Some ideas on running chess clubs online
by NZCF and Wellington CC web administrator Bill Forster, 28th March 2020
In this strange time over-the-board enthusiasts around the world are scrambling to try to move traditional clubs online, temporarily at least. This short article shares some ideas on how to get started, based on the experience so far of the Wellington Chess Club. I expect some rapid technical innovation, but for the moment at least it's difficult or impossible to run the same type of competitions you usually do, with the in-person culture you're used to. But you can still play chess with (most of) the local players and have fun. Before discussing any of the technological specifics, it's worth thinking a little about the bigger picture.
Online chess has its own culture, with super-fast time controls (at least partly to try to make cheating with engines harder), crazy anonymous handles (instead of real names) and all pervasive noisy chat, hopefully witty and good natured, but sometimes unpleasant.
It is very important to communicate clearly to your members that you are trying to reproduce the culture of the local club within the online club. So it is going to be different to the online chess they might be used to. Players who only want to play bullet chess (super fast chess) with a lot of trash talk and general mischief have a million other options, they are already catered for online. The older players who have often carried the burden of keeping the club going, perhaps for decades, deserve a place where they can feel comfortable and can play a form of chess that they are more familiar with, with people they know. Very importantly, their needs overlap with the very young juniors who are just starting out on chess. who have a safe place to play at the local club, and need somewhere similar online.
With guidelines firmly in place, you can establish a little community within a community where the chat is respectful and restrained. Say YES to a little good natured banter, and NO to swearing, over-communicating, intergenerational warfare and incessant moaning and calls for faster time controls.
There are multiple competing online chess services. No doubt they all have merit but you have to choose one, and we went with Lichess which is widely admired for its high quality open source technology and is completely free.
Lichess has a "Teams" feature under "Community". Create your online club as a team. As a general principle try to avoid clever names which can create barriers to newcomers, we gave our club the highly imaginative name "Wellington Chess Club". (Actually we found the name was already used, but kudos to the young player at our club who had created this team name a year earlier and cheerfully handed over control to the WCC committee).
Lichess tournaments can be restricted to members of a team. So in principle everything is very easy, create a tournament to run at a scheduled time (eg the normal time on a normal club night), communicate to your club members and let them know about the initiative. Tell them how to create an account on Lichess if they don't already have one, and explain they'll need to join the team ahead of time to play. Set up your team so that the team leader manually approves applications. Unfortunately the Lichess mechanism is a little coarse-grained, only one poor soul can administer the club - but you can always rotate the task.
With a few hiccups (that we apologise for!), this process went smoothly for the Wellington Club and we soon had plenty of members. Ian Sellen, the normal club captain, selflessly volunteered to be team leader. He has the unenviable task of choosing whether to admit players. In general it's probably a good idea to admit players even if they are not actually members of the local club. You can always kick them out if they misbehave! The balance you are trying to achieve is to have enough locals involved that you retain the feel of the local club, but also enough players in tournaments to give variety.
You can see our temporary online home at https://lichess.org/team/wellington-chess-club. Lichess team pages include links to all the tournaments (and matches against other online clubs!) past and present. Of course it is very important that our normal website http://nzchessmag.com/wellingtonchessclub has information about the online activity, and tells people how to get involved.
Getting more specific
Encourage players to sign up using their real names instead of imaginative handle names. Maybe this is just me being an old fogey, or maybe it's an absolutely obvious common sense idea if you're trying to make something more like a real chess club. You decide which. Unfortunately Lichess does not allow multiple accounts, and does not allow you to change your username. If players have a long standing Lichess account they don't want to give up, or if they just insist on calling themself ThanosMasterOfTheUniverse or something, insist at least that they put their actual name in their profile so you can see who they are by clicking on their handle.
Rapid and Blitz (in particular) work better online than classical chess (sadly). We started with 3+2 Blitz which is a great compromise time control because it is actually possible to play real (if somewhat superficial) chess because there is an increment. Just playing super-safe moves super-quickly and trying to flag your opponent doesn't work well. (I don't know why people enjoy playing like that either but it's endemic online). We are going to experiment with longer time controls. We have complaints (usually from older players) that 3+2 is too fast and complaints (exclusively from younger players :) that it's too slow. For reasons discussed above the youngsters aren't winning this argument at the Wellington Chess Club at least.
Lichess tournaments are not Swisses or Round-Robins, they're "Arenas". Instead of a fixed number of rounds, there's a fixed amount of time. You can (and probably will) be paired with the same player more than once. It might sound weird to the uninitiated, but it's great fun and adapted naturally to online play. If you don't have a lot of players you might have long-ish waits for a pairing, but this isn't such a curse online, because Lichess makes it very easy to watch other games in the tournament while you wait.
It's a good idea to encourage players who haven't played a lot online to practise by playing in a few online tournaments (they run continually) to learn how they work before they play in a club tournament. We didn't do that. Learn from our mistakes!
Having said earlier that it is not possible to play normal tournaments online, we are now doing exactly that! The idea is to use your normal pairing software instead of Lichess to pair players. Players find each other and challenge each other manually inside the Lichess ecosystem. We now describe exactly how we do it on our website. I believe other clubs have independently discovered this model and are also operating it successfully.
As noted earlier, the tournament chat can be problematic, although you can tame it by setting the right expectations and not tolerating bad behaviour. It is possible to not show or ignore the chat and it was notable that both Anthony Ker and Scott Wastney were doing just that on our online first club night. They were also playing their normal beautiful chess and warming my heart by playing under their normal names as well.