Last week witnessed the 61st Paignton Chess Congress, possibly my favourite event on the English congress circuit.
For each of its 61 years, the congress has taken place in the same venue, the grandiose Oldway Mansion. This was formerly the home of Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875) of sewing machine fame and was sold to Paignton Council in 1946 after being requisitioned by the RAF for the duration of the Second World War.
The mansion is undeniably impressive, as shown by the seemingly endless procession of wedding parties choosing to use the building as the backdrop for their special day. One of the incidental pleasures of playing at Paignton is to imagine the efforts that the wedding photographers must have to make to avoid cluttering the background of their shots with a gaggle of chessplayers.
I can remember once talking to someone at Paignton who told me that it was the first chess congress he had ever attended and how blown away he was by the surroundings. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he should not expect venues like this at the next event he tried.
Paignton inspires astonishing loyalty among its participants. 2011 was my fifth appearance, an unbroken sequence since returning to the game just under six years ago. Five consecutive years doesn’t come close to being a record; there are people still coming to Paignton who first took part decades ago, and one of the delights of the event is the sense that each year is a reunion of old friends.
Apart from the setting and the enjoyment of seeing so many familiar faces, what makes Paignton such a pleasurable experience?
- Time to think – With the exception of the 5-round Boniface Morning tournament, the games are played at the leisurely pace of 40 moves in 2 hours, with another hour to reach move 60, only then followed by 30-minute “quickplay finish”. By comparison, most congresses are frenetically fast. Of course, outside the Premier, most of us are so used to moving at a faster pace that the games are generally all over within about four hours, but it’s nice to know that there is more time, just in case. In five years, I’ve never lost a game at Paignton (although I’ve drawn far too many), allowing me to fool myself that the only reason I ever lose elsewhere is the lack of time for my immense chess genius properly to emerge.
- Time to relax – I do like to be beside the seaside, and the schedule at Paignton allows for a week-long holiday with just one game a day. Most people choose to play in the afternoon event, starting at 2 p.m., which allows the entire morning for walking, excursions, shopping, and the like. The combination of chess with large doses of fresh air and exercise always acts on me like a tonic, and I know I’m not the only one. Those allergic to fresh air and exercise – or just desperate for as much chess as humanly possible – can opt to play in the morning tournament (9.30 – 13.00) as well as the afternoon event.
- No child geniuses - Paignton is always held in the first full week after the August Bank Holiday, which means that the schools are back. As a result, the congress tends to consist only of those of us whose chess has, shall we say, settled on its mature level. I have nothing against juniors, I hasten to add, but it is nice just once a year to have a week’s chess minus the humiliation of some bored-looking child rattling off a series of depressingly strong moves without apparently needing to think at all. For seven days, the rest of us can kid ourselves that our future is somewhere other than twenty years behind us.
- Friendly organisers – Alan Crickmore and the excellent team of arbiters play their part in establishing Paignton’s welcoming atmosphere. I remember how Alan came up to shake my hand in the Oldway cafe on my first visit to the congress, for no other reason than that he liked to make a point of saying hello to every new participant. It’s touches like that which bring punters back year after year.
Last year was the event’s 60th anniversary, and each participant was rewarded with a copy of a fascinating book, 60 Years in the Same Room – A History of the Paignton Chess Congress, by Bob Jones (still available for purchase from Keverel Chess Books). Alongside the records showing the quite ridiculous number of times that Keith Arkell has won the Premier (15 up to 2009 – the period covered by the book – and he’s added a couple more to the tally since then), chess minnows like myself can see our names recorded in the roll of honour (3rd= in the Intermediate 2009, not to forget a share of the U116 Grading Prize in 2007, I’ll have you know). One of the joys of Paignton is that it makes you feel a part of chess history.
If you have never played at Paignton, I warmly recommend it. Don’t wait too long – the Council has sold the site to private developers, and its future is none too clear. For now, the organisers have indicated that 2012 and 2013 are confirmed – good news indeed! – but beyond that, no one knows.