Rotherham online: the first year

Published on 24 March 2021

When we were first told to stay at home on 23 March 2020, I had a funny feeling we might be stuck inside for a bit longer than three weeks.

Sheffield chess had already entered its own lockdown the week beforehand, so that night, as the Prime Minister spoke, I created a workspace on Slack. Three weeks seemed hopelessly optimistic, but surely it'd all blow over in a couple of months' time. I started planning to run a six-week tournament. I'd played in the lichess4545 online leagues before and thought I could put something similar together that would work on a local level. At that point, I had never organised a chess tournament, didn't own a facemask, and Pfizer and AstraZeneca were not yet household names.

Here we are, a year and 20 tournaments later... with 5 events currently running. The first Online Championship started on 1 April 2020 and since that time 147 players have played over 1,600 games in the various competitions.

Amidst the horror and tragedy of a pandemic that has completely changed the way we live our lives, chess has somehow enjoyed an annus mirabilis, helped in no small measure by Beth Harmon, but also by the ease of playing and the ready availability of chess content online. Chess is one of the few esports that don't need an expensive console or gaming PC to play—you can play a perfectly good game on your phone, if you squint a bit.

The COVID aftermath presents both tremendous challenges and enormous opportunities for the game as we know it—pushing wood (or more often plastic) in the pubs and school halls of old England. Many clubs and leagues face an existential crisis due to falling memberships and possible losses of venues. Will the online boom translate into more league players? Will our clubs and congresses be inundated with fresh new faces when (if) OTB returns? I certainly hope so. If chess is to hold onto its recent gains among a largely younger, more diverse public, then we must modernise and strive to make our spaces as open, inclusive, and welcoming as possible. We also need to win back those players who, for whatever reason, didn't jump on the online chess bandwagon.

I'll continue putting events on for as long as restrictions prevent OTB from resuming on a reasonable scale (and as long as people want to play, of course). Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of this little venture and particularly to Pete Catt and Dan Sturman who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly.