Durham Alumni will play Chess Club Politika B from Serbia in their bid to be world champions tomorrow (Saturday 27th August) from 18:00 UK time.
The Alumni team drew against Harvard back in June, their final qualifying match, securing a spot to compete in the play-offs. Prior to this, they had successfully fought off much of the competition, beating teams from Kyiv, Hawaii, Canada, Poland, Slovenia, Greece and Brazil.
The worldwide league was the brainchild of Peter Hornsby, who attended St. Cuthbert’s and graduated in 2016. He had previously set up the ‘Northern University Chess Championships’ back in 2015, as the outgoing President of Durham University Chess Club. The tournament became so popular that it had to be expanded nationally and former students wished to take part after they had graduated. Hornsby then rebranded the tournament to ‘20/20’ Chess, which reflected the time control it is played at.
When the pandemic struck, it meant that all in-person chess was suspended and efforts to introduce an online tournament were accelerated.
On the response from other universities when he first got in contact about a potential worldwide league, he said: “The reception was fantastic. Dozens of students rallied together to help me organize the event and promote it for their students and set up their teams.
“They made social media posts, streamed on Twitch, set up fair-play policies (anti-cheating) and suggested ideas for how the tournament should work that I hadn’t considered… It was through our combined effort and enthusiasm that we made the World Chess League what it is. I am deeply grateful for their help.”
When quizzed on the system used for the competition, Hornsby explained how “The way the tournament works is that after a couple of games, beginners get to play against beginners, so the games become more even as the season goes on.
“The format is known as a ‘Swiss system’ commonly used in chess, the merits of the ‘Swiss system’ have been noted by UEFA who are introducing it for the Champions League in 2024-2025. There are a wide range of teams in the World Chess League.Live, which means it also can be similar to the FA Cup in football, and we do get some upsets!
“What has been really positive is to see the tournament bring people together and communicate, as a result we have seen several beginner/amateur teams benefit from coaching from top-class players they have interacted with online through the league.”
The tournament has served as a distraction for those suffering the war in Ukraine and as a result of this chess extravaganza, more than £2,000 has been raised for charity.
As for the match this weekend, Hornsby says that it will be a challenge for Durham, as their Serbian opposition have “some top international players”. On top of this, the winners for the 2020-2021 online season were indeed the Serbs at Chess Club Politika.
George Gazis, who graduated from Durham and now is a Classics lecturer at the university, is one of the members of the team. He joined the university as a student in 2010 and was involved in chess, detailing how “It was I think in 2012, that we managed to revive the [Chess] Society and we went back to the British University Chess Association for the first time after the 80s”.
Fast forward a decade and Gazis is still competing but in this very different online capacity. Reaching the online play-offs is big for the team, with Gazis commenting “It was our best season ever”.
While there is potential for this best-ever season to become even better and for Durham to be the outright champions, Gaizs is cautious. “The problem is that the other three teams are very, very, very, very strong… but I mean we’ll give it our best try. You never know, we have teams like that before and we beat them so who knows?”
When it comes to playing the big-name teams such as Harvard, Gazis says he did not feel the pressure: “I think it’s about motivation. I mean, when you play against someone like Harvard you know that the popular conception of this is that Harvard has to win.
“Therefore, that takes away the pressure in a way you know, the pressure is with them. Well as for us, being the underdog in a sense has really helped us quite a lot throughout.”
As for what the future might hold, Gazis is optimistic: “When this whole thing started, I thought it was going to last only for the pandemic and then it will die out at some point… After the pandemic, it became even stronger!
“People saw it as an opportunity to finally, you know, we can have some games without having to travel. The difference is that before the pandemic, internet chess was considered just a silly hobby.
“After the pandemic it became a serious thing so you could actually play properly and of course a lot of the anti-cheating regulations that came in helped with that.”
Tomorrow’s team consists of Peter Hornsby and George Gazis, alongside International Master Andy Horton, Phil Purcell and Kit Gallagher and you can watch them compete here.
Image: Durham University