Our series of interviews continues with an in-depth discussion with Woman FIDE Master Sarah Longson.
Sarah and Alex Longson are Directors of the Delancey UK Schools’ Challenge, which attracted 30,000 entries in 2020.
A former British Ladies Champion and current England International, Sarah is also a former Under-7 Champion of the UKCC – the very same tournament of which she is now Director!
Additionally, Sarah is a very active, creative and highly innovative promoter of chess for children and recently created the Tournament Ready series of Chessable courses, which she presented with Grandmaster Daniel King.
Sarah and I have worked together many times, including when Sarah freely gave up a full day of her time for a simultaneous display at one of my chess schools.
I am proud to be able to call Sarah and Alex my friends and it is with great pleasure that I present this big interview for your weekend reading.
Photograph © Sarah Longson
The Journey Begins
How did your chess journey begin?
My brothers attended the Knaphill Junior School chess club and when my mum went to pick them up the class was very chaotic. Mum offered to help as long as she could bring me. I was at the infant school so at seven years old I started playing. My love for the game grew as I won the Under-7 UK Chess Challenge and appeared on Blue Peter with the then World Champion, Garry Kasparov.
Do any other members of your family play chess?
Not anymore – my brothers gave up when I got better than them!
Was there a particular moment or event which made you believe chess could be a career as well as a game?
When I was working as a lawyer I would rush back to do one-to-one lessons and that was when I realised my passion for inspiring children and their parents on their chess journey was more important than my legal work.
Did you have any particular chess heroes or role models to inspire you in the early days?
Garry Kasparov as he was my idol as a child. I was star stuck when he joined me on Blue Peter when I was a seven year old! He remembered me when we met 20 years later at the Olympiad.
How did you come to appear on Blue Peter with Garry Kasparov?
I wanted a Blue Peter badge so I wrote a letter to Blue Peter explaining I had just won the Under-7 girls section of the UK Chess Challenge. They invited me on the show and I didn’t know he was going to be there too – maybe that explains why I was so shy!
Which chess books did you find most instructive or inspirational during your early years?
I grew up in Wey Valley under the inspiration of the fantastic International Master Mike Basman. He had a great range of junior books which I loved as a child, like “Beginner to Winner”. I also liked Chris Ward’s “Choose Your Move”.
Were any established players particularly helpful or kind when you broke through to higher levels of chess?
My good friend David Howell was always helpful when we attended junior internationals together.
Did you have a trainer?
Andrew Martin used to train me once every six weeks from age 11. Then later I started working with Grandmaster Glenn Flear when I was aged 14. They were both truly inspiring.
Playing Style and Influences
How would you describe your style of play?
Attacking! I love attacking positions where I have all my pieces actively placed pointing at my opponent’s king! I believe I can beat anyone when I get an aggressive position – sadly they don’t always allow me this!
Were any other players influential in the development of your style?
I played through Gary Kasparov’s attacking games as a child, especially when I was learning the Grunfeld Defense.
What is your most memorable success (so far!)?
Becoming British Ladies Champion in 2013
Playing at the Olympiads
Can you tell us a little about your experience of playing at the Chess Olympiad?
The Chess Olympiad is an incredible experience where you play in fantastic conditions and you have the opportunity to meet people who share the same interest from across the world. I find it truly inspiring to play amongst the world’s best! I have made life-long friends who I get excited about seeing every two years if I get selected!
My first ever Olympiad was in Khanty Mansyiak in 2010 where I was unbeaten with 7.5/9. I made loads of friends and enjoyed partying with the world’s best players at the Bermuda Party, where even Magnus Carlsen let his hair down! Watching the Immortal Game being played in person at the opening ceremony was something I enjoyed very much! I absolutely love chess Olympiads – the atmosphere is wonderful!
Saving the UK Chess Challenge
In 2016, you saved the UK Chess Challenge (‘UKCC’) from oblivion by taking over after Mike Basman encountered difficulties. What was your motivation for taking up the challenge?
I had just quit my legal job and was doing chess coaching as my main job. The UKCC had got me into chess and inspired so many thousands of juniors – I didn’t want to see it end as I had seen the immense efforts Mike and his team had put in from inception in 1996. It felt like an exciting challenge.
Did you see it as risk at the time?
I was certainly nervous as I wanted to do a good job and but we weren’t entirely sure of what we were taking on. I had a lot of support from friends, family and many in the chess community (including from Mike and Pat). My husband Alex is now full time on UKCC too and we spend most of our time trying to improve it!
Change and Risks
2020 brought obvious challenges to all normal chess events. You moved the latter stages of the UKCC online. How well did this work out?
It was certainly challenging as we had our first baby, Isabelle, in February 2020. Just before the crisis we had leased a small office for UKCC and our local school business and we set things up so I could have break and adapt to life as a new mum. However the world changed and this was no longer possible. We had to make one member of staff redundant and think about how we could run the UKCC to the high standards that the players are used to.
Eventually we decided to bite the bullet and run all of the events online rather than wait to see how things turned out. In hindsight this has proven to be the right decision though it was far from certain at the time.
We hosted the events on lichess and managed parent communications through email and WhatsApp. We live-streamed commentary of many events and the children enjoyed requesting their games to be analysed. As well as the main championships we held blitz, variants, 960, simuls and training weekends – a true festival of online chess!
The feedback from parents has been really encouraging. In the end we were able to offer hours of entertainment for the children during tough times where most of their usual activities were cancelled.
What can you tell us about your current UKCC initiatives?
We’re focusing on activities to keep children engaged in chess whilst over the board tournaments and clubs are unlikely. In September we launched our first “Online Clubs” which offer a mix of interactive training and regular competitions within five different ability levels. It’s very exciting to try new ideas and we’re really working on how to get maximum engagement from the children and trying to maximise some of the advantages that teaching and playing online can bring.
Are you intending to return to ‘normal service’ as far as the school stage of the UKCC is concerned?
We’re going to offer both routes – assuming of course over-the-board clubs will be possible. We’re planning to provide as much support as possible to those schools and clubs who are a bit nervous about switching to online.
Will the latter stages return to normal, or are you intending to keep those events online?
Again it really depends on the circumstances but we will work closely with the local organisers and for those that want and are able to run things over-the-board we will support that. But there is no doubt that some of the online elements are here to stay – in many ways a hybrid solution may be the best of both worlds.
On the subject of online chess, there have been plenty of online elites events since the start of the pandemic. Do you embrace the new era of digital chess or are you eager for real-life, over-the-board action to return?
Personally I love over the board chess; the atmosphere, the social element and playing on nice boards. I play some blitz online but usually in the night when looking after my eight month baby. In terms of the convenience and reduced cost base however online is a very handy option!
Do you, personally, find playing online very different to over-the-board chess? Does it have any impact, one way or another, on your games?
There is no doubt I play over-the-board chess better. I am not good at staring at the screen and I don’t seem to take it as seriously when it’s online. Those games played at gorgeous venues on beautiful chess boards are irreplaceable. However, I do think it’s fantastic for children as they are picking up patterns and ideas and it keeps up the acceleration of their learning during the pandemic.
Have you encountered any instances of sexism in chess (any males who were bad losers or when have made derogatory comments, for example?)
As a child there was always “haha, you lost to a girl” but once people knew me as a strong player they respected me. However, there is always the talk surrounding girls prizes and the bitchy comments. I don’t really pay much attention to it.
Working with Chessable
How did you become involved with Chessable?
Alex and I were introduced to Leon and we started talking to the Chessable team. We were already aware of them from the London Chess Classic so were excited to get involved. Originally we thought we could work together on a project for the English Chess Federation Academy which we are currently managing but it soon became apparent that a project for the UK Chess Challenge was the best fit.
What can you tell us about the Tournament Ready series of Chessable courses, by Sarah Longson and Daniel King?
We planned it before COVID-19 as a way to help children prepare for the Megafinals. We are continuously seeing children making the same mistakes (any junior coach will tell you the same thing)! The idea of ‘Tournament Ready’ is to help children familiar with the rules to quickly get up to speed in key areas so they can compete with confidence and win games at County level. The course covers opening principles, basic tactics, checkmating themes and common junior endgames.
I filmed the course introduction with Grandmaster Daniel King at his studio and it was great fun learning from him as he of course has lots of experience in this area.
How long did it take you to complete?
Alex spent around eight weeks constructing the material, and then Daniel King and I spent a few weeks filming our sections.
Can you tell us what else you have in the Chessable pipeline?
Nothing confirmed at the moment as COVID-19 changed our previous plans quite abruptly! The next logical step would be a ‘follow on’ course for children playing in the Gigafinals – perhaps ‘Tournament Winner’!
COVID and the Candidates
The 2020 Candidates Tournament took an enforced break due to the current emergency. Should the tournament have even started under the circumstances, and how do you feel about continuing a tournament many months after it started?
The tournament shouldn’t have started. However, I have sympathy with them for making this decision due to the financial situation and it kept us all busy during lockdown! Continuing the tournament will be strange. Players will have to get ‘in the zone’ again. I think for those not doing well it will be great; a fresh start (I know points stay but in their minds it can feel like a new competition!) For those doing well it will not be the same as it would have been if things had carried on as they will have to get that momentum back.
Life and Chess
When chess is your day job, it is often the case that one lacks chess energy to play games. How do you manage such a balance?
I always use the holidays to play chess but having had a baby and then the situation with COVID-19 things are very different for me this year. Generally speaking I don’t get to play as much as I’d like so whenever I am competing I really enjoy it and get some extra energy from this.
How much time do you devote to working on your own game?
It varies but I try and do a little bit every day. Once or twice a week we get to properly sit down and analyse some positions which is nice. It’s not a lot but keeps me in touch.
The last round of the 2019 English Women’s Chess Championship, in Hull. Sarah is playing WGM Katarzyna Toma and Louise Head is playing White against Chessable White Rose star Rayelynn Posadas.
Photograph © Sean Marsh
Ambitions and Advice
What ambitions do you have, as a player?
I want to become a Women’s International Master.
Club players are always interested in ways to improve their game. What advice would you offer to them?
Analyse your own games. Try and do some chess every day. Try to learn one thing from each game. Keep enjoying chess and results will come. Do not get obsessed by ratings. Obviously all of this is easier said than done – ultimately you’ve got to enjoy it.
How do you cope with the pain of defeat?
I put it into perspective and remember that it really is just a game of chess. Even though for a few hours it is the most important thing in my life and I put everything into it. Afterwards it is not that important.
Do you have a favourite game of your own?
Yes; my win against Grandmaster Mark Hebden.
Sarah Longson – Mark Hebden
White to play
Black is threatening 22 …Bxe1 and also 22 …Bc3. Sarah ignored the threats and played the aggressive 22 Qg4! The threat is now 23 Bxh6 followed by the total devastation of Black’s kingside defense.
22 …Rxe5 (to give the queen safe access to f6)
23 Bxh6 Qf6
24 Bxb7 Rd8
25 Rxe5 Qxe5
Sarah now traded more material and bagged another pawn into the bargain.
26 Qxg7+ Qxg7
27 Bxg7 Kxg7
Forcing Mark into the endgame, in which he will be two pawns down.
28 …Nxc6 (28 …Nxb7 29 Nxb4 is no better)
Of course, Mark is a very experienced Grandmaster and he always keeps fighting, but Sarah kept her cool and eventually converted her advantage. (1-0, 62)
And finally, which aspect of your chess life gives you the most satisfaction (tutor, organiser, writer, player, other…)
A hard question as I like all aspects of it. The variety makes it enjoyable. Never a boring day! If I had to choose one I’d say tutor – I love that feeling when the children get excited about playing a game or getting a question right! I remember how special chess was to me growing up and to see my students experiencing that for the first time is really special.
Thank you very much, WFM Sarah Longson!
Photograph © Sarah Longson
Click the links for information on:
The other interviews in our popular series can be found here: