Best country for chess?

by admin on December 10, 2007

One of the things I did not anticipate when I started this blog was how international it would become! We have regular readers from Denmark, Spain, and France, plus one person who spent a significant amount of time in England. And who knows what other countries might be represented by “lurkers” who read this blog but haven’t posted any comments?

So I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you about chess in your country. How is chess viewed in society as a whole? Are there any chess radio or TV programs? Is your country’s chess federation a visible, functional body? How many opportunities are there for kids to play? How could chess become more popular in your country? And finally (if you want to hazard an opinion), what do you think is the best country to play chess in?

I’ll get things started. It’s hard to speak about chess in America as a whole because we have such a large country; chess in New York is, for example, very different from chess in Manitowoc. Still, I would say that chess in America is viewed, as it always has been, as a rather quirky, intellectual pastime. “Intellectual” is, in America, generally not a good thing. However, I do think there is a growing awareness among parents that chess helps kids to develop their mental abilities. So the U.S. has lots of good scholastic chess programs, but we currently lack the means to turn these kids into lifelong chess players or fans.

One thing that’s sorely lacking in America is any concept of chess as an international competitive sport. We virtually never have major international tournaments, and major chess competitions get almost zero publicity. Chess promoters in the U.S. have never really figured out how to get corporate support for chess, either for tournaments or individual players. I think that the current leadership of the US Chess Federation is pretty good (I’m a big fan of Susan Polgar, who understands the need for promotion). But historically the USCF has struggled so much with money problems and internal bickering that it has not been very successful at improving chess’s image.

Of course I think the best country to play chess in must be Russia. I spent four months there in 1978 and was very impressed with the popular enthusiasm for the game (it’s the country’s #3 sport, really, behind soccer and hockey). Saint Petersburg, where I was studying, has a big hall for its central chess club — vastly different from the chess clubs we’ve been talking about in U.S. and Spain, which have to scrounge for room in unlikely places. Russia has a culture of respect for intellectual activities that is mostly absent in America, and this makes a more hospitable environment for chess. On the other hand, in Russia there are so many good players that I wonder if the average player feels kind of overwhelmed.

Now it’s your turn… tell us about chess in your country!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

chessperado December 10, 2007 at 10:56 pm

My first entry in your blog!
And I must say that I really enjoy your blog.
About Spain I can tell you that it is great country to play chess. Great players have or had their permanent resident there, and I am talking about Topalov, Anand,… even Kasparov lived there during the summers.
And we must not forget forget about Linares, or not some long ago Dos Hermanas.
I think the reason is that we have a lot of open tournaments, in any small town there is an “open”. Clubs are everywhere (Unfortunaly my hometown doesn’t have one so I had to go to the next town, Ubrique, only 15 miles away.)
Team competitions are my favorites ones. And our first division is only one step down from the biggest one like the bundesliga or the french league, but with all the big names (Anand, Leko, Shirov,…). For me was usual to play 20 or 30 tournaments games a years in a 150 miles radius.
There is downside, something sad about that. There are a lot of grandmaster from east that come only to play the “opens” and it is very sad to see the life of a professional non top rated player. They go from town to town, weekend after weekend, hoping to win in every one of them in order to make it to the end of the month. I have seen how hard they play , they cheat, they fight for every prize.
Anyway, Spain is not Russia, but I will put it in second place.


Carina J. December 12, 2007 at 1:59 am

Somehow I think it is a butchering of the game to play it for money.

Denmark is probably not the best place to play chess in general, but in Copenhagen atleast there are several clubs. Young players are lacking though, and also players above 2200 are a rare sight, with the exception of the Politiken Cup tournament held once a year, where a lot of GMs come. Well, a lot of them are probably there because of the money prizes, some of my friends included overfocus on that aspect. I was a real materialist too once (I got way more from chess prizes than in allowance), but that was BEFORE. 😀

I think Russia would be a good place to be a chess player, especially because of the respect around the game. When I quit chess and started high school, I didn’t mention it at all, because I wasn’t confident enough to believe it was a good thing I had spent so many years on it when other young people thought of it as the ultimate boring nerd-activity.

People still do that, but I’m much more merciless now about what I care about. I expect people who are friends to give me no hard times about it after their initial surpriced questions, but acquantances who say stupid things about the game before I have any reason to like them might as well talk to a door instead of me, because that’s about how much attention I’ll give to them. General society still doesn’t like chess much, I see that from school, work and training. Sometimes people comment that you’ll only get weird from playing chess. Well yea, I guess thinking for youself is weird!

There are a type of people though who are nonjudgmental, even if they don’t play, and I think that’s just so awesome. They just approach your hobby with curiosity and interest and the kind of respect players themselves have for the game. I think those are the types of people who might have been players if life’s circumstances had made it so. There’s one I sometimes discuss my tournament games with, the day after they’re played. I try to encourage taking their interest a step up further to where they might like to play themselves, but usually they are put off by the obvious time-demanding nature of the game. And I guess it’d be wicked of me to continue luring them into the game then, because if they really DID start to play it, I’d feel sorry for them because the rest of their life would suffer from less attention than they want to give it. 😆

I haven’t chanced upon a single serious chess player outside tournament halls yet. I guess that shows the limitations of who play. I wish government would introduce chess to schools, like math or music. The only guy I know who teaches chess to a great number of children, is the guy who initially taught me when I was little, and he’s soon getting old. Who’ll take over after him?

I think someday when I’m finished with my education I’ll move to Budapest or some other city with culture and work there (with the graphic side of computer games :D) and find a better chess environment than what’s available in Denmark. You get the feeling that it’s a game the new generation isn’t absorbing, when you look at the average age of the club player here. Also, the boards and chess decorations in the clubs are in a pitiful condition. It looks like they died a long time ago! I guess nobody’s investing money into shiny new things that’ll help give the game the prestige it deserves. My own board at home is a really awesome big wooden board with laquered pieces, and it’s just easyer on the eyes that way. But my dad says that’s just superficial snobbyness. Yeah, I guess he’d know about the soul of chess as a “blunder-my-pieces-away” player.. haha.

Anyways, maybe someday in a 100 years from now a new dawn will come for the game in this country and it’ll be a mainstream thing, played universally! Either that, or I guess it’ll have slipped into oblivion.


Andy Hortillosa December 12, 2007 at 8:00 am


I did not know you are from Denmark. I once played chess in Viborg. I had a wonderful time there. I am in a big way feel very connected with Denmark. We had the honor to host a young girl (Mette) who turned 20 while with us in 2005. Her written and spoken English was so good. It embarassed many our friends. My daughter was so taken with her that separating the two in 2005 was nearly impossible. She stayed with us for almost 5 months. I enjoyed her broccoli dish and the almost daily philosophical arguments we had on various topics including politics and religiion. But to my loss, she did not play chess.


Carina J. December 12, 2007 at 10:32 am

Haha, that’s pretty cool. There’s two Viborgs in Denmark though: one in Copenhagen and one in Jutland, the part of the country that’s connected to Germany. 😀 You probably visited the place in Jutland? It’s a lot more peaceful over there, less buildings, more trees and meadows (calmer people), but Copenhagen has a certain charm, too. We have neat roads made for bikes, and although the weather isn’t something to write home about, atleast it’s not so warm or cold that people grow dull and lazy. I think that if I lived in a warm country, I’d go sunbathing all day and never get anything done. So in a way, the London-ish weather in DK encourages work-ethics. I also like how the buildings aren’t so tall they cover the sky. And that their good condition reflects the welfare system that’s kind of the country’s international pride. I always think it’s sad when I go to another country, to observe if the buildings made for the workingclass to live in are poorly maintained and ugly. The people and how they live reflects the spirit of the country, and I like Copenhagen a lot for being really a rather humane place, with some of the old Viking thrust still intact between strangers.

Sadly, there’s aren’t many female chess players in Denmark, which gives us a kind of chronic loneliness compared to communities with lots of women (like the art community): the unbalance between the genders leads to worse unbalancing, like a self-inforcing spiral that’s really quite frustrating, but like most other things has hidden upsides and strengths that are important to look for, to make something like playing chess a beneficial “training arena”. Arenas to test yourself effectively are actually a rarity in the constructed society, so I guess that makes it even more unjustified to complain!

Anyhow, it usually makes me wonder when I befriend an interesting (nonplaying) person what kind of chess player they might have been, what kind of unique games they might have contributed with to the evolution of the game. I think it’s sad that people grow up without even having practical chances of turning into serious players. I mean, it’s almost by coincidence when people do learn to play. My brother, for example, was the one looking for a hobby, and I just happened to tag along with my sister and be invited in. What if that had never happened? How would that have effected my development? I think it’s cruel that for so many people it never does. It’s okay when people choose to not play, but it’s like exterior things just makes that decision for them and it’s not even known.


admin December 12, 2007 at 11:51 am

Welcome, chessperado! Thanks for reading. I hope you don’t mind if I tell my other readers that “chessperado” is Juan Diego Perea, my fellow competitor in the Santa Cruz Cup, with whom I have had several great battles over the last three years (as I have mentioned in previous entries). Most of the battles seem to have gone my way, but I’m sure he will get his revenge someday!

Carina, I just visited the website for the Politiken Cup. Maybe some year I will come and play in this tournament! Perhaps after I get my FIDE rating back up to 2200. 😎

I noticed that there was also an Orla Jorgensen in last year’s Politiken Cup, who had almost the same rating as you. Is that your sister?


chessperado December 12, 2007 at 6:35 pm

I don’t mind at all!
And yeahh, we have had several great battles, and our score in long games right now is 4.5-2.5 for you. For now I am happy just being the only one able to win a game (or a couple of them) against you in the Santa Cruz Chess Cup, at least in the last two years I played. but I will get revenge one of these days.


Andy Hortillosa December 12, 2007 at 10:29 pm

It must be the Viborg in Copenhagen for the simple reason that I remembered flying into Copenhagen and it was a short trip from the airport. I forgot to mention in my earlier posting that your English is excellent. Like you, Mette loves sunbathing, which she did a lot of because we lived then in San Antonio, Texas. She visited the zoo and SeaWorld a lot with my daughter. I remember buying a season pass for both places. She loves exploring the new places, but was sorely disappointed with our visit to NASA in Houston. She was expecting a much bigger campus than what she saw.


Carina December 13, 2007 at 2:20 am

Bwahahah, Orla’s an oldfashioned Danish name, and I don’t think it goes for girls. It’s my dad’s elo you’ve looked at. He’s not near me, though! The elo is around 1750, his normal rating 1450 or so. I don’t have elo yet (they’ll probably give me it in January), but it’s normal that when people get it, they start with 2000, which explains why it’s usually only correct if the player’s elo is above 2000 (they they have actually added points to it). With the last tournament finished, I’m around 1900 normal rating because I gained some 30 points and shared second place, despite being in a horrible mental condition the last three rounds. I seem to have a tendancy to start tournaments brilliantly, but then I ruin it in the last rounds, because this happened in the two before it as well. It’s probably something I will have to give some focus to solve.

My sister, Marie, is all the way over in Florida. Maybe someday when I move out of Denmark, she’ll move back to Denmark, that would be ironic. It’s more likely that she settles in France, though. My brother has moved to Ukraine, where he’s a professional poker player, haha. I’m actually half Finnish because my mother moved from Finland to Denmark when she was 16, so I guess the urge to move has passed to her kids, although it sucks that families get seperated like this. It’s like tearing years out of the personal notebooks we have on each other.

Dana, it would be so awesome if you came to Politiken Cup. It’s the tournament I’m really looking forward to, and building my chess skills for. It’s also international, with GM’s from different countries coming and it’s held at this really nice place in the middle of a park almost, where you can rent a room to sleep in. It was the second tournament I played in this summer, just to see if I wanted to play chess again. It’s also where I bought my cool chess board. The only downside is that there are a lot of rounds. And now that I know my morale slips away in the last rounds, I’ll have to specifically work on this when preparing for the tournament. I think the only solution must be something like constructing a training schedule that’s so demanding that you’re used to concentrating all the time. Either that, or learn the Petrov defense really well so I can draw every time I’m tired. 🙂


Matt Hayes December 19, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Chess in England is quite different to chess in the US. In England, you join a chess club and that club will belong to a local league. You will play against other teams in the league, not every week but once or twice a month (it depends on the schedule and the number of teams in your division). The team matches are typically 5 or 6 board affairs and you will play an equal number of home and away matches a year.

Weekend tournaments DO exist but I always found them to be much less frequent than in the US. Maybe it’s just because I now live in the LA area that I notice this more, LA hosting several of the larger tournaments each year (or at least being close to them).

One other difference is that, in England, you would not bring your own equipment to a tournament or team match. I mean, you COULD do, but it isn’t necessary. The club who is hosting the match (the home team) is supposed to supply everything, including the boards, pieces, clocks, and scoresheets. Even the coffee. 🙂

I do miss the team tournaments. The only thing we have down here that comes close is the Amatuer Team West (coming up in a couple of months, I already have a team lined up!). On the other hand, I also enjoy playing in weekend tournaments and LA is pretty good for that.

Like most things in life, what you lose in one hand is re-gained somehow in the other.


Jeff Vollmer February 28, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Thanks for having Manitowoc in your blog. As for as scrounging spaces I have never understood that issue. I have always been able to find free space to hold tournaments whether it was in St Louis or Manitowoc. Just need to look outside the chess community. Lots of places are more than willing to help. Currently I have 3 spaces I could have tournaments of 100 or so players in this area for free. Also I try to hold low cost tournaments to get more players to play. The chess club in Evanston Illinois does the same and have grabrf lots of local players.


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