Phoenix Chess Club

Asked at the 2015 Sheffield Chess Association AGM "How many teams are Phoenix entering in the league?", John Mercy replied: "None". Sadly, the club is, it seems, no more.

Although Phoenix CC has only existed under that name for little over 10 years, it has really been a part of the Sheffield chess scene, with its own separate history, for over 30 years. There have been some turbulent times, changes of venue bringing three changes in name from the original Banner Cross: White Lion, Earl of Arundel and finally Phoenix.
Below are the words from a page of the "Phoenix Chess Club" section of John Knight's website (, describing some of that history.


In 1981 Ecclesall Chess Club played at the Ecclesall Non-Political Club on Ecclesall Road on Wednesday evenings. John Borrill, a member, became increasingly concerned at the unfriendly attitude shown by some members of that club to the chess players, which culminated in one committee member proposing that a Dog Show be held on Wednesday evenings! Whilst the proposal was not successful, John thought that the writing was on the wall and that they should start looking for alternative premises. However, only one other member of the chess club, Ted Williams, a blind player, agreed with him. After discussing the position and what to do about it, they decided to set up a new chess club, after the end of the 1981-82 season.

The first requirement was suitable premises and after visiting a lot of public houses Ted Williams was offered the use of an upstairs room at the Banner Cross Hotel. John Borrill then set about recruiting members for the new club, by contacting chess players of which he knew or became aware, who did not currently belong to any club. (Despite this policy, a lot of resentment was created at the Ecclesall club over the formation of the new club.) John was very persuasive and did not easily take no for an answer, and as a result most of those approached agreed to join. Accordingly, in the summer of 1982 he called a meeting of prospective new members at the Banner Cross Hotel to discuss arrangements. Among those present at the meeting, in addition to John, were Ted Williams, Gil Bowling, John Gallagher (another blind player), Gary Burkinshaw, Pete Cassinelli, Barry Balderson and Mike Brumby.

It was decided to call the club Banner Cross Chess Club, play on a Monday evening and enter two teams in the fourth division of the Sheffield and District League for the 1982-83 season. John Borrill was appointed secretary and first team captain, Gil Bowling second team captain and Mike Brumby treasurer – a position he was to hold for the next twenty years. When it came to naming the two teams John had very decided views. Not for him the pedestrian ‘A’ and ‘B’! He wanted classical names and accordingly they were called Phoenix and Trojans, although it was not clear out of what ashes Phoenix had been formed.

Finance was an early problem with the need to acquire chess sets, boards and clocks, and pay the rent of £1 a week and league entry fees. Accordingly the initial annual subscription was set at £16, a high amount at that time, and in addition Barry Balderson, an estate agent, agreed to loan the club £50. Because of the initial expenditure, for some years afterwards an entry fee was charged to new members. Another problem was the room, which had not been used for many years and contained dusty junk. It had at one time been used as a snooker room and Joe Davies was supposed to have played there in the 1930’s. So the first task for the new members was to clear out the junk and clean up the room. In hind sight in view of this work, it seems unreasonable for the landlord to have charged a full rent from the beginning.

Phoenix had a successful first season winning the Athenaeum trophy and gaining promotion to Division 3, although there was some ill feeling when Phoenix played Trojans and John insisted on the clocks of missing Trojan players being started promptly at 7.30 pm! During this first season Ted Williams offered to provide a shield for the club championship, which offer was accepted. Unfortunately, however, early in the second season Ted quarrelled with John and returned to the Ecclesall Club, which had by then moved to the Robin Hood Hotel at Millhouses. During the first season John persuaded Clarke Herron, a journalist working for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, to edit a club bulletin and gave it the appropriate name of ‘The Banner’. Unfortunately, a year or two later Clarke quarrelled with the editor and left Sheffield. He was succeeded as editor by Stuart Hughes, an aspiring writer.

Over the next two years the club grew rapidly as new members were recruited by John, and the club gained a number of members from the YMCA Chess Club, which went out of existence. This was because the YMCA proposed to charge the club a commercial rent for the use of a room, as though they were an unconnected organisation. Among those members gained at that time were Phil Beckett and Ray Guest. In the 1983-84 season a third team was entered in the league, called Spartans and both Phoenix and Trojans gained promotion, the former to Division 2 and the latter to Division 3.

In the 1984-85 season a fourth team was entered, which was called  Friends, because it was intended for players who did not wish to take the game too seriously, and once more two teams were promoted – Phoenix to Division 1 and Spartans to Division 3. Towards the end of that season, when it looked as though Phoenix were going to gain promotion, John invited Chris Shephard, a strong player, who had recently come to Sheffield with the Midland bank, to give a simultaneous display at the club. Chris agreed and at the conclusion of that display John asked him to play for the club in the next season. Chris agreed provided that Phoenix were actually promoted.

At the end of that season John Borrill stood down as first team captain and persuaded Mike Brumby to take over, whilst he took over as captain of Spartans, at that time regarded as the third team. Under John Borrill, however, Spartans quickly became the second strongest team. During the course of the 1985-86 season, Chris Shepard  introduced another strong player to the club, Paul Raynes and, partly as a result, that season was the most successful season for the club, with Spartans winning Division 3 and the Batley- Meek trophy, whilst Phoenix won Division 1 and the Davy trophy. However, it was during this season that the landlord of the Banner Cross Hotel decided to install once again a billiard table in the room used by the chess club. Although no one was allowed to use the table on club evenings, it was very inconvenient having to play round it. Accordingly after the end of the season the club moved to the White Lion at Heeley, and changed its name to the White Lion Chess Club.

The landlord of the White Lion was a chess player and keen to have the club, without  charging rent. The club was to play in the main bar, from which the public were to be excluded for that evening. Although some members of the committee had doubts about this arrangement, which involved the club also changing its club night to Thursday, nonetheless it was decided to move there. However, after the first club evening the landlord, on the urging of his fiancée, realised that this arrangement was not practicable. The club was moved to two adjacent upstairs rooms, and rent of £1 a week was paid in the winter months, as a contribution to heating costs. Although playing in two rooms was a little inconvenient, it had one advantage: one or two matches could be played in one room, while friendly games were played in the other without disturbing the match players.

Unfortunately, after playing for the club for two seasons Chris Shepard was persuaded by his boss at the Midland Bank, Mike Smith, to move to a new club then being formed, namely Nomads. (So named, because the intention was to move venues regularly, which intention was never realised even in the early days, the club only moving when it had to like others.) Paul Raynes turned out to be a transient, moving away and back again several times before finally disappearing for good. About 1998-99 Alan Potts, another strong player moved to the area and was recruited by the club. Again however after a couple of years he was poached by another club – this time Woodseats, then called Batemore and Jordanthorpe.

The fiancée of the landlord at the White Lion, who had become his wife, continued to be antagonistic to the chess club and after two years started allowing her cats to use one of the rooms as a lavatory! The smell was awful and, as apparently intended, drove the club to seek another venue. A suitable room was found at the Earl of Arundel and Surrey. The landlord made the club very welcome and charged no rent. He understood that chess players could not be expected to drink a lot of beer, saying that he was pleased that the room could be put to some use! The club continued to play there for many years under the name of Earl of Arundel Chess Club, although following a change of landlord the club was not made to feel as welcome.

In the early days of the club, two junior players, Nick Funnell and Carl Walker, joined the club and progressed rapidly. Nick reached the summit of his achievements, when he was runner-up at the British Under-15 Championship at the age of 14. However, he did not seem to make any further progress from that point, whilst Carl continued to progress and eventually became the stronger player. Nick was lost to the club when he went off to University, but Carl has played for the club ever since. At the beginning of the 1986-87 season, the Southey Chess Club had gone out of existence and the two remaining members, Gerry Fletcher and his son, Paul, who was also a junior at the time, joined the Earl of Arundel club and have continued to be members of the club ever since. Paul progressed steadily and he and Carl have shared boards 1 and 2 for Phoenix for many years. In 1992 Ron Keenan’s son, Kevin, joined the club and made rapid progress, until he gave up chess in favour of football after two or three years.

An early decision was made to play throughout the year, unlike many clubs. In the summer months, friendly games were played and soon a series of light-hearted summer tournaments was established, such as 5 Minute, 15 Minute, Chess Problems, Set Openings and Set Endings. To these were later added Progressive Chess, Losing Chess and Quicksand. The latter was invented by John Borrill and used egg timers of the hour glass type. Whilst a player was thinking the sand would run from his end of the timer to the other. Then when he moved, he would turn over the timer so that the sand ran the other way. If a player ran out of sand he automatically lost, just as he would if his flag fell in a 5 minute game. The sand typically ran for between 2½ and 3 minutes, but there was no theoretical limit to the length of each game.

After a few years Mike Brumby introduced Kriegspiel to the club. This was popular with some members, but disliked by others and so was not included in the summer programme. A group of four or five members were enthusiasts and became very proficient in it. However, the more proficient they became the less enjoyable the games became for the players, until the person getting the most enjoyment was the umpire. At this point playing Kriegspiel gradually ceased.

About 1990 John Borrill suddenly reduced his involvement with the club for personal reasons, ceasing to be Secretary and Spartans Captain and sadly he died in early 1992. Ron Keenan took over as Club Secretary and Patrick Broadhead as Spartans Captain. Meanwhile, first Adrian Millward and then John Toscano had become Phoenix captain.

In 1993-94 a fifth division of the league was instituted and the club entered a fifth team called Vikings, which went on to win the P H Charles Trophy and promotion in their first year. They continued in this vein coming second in Division 4 in 1994-95, and gaining promotion to Division 3. However, Vikings finished bottom of Division 3 in 1995-96 and were withdrawn from the league all together the following year, because of falling club membership.

Ron Keenan gave up as Secretary in 1995 and was succeeded first by John Knight for one year and then by Steve Bessell, who had been editor of the club bulletin since about 1988. There was also a change in the captain of Phoenix in 1995, Gerry Fletcher taking on the job for three years. In 1996 John Mercy joined the club and took on first the captaincy of Phoenix in1998-99, followed by club secretaryship the following year. Since when, he has been the mainstay of the club up to the present time (2009), taking on also the captaincy of another team from 2005-06.

During 2001-02, the brewery sold the Earl of Arundel and Surrey and the new management immediately set about maximising their profits. The first the club knew of it was one Thursday evening when players turned up for a match, only to find the usual room already occupied by another party. The chess match was squashed into the snooker room and the club members informed by the new landlady that, if they wished to continue to have the use of the usual room, the club would have to pay £60 a week! Clearly this was out of the question and it is very doubtful that she subsequently managed to let it at anything like that figure.

Clearly,  the club had to find a new venue and, after searching round, moved to a rather dismal room at the rundown Royal Hotel. However, the landlord was welcoming and charged no rent. Unfortunately, after a year or so it was closed down and converted into apartments. This necessitated another change of venue to the Cricketers Inn, where the landlord was the same person as the original landlord at the Earl of Arundel, and again he was welcoming. Unfortunately the premises proved unsuitable and after one season there the club moved again – this time to the Bridge Inn at Heeley, where it still plays at the present time.

On leaving the Earl of Arundel, the club changed its name to Phoenix and the team names to the more usual ‘A’ and ‘B’. A ‘C’ team was formed in 2005-06 to ensure that all members could be given match practice.

Many thanks to Mike Brumby for providing this extensive Club history.

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