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£2,500 Chess Tables Cause Controversy Amid ‘Levelling Up’ Spending On Chess In the UK

£2,500 ‘Levelling Up’ Chess Tables – Is This the Best Way to Promote Chess?

The British press has been awash lately with stories of councils in the north of England accessing so-called ‘levelling up’ funds from the government to install permanent chess tables in public parks. The initial reaction from the media and many members of the public has been primarily one of incredulity, especially after learning that each chess table costs in the region of £2,500.

One of the new £2500 tables in Hull, UK

What has been lost in this furore over expenditure, however, is whether this is the most effective mechanism to promote chess, and the benefits that it provides to cognitive development, to the public as a whole. Let’s examine the objectives of this particular scheme and determine whether evidence from similar projects in other countries suggests that it will achieve its aims.

What is ‘Levelling Up’?

At this point, for the sake of readers outside the UK, who are likely to have little knowledge of the current UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, it’s probably worth defining exactly what is meant by this phrase, and why it has led to funds being made available for installing these chess tables.

Two Politicians in the UK promoting ‘Levelling Up’

In basic terms, many politicians perceive there to be a significant north/south split in England, with the south of the country (and by this, they mean, predominantly London and its surrounding counties) being significantly wealthier than the north, where de-industrialisation has been a major factor in creating pockets of poverty. The ‘levelling up’ agenda is a response to this disparity in average earnings and productivity between the north and south, and makes funds available for a variety of infrastructure projects that aim to address this.

The money available for chess tables falls within the Levelling Up Parks Fund, which aims to improve access to quality green space and associated facilities within deprived areas. It should be noted that this is being provided in tandem with a wider £1,000,000 package to support primary school children in disadvantaged areas to learn and play chess, and to fund players who are competing at an international level.

The proverbial elephant in the room is the cost of each chess table – £2,500. Whilst this might seem excessive, it should be remembered that permanent concrete structures that are designed to withstand years of use and weathering from rain, wind and snow, are never inexpensive. A cursory trawl of the internet reveals that concrete tables of the kind installed in countless New York parks retail at $1,700 each, excluding installation costs. A recent BBC article on the subject highlighted critics of the scheme who cited the cost as their main objection.

Chess tables in Central Park New York

Is anybody actually using the tables?

The more pertinent question, then, is whether the presence of these tables encourages more people to play chess. Antonia Hoyle’s investigation in a recent article for The Telegraph seemed to suggest not; she visited Pearson Park in Hull, and was unable to find a single member of the public who would agree to play with her. However, had she travelled to a similar site in a New York park, she would have struggled even to gain access to a table, such is their popularity. Is it just the case that the people of Hull and New York are so dissimilar that what works in one city is anathema to another?

I don’t believe this is the case, and I think the reasons are twofold. First, any new venture or idea will take time to capture the public’s imagination; to proclaim something a failure after only a few days is to ignore the fact that many activities are slow burners and take months or years to gain popularity gradually. In relation to this, New York has had chess tables in many of its parks for over 70 years, allowing their use to grow organically over multiple decades. It’s likely that many decried the cost of their installation in the 1950s, yet today they are seen as a cultural landmark, and have featured in numerous films and TV series.

Of course, one potential barrier to use is the fact that chess boards require pieces in order for games to be played. This is, perhaps, another reason why the efficacy of the project shouldn’t be judged after a few weeks; using a chess table for an actual game of chess requires a certain amount of pre-planning, as few of us happen to carry around a full set of pieces on a regular basis!

Perhaps more useful for those who don’t own a chess set, will be the installation of garden sets in parks where the logistics can be managed by the park’s café. Although sometimes dismissed as gimmicky, garden chess represents a route into the game that is especially appealing to children, who enjoy the novelty of an oversized board and pieces.

So, could this funding be used in other, more efficient ways, to promote chess? Perhaps, but this is to ignore the fact that this is an ‘in addition to’ rather than an ‘instead of’ pot of cash. Other funds are being made available to promote the uptake of chess in primary school via more traditional mechanisms. The chess table programme is part of a funding scheme ring-fenced for capital projects, and it’s difficult to see how this could be diverted to any chess-related activity other than the current proposition.

Ultimately, this project may be more about visibility than anything else. In recent years the maxim ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ has been used as a rallying call by those who wish to see greater diversity of gender, race and sexuality in businesses, sports and politics. This can be equally applied to the world of chess; if the game has more presence in the popular consciousness, even if it’s only through the visibility of public chess boards, this may encourage more people to play it. And that can only be a good outcome.









Published by julian

Julian Deverell is the owner and founder of the Regency Chess Company. He set the business up in 2005 and established the Regency Chess brand in 2008. He's still heavily involved in the day to day running of the business and also has involvement with some other e commerce projects that are not chess related.

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