Is team chess a team sport?

From club players of the 1890’s to today’s Global Chess league, what does it mean to play team chess? How can teams be successful and have players that play at their best? 

Chess became extremely popular in London in the late 19th century. As early as the 1880s, clubs like the Metropolitan, the Athenaeum and the Ludgate Circus organized huge friendlies of 50 and 100 boards! The London chess league was created in 1887 to provide organised competition. We have a record of a match on the 18th of March 1893 over 120 boards (yes, you read these numbers correctly) won by Metropolitan over Ludgate Circus 79-41. 

This era of history is gone but club chess is still very much alive and the London League is still running 136 years later. People of all levels join chess clubs and take part in chess competitions. On some level ‘team chess’ is an oxymoron. It’s not like you can consult with your teammates before you make a move. Chess is foremost a solitary endeavour. Or is it? What does it mean to be part of a team? What makes a team successful, at the amateur and professional levels? And what can you do to make your own team more successful? 

Amateur chess teams and clubs

In the chess boom, chess clubs are seeing inflows, as newcomers to chess want to socialize and seek in-person connections. The days of the smoke-filled backroom full of men are over: making everyone welcome should be the norm, ethos of places like the daily stranger chess street meetup in Berlin and the Hammersmith Chess club in London and many others. Hammersmith has been the most dynamic and innovative London chess club of the past few years, with a members-led committee, innovative events, and brand-new premises in the Mindsports Centre. Large friendlies with friendly rival clubs like Battersea (another great dynamic London club) are organized – a refreshing take on the matches of 140 years ago! This time with social media banter.

Coordinator of club Captains Robin Sarfas gives his insight on club chess:

At the amateur level, there is a huge variance in players’ attitudes towards the teams they play in and the performance of the club overall.

At a big club like Hammersmith, the more eager players will find themselves playing for a big range of teams and as a result, may well be more focussed on their individual performance rather than the overall result. Players who feel more personally connected to a team, captain or league on the other hand will likely consider their play in the context of the overall match outcome – accepting a draw or risking playing for a win depending on the current score. 

This cuts both ways – sometimes the added pressure not to “let the team down” may be a burden. For others, caring more may focus them on doing everything they can to get the best result. 

Based on my experience I do believe that trying to cultivate a spirit of camaraderie within each team, by maintaining some regularity in team selection, socialising after or between games etc. does have a positive impact on performance. Making players feel part of something bigger than themselves also makes the act of playing chess more rewarding.

A step up in scope from the London League is the National British League 4NCL. The Celtic Tigers, managed by Hammersmith’s Chris Skulte, plays for results and camaraderie. Here is the team ethos from Chris in a pre-game WhatsApp pep talk:  

Chris was kind to explain Tiger’s values in detail:

Summarised by that [chat message], it’s all about having fun and creating a situation where we perform at our best. It’s important that new players fit in with our social and supportive ethos. We have clear goals for the team, and people should play for the team first, and personal result second. Though it’s usually aligned.

We naturally as humans follow the path of least resistance, (probably why calculation training is so critical and hard) – adding a reason to put in that extra effort for something more than yourself, drives us to put in the extra effort. We play with a purpose.

On the flip side with chess, we need to maintain our logic and composure. Knowing the team has your back and is supportive, even if it fails but you felt it was correct, inspires just the right level of confidence to “give it a go” instead of getting a draw offer if you feel you can win but it’s scary/risky.  It’s a small percentage that can make a big difference in decision-making and as proven time and time again in our play that it helps.

We play for the love of the game, and are always happy to share and spread our happiness and thoughts with opponents. If you notice tigerfest (or annual party) has many players from different clubs who have become friends of Tigers over the years. – we sometimes get nice messages [praising our sportsmanship]  coming through.

We love the game and want to see it grow. Sure we might get moody as anyone after a loss, but more  often than not, it’s the friendship and fun of the game we want to share with others to help spread this culture not just in our team, but within others to inspire them in their love for the game who will go onto inspire others.

As we always say, we are but one part of the chess world who do what we can. – there are millions of chess players, if everyone does their bit to love and grow the game And make it a great place to be, the possibilities are endless for chess and the positive impact it can continue to make in people’s lives.

Amazing team and team spirit. I believe there’s a lot of scope in terms of how serious you want to take your chess. If your current club or team you are in right now doesn’t suit you, keep looking!

You can follow the Celtic Tigers on twitter.

Chess teams at the elite level.

Choosing Players

Every major European country has a chess league in which clubs hire foreign players to play there. Unlike traditional sports where one player plays for one team only, chess players can and do play for teams in different national leagues. How to make a chess team successful? Is picking the best players enough? I’ve asked players how important is it to have teammates that you get on well with. GM Gawain Jones says: “I think it’s very important. After all, you have to spend a lot of time with your colleagues, it’s important you get on.” For IM Jovanka Houska “to be honest it doesn’t matter.  It just depends on whether you can get along with a few rather than the team as a whole.” Do teams make efforts to choose players that get on well together or is rating the most important parameter? Jovanka: “I have played for about four teams where this has been especially important to the team captains. And it does make a huge difference to the team morale. Funnily enough, it’s with those teams that we have had collectively the best results.” Gawain: “There’s often a bit of a battle of wills between the players and the captain. But that’s usually because the captain only sees the rating and doesn’t know the player. A good captain will always ask their experienced players for guidance”.

It’s indeed important to get on well with teammates and some positive synergy, at least between some of the players, is not only welcome for the players themselves but also conducive to better results. 

How do teams get fans?

In traditional sports, teams are mostly geographically based and locals will the first  fan base. This proves tricky for chess clubs, often in small cities. 

Fans love winning teams (there’s a study showing fans watching their team win have testosterone increase vs the fans of the losing team). It makes sense to be in awe of technical mastery and link yourself to a positive event. But only one team is the champion and you have to create an identity for fans to follow. It can be quite difficult and several paths have been tried. 

Having the best/most popular player to attract a following is a short-sighted approach. When Lionel Messi left PSG over 2 million people stopped falling the club on Instagram. If people are Messi fans and don’t build a rapport with the club, then will leave when the star player leaves.

The German chess Bundesliga has a large overlap with the football Bundesliga clubs (bayern munich has its chess team, Werder Bremen…). Parallel to the football Bundesliga, the chess one is dominated by a single club. OSG Baden-Baden has won almost every year since 2005. Only in 2015 did Baden-Baden fail, when the Soligen team won the title, led by on-fire Harikrishna Pentala scoring 7.5/9 and a performance rating of 2887. Some years the winning margin was small for Baden-Baden, but the Bundesliga is played over eight boards and Baden-Baden has a great depth of field, with the eighth board well above 2600.

Very often people wonder if the dominance of Bayern Munich is bad for the German football league. There are far bigger problems to the chess Bundesliga than the dominance of Baden-Baden: in terms of marketing efforts the league has a very moderate footprint on social media and not a lot of streamed games. Massive missed opportunity for brand building for the juggernaut Baden-Baden: no specific content creation (streaming or otherwise), no obvious team identity (can fans buy a shirt?) and as a result no tangible fan base. Teams and individuals are working on marketing the chess Bundesliga and I wish them luck, as the sheer concentration of talent deserves a bigger audience on the world stage. 

Esports teams aren’t primarily linked to a city yet they generate huge engagement: players often stream and they build a personal following. Without becoming full-time streamers or content creators, pro chess players have to value and pay attention to their personal brand. Any effort can pay large dividends. 

Modern leagues include the Pro Chess league (online) which is a great event. It was stopped before covid tainted by high-profile alleged cheating and has had an entertaining and successful restart this year. I want to highlight  the success on and off the board of teams led by smart and motivated young managers like Kevin Bordi (France Blitz) and Vjeko Nemec (Croatia Bulldogs). Keving a.k.a. Blitzstream worked very hard over many years to be a  successful content creator and gathers a large French-speaking fanbase for his Pro Chess League team. 

Currently, the Global Chess League is underway. It is a brand new competition with large means. Designed primarily for the Indian fanbase, it is an interesting format with a lot of  innovation, it will be very interesting to see how it evolves.

How teams can keep their players happy and performing

Last year, Johan-Sebastian Christiansen was playing in the Croatian league. His team, GŠK Solin-Cemex, needed just a draw over a weaker opponent to win the title. They pre-arranged a draw with their opponent Štrigova ŠK Stridon. Forced to play a short draw with white against a lower-rated opponent if he wanted to play, Christiansen did not want to take part in the match:

The match lasted a few minutes and brought the title for Solin-Cemex. A striking contrast with the final day of the football Bundesliga 2023: Borussia Dortmund needed a win against Mainz at home and only drew – yet I’m sure many Mainz players would have been delighted for Dortmund to win the Bundesliga. Why would you ever hand the victory to your competitor without making them work for it?

Christiansen said: 

We became Croatian champions with a nasty aftertaste. It’s also disgusting because I feel like I was a part of it. Even though I refused to play, I’m on that roster. And it is so against my values, says Christiansen.

Nice for a player to be assertive of his values, and unfortunate that the team values were not made explicit beforehand. When I worked with the English Women national team for the Olympiad, the players decided four core values for the team, derived from their own personal values. The team values they chose were passion, teamwork, ambition and hard work. This is great, but this can read like a motivational poster –  what to do about it in practice? It is critical to make these values into a living system. How do these values translate to real-life behaviours and how does it come to life? The players defined this for themselves:

Now the set of abstract values is a living system. Living according to the group values helps tremendously: if I am on my own, how should I behave following the group values? It helps to have this explicitly spelt out. 

Takeaways for chess team success

  • Give your players a sense of belonging: clarity, communication, and respect.
  • Design a set of values with players and team owners/managers. Make this set of values into a set of actions and principles to live by. 
  • Don’t obsess over ratings. Get players that get on well together: results will follow.
  • Communicate! With a savvy social media strategy it is easier than ever.

If you need help with any of the above with your team please get in touch.

Also check out my previous posts related to team chess:

High performance environments in chess

Team Chess Analytics: Chess ‘Moneyball’


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