And The Winner Is... English Chess!
Malcolm Pein's election campaign for CEO of the English Chess Federation has prompted a policy debate about how to grow the game. © ChessFest 2021

And The Winner Is... English Chess!

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Lots of things in England are a little bit difficult to explain to foreigners. The role of a man wearing fancy garters, called ‘Black Rod,’ in the Annual State Opening of Parliament. The rules of cricket. Boris Johnson’s hairstyle… and of course the strange and arcane election customs of the English Chess Federation (ECF).

Nowadays, most 21st-century membership organizations tackle the question of how to elect their top officials in the simple, modern fashion we call ‘One Member, One Vote’ (OMOV) – based on the revolutionary idea that your vote is actually worth… the same as my vote.

And since, in a normal (non-pandemic) year, there are about 10,000 members of the ECF, it would follow that there would be up to 10,000 votes up for grabs. But not so fast, I hear you say…

As the comedian Eddie Izzard might say, “Hang on ein minuten. You’re British, so scale it down a bit.”

Like a Parliament, but not really

Rather than recognising that its members should decide such issues directly on an OMOV system, the national chess federation is constituted as a Company, and is governed by a Council that meets twice yearly. There, the Full Members of the Company are either representatives of various affiliated organisations, or serving or former ECF officials.   

Aha, a kind of Parliament, you may say. That all sounds very British, and quite quaint, doesn’t it?

As in: “Will the Right Honourable Member for Hastings & Sidcup kindly explain why Mr. Henry Pillsbury was not invited to defend his tournament trophy for the 127th year running?” a harrumphing baronet from Berkshire may well ask. And other deeply relevant questions, of course.

Perhaps in theory the ECF works like the Mother of Parliaments, but not so much in practice.

The ECF’s affiliated organisations are supposed to consult with their members and stakeholders on how to cast their votes (which are weighted, based on the number of rated chess games they report), But this consultation is, let’s say, a little uneven. One organisation may organise children’s tournaments, and thus is hardly likely to consult the players, while another may run a league (but not hold meetings where teams are represented). Another county may vote the way its chairman for the last decade tells it to, while a tournament’s vote may simply be cast on the whim of the congress organiser.

The ‘Blackadder System’

These “rotten boroughs” in effect constitute block votes, usually controlled by a relatively small number of delegates on the ECF Council. And without these block votes, it is very difficult to get any kind of positive change implemented, and sometimes very difficult for an incumbent official to be challenged successfully.

I could be accused of deploying undue comic hyperbole here, but to me the overall effect is something akin to a scene from Rowan Atkinson’s historical comedy “Blackadder,” where the 18th century by-election from the fictional constituency of ‘Dunny-on-the-Wold’ is decided by a single Voter, a Mr. Edmund Blackadder, who also happens to be the Returning Officer and the Campaign Manager for the winning candidate (a certain Mr. Baldrick).

Of course, it’s not quite that bad. But the whole system tends to be bulletproofed against radical change by the fact that delegates to the ECF Council are about as eager to vote for reducing their own powers as turkeys are to vote for Christmas.

Nevertheless, there it is. The ECF’s electoral system is a perfect illustration of how certain outdated English customs persist long after the rest of the world has moved on and modernized. Most people involved in English chess recognize what an outmoded organization the ECF is, but many have simply given up hope of changing it.

A contested election, you say?

But STOP PRESS: At the upcoming ECF AGM this Saturday (16 October), there was to have been a contested election for Chief Executive.

The incumbent CEO, Mike Truran, was facing a challenge from Malcolm Pein, the current International Director.

Now Mike Truran is the driving force behind Britain’s successful national league, the 4NCL, while International Master Malcolm Pein is the founder and organiser of the country’s biggest chess festival, the London Chess Classic. So these are clearly two heavyweight contenders, each espousing – I think it’s fair to say – slightly different philosophies about the role of the national federation.

Status Quo versus Development?

Broadly speaking, their different philosophies boiled down to this: Mike Truran would prefer the Federation to be an “enabling” organization, not staging so many events itself, but equally not getting in the way of other people and organizations that wish to do so. Meanwhile, Malcolm Pein favours a more pro-active approach, and would like to see the Federation taking the lead more to grow the game and to engage with government to secure official recognition (and funding). Mike’s philosophy fits in with the stable model of the 4NCL, while Malcolm’s vision sees growth – particularly based on the Netfix ‘Queen’s Gambit’ boom sweeping the world.

Over the last few weeks, Mike and Malcolm fought a tough battle for the election.

But, then – something happened. With barely a week to go before the election, at the last moment both candidates appeared to blink, and instead of contesting a potentially close and bruising election, they chose to do a power-sharing deal.

Mike Truran (left) and Malcolm Pein (right) toast their agreement, which avoids the need for a contested election on October 16. © Sarah Longson

This agreement will see Malcolm Pein withdraw his challenge, allowing Mike Truran to serve another term of three years as CEO – in return for a series of pro-development reforms that would also give Malcolm an expanded portfolio as Director of International Chess and External Relations.

Malcolm would then be given the brief to try to engage with government and secure official recognition – with the hope of securing funding, too.

Both sides can justifiably claim the deal is good for them, with Mike Truran building on solid achievements during his five years in office, while Malcolm Pein can use his extra influence to grow the game and take advantage of the online chess boom during the pandemic.

The details of the deal can be read here in an email from Malcolm Pein to Council Members.

A Very British Membership System

One of the incremental reforms made in recent years by the ECF has been the election of Direct Member Representatives to the Council. (Since 2020, I have served as one of these Direct Member Reps, for the Silver category of membership.)

The reps are elected annually by ordinary members of the Federation, for different categories of membership.

(And hey, I should mention that, since this is Britain, the home of the class system, there are of course Bronze, Silver and Gold Members – just don’t tell Austin Powers, he’ll be waving his medallion in our general direction – as well as Platinum Members, a special category of more expensive membership with a few extra perks, but mainly giving its holders the kudos of being a Patron.)

The Austin Shaguar, Mike Myers' car in 'Goldmember' © Commons/Wikimedia

Together, the Direct Member reps collectively wield a modest number of votes on the Council – a maximum of 40 out of a total of about 400, or approximately 10 percent.

So far, elections for these posts have generally been seen as a sideshow, with rarely more than 5-10 percent of members bothering to vote – if the posts are contested at all.

Some in the ECF believe that only either One Member, One Vote for all elected officials, or some kind of electoral college system where Direct Members get a greater say, will produce more interest from members in how the Federation is run.

Others, however, question this approach, saying that OMOV or other democratic systems could be open to manipulation by a vocal minority without the right safeguards.

Whatever the answer, I strongly believe some fundamental change is needed if the ECF is to become a more inclusive, democratic organization.

Consulting The Members

As part of the Direct Member Reps system, reps in each member category have held a consultation exercise during this election campaign to see which candidates (and policies) members prefer.

The number of responses has generally been low, however. In the Silver Members category, for example, a total of 33 responses were received out of an adult membership of 1024. That’s 3.2 percent, or 1 in 33 members.

The results may or may not be symbolic – but statistically, they are practically insignificant, meaning that Reps do not get much of a reliable steer on how to cast their votes.

Anyway, for the record: the challenger, Malcolm Pein, received 17 ‘votes’, versus just 11 for the incumbent, Mike Truran. (But in a parallel contest, which may yet go to a vote on Saturday, for the Chair of the Governance Committee, the consultation ‘votes’ of Silver Members were 17 to the incumbent, Robert Stern, and 5 for Chris Fegan, the challenger.)

It should be stressed that these ‘votes’ are just consultative, and Direct Member Reps are not bound to vote this way – particularly given the extremely low numbers of people expressing a preference.

Members’ Views More Radical Than Council’s

More interesting to me than the exact number of consultative ‘votes’, however, is the comments that members have made in their responses to the Reps. To me, they show that ordinary members are far ahead of many Council members in their thinking.

It is clear that Malcolm Pein’s call for ‘prudent growth and development’ – as opposed to a purely ‘enabling’ policy, has struck a positive chord with some members, as has his calling for more strenuous efforts to engage with government about getting chess the recognition it needs to become a more popular activity.

Here is a selection of the more interesting comments sent by Silver Members to the Reps via the ECF Office (the identity of respondents has been omitted, in compliance with the UK’s GDPR legislation).

I should state that nearly all respondents who expressed a view or argument in addition to simply “Vote for X & Y” saw pluses in both Mike Truran’s and Malcolm Pein’s efforts and approaches, but the need for a more pro-active Federation was the most common theme that stood out.

One ECF member (a finance professional from London, and the father of a talented junior) writes: “It is great that we have two qualified and committed individuals standing for election. However, I have long thought that the ECF has not been ambitious about its fundraising goals and overall approach to grow the game. With regards to junior chess, for instance, we are miles behind countries such as Turkey, USA, etc. in terms of what the ECF can offer its members.”

The member adds: “Malcolm [Pein] is the only person within the English chess community at present who has demonstrated the ability to raise significant sums of money for chess. He understands that you have to first spend money to raise even more money and has the network and reputation to deliver results. He is clearly uniquely qualified for the post of CEO, and I believe that he is the best person to capitalise on the recent boom in chess.”

Another Silver member, an experienced junior coach, writes:

“I have been playing club and county chess on and off for 40 years now and I see a very steady decline in club attendances and opportunities to play OTB chess. There is also a very clear decline in tournaments.”

“That said, events such as the London Classic, ChessFest on Trafalgar Square in London and my own club Guildford’s 125-year celebrations, which brought over 400 people out to play chess, show that the game is still very popular but this is not feeding into the clubs which are the lifeblood of OTB chess.”

The 'Alice through the Looking-Glass' theme was very popular at ChessFest 2021, organised by Chess in Schools and Communities, where 6,000 visitors played chess on Trafalgar Square. © ChessFest 2021

“Therefore I believe we need to leverage the energy and drive that Malcolm has shown over recent years to regrow the chess community, which is made up of a mainly middle-aged male demographic and is not sustainable over the coming decades.”

Meanwhile, an experienced tournament player writes:

“If there is one thing that frustrates me, to the point where I go public on social media in particular, it is the Government’s complete dismissal of chess as a sport and, therefore, the absence of public funding which would raise and help ‘normalise’ the profile of chess. I would support a concerted effort on the part of the ECF to tackle this head on. For this alone Malcolm Pein gets my support. I also agree with his proposals for streamlining the ECF’s finances if a method which avoids heavy taxation can be found.”

Although most of the comments were focused on the CEO role, the same member also mentioned the election for Chair of Governance.

More 'combative stance' on governance

“I also support Chris Fegan’s candidature for the Governance position. I feel that a more combative stance at the higher levels of the ECF would be of benefit as for too long an air of sleepy obscurity has characterised much of its activities.”

A junior organiser from the North of England was also strongly in favour of a more outgoing approach from the Federation.  

“I definitely favour a pro-active approach, and I'll tell you why,” the member writes.

“Many years ago, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played the [1972 World Championship] match that raised the profile of chess to previously unimagined heights.”

“I remember there being mainstream TV reports on all of the games, just as there are for high-level football matches. But what has happened since 1972?

Half of one and all of another world championship were held in London.

A candidates tournament has been held in London.

A British player was even a challenger for the World Championship.

But, and there's a but to it, I would say that all of the above achieved easily less than 1 percent of the publicity that the Fischer-Spassky match managed.”

“The reality is that there isn't any chance of another Fischer-Spassky event.

So if we want to promote the game, we need to do it ourselves.

I believe that means we need to get out of the chess clubs and be more public, as ‘ChessFest’ did, for instance.”

In conclusion, I feel that it’s a shame these Silver Members do not have a direct vote on the ECF Council or in national elections. It would be good if we could use the opportunity that the agreement between Mike Truran and Malcolm Pein affords us to seriously democratize the ECF – so that its ordinary members have a real say in the future of English chess.


Tim Wall has served as a Silver Members’ Rep on the English Chess Federation’s Council since 2020. The views expressed here are his own,  and do not necessarily reflect those of the ECF.