vocation Guidance Counsellor’) and it sounds quite dull (more like accountancy than lion-taming, to be honest). But even though it took a bit of setting up and getting used to, the result was more exciting than you might think.

(And another plus: We didn’t have to construct a separate website. Always good if your club or league isn’t awash with young techies who can spare a few days to make a new website for you.)

So, what are the advantages?

First, the players can go straight to their opponent’s profile by going to the North East Online League’s fixtures page, and then just clicking on their user name.

Second, you can watch your clubmate’s games in real time by opening other windows – meaning that you can follow their games when you need to, and so decide if you need to play for a win or a draw for the team.

And third, the system is very easy for club organisers and captains to administer. You simply input your teams by going to your club’s upcoming fixtures, selecting a name from the ECF’s drop-down rating list from your club, and saving your team.

Your team and the opposing team are then revealed on the LMS fixtures page exactly 1 hour before the match starts – at the same time for both teams.

And then you’re away. You simply challenge your opponent if you’re White, or accept their challenge if you’re Black.

Because the games go through the ECF’s dedicated League Management System (LMS) page, it means that all the games are automatically rated, cutting out the need for any local grader/ratings administrator to input any data.

And because the LMS gives you the option of requiring players to be ECF Members (in the Gold, Silver, Bronze or Supporter categories) it means that the league is supporting the national federation by raising membership fees. (During these times of little or no OTB chess, the ECF’s coffers are pretty threadbare, with only 43 percent of members currently renewing for 2020-21.)

Also, recruiting teams was easier than I thought it would be.

With the realisation dawning on many local players that there was little prospect of OTB chess for up to the next six months, more people were willing to give it a go. Even the technophobes and the “I’ll never play online!” players.

In just a couple of weeks, we managed to round up 20 teams of 4 players each, by advertising the North East Online League through the Northumberland and Durham Chess Association networks.

The first round took place successfully on Tuesday 13th October, and games in following rounds can be followed live via the League’s page on the ECF website.

The league’s top-ranked player so far is IM Andrew Horton, who led Durham City to a 3-1 win over Gosforth A in Round 1. But with 3 Divisions, the players range from nearly 2500 to under 1300, so there’s a good game for everyone.

The league’s first season will run for five rounds, every second Tuesday, until December.

Zoom – the next step

The next step I would like to pursue is to use Zoom calls to enhance the online playing experience. It may be that we just organise Zoom chats between club members and opposing teams after the matches are finished. After all, you get 40 minutes for free – plenty of time to have a quick post-mortem analysis over a pint of beer or glass of wine.

This again would boost the social side of playing local leagues online.

After the match – the “chat in the bar.”

As my Dad, John Wall, who is 87 years young and has played his first online chess matches for the club this year, said to me after Round 1: “I could get used to this. I play online, meet my friends from the club – and I don’t even have to go there!”   

The second level of Zoom will probably be combining the online matches with Zoom webcams to ensure fair play. This is a service that is offered to the average player by the new playing server, – and an approach that may also be expanded on by (which currently hosts the Pro Chess League with webcams, but it isn’t yet available for club players), and in future.

All in all, I am optimistic about the prospects for local online leagues using LMS – as I think they provide that personal, sociable side that big competitions online lack, while enabling games to be nationally rated and players to watch the games easily in real time.

I am hoping to roll out the model we’ve used for local leagues such as the North East Online League elsewhere throughout the UK in the coming months – so watch this space!