Chess moves push Gibraltar into the limelight

On his desk in an office in the Caleta Hotel, Brian Callaghan, the hotel’s proprietor, keeps several thick piles of press cuttings from newspapers around the world. There are stories in English, Spanish and Arabic, snipped from newspapers and magazines or printed off the web. They have a common theme: Gibraltar, and chess.

Michael Adams, British nº1

For two weeks every year, the Rock becomes the focal point of the professional and amateur chess world. In less than a decade, the Gibraltar International Chess Festival, the brainchild of Mr Callaghan, has become a regular fixture on the global chess calendar, attracting players from five continents. Chess legend Boris Spassky dropped in for a private visit at the last edition, as did Magnus Carlsen, currently the world’s number one. In chess terms, this is now a major global brand. At the last event some 350 players from 51 countries travelled to Gibraltar to participate. There were keen amateurs, aspiring professionals and world champions in their ranks. For chess journalists everywhere, the competition offered rich pickings in terms of copy. For Gibraltar, it meant positive coverage of the sort PR gurus can only dream of.

Take this example. Traditionally, chess tournaments are dominated by male players. Women have often found it hard to break in and compete on a par with men. But that’s not the case at the Gibraltar Open, which last time attracted five of the top ten women players in the world, among many others. “There’s absolutely no doubt that, outside the women’s world championship, we’re the most important women’s chess event in the world,” Mr Callaghan said. “There’s a higher ratio of women who come to our tournament than to any other. They feel really comfortable here and I think they’re good for the tournament.” And it’s not just Mr Callaghan who thinks this. Leading chess journalists have noticed too. Here’s what the correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, one of the world’s leading global newspapers, had to say: “It was one of the strongest tournament showings by women ever. The results in Gibraltar may be the start of a trend.”

Mr Callaghan projects a tsunami of enthusiasm for the sport and for his event. Having worked hard to consolidate the competition and achieve its present critical mass, he believes the chess open offers a blueprint for the future of Gibraltar tourism, one led by international events of this nature. “We feel that this is a specific niche in the market which should be targeted with vigour,” he told B2B. “Gibraltar is not, on the whole, big enough for beach holidays because, frankly, if you look at our beaches, we can’t compete. One hopes for the future, but at the moment we’re not there.” As an alternative to the package holiday, event tourism is as attractive as it gets.

To trace the origins of the Gibraltar chess tournament you need to go back to Mr Callaghan’s childhood. “My wonderful but very radical mother sent me to a school where you didn’t actually have to learn any lessons,” he said. “One of the things that I learnt to do rather badly was play chess.”
As often happens, he played for many years, then drifted away from the game only to pick it up again as an adult, playing weekly games as a break from running his hotel and tourism business. Then one day, his hobby and his business overlapped. “I had a hotel with empty beds, and I knew that chess is played indoors and is a perfectly good winter season activity,” Mr Callaghan said. “It seemed perfectly suited for Gibraltar as a piece of event tourism, which I consider to be the future of tourism in Gibraltar.”

Back in 2000, Mr Callaghan and Franco Ostuni, the general manager of the Caleta Hotel, began to nurture the idea and explore ways of bringing it to fruition. As a first step, they went to see the competition and visited the largest chess festival in the UK, which takes place in Hastings. “We came away from there thinking that we could do very much better,” Mr Callaghan said. “Often these tournaments take place in gymnasiums, big halls, conference centres, and people go to play. But when they finish playing, they just leave.” Therein lay the opportunity. Setting up a world-class competitive event and blending it with social events. “One of the things that Gibraltar is famous for is its    hospitality and the way it welcomes people from outside,” he added. “What we felt we had to build was a social aspect to this, so that people didn’t just come to play but rather came to enter into the spirit of the festival. I think that we’ve majored in that.”

The next step was finding the funding and expertise to put the event together. Even before this, there had been early lessons. Prior to setting up the chess event, Mr Callaghan and his team had tried their hand at organising bridge and backgammon gatherings, but they didn’t work. To this day he’s not sure why, though he has an inkling. “Perhaps it was because we didn’t get inside it enough,” he said. “Now, with chess, we’re totally inside world events. We know exactly what’s going on, we know who the players are and I think it’s the amount of commitment that you make to these types of event, and the work that you put in to get to know the people, that make them work.”

Gibraltar’s chess festival is a true open tournament which means that, in the opening rounds at least, the weakest players can end up playing the best players. That provides a steep learning curve and incredible opportunities for aspiring players. Mr Callaghan did not hesitate to concede that he didn’t have the technical knowledge to make the tournament work from the outset. “I had the spirit and the will and the drive and the commitment, but not the technical knowledge,” he said. So he brought in chess professional Stewart Reuben, who for seven years led the secretariat as tournament director and was instrumental in establishing a top-notch format that is attractive to both established professionals and to players working their way up in the chess hierarchy. “We’re gathering momentum and reputation around the world every time,” Mr Callaghan said.

Critical to the success of the event was the backing and commitment of its many sponsors, both in terms of funding and less obvious behind-the-scenes support.

Sponsorship of the tournament is led by the private sector, though the Gibraltar Government provides vital financial support that has enabled the event to grow. Mr Callaghan said a turning point in the evolution of the Gibraltar open was reached when the government and sponsors committed to a three-year funding package. This offers an important lesson for future events. “When you’re running this sort of thing, you need to know that you’re there for a period of time,” he said. “That enables you to concentrate on obtaining the benefits of a world event, as opposed to having to run around trying to get the money every year. If you’ve got the passion to take these things forward, then you need to know that you can plan medium term and not have to go with a begging bowl every year to get the money. I don’t think you can get into these things unless you’re able to talk to organisers and say you’re here for at least three years.”

Although the government backing was essential to getting the tournament to where it is today, it’s the private sector that really drives it forward. From the outset the main sponsor was Gibtelecom – which offered other advantages too, not least in terms of technical support – but there are many others. During the interview Mr Callaghan asked B2B to print all their names in this article, but there are so many that do so would prove grammatically cumbersome. Suffice it to underscore the sentiment with a quote: “I can’t stress enough the support that we get from our sponsors,” he said. “They are integral to making it work.” As from the next edition of the tournament, the main sponsor will be local insurers Tradewise Insurance. “You know, chess and the financial world, they work well together,” Mr Callaghan said. “It’s a nice image. I think they’re great partners.”

Surprisingly perhaps, the figures involved in running an event like this are not that huge, particularly given the benefits to the Rock. The current budget for the tournament is about £210,000, of which £125,000 will be paid out in prizes. As for the offshoots for Gibraltar, consider these facts: during the last tournament, hotels in Gibraltar provided 5,000 room nights across the sector. Most of the players like to stay at the Caleta because they want to be where the event is being held, but inevitably many spill over to other hotels both in Gibraltar and Spain. “The numbers produced in that 12-day period are as much as two of Gibraltar’s largest tour operators in a year,” Mr Callaghan said. “It’s a substantial contribution.” And that’s just the hotel sector. With 350 people in Gibraltar for a week, the knock-on benefits for other sectors are obvious, if not so easily quantified.

So what now for chess in Gibraltar? What of the future? The open tournament is now well established and planning for the next edition is well under way. But Mr Callaghan and his team have, to coin a phrase, another queen up their sleeve. For a clue, look to Gibraltar’s schools. One offshoot of the tournament was a surge in interest in chess from youngsters. As a side activity, the sponsors of the tournament also backed a push to teach chess to youngsters and encourage an interest in chess from an early age through chess groups and lessons. Such has been the response that a new event has been born. Next summer, Mr Callaghan and his team plan to host the first junior international open tournament for under 16s and under 12s with assistance from the Calpe Chess Club. He is confident that the tournament will rapidly gain traction in the chess world, thanks to the success of the Gibraltar Open. He also believes it will help foster cross-border, cross-regional participation. His confidence in the idea is infectious, as is his belief in what is being achieved. “Whenever you see Gibraltar in the newspapers, it’s something contentious,” he said. “It’s because of some incursion by a Guardia Civil boat, or because something has happened at the frontier. The great thing about chess is that we are projecting Gibraltar around the world in a non-contentious manner. And I think that is important.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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