08 July 2014

The Start of the Scholastic Boom

When a subject catches my attention, I have a hard time getting it out of my mind. A recent example is my post on The USCF in Numbers, where I commented on USCF growth and noticed two periods that saw dramatic increases in USCF membership.

[USCF] growth has not been linear. There was a spurt from 11.202 members mid-1968 to 59.779 members in 1974, then a long, choppy decline, then another period of growth from 52.898 members in 1990 to a peak of 88.908 members in 2002. The last dozen years have seen the organization in decline again.

The early 1970s are known as the 'Fischer years', when the struggle of the American Champion to become World Champion was tracked by the mainstream press. [...] As for the growth in the 1990s and the subsequent decline, I have no ready explanation.

In a comment to the post, Macauley Peterson replied,

The growth in the 1990s was largely [due] to the tremendous boom in scholastic chess, which more than made up for the decline in adult memberships.

I contacted an acquaintance who was professionally involved with the USCF in the 1990s and asked him if Macauley's explanation was accurate. He replied,

I would like to think that stability at the top had something to do with the growth. Executive Director Al Lawrence's philosophy was simple: In order for the USCF to promote chess, you first have to promote the USCF. Macauley's remarks might be true for the latter half of the 1990s, but up until Al resigned [in 1996], adult membership grew along with other membership types.

He also commented on the subsequent decline in overall membership,

A steady decline in affiliates -- from about 2300 to less that 900 today -- meant fewer opportunities to cull new members. The decline in affiliates (clubs) and league play was due in no small part to the advent of on line play. USCF did not act quickly enough to the changing times. Members and former members now had an inexpensive option for getting their chess fix.

Al Lawrence, who was USCF Executive Director from 1988 to 1996, gave his own assessment in the August 1995 issue of Chess Life (p.3).

Since last April [1994], USCF total paid membership has gained over 8.200 new members [...] The future of chess, like the future of any activity depends on young people taking an interest. American youngsters are turning to USCF programs in ever increasing numbers. Scholastic Chess membership has gained 26% last year. Since 1990, it's up more than 700%! [...]

Adult membership has been steadily climbing since 1989, although the gains are not as dramatic as those of our recent school program. Nearly 48.000 adults are now dues-paying members of USCF.

A chart accompanying the article showed 82.430 members in 1995. The difference of more than 34.000 members must have been due in large part to scholastic memberships. No one knew it at the time, but scholastic members don't necessarily become adult members. A post I wrote last year, 2013 USCF Executive Board Election, included this quote from USCF President Ruth Haring.

Scholastic retention is one of the most urgent and least understood puzzles facing the organization (see chart).

Scholastic retention is one thing; a life-long appreciation for chess is another. Has the scholastic boom resulted in greater overall interest in the game? Perhaps it has, but how do you measure this?

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