Talking 'bout a (FIDE) revolution

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Ilyumzhinov FIDE President 2010-2014After Ilyumzhinov's victory in the FIDE Presidential elections in Khanty-Mansiysk twelve days ago, it's become awfully silent on both fronts. Those seeking change in the World Chess Federation have been struck dumb at the prospect of another four years of Kirsan's reign. But they needn't despair. They just shouldn't wait for the big shots to change things.

About half a year ago, as a private initiative, I formed a group on Facebook for chess players who wanted change within FIDE. It started with just one member - myself. But over the past months, over 1,100 people from all over the world joined. Although quite a few notable grandmasters and other known figures in the chess world also joined the group, the vast majority of the people in the group consisted of amateurs - they may have been a member of some local chess club, but more likely they just enjoyed chess as a game and were concerned about the course of FIDE over the past 15 - or more - years.

Strangely, the biggest group of people who play chess - the fans, the youngsters playing chess in their schools, the amateurs playing in pubs or coffee shops, the club players sacrificing their holiday days in local tournaments, the sub-IM level players fighting to separate themselves from the masses - those countless chess lovers don't have an official voice in deciding the course of the World's Chess Federation. If they did, judging from the support even my little Facebook group received, things might actually look pretty different.


In theory, of course, even within FIDE there is some kind of 'democracy'. Once amateurs have become paying members of their country's federation, the federation delegates can vote during the FIDE Presidential elections. Thus, the amateurs can indirectly 'influence' the course of FIDE itself. (Although I've never heard of a federation asking its amateur members for their opinion on such political matters!) The problem is, however, that the majority of active chess players (not to mention the strongest chess players) live in a pretty limited set of countries.

Though I don't have the official figures, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of chess players within the German, Russian and Spanish federations (and a few others) make up as much as 80% of the total number of players in all the world's federations. Yet, according to the infamous 'one country, one vote' system FIDE maintains during elections, every federation - no matter how small - has the same weight of vote: namely 1. A country's federation with just 100 members has exactly as much influence as a federation with 100,000. So much for democracy.

Interestingly, even Anatoly Karpov didn't openly want to change this system which gives power to the (small) federation delegates but not to its underlying members. Although Karpov's campaign language was littered with words like 'grassroot support' and promises to involve not only chess officials but also 'ordinary' chess players, when I asked the Karpov Campaign webmaster to add a simple link to my Facebook group, all I received was silence.

The Karpov 2010 campaign website

The Karpov 2010 campaign website

In fact, both Karpov's and Ilyumzhinov's campaign sites decided to completely ignore the entire ChessVibes news reporting about the elections. Perhaps the webmasters were confused by the fact that we were critical of both candidates and their election programs in our columns while still trying to be as objective as possible in our regular reports.

Taking sides

Some readers have reproached us for taking sides during the elections, but in fact we've always tried to separate our personal opinions from the arguments that were simply put forward by both sides and which needed explanation (or questioning!). Also, giving equal weight to all statements - regardless of the contents - made by either side in an election is hardly the same as objective journalism - rather, it's an abdication of journalistic responsibility.

Looking back, I think Karpov's campaign was really not all that much about changing the democratic (or lack thereof) structure of FIDE (though, of course, Ilyumzhinov's was even less, and Karpov, to his credit, did mention many of Ilyumzhinov's and FIDE's darker aspects towards the end of the campaign) but about something else. It was about raising funds during gala dinners for business people, in order to find sponsors for the elite tournaments and the organization of the World Champioship. As always, it was mostly about money.

Money vs. Moral

Now, don't get me wrong: money is important in chess. It's important for federations in order to organize national and local chess events, to fund innovation projects like Chess in the Schools and promote chess for groups like disabled people and minorities. Most of all, money (preferrably, a lot) is important for chess professionals who need to live from prizes and good conditions. It seems that money makes the chess world go 'round. Or does it?

Thrilled though chess lovers all over the world are and always have been about grandmaster participation, top level tournaments, Candidate Matches and World Championship matches, they are also annoyed by a lot of things. The zero-tolerance rule, which applies not only to top events but also in local competitions, is just one example. Then we have the increasingly tough-to-understand Elo rating calculations.

Another annoyance of many is the fact that so many big FIDE events are organized in a rather restricted area of the world - the Caucasus and the former Soviet States - making a visit to their favourite chess tournament a rather problematic goal for most of the world's chess fans. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that FIDE is reigned by people who have a more than dubious track record on several aspects of political life is a concern that cannot even begin to be expressed in terms of money. It's a moral issue.

So if two former World Champions can't change things; if rich business men can't (and make no mistake, Karpov and Kasparov are both!); if elite grandmasters won't; if the delegates of the world's largest chess federations are powerless -then who can? Perhaps we shouldn't expect change from the top of the food chain. After all, they're much too dependent on good relations with FIDE (and yes, that also applies to federations in favour of change).. We may have more chance starting at the bottom. Why wait for the big shots? Why wait for 2014?

Lenin in the Bolshevist headquarters in October 1917 (Painting by Wladimir Serow)

Lenin in the Bolshevist headquarters in October 1917 (Painting by Wladimir Serow)

Real change hurts

Unfortunately, as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued in the New Yorker, real revolutions aren't likely started, let alone won, on the internet. My Facebook group is nice, but it hardly changes things in real life. It's too easy to sign an online petition or join a group with the click of a mouse, too comfortable. Real change hurts - at least a little.

So why not look at things in real life? Here's a couple of suggestions to get a taste of what I have in mind. Suppose all FIDE-rated chess players refused to play in tournaments organized by FIDE, starting next week. I suspect Ilyumzhinov and his team of rating experts would have a problem even before the end of the year - if not because of empty chairs and tables, then surely because of a distortion in progression for the rating population.


Somewhat more realistically, suppose club members wrote a letter to their federation stating they refuse to pay the part of the annual fees that their federation sends to FIDE. I'm pretty sure the FIDE treasurer wouldn't be amused. And what if arbiters refused to comply with some of the more bizarre 'new' rules within the FIDE handbook? I bet the frequently organized Arbiter Seminars would definitely become much more exciting! As the great essayist H.L.Mencken said, "progress is furthered not by conformity, but by aberration."

Of course, these suggestions don't imply that there couldn't be any more chess tournaments organized. It's just that FIDE would not be involved anymore. Game score sheets wouldn't be handed over to FIDE anymore. Perhaps even rating results wouldn't be passed on anymore - surely I can decide that my rating shouldn't be used or published without my explicit permission? (Actually, my FIDE rating is so embarrassingly low that I'd prefer to ignore it anyway. I guess it just goes to show that self-interest doesn't by definition have to contradict a good cause.) But otherwise, who cares if FIDE is or is not involved?


A little rebellion won't hurt anyone. Players can simply disassociate themselves from FIDE and still happily play chess. After all, it's the organizers who decide the participants of a particular tournament, not the FIDE board. Heck, someone can even start an alternative rating system - after all, they're plenty of experts out there. (As a matter of fact, such systems have always existed in the past: my own national federation - the Dutch Chess Federation - has its own rating system, the "KNSB" rating, and - until recently - it was fully separated from FIDE ratings.)

In the end, things like ratings and rankings are just peripheral aspects of chess, mostly established for the benefit of professionals, which amateurs and club players can easily do without (I know I certainly can). And if the professionals don't like what I'm saying - well, tough luck. Serves them right for looking only at their own interests and refusing to stand up against FIDE (for instance by boycotting the Olympiad in Elista in 1998) and passively letting things get out of hand over the past decades, eh? After all, how many chess pros have actively spoken out against FIDE politics in recent years even when their personal interests couldn't possibly be hurt by doing so?

Talking 'Bout A Revolution

When I was in high school, in the year of Tracy Chapman's Talking 'Bout A Revolution, I learned an interesting 'rule of thumb' in history class to find out if there's a real revolution going on: it's only a revolution if the trams stop riding. (Apparently this was said during the October Revolution in 1917). In other words, real revolutions are felt not only in parliaments and oval offices (and czar's palaces), but also on the streets. They require the involvement not only of politicians but also of citizens.

Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman | Photo Hans Hillewaert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In chess, the majority of the 'citizens' are not top grandmasters or even titled players. They are the people who love chess but can only dream of ever beating an FM in a serious game. The citizens of the chess world are the amateurs sacrificing their spare time to pay for the prizes of the winners.

And that's OK, we're fine with that - but a little something in return wouldn't hurt. Gens Una Sumus. If the chess citizens really want to, I believe they can do what the two greatest chess professionals alive couldn't. Now wouldn't that really makes us 'one family'?
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