I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Adam Raoof, who is one of the most prolific chess tournament organisers in the world, and a member of Hendon Chess Club since the 1980s.
There were many reasons why I wanted to talk to Adam. His career as a legendary event organiser and arbiter, which spans four decades, is fascinating in itself. I was also keen to hear his early memories of Hendon. But I also wanted to discuss the future: specifically, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his tournaments, and how – indeed, whether – things will ever get back to normal.
On all counts, I was not disappointed!
If chess is a religion, with each game a burnt offering of mental energy to attract the favour of the chess gods, then surely the holiest of people must be the organisers, the ones who actually make the games happen.
As a Middlesex League captain for the past couple of seasons, I was (partly) responsible for approximately 100 games of chess each year, and I felt pretty good about myself for that. The first time I realised just how special Adam is, was when he told me that he’d submitted over 30,000 games for grading from his events in 2019.
Of course, the big chess websites host millions of games every day, but I remain convinced that there is more rejoicing in chess heaven for one over-the-board game, ideally played with slow time limits, than for a thousand throw-away games of online blitz. If you accept that ratio, then Adam is in the same league as the likes of Chess.com on his own!
There is no doubting Adam’s love for chess, and specifically the magic atmosphere of tension and drama that you get at a tournament. “I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever walked into a chess tournament, ever?” he asked me. “I remember that… walking into that specific chess tournament for the first time and thinking: this is really cool! I’ve never seen so many people playing chess! I want somehow to be involved in this. I’m the sort of person who can’t resist offering my help, if I can, and getting involved.”
Adam’s best-known events are the Kings Place Chess Festival, the monthly Golders Green Rapidplays, the Hampstead Congresses, and our very own Hendon “First Thursday” blitz tournaments, but making an exhaustive list is all but impossible, as we shall see!
The first thing I observed when talking to Adam is that he’s not much interested in keeping records. Before talking to him, being the statistically-minded person I am, I thought to myself: if this man has been running events for 30 years, and his events have had around 30,000 games a year, then he can’t be far away from a million lifetime games! Surely there is a special place in chess paradise reserved for the rare few who have managed so many, and I’m sure that if I were in Adam’s shoes, I would have at least some idea how close I was! But Adam doesn’t.
“I did do some statistics at some point,” he says, “and the irony was that [30,000] was probably the peak of the numbers.” So 2019 was the high point so far, then? “It could have been, I’d have to double-check. There was a unique combination of events I was organising hitting the largest numbers, all together in one year.”
I’d always thought of Adam as primarily an organiser of events in London and south-east England, and it’s true that he’s been focusing in this area in recent years, but in fact, his career has taken him all around the UK, and even abroad, as far afield as Italy, Malta and South Korea! But it all started right here.
Adam wasn’t always a Hendon member. “Hendon was my second club, or my third if you include the school chess club,” he says. He joined when he moved from Lewisham with his parents in the 1980s, but he found the tournament scene much less lively than he was used to.
“Lewisham were very active, and I got involved in a lot of their events – really strong club. When I got to Hendon, there wasn’t that much. They ran a tournament every year, and they had a committee of people to run it. And of course, being young and enthusiastic, I volunteered. After a few years, committee members drifted away and there weren’t that many people left to organise the event. The club decided that they wouldn’t be running that event the next year. And I said, well, you know, I could run the event. They said no, you can’t run the event by yourself. If you want to run the event, that’s fine, but you can’t do it on Hendon’s behalf. So I did, I ran the event myself, and that was the beginning.”
I ask him when this was exactly, and again, he’s not quite sure. “I’d have to dig into my very scanty archives. Let’s have a think… I was organising stuff when I was 18 or 19 with Lewisham, and I think I ended up doing a tournament when I was 21 or 22… in 1993 I was definitely doing tournaments in my local library called ‘Hendon Rapidplay’, an under-150 tournament in one section, or maybe an open. So let’s go for 1991.”
Adam was inspired by another organiser, George Goodwin, who was very active in London at the time. “My dream scenario was to organise [on Saturday], and then go and play in his event on the Sunday,” he explains. “Which is why, historically, [my events] ended up on a Saturday, because his were always on Sunday.”
“I didn’t create anything new: I literally stole all the best ideas from George. I said to him, is this going to be a problem? Do you mind if I run chess events? And he was very encouraging. All the people that worked with George were very encouraging, because their principle was, the more players the better! They’re going to find your events, they’re going to come to our events, and vice versa. And I think that really worked.”
“The London scene then was very active. You could play chess pretty much every single weekend; when I got going, you could play literally every single day of every weekend. There were gaps, and I filled the gaps that nobody else filled.”
So how does someone go from teenage volunteering to a world-spanning career (albeit one that has, until very recently, been supported by a part-time day job)?
“I decided very early on, almost from the get-go, that I wouldn’t [just] be doing one event a year. Because when I did this event, not only did I really enjoy it, I found that [while] it was a lot of work, it wasn’t dreadfully onerous. And I thought to myself, well, if I did this regularly, then I could cut the amount of work I was doing for each tournament. Ironically, the whole point of doing them every month was that I’m quite lazy.”
It’s not immediately obvious to me how that works, I tell him. Surely running two tournaments is basically twice as much work as running one? It takes me a while to understand how Adam has managed to scale his work so effectively.
“In those days, the way to publicise events was to print leaflets. If you’re doing 10-12 events a year, it’s much better to print one leaflet with all the dates on it.” OK, that’s publicity, but surely that’s only part of the puzzle?
“I’ve always been quite lucky with the venues. Quite often someone just said, have you talked to the vicar at this church? And I’d find a really good venue with a very sympathetic vicar, and it was cheap enough that you could run an event and not have to worry about losing lots of money, and just run it every weekend, or every other weekend, until you got a core of players who just came to every single event because they knew it was on. That’s always been my principle: if an event was successful, I thought, well, let’s do it every month at the same time, to give people less to think about, you know, get them into the habit of doing it. I’m quite OCD when it comes to organising, so I like the fact that I know, usually a year in advance, what all my dates are going to be.”
Obviously building up this kind of rhythm helps, but clearly it can only take you so far. At a certain point, even Adam starts to need help from other people.
“For me, running a tournament with 10 people is the same effort as running one with 100. It was only when I got to 120 that I realised I probably needed somebody else to work with, because I [was no longer] having nice conversations with people, I wasn’t watching any of the games, I didn’t really focus on the results. And it was really much nicer to have another arbiter working with you: you both had a better experience, and so did the players.”
Another crucial factor, of course, is technology. “Hendon has always been a very good testing ground for new ideas for me,” Adam says. “I’m not an early adopter, by any means. I’m quite cautious, and when I get used to something, I stick with it.” But over the years, he has brought in improvements at important times.
Two examples he gives are digital clocks – “because I think that was something people just came to expect” – and pairing software, which he first saw used in weekend tournaments in the Netherlands, later replacing that Dutch software with the Austrian program Swiss Manager, which is integrated with the chess-results.com website, making it easy to publish results. And of course, now, his publicity is done not through leaflets but through email lists and social media (if you’re not subscribed to the Chess Circuit, then you definitely should be!).
Advertising online brought Adam a whole new group of players. “I went from, say, 80 being a good number [of players at an event] to 100 being the norm, running out of room in tournament halls, moving on to bigger venues, and being able to fill those. That had never happened before. I had to check, with every single event, whether or not I was going to run out of space. And eventually I did: we were putting people in the garden on a good day. People played ‘al fresco’, and they didn’t mind. When we ran out of tables, and we still had equipment, people were playing on the grass. I knew that couldn’t really last, so eventually I had to bite the bullet and find a bigger venue, and buy lots more equipment.”
Not only did the numbers go up, but people started hearing about Adam’s events from farther afield. “When I started doing [the Hampstead Congress], [technology] was a key thing. What was unique about it was it’s FIDE rated, standard-play, and cheap to run. It was done regularly in London, and people would come from all over the place. They would come from Scotland, and I asked them, why would they come from Scotland to play in this event? They said, we don’t have FIDE-rated events in Scotland. But people also came from Paris, from Lithuania, from Sweden, from Germany, and [those places] all had FIDE-rated events. I said, I’m really pleased you’re here, but why would you come to an event like this? They said, because it’s London! We’re chess tourists, and there aren’t really any other events in London.”
Over time, Adam learned how different events can be in other parts of the world. “Towards the beginning of lockdown [in March 2020], I was getting at least five or six Americans. I said, I know why you’re playing chess in London: you’re playing because you’re on holiday and it’s FIDE-rated. They said no, we can get all that travelling around America. It’s just that we don’t like the way American tournaments are organised. And they gave me a list of things they didn’t like, which we take for granted here. In America, you have to bring your own equipment, and you’re not always sure your opponent will bring a standard set, board and clock. They said, it’s nice to be able to turn up to a venue and it’s all there. And no-one’s afraid that you’re going to steal all the equipment and push off.”
“In the States, they tend to have quite large, big-money events. And the one thing you can say about most of the events I run is that it’s not about money: there’s generally a relatively low cost for participation, and we’re trying not to put too many barriers in the way. The American players were saying to me, in America, there’s big money, but there’s an awful lot of cheating and a lot of other things going on. And you can never be sure that when you turn up, it’ll be the same event that you entered.”
One thing I didn’t quite appreciate before I researched this interview was that Adam had been involved in much higher-level events, over the years, than the amateur Swiss tournaments I have participated in.
Adam was ambitious from the start, having been involved in international events through Lewisham, but he didn’t have the easiest time when he branched out on his own.
“I remember the first international event I ever did,” he recalls. “I called on a few favours from people I knew very well, because I thought they would travel, and we had an IM tournament in London. And I won’t say it was a disaster… but my list of things to learn from that event was very long! I almost lost some good friends in the process, because the way it was organised wasn’t what you what you would come to expect from such an event, looking back on it. A lot of people would have given up at that point, they would have just said, this is too difficult.” But not Adam!
International events with top players require money, of course, but Adam achieved a breakthrough: “somebody approached me with quite a lot of money to run a series of events, specifically to benefit two players in the UK. We didn’t know who those players were at that point.” In the end, they turned out to be Luke McShane and Jonathan Rowson, who were young up-and-coming players at the time.
“I piggy-backed on the sponsorship he gave me to organise events all around the country. Originally, the challenge match between the two of them was in Edinburgh, and so I said, let’s run an international tournament alongside this, so we’d have an IM tournament. Then eventually I organised GM tournaments, and it grew. And we moved around the country.”
“The main attraction for those events was that the professionals got paid, and the non-professionals were looking for titles. And it was very successful. I mean, pretty much every tournament we did, somebody got a GM norm, or an IM norm, or a FM title. And a whole generation of players grew up playing in those tournaments. Because I’ve been doing it so long, I’ve seen people come in as kids, and now I see them come back with their kids. There wasn’t much else, if you counted the British events that were worthy of that kind of commitment.”
Those events sound very different from the kind of open Swiss events Adam switched to later. When he explains, it’s not hard to see the reason for the change. “One of the things that is always difficult when you’re organising a ten-player all-play-all is making sure that all ten players get there. In an open tournament, you don’t care: if you turn up, you can play. I don’t care whether you get a visa, or if you don’t turn up, or whether you’ve got any money – just come and play. Whereas with an all-play-all, there are so many rules and regulations about what titles you have to have, what nationalities you have to have, what mix of ratings you have to have, how the tournament is conducted, what do you do with the results, that you have to be very careful, because if you upset a player halfway through and they leave, or if they don’t get their visa, or if they get their visa and don’t turn up – which has happened several times – you’ve just got to find somebody to substitute for that player.”
“And it’s easy if you’re in London and you’ve got a pool of players to call on. But if you’re in the middle of Wales, and somebody phoned you up at the last minute and says I’m at Heathrow, and I know I said I was going to play in your tournament, but I’ve decided to just go and be a tourist in London and meet up with my girlfriend, you’re stuffed – you’ve really got to spend money to get somebody there. If you run an event like that, you’ve got to be prepared to lose money on it, because at the last minute, somebody might let you down.”
Adam hasn’t just organised international events: he’s participated in them, in just about every facilitating role you can imagine! One example that especially interested me was his captaincy of the England team at the Chess Olympiad in Istanbul in 2000. How did that come about?
“One of the things that makes you successful is being available, and just not giving up,” he says. “Being cynical, the reason I was captain of the Olympiad team was because nobody could agree on another captain. I was the default that nobody could find an objection to. I know that several people were considered before me, but several of the players had objections to them. I think I was probably cheaper as well!”
“My main job in Istanbul was to get up early – which nobody else wanted to do – and submit the team. I had to negotiate with the players who’d be playing the next day, and who’d be reserve. And that was quite difficult, because everybody was very senior, and they’ve all got their own opinion about what the team should be, and who’s on form, and who should be rested, and who wants to play. You had to travel about half an hour across town to get to the venue.”
I ask Adam how England did in that Olympiad, and he can’t quite remember, though he’s sure they didn’t win a medal. (Wikipedia says England came 7th, ahead of India and China.) The England team that year was Michael Adams, Nigel Short, Julian Hodgson, Jonathan Speelman, Tony Miles, and John Emms. Of those names, for Adam, one stands out in particular.
“The best thing about that Olympiad for me was meeting Tony Miles and socialising with him. He had to go halfway through the event, because he wasn’t well. At the time, I didn’t realise how unwell he was. But he was great fun to be with, a very interesting guy with loads of anecdotes, very sociable. A lot of the players were focused on preparing, so you didn’t see them that often. His standard of play wasn’t as good as he was hoping for, because of his illness, but when he left, it was a lot less exciting.”
That wasn’t Adam’s first experience of an Olympiad, though: the first was Dubai in 1986. England achieved a superb result that year, the silver medal behind the Soviet Union (Wikipedia again), though Adam wasn’t captain that time: he was involved as a journalist. “I was a bulletin editor, with Bob Wade and Les Blackstock,” he tells me. “We worked on a daily newspaper for the whole event. We had a team who were writing all the copy and typesetting the paper every day, getting it printed overnight and then delivering it the next day. That was exciting: I wasn’t that old, so I was learning a lot very quickly. I don’t know if that Olympiad has been beaten since: it was definitely the biggest and most successful, and they chucked so much money at it, it was hugely impressive.”
Adam didn’t see much of the social side of that Olympiad, because of the odd hours he was working. But he could clearly see the Olympiad was something special. “It brings together so many people who just have this one thing in common, but they’re from all over the world. So it’s irrelevant, really, what your level of ability is. There’s lots of social life. And you see people from different backgrounds: you see the women’s teams wearing hijabs and you see people from the Caribbean. In my events in the early 1990s, you didn’t get many Asian, or Caribbean, or African players. That’s definitely something that’s changed now: you see a big mix, though you don’t see enough women playing. But you do see a lot of people from different backgrounds, which is how it should be. But in those days, [the Olympiad] was quite an eye-opener to go and see.”
The Olympiads gave Adam his first exposure to some big names, too. “I walked into the playing hall one day in 1986, and I saw this massive crowd around the board. I elbowed my way to the front to see what was going on, and there was this kid playing. I recognised his opponent: he was a master. But this kid was crushing him. And he seemed to have used about five minutes on the clock, whereas his opponent had probably used about an hour. And that was my first glimpse of Anand, I think.”
Probably the most high-profile event Adam has ever been involved in was the World Championship Candidates tournament held in London in 2013, where Magnus Carlsen won the right to challenge Anand (in a match that saw him take the world title). Adam was one of four arbiters for this event, having been drafted in at the last minute when they needed an extra person.
“I did that job for free, because I needed an extra norm to become an International Arbiter,” Adam tells me. I never realised you need norms for arbiting as well as for FIDE titles such as IM and GM, but apparently you do! “There aren’t that many opportunities [to get IA norms] in the UK. I know several people who have become International FIDE Arbiters by going abroad, and that’s pretty much what I did,” says Adam, except the tournaments where he got his previous experience were ones he organised himself, in Malta and elsewhere. The 2013 Candidates was the last thing Adam needed for the title.
It must have been a great experience having a front-row seat to one of the most thrilling chess tournaments in modern times! “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” Adam said. Given how high-profile the event is, “you’re quite nervous about doing the wrong thing.” One of the other Candidates arbiters managed to get one of the decisions wrong at the World Blitz and Rapid, “and it’s excruciating if that happens to you. It’s quite difficult to get used to the new conditions you’re in.”
Thankfully the Candidates was a classical tournament, meaning there was less time pressure, but Adam still felt an extra weight on all his decisions at the Candidates. Adam credits his highly experienced fellow arbiter David Sedgwick with giving him reassurance and advice.
I could talk to Adam about his career history all day, but it was time to turn to the elephant in the room: the impossible conditions that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for chess organisers.
When the UK imposed a lockdown in March 2020, Adam’s events stopped completely overnight. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. “I gave up my job, finally, to do chess about a week before lockdown. And so suddenly I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have any chess tournaments to run. And that felt really strange, after so many years.”
Strange? “Well, first of all, I spent about three days thinking this was the end of the world. I probably literally just sat there in my underpants looking at a screen thinking, you know, that’s it – what am I going to do for the rest of my life? And then I realised that was just stupid. And I started looking at what was possible online.”
“I looked at the platforms I knew, and I tried using them for a few months, but they didn’t really give me what I needed. So then I remembered a guy I met 10 years ago, David Cordover, who had come to the UK to sell some software called Tornelo, which at the time was a pairings and ratings program. I contacted him, and it turns out he’d redeveloped [Tornelo] as a platform to play chess on. And I haven’t looked back since.”
“It’s built from the ground up for people like me, who are organisers, so you could replicate the experience of walking into a chess tournament. Everybody else is built to deal with chess-on-demand; this is all about offering scheduled events. With the other platforms, I was trying desperately to say to people, right, the next round will start at one o’clock, but it doesn’t work. [Tornelo] is specifically geared for that, so you can have a six-round event, and people know that when they finish their game, they can go and relax. It’s perfect for lockdown, because people need a break as well, they don’t really want to be playing chess all day.”
The big problem with online chess for a lot of people is the issues it raises around the integrity of the game. When your opponent is sitting on the other end of an Internet connection, how do you know they’re playing fairly, and not getting assistance from an illicit source?
This was another problem Adam had with the major online chess platforms: “they did their own cheat detection. And it was completely opaque. So you know that somebody has been violating the rules, but you can’t tell what they’ve done. It could have been something other than using a computer to assist their play: it could have been some other kind of fair-play violation. I wanted something that replicated what we do over the board, which is, if you get a complaint about a player, you investigate, and you make up your own mind over the board.”
Adam had been aware of software that detects computer assistance for some time, but had never tried to apply it to his events, because of the difficulty of entering all the games into the computer from the paper scoresheets. The online platforms solved the data entry problem for him. So in his early online events, Adam decided to look into this more seriously.
“The number one person in the world is Ken Regan, but I thought, obviously he’s too busy,” says Adam. “But he was really, really helpful. The first tournament where I had some sort of controversy, I sent it to him and he was able to identify it really quickly. Within 24 hours, he turned it around and said, it is categorically the case that this person was using software. He erred very much on the side of caution: his whole procedure is completely transparent. [At the start], he was doing all my tournaments: little blitz tournaments at Hendon, 100-player tournaments with loads of kids, and so on. But at some point, he became too busy to deal with these things, because [due to the explosion of online events post-COVID-19], he was getting so many inquiries from around the world.”
So Adam talked to David Cordover, the founder of Tornelo. “I more or less introduced him to the idea that he had to deal with it. I said, this is not going to go away, and you’re running bigger events than anybody I know. I’m sending off PGN files from the events on your platform, and discovering that people are using computers, mainly young people. He said, I’m going to talk to Ken Regan, and ask his permission to integrate his software into the platform. That didn’t take very long for him to do. Now, on Tornelo, the arbiter can just click a button and get this report after every single round. After two or three rounds, you get a very clear indication about what’s going on, and then you can talk to players.”
Has that led to a lot of unpleasant conversations? “I think the perception of cheating [online] is far greater than the actuality,” Adam says. “I think people are slightly paranoid before they go into online chess. They don’t even want to play online, because they think everybody else is cheating. They don’t think they’re cheating, they think everybody else is.”
Nonetheless, Adam describes some situations he has encountered, which are more tragicomic than unpleasant. “I’ve had instances where people have complained about their opponents cheating, and the software has proved categorically that both players have been cheating. And they’re just grumpy because their opponent has cheated better than they have!”
“I had one player who swore blind that they weren’t cheating. And they won a tournament, and one of the people that they beat confessed to cheating. That player admitted that yes, they were using a computer in every single game, and sent me a really fulsome apology. And so I went back to this other player and said, if you weren’t cheating, how did you manage to beat this guy to win the tournament when I know categorically that he was cheating? I didn’t hear anything from him after that!”
The way Adam deals with cheating when he encounters it, really interests me. “Young people, because they’re young, treat things slightly differently,” he says. “They don’t always see it as being as significant as I used to. I’m coming around to that realisation, slowly, because I didn’t have a lot of contact with kids through junior tournaments or coaching. Younger people have explained to me that their experience of playing games online is very different. The whole environment is set up to encourage players to cheat by buying credits, extra levels.”
“I’m not sure it makes any difference whether there are cash prizes. Generally, the examples I’ve got were in tournaments where there are no prizes, no rating at stake, no reason to do it. But it’s a habit that you can get into quite easily. Once you start depending on the drug, you crave your next fix, and you forget. The fear of losing is far greater for a lot of people than the fear of getting caught. That’s why you treat kids differently, because their decision-making is informed by a completely different set of processes. That’s why we have a voting age, and a legal age of responsibility for crimes and so on. I’m incredibly forgiving, you know, I really don’t hold this against anyone: I just want them to apologise, acknowledge what they’ve done, and realise that they’re not going to play in any other events if they don’t. And generally they do.”
How has Adam found the attendance at his online events, versus his over-the-board ones? Surely there are some people who will simply never play online? “All scenarios are possible,” says Adam. “I’ve had players who said at the beginning, ‘I’m never ever going to play online,’ and then they ended up playing online.”
“We sent out a proposal for the online London League, and there were several clubs who said, ‘we’re never going to play online, it’s just never going to happen’, and another who said ‘we would only play online if it was on Lichess, we’re never going to play on any other platform’. And both clubs have now changed their mind.”
(Hendon will be participating in this competition ourselves, as recently announced!)
“At the beginning of lockdown, there was a sort of rush: people went and played online a lot. So there were big entries to tournaments: you might get 100 people paying an entry fee. As it went on into April and May, the numbers dropped significantly. It reached a nadir during summer. People said to me, I really liked your tournaments. But while we’re in this situation, I want to make the most of the good weather with my family, and do outdoor activities. I just don’t want to be indoors playing chess. They said, we’ll come back to it in winter.”
“So they’ve basically done what they would do normally, in a playing season. I think it’s just a normal curve. When the winter comes, and the evenings are getting dark, I think more people will be interested in playing online.”
“A lot of people aren’t interested in blitz, and they equate online chess with blitz. At the beginning, I was thinking, would anybody really sit down and play a long game of chess online? I cannot imagine that. And actually, it was really popular. People really like playing rapid games, with breaks, fixed round times, and they like playing whole-weekend events. What we’re trying to do is replicate what we get over the board. People have come to me and said, I’m playing chess online, I’m playing in a dedicated space, there’s no disturbance, I’ve got a very comfortable chair… I’m enjoying this, this is much more comfortable than some of your over-the-board tournaments, which can get quite crowded!”
“And they said, I’m treating it like a serious game, for the first time. Normally I’d just be playing blitz, or bughouse, or something trivial. And some people are even writing their games down on a scoresheet, to replicate that whole experience! People have realised that they’re not going to get lots of over-the-board chess to play in for a good while, probably six to eight months at least, unless there’s a miracle. Once they stop hoping for something that isn’t going to happen, they then realise that they want to be playing chess as they usually are.”
How has COVID-19 affected Adam’s business model? “One of the things I’ve tried to do is charge an entry fee, so that people take it seriously. Because I think that’s a very important thing. It’s not just about me making money, it’s about [making players] invest something in it, valuing it.”
“Even in Magnus Carlsen’s online events, in the beginning, the quality of the games was terrible. People were blundering, and they weren’t really invested in it. And after a very short while, you could see the attitudes of the players adjusting to this whole new environment. They started taking it really seriously, and the money was good. And I think you get a similar thing with club players. Where before they might have thought, ‘I can probably pass, it’s just blitz,’ now they realise it’s not just blitz you can play. There may come a time when you can play rated chess online. I think it’s got a long way to go, but I think Tornelo is nearer than most platforms at satisfying all the requirements that make it FIDE-compatible.”
“The price you charge is quite interesting. I charge more than most people, but I give prizes. And I get quite a modest entry. Whereas 4NCL went for a different model: they ran everything on Lichess, charging people a fiver. And they got a bumper entry: they got more people to play in their Congress online than they got to play in their Congress over-the-board. So I think they’ve proved something, which is that people will pay an entry fee, but they don’t feel that what they get from it is significant enough to pay more than a certain amount. And I think they’re probably right, begrudgingly. Until people see online [chess] as more serious, you have to pitch it at a fiver or a tenner. And then what you do is, hopefully, you scale up. It doesn’t matter that you’re only charging a fiver if you get 200 people.”
So when might we see a return to the over-the-board chess we knew and loved before COVID-19? “In this country, I can’t even say when that’ll be,” says Adam sadly. “There are so many things in the way: people’s confidence about going out, organisers' confidence about having large crowds, venues, and insurance - all this stuff is in the air. The uncertainty is the worst thing, because you can’t always organise something and be sure that the rules will be the same [by the time of the event].”
It seems very unlikely that any major over-the-board events will be possible while the “rule of six”, banning gatherings of more than six people, is still in effect, which we understand is likely to remain in place well into 2021. So for now, Adam’s focus is squarely online.
However, Adam expects the online skills he has been required to develop during the pandemic to continue to benefit his events, even once we are able to gather again in larger numbers. “The time might come where there are not only over-the-board events and significant online events, but also hybrid events,” he says.
He cites the European Online Youth Chess Championship, which was held on Tornelo in September, with almost 750 players participating. Despite the large number of young players, there wasn’t a single instance of cheating, which Adam puts down to the fact that players were in dedicated rooms, with arbiters, organised by their local federations.
Adam sees this type of event as a model for the future. “So you might go to Golders Green, and you might be playing somebody who’s actually not at the venue, but playing remotely. And then in the next round, you might be playing somebody in a different country.”
It’s impossible to talk to Adam without being struck by his optimism, adaptability and can-do spirit. He’s been adapting his events based on his experience for decades, and COVID-19 is just one more change he needs to adjust to. His determination to make the best of our bad situation is, I think, something we could all learn from.
While I’ve really enjoyed talking to Adam about his career and the future of chess, there was another reason I wanted to talk to him, which is that he’s one of Hendon’s longest-standing members. I wanted to hear his memories of his early days of membership, and understand more about the history of the club.
He joined Hendon in the 1980s, when his parents moved from Lewisham in his late teens. “When I went to Hendon Chess Club, there weren’t that many young players there,” he remembers. “I walked into this venue, and everybody turned around, looked at me, and thought, who is this bloke?”
“It was a really interesting time. All these characters were of a certain age, and they had very interesting backgrounds. There were refugees from the Soviet invasion of Hungary, survivors of the Holocaust, RAF pilots who had lost an arm and a leg and were blind in one eye. I walked into this place and I thought, blimey, this is very different from the club I’m used to! And it turned out I was one of the stronger players there. So they were really pleased to see me, they all wanted to play me and get some practice.”
“In Lewisham, there was no shortage of teams to play in, and people to organise lifts to tournaments and things like that. But Hendon had a very different culture. It was more of a coffee-house [environment] – you literally walked into a fug of smoke, and there were all these old blokes sitting around talking about the war. It was just brilliant.”
Being based in an area of north London popular with Jewish people and other wartime refugees meant that Hendon was an indirect beneficiary of that sad history.
“Freddy Scharf was one of the players, and his wife used to make us all tea or coffee, and there were biscuits,” Adam reminisces. “It was really sociable. Freddy Scharf was a lawyer at Nuremberg, at the trials. I would play players and notice the tattoo. And it was only later, when I knew them better, that they would talk about it. It was a mainly Jewish club.”
“All those players are now gone, but they all had an influence in things that I did. I’m definitely going to put something down on paper about this, because it would be a shame to lose it. What they did for the club was very significant. At some point, we moved venue, and we lost some documentation.”
This is exactly why I wanted to ask Adam about this, to try to get this kind of memory written down before it gets lost.
One name I’ve seen on our website is A. J. Roycroft, who has long been named on our website as our honorary president, but I’m embarrassed to confess to Adam that I don’t really know who he is.
“I never met John Roycroft [at Hendon],” Adam says. “He became president of the club because he had been a member [earlier], I think. I met him because at that time, I was really interested in endgame studies, and I went to the Endgame Study Circle, which he ran. He was a celebrity. [Now], most people say, ‘who is he?’. But if you look up Test Tube Chess, which he is the author of, that is a brilliant, brilliant book about composing and endgame studies, and it’s so readable. You get a very accurate flavour of how eccentric John Roycroft is. He was involved in the very early development of computers at IBM. You just read the book, and you’ve met him: his personality comes through in it quite clearly.”
(Test Tube Chess was revised as The Chess Endgame Study in 1981, and is still in print today – available on Kindle also!)
The club Adam describes sounds quite different from the one I joined in 2017, whose activities were dominated by Adam’s monthly “First Thursday” blitz events, and matches for our five Middlesex League teams, which boasted several IMs and GMs.
“We didn’t have the same kind of culture at that time. We didn’t have lots of strong players. We didn’t have any titled players. In fact, there was an antipathy towards titled players for a long time: people said, why should we give GMs a free membership of the club? We had the London League team, which was the significant thing. I met a lot of strong players who never went to the club physically, but they were ‘county members’. That was a kind of membership that we had, so that they could play for the Hendon team in the London League, without having to pay a full membership for a club they never went to.”
“In a way, I think that kind of culture was probably more enjoyable than what we eventually transitioned into, which was a really successful club, with teams winning leagues, but not necessarily so much of a club vibe, you know, a coffee house vibe. Some clubs literally only exist to play team chess, and never meet as a club; [matches] are when they do their socialising. We’ve kind of fallen between two stools: we don’t have a big, strong club presence, with a social element to it. When I first joined Lewisham, it met in a cricket club, a really lovely venue. The playing room was above, and the bar and pool tables were down below. And when I first joined, all I ever did was walk up the stairs and play chess, and after a few years, all I ever did was go downstairs and play pool and drink!”
It’s a really interesting point, well worth considering once we finally exit the era of “social distancing”. To me, the main problem seems to be finding an affordable venue which can accommodate both lively conversation and a serious match atmosphere, which is incredibly difficult in London, sadly. But that’s a topic for another day.
I know there was a point in the 2000s when the Club was in trouble, so I ask Adam about that. “There was a point where it was dying out,” he agrees. “And Mike Bennett, and Rob Willmoth, and key people like that basically saved the club, by linking it with the Barnet Knights junior club.”
“We looked around and we thought, literally, our club base is dying. We’ve lost all these characters that we used to have. We’re not getting any younger. The junior clubs are thriving, and one of our members is a key personality in junior chess. We thought, this is crazy, we just need to make it a feeder club for Hendon. If you think of it as ‘Hendon Barnet Knights’, and link it in the minds of the parents by having a team which involves juniors so they’ve got a chance to progress, things will change.”
“And it actually didn’t take long for that to be proved correct. These kids, they improve so quickly. The mark of it was that originally, I was on Board 1 for Hendon. And gradually, I found myself being forced further and further down! My grade didn’t change, I just eventually found myself in the second team!”
It’s interesting to hear about the ways Hendon has benefited from its location; Adam mentions another, namely the availability of coaches who had moved to the area from eastern Europe, bringing a strong chess culture with them. The main example he cites is Julian Meszaros. “Fantastic coach. You could look at some of our top juniors, and I can tell you, they’ve all been coached by him. That has contributed to their key improvement, not just becoming good players but really good players.”
I ask Adam how unique his career has been. How many people can compete with him in terms of number of events organised? “At one point, I did actually work out I was the second most prolific chess tournament organiser in the world. There are several guys in Hungary for whom, literally, there is never a moment when they’re not doing a tournament, and big tournaments. So I was just lucky – or unlucky, depending how you look at it – to have a venue that I could just chuck anything into, as long as I was prepared to make the effort to get the equipment and bring in the tables.”
Adam is modest to a fault: absurdly, he refuses to use the word “career” to describe his lifetime of contributions to the chess world, without surrounding it with self-deprecatory quotation marks! I really won’t have that. This interview, for me, really shows what a legend Adam is, and how important he has been, and continues to be, not just to Hendon Chess Club, but to British chess.
When you boil it all down, the real reason for Adam’s success, I’m convinced, is the sheer heart he puts into every single event. He’s done things besides chess tournaments over the years, but has kept returning to chess for only one reason: his love, not only for the game, but for its people.
“I did a few experimental antique fairs. [But] at some point I decided it wasn’t about money: I was probably going to make more money out of the antique fairs. But I decided that I like the chess players much more. They were my people, you know, my crowd of people. I really identified with all the good and bad points about chess players… I’m OCD about certain things, and to me, that’s just normal. Other people found it quite frustrating, when they ran a chess tournament once a year, to deal with all the inevitable queries that you get before the tournament, then dealing with all the hassle during the tournament, then all the post-tournament queries, when [for me], that was just normal.”
I find that quite remarkable, because personally, I’ve always felt rather sorry for tournament organisers. In my youth, I remember entering the Bury St Edmunds Congress, and including a brief note with my cheque and entry form with just two or three sentences of pleasantries like “thank you for organising, because it must be very hard work”; when I turned up weeks later, the organiser still remembered, and asked me if I was “that young man who wrote me that nice letter”. I’ve never thought of chess players as being terribly appreciative, or even especially kind, sadly, on average.
“That’s not unique to chess players,” Adam points out. “I think if you organise any event, that is quite a common experience. Very early on, I realised that if you’re in the business for that kind of reward, then you should probably not be in the business. I enjoyed running the events. If anyone said ‘thank you’, it was a bonus, and I really appreciated it. But once everybody has traipsed out the door, and I have to put all the equipment away by myself, I wouldn’t feel that I’d been let down. They’re not here to do that.”
I understand that people pay to play in Adam’s events (although not usually very much), and that entitles them to something. But there must be easier ways to make money. And the key contradiction I still can’t square is that to organise a tournament, you must really love the game, but if you organise a tournament, you don’t get to play. What’s actually in it for him?
“I think because I’m OCD, I quite enjoy organising things generally. I get a kind of pleasure from organising tournaments, other people playing, that’s the same kind of pleasure I get from playing chess. This sounds crazy, but I kind of like the build-up to a tournament, and the stress, and making sure everything works out, and dealing with it on the day, and having a successful event – even if the definition of success is just that nothing terrible happened! Normally, if something happens and you can cope with it, that’s an achievement. And maybe it’s also just a habit I got into quite early and it’s quite difficult to break!”
So it seems to me that in a sense, for Adam, “all the world’s a chessboard”: organising tournaments is a kind of game in itself, where the players, equipment, venues and so on are the pieces. It’s unusual to find someone who is hooked on this particular game, but I’m sure hundreds of chess players in this country will join me in saying that I’m very glad he is!
“You have to be a bit bonkers to organise any chess events,” Adam says. Perhaps so! But in Adam’s case, that particular word reminds me of a line from Tim Burton’s 2010 film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland:
Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.
You can find a list of all interviews done for this site here.