Time to check out game of chess - it’s not just for squares

Chess expert, Andrew Ledger at Woodseats chess club in Sheffield
Chess expert, Andrew Ledger at Woodseats chess club in Sheffield
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n Among the top players coming to Sheffield is Nigel Short, who challenged Gary Kasparov for the World Championship in 1993.

Heart-racing adrenalin, strategic thinking and world class competitions – Sheffield has much to offer the chess playing world, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.

Woodseats Chess Club  at Woodseats Social CLub, Sheffield. Star reporter, Rachel Clegg, plays against Andrew Ledger

Woodseats Chess Club at Woodseats Social CLub, Sheffield. Star reporter, Rachel Clegg, plays against Andrew Ledger

IT’S not every day you get to play chess against an international master.

But tonight, in a Sheffield social club, dozens of men will agonise over a chess game against one of the country’s leading chess stars.

Andrew Ledger, from Sheffield, is here to take these men on. All at once.

Tonight’s chess session at Woodseats Chess Club is a bit different to the usual Monday night meeting – all members are playing ‘simultaneous chess’, in which several people play against one person – in this case Andrew Ledger.

But it’s not just Andrew’s multi-tasking that makes tonight’s club meeting special – the British Chess Championships are only one week away and this year they’re being held in Sheffield.

Woodseats Chess club member Peter Hulse, aged 61, from Woodseats, said: “We’re really lucky to be having the Championships here in Sheffield – I’m not sure it will happen again, at least not in the near future anyway.”

Peter, who has been playing chess since he was aged 11, said: “The game has no limits – I haven’t stopped playing since I was a boy and I’ve worked as a teacher and now I’m retired and I’m still playing chess. It helps you to develop powers of analysis and the ability to recognise patterns.”

It’s certainly a captivating game. The room, which is packed with men, is silent and tangibly tense.

“It’s an adrenalin-fuelled game,” said Peter. “I’ve had such tense matches that I have felt my heart racing. People think that chess is just for eggheads but it’s not. Yes, many chess players are bright but it’s a great game.”

Peter plays chess every day, though not with his wife. “I think she humours my chess playing but she doesn’t really play. With the internet playing chess is so easy and immediate now because you can play online.”

Between sentences Peter ponders on the next move while Andrew swipes chess pieces from umpteen chess boards like a bird of prey honing in on its food. He is playing chess with more than 15 people, all at once, yet it seems like only seconds between turns.

Andrew, an international master, is a member of Woodseats Chess Club, though he says these elaborate chess sessions only happen about once a year. “We play matches between October and May so this is a special event – this is just a bit different.”

It’s also gives Andrew the opportunity to practise his chess playing ahead of the championships, in which he is competing this week.

“I work full time and I have two children so chess playing is a hobby for me, one I happen to be good at,” he said.

“I don’t play anywhere near as much as I used to. Now if I have a bit of spare time I play using chess magazines – a lot of top players write out their chess moves and explain why they have done them.”

Andrew, now 42, started playing chess as a young boy with his older brothers, Dave and Steve Ledger, who are also top chess players and will both be competing at Ponds Forge this week, though neither are as high a level as Andrew.

“We came from a very mathematical family – dad was a mathematics teacher and he taught my brothers how to play and I used to play with them. They say they taught me everything they know. I say they taught me everything they know.”

But Andrew’s happy being a full-time dad and worker and part time chess maestro.

He said: “The people competing in the British Championship are largely professionals and this is their job. They are so dedicated to playing chess and so strong minded it’s difficult for someone like me to get to that level as it is just a hobby.

“But then I like the fact when I play I am under no pressure to win. I know that my kids will be fed the week after as I’m not depending on winning to earn money.”

And while Andrew’s chess playing skills were learned from his brothers and ultimately his father, he himself is in no hurry to push his own children – aged nine and four – to play chess. “I don’t want to push them. Playing chess can be an obsession.”

Nowhere has the obsession with chess more tragically played out than in the life of former chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, whose life story has just been made the subject of a film. Bobby reached the pinnacle of his career at the 1972 World Chess Championships when he beat Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky. But he gradually became a recluse and extremely paranoid.

“I started playing seriously when I was 16 so I was relatively normal. Going away and playing chess and earning £200 over a weekend at 16 was great.”

Andrew’s not the only Sheffielder competing at the 2011 British Championships.

Jonathan Nelson is also taking part. The 44-year-old started competing in junior events when he was 11 and became junior champion in his teens.

He said: “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at an amazing venue like Ponds Forge with Britain’s top players. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to go up against one of the best! It’ll also be great to see the juniors get the chance to showcase their skills in front of so many people.”

As for chess tips Andrew doesn’t give much away, but he is keen to point out a niche in the chess market.

“There’s certainly a gap in the chess world where girls are concerned,” he revealed.