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Match of the Week: Ilfracombe Chess Club's fight for survival

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

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AS A game with a capacity for directing people's lives, chess has produced many a fine tale, from the extremes of Cold War politics to the West End theatre and UK pop charts, to that of a British boyhood prodigy.

Or how about two from Ilfracombe Chess Club?

One is the story of a loyal member of 52 years – longer than the rest of the membership put together – who has kept the club from closure.

The other is of a man who suffered a brain haemorrhage and could remember nothing except how to play chess.

"My memory was shot," said James Blake, 25 years after the haemorrhage struck, aged 22, while he was laying a lawn in Woolacombe.

"I didn't even know my dad but I knew how to play chess. I couldn't make a cup of coffee, I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk. Chess was the one thing I could remember."

He had learned chess at school in Ilfracombe and the game has been vital in helping him rebuild his life.

James's father, Don, introduced him to Ilfracombe Chess Club.

The death of both parents, and his only sibling's move to Australia, has left him without close family here. He has never married and he works only two days a week. Thank goodness for chess.

"It's a huge part of my life," said James between matches at Brookdale Church on Monday evening. "I love it and I'm getting better."

His progress is confirmed by Bob Lock, who said: "He beat me without me intending him to three or four weeks ago and that cheered him up no end. He has improved a lot in the last few months."

When Bob moved from London to Ilfracombe in 1960 to take up the post of biology master at Ilfracombe Grammar, the school chess club had ground to a halt.

Restarting it, his initiative led to the revival of the school v town fixture, prompting his involvement in a club he has kept alive almost single-handedly.

"I played for the school against one of the club's leading lights and we drew," said Bob, now 85. "He suggested I join the town chess club."

That was in 1961 when interest in chess in Ilfracombe was, he reflected, "quite considerable". Not like today, with the club down to a record low five members.

"There were 19 of us because there weren't any other clubs functioning in North Devon," said Bob. "Now Barnstaple and Bideford have strong clubs but Ilfracombe is not strong enough to compete against either."

They play only among themselves on three Monday evenings a month and after losing the use of the Two Lanes Centre, it is only the kindness of the church that has saved the club from homelessness.

The newest member, Nigel Gaydon, who joined two years ago, said: "We are very lucky to have this considering that when we left Two Lanes we didn't have anywhere."

When the club was formed, the Ilfracombe Chronicle reported it was "interesting to learn that a chess club has been founded in the town that has every prospect of success".

Prospective success was quickly turned into celebrations with a 5-3 victory over the school in 1925.

Then, in what continues to be the club's zenith, Ilfracombe won the county-wide Moyle Cup. Bob is unsure of the year but it was before he joined.

The club has functioned continuously since its birth, except for during the war years.

However, in 2009, the alarm bells sounded when Bob told the Journal that, with only six registered members and an average attendance of 2.4 players, the club was facing closure.

Somehow, even though numbers are desperately low, they are still hanging on by a thread.

For how much longer? "As long as I keep going I suppose," said Bob with wry smile.

The trimmings of a thriving club are long gone. It is some 20 years since Ilfracombe played in the Moyle Cup and the President's Trophy, dating from 1947, was last contested in 1980.

"After 1980 there were not enough of us to make it a sensible thing to do," said Bob, who won it outright in 1964 and was twice a joint winner in the 1970s.

He lives in hope it will be resurrected, that the club will grow big enough again to play others, and he smiles at the suggestion that the accounts and membership book dating from 1959 may be a good omen. It has used only 174 pages and, with almost 100 still blank, it invites a long future.

Membership held reasonably firm at around a dozen but, after falling to six in 2007-08, it has never recovered. This despite three members – Gaydon, Simon Tracey and Ian Quartly – having joined within the last four years.

Simon, 49, joined as an escape from EastEnders and Coronation Street.

"My wife likes watching the soaps so I thought I would go out some nights," he said.

The advert in the window of Nana Sue's health store was just what the doctor ordered. "It caught my eye," said Simon. "I was wary because I thought it would be a high standard but I fitted in nicely."

Bob's attempts at recruitment found another taker in Ian four years ago.

"I played at school but, other than playing at work now and again, I had not played since," said the 48-year-old toolmaker and father of four. "I saw a clip in the paper for people to come along. I struggle to fit chess in but it is nice to get away from the telly and get out and meet people."

Ian's efforts were rewarded on Monday when he was the most successful player with three wins from five matches.

Nigel, 45, was taught to play by his father and now he is passing on the knowhow to his nephews and nieces.

"There isn't the same interest in chess as there used to be," he said. "We are looking to generate interest, get younger people to come along, and we would like to offer anybody the opportunity to come and learn."

Bob learnt aged 12, when he was evacuated to Bideford.

He returned to London to teach but after seven years at Tottenham Grammar School wanted a move.

Soon he was master of biology at Ilfracombe Grammar and he recalled fondly the day he was upstaged at chess by one of his young girl pupils.

Nine times British women's champion Rowena Mary Bruce visited the school in 1964 and played 21 boards at the same time. Bob was among the 17 Ilfracombe players beaten by her, while two drew and two won.

One of the two winners was the only girl in the school team, Della Goring, 17. Oh for a Della Goring today. She would tick two empty boxes next to Ilfracombe Chess Club's membership list – young and female. Any takers?

To try chess with Ilfracombe Chess Club call Bob Lock on 01271 862662.

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