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100th British – Opening Ceremony.

As the clock wound down to 2 p.m. with players and dignitaries rapidly assembling, things took on a swan-like demeanour – relaxed and graceful on the outside, while paddling like fury beneath the surface. Being the 100th such opening, there were several unusual features.

Firstly, a Guard of Honour organised, to accompany the platform party to their places, and then stand sharply to attention throughout the half-hour proceedings. These were, in fact, six members of the Combined Services Chess Association who were all due to be playing later in the week. By name, they were: Commander Charles Chapman R.N.; Major Ron Townend (Army); Squadron Leader Glen Parker R.A.F.; Lieutenant Dave Ross R.N.; Sergeant James Blair R.A.F.; and Sergeant Munroe Morrison R.A.F. In full dress uniform, with shoes polished to a mirror-like finish and trouser creases sharp enough to cut bread with, they made an impressive show.

Speeches started with me standing in for both John Wheeler (President of W.E.C.U.) and Paul Brookes (President of D.C.C.A.) welcoming everyone on behalf of the Union and the county association. I gave way to Stewart Reuben, who had devised a spectacular end to his speech. He recalled the success of last year’s Olympics Opening Ceremony and the bit where the Queen parachuted in from a helicopter. He had prepared a child’s toy parachute with 2 chess piece queens attached, to be tossed from the balcony and gracefully landing among the assembled throng, all of which I was supposed to video on a borrowed camera I’d never used before. The evening before, in rehearsal the parachute worked perfectly, landing serenely in one of the aisles. This time, however, it all happened so quickly, by the time I’d put down my SLR camera and picked up the borrowed video camera, the parachute had already landed ….. on the shoulder of the only blind person in the auditorium. Nevertheless, an excellent idea, typical of Stewart’s Powers of Lateral Thinking. 

Then came a remarkable speech by 13 yr old Stephen Whatley, who seemed to pack the whole 100 year history of the event into a well-delivered six-minute talk. This was followed by ECF President Roger Edwards, born in the Stoke area of Plymouth, now long-term resident in the Stoke area of Staffordshire, and wearing a pair of my shoes (don’t ask!).

Last of all, it was the duty of Torbay Council Chairman, Cllr. Julien Parrott, to officially open the Congress, and he spoke very well indeed. Then everyone processed into the playing hall where the usual photo-opportunies were taken, with Cllr. Parrott making (or appearing to make) the first move on top board. Then a hush descended over the multitude and the show was finally on the road.

Several impressions occurred in the opening minutes. Firstly, the very size of the Championship was impressive, with row upon row of tables, each with 2 games in progress, involving 105 players, and there was a titled player on every board up to Bd. 36 – comprising 4 complete rows of Masters of one kind or another. Put another way, 72 of those 105 players were either a master or were playing one. Naturally, as cream rises to the top, these masters will gravitate to the top tables by the 3rd or 4th round.

Also, gone are the days when appeals went out for teams of schoolchildren to act as monitors for the giant chessboards behind the top 4 games. It used to be one of Lara Barnes’ jobs to organise them into relays and ensure they were paid the correct amount for the hours put in. Now it is all done on smart-looking electronic display screens linked up directly to the boards, where the last move made is indicated by a coloured arrow on the board. These are being used for the 3rd year.

Also, no less than 35 boards are fully wired up so that the games can be followed on-line. That’s a big jump up from the handful it used to be, and a big, on-going  job for Dave Clayton (Lancs) and Matthew Carr of Cannock, whose job it is to keep all the plates spinning. The boards also appear in the Analysis Room where commentators Andrew Martin and Vaidyanathn Ravikumar can pick up the games directly from the event website, and with the help of Fritz (other engines are available) can insert variations etc. No longer do they have to rely on juniors, running back and forth between the main hall and the commentry room in the bowels of the building,  bearing slips of paper with the last few moves scribbled in an uncertain hand.

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