The Oxford University Chess Club has won the 2019-20 ‘Club of the Year’ award from the English Chess Federation (ECF). Presented by the national governing body for chess and open to all clubs across the country, it is the first time that Oxford University has won the award, capping off a year filled with success on and off the board.

The chess club is one of the oldest societies at the university, founded in 1869. Several Grandmasters have been members, including the four-time Women’s World Chess Champion, Hou Yifan, in 2018-19. The club fields teams in local, national, and international competitions, holds popular social events, and teaches chess for all abilities. Pre-lockdown, you might have spotted the first team playing a Thursday evening home match at Balliol, a beginners’ lesson taking place in Christ Church on Friday afternoon, or players packed into the Kings Arms for casual games in eighth week. During the lockdown, chess has thrived online. The club held tournaments over the web, conducted lessons on Zoom, and faced teams in competitive matches from Dundee to Hawaii.

Much of this year’s success has come in competitive chess. Chess matches range from a few minutes long (think of the old Red Bull advert) to several hours – marathons of concentration. Strengthened by the arrivals of master-level freshers Victor Vasiesiu (Hertford) and Akshaya Kalaiyalahan (Regent’s Park), a seasoned first team became formidable. The club’s first accolades came in autumn 2019, when a strong line-up of Daniel Abbas (Magdalen), Filip Mihov (Balliol), and Jessica Wen (Queen’s) finished in the top 10 at an invitational universities’ tournament held in Nankai, China. Its biggest triumph, came in 2020, when the first team won the British Universities Chess Association (BUCA) Championships for the first time since 2011 to become national champions, achieving a perfect score. The first, second and third teams each placed top in their respective divisions in the Oxfordshire league – the first team had an unbeaten record, pipping arch-rivals Witney to the title. Stalwart former president Joris Gerlagh (Univ) was voted best player in the league. While some university sports clubs have glamorous summer tours and play in front of packed crowds, some of the chess club’s hardest-fought victories came on a cold Monday night at a church hall in Cowley and in the conference rooms at the Birmingham Airport Holiday Inn.

The ECF’s recognition also cited all the other initiatives the club has put on throughout the year. Pioneered by this year’s president, Aloysius Lip (Christ Church), the club arranged simultaneous exhibitions with Grandmasters Hou Yifan and Keith Arkell, drawing players from all over Oxfordshire. Its social events frequently attracted large crowds of 40-50 – at one pub night, former president Andrew Rogozinski accepted a challenge from a passer-by, played blindfolded, and won. The club also started new annual matches with Imperial, LSE, and Warwick, and set up new teaching partnerships with local schools. Its efforts have continued throughout the lockdown. Victor Vasiesiu’s lessons continued over Zoom, and were broadcasted on YouTube. Only last week, the club held a “Chess Week” of fun chess variants, organised in collaboration with the Invariants, Oxford’s maths society. The author thought he’d try his hand at ‘Atomic Chess’, but came third-bottom. In all, there are more opportunities than ever before to play chess in Oxford.

Reflecting on the last year, Aloysius Lip commented, “The whole committee and I have put in a tremendous effort over the past twelve months, so it really is gratifying to be recognised by our national organisation – basically the highest we can go. We’ll keep maintaining standards to make chess – the most inclusive sport – fun for the uni.”

It was not all success this year – Oxford lost the 2020 Varsity Match to Cambridge, relinquishing the title won in 2017 and defended the following two years. And unlike their Cambridge counterparts, who receive a half-blue for their efforts, Oxford’s best chess players are still unrecognised by the Blues Committee. But it has been a historic year for chess players at Oxford University, and for now, the nation’s highest award for a chess club will have to do.