chess William Hartston

TheBritish Championships will begin today at the Swansea Leisure Centre with a formal opening at 2pm. Earlier in the day, however, the under-11s, under-13s, under-15s, and the grown-ups who prefer playing in the mornings, will already have begun their quest for prizes and titles.

The British Championship itself, has, at the last count, a field of 48 players including four grandmasters. The favourites are Matthew Sadler, who has scored some fine results in recent European tournaments, and Mark Hebden, whose busy schedule of weekend events has given him a habit of amassing huge scores in events of mixed strength.

It is disappointing that so few of the country's top-class players will be competing, but the economics of British chess sadly makes that almost inevitable.

Until the late 1970s, the British Championship was a genuinely amateur event. It had to be. The top British masters were not strong enough to earn a living as playing professionals. That all changed when Tony Miles became our first grandmaster and led a new generation of players to international success.

The British Championships were fortunate at that time to attract a long- running sponsorship from Grieveson Grant, which even survived the company's being subsumed first into Kleinwort Grieveson, then Kleinwort Benson.

Until almost the end of the 1980s, the Championship had its grandest years, with the sponsorship providing not only much larger prizes than had previously been seen, but even appearance fees and expenses for the leading players. Nigel Short and Jonathan Speelman each took the British title twice while also engaged on their successful runs in the world championship. And when they were too busy, grandmasters Miles, Mestel and Adams were worthy successors.

Since Kleinwort Benson stood down, however, the British Chess Federation has struggled to find a replacement. The British Championships somehow do not seem glamorous enough to attract commercial sponsorship.

Now, with a total prize fund of around pounds 2,500 and no fees or expenses, one could hardly expect to attract more than three or four of our 20 grandmasters. Despite the absence of the top players, however, the sheer joy of Britain's principal holiday congress continues to attract the crowds. With over 850 entries already (including 58 in the under-8s) and another hundred or more expected at the last moment, around a thousand competitors will be enjoying a fortnight of chess in Swansea. Perhaps amateurism is not so bad after all.