Grandmaster absentees weaken chess entry

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THE British Chess Championships will begin this afternoon in the Plymouth Pavilion with a near record entry of more than 900, but with few leading players contesting the national title.

Of Britain's 20 grandmasters, only Jonathan Mestel and Mark Hebden are sure to play, though the reigning champion, Julian Hodgson, was said to be leaving it to the last minute before deciding whether to defend his title. The reason is simple: money.

In 1988, a long-running sponsorship of the championships by Kleinwort Benson, the merchant bank, ended. The tournament had, through its support, been transformed into an attractive professional event that offered good prizes and, perhaps more importantly, expenses and appearance fees to the star names.

Since then, the event has struggled to find backing. Last year the money ran out, and, with nothing to pay their expenses, the grandmasters stayed away.

The paradox is that while money was available when British players were not so good, it dried up as soon as Britain rose to become the world's second chess nation. Chess is a popular sport that Britons are good at. But that does not seem to be enough to attract financial support.