Journal of the Emerald Specter 91: FIDE and Chess

Yes, yes, I know… another chess column. But if you didn’t like chess, then why are you coming to this website?

Before I begin with the meat of this column, I should note that the things that interest me are the things I talk about. Those include, but are not limited to: chess, sumo, NFL, UFC, soccer, comic books, bullet journaling, RPGs, TV, storytelling, writing, NASCAR, podcasting, fitness, and movies. I try to keep from talking about one or two things too often but I honestly cover things when I think of them or something in the world happens that relates to them.

With that said, there is a chess story in the news I thought about and that leads me to talking about what I’m going to be talking about.

There is an election coming up for the president of FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), where the incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been in power since 1995. The election is not the first to attempt to unseat Ilyumzhinov from power but this is the first election to really have a shot at making that happen.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been plagued with corruption his entire run as president and has even been placed on a sanctions list by the US Treasury Department, meaning he can’t do any business with US dollars. Since that is the currency a lot of the world use (though by no means is it the strongest currency), he can’t actually open bank accounts (they’re frozen) for FIDE… which is a problem for an organization that needs funds in order to operate.

While we could be ending up with an alternative to Ilyumzhinov, we might end up with a thinly veiled new version of him because of the Russian Chess Federation.

One of the candidates running is Arkady Dvorkovich, who has now been officially recognized as the candidate for the RCF. I don’t know anything about this guy at all but from what I’ve heard, there may be other issues that prevent FIDE from being looked at as corrupt if Dvorkovich wins the bid.

So, what is the issue with FIDE?

FIDE has a serious image problem. They give official tournaments to places that ban certain players (like a not so long ago tournament) or allows shady happenings to occur with voting from the General Assembly (absentee voting, even when not absent, is an issue). There is also a perception (based on practices) that lead most players and interested parties to see FIDE as discouraging the very game they are charged to administer.

That last sentence is like the NFL actively working against the teams in American Football.

Dvorkovich is unlikely to make the sweeping changes necessary for chess to survive long into the future under FIDE’s control. There are two other candidates but worries about the General Assembly passing anything that doesn’t directly benefit those who are benefitting from the current system is a real concern.

So, how does one fix this dilemma? Simple: provide an alternative to FIDE.

As I see it, FIDE began with good intentions and somewhere along the line started falling out of that in favor of lining people’s pockets. FIDE should be a non-profit organization, or at the very least, be doing everything humanly possible to make chess the most popular game in the world.

FIDE needs to die and something better needs to be there to take its place.

Here’s how I would like to see things:

The formation of another chess governing body should form (for the purposes of this little thought experiment, let’s call it International Chess Association… or ICA) and immediately recognize the largest chess federations in the world. Right off the top of my head, that would include the All India Chess Federation, English Chess Federation, Russian Chess Federation, and US Chess Federation (there are more, but I’m not into just coming up with a large list). The ICA should also immediately recognize the World Chess Champion (who at the time of this article is Magnus Carlsen).

Sponsorship deals should be formed to fund the ICA. There are several options for what exactly sponsors could be paying for: ratings list, specific tournaments, website, federation naming (like the English Premier League for soccer is currently sponsored by Barclay’s, making it the Barclay’s Premier League), and merchandise. Let’s say that the ICA, now sponsored by Coca-Cola, becomes the Coca-Cola Chess Association, publishing a ratings list (using the URS method instead of Elo) will be sponsored by Tesla (the Tesla Top Players List, or the Tesla Ratings Report), and all of this can be found on the official ICA website (something like ICA.chess) sponsored by GoDaddy.

The ICA should also spell out how competition will work, ideally allowing for multiple ways to compete in the sport. I’m personally envisioning a couple of distinct means of competing but I’ll limit my ideas to just two: match play and tournament.

Let’s begin with tournament play.

The Grand Chess Tour is a series of tournaments set up to be chess’s version of tennis or golf, determining a “champion” by means of pivotally important tournaments. Rather than come up with an alternative, allow the GCT to continue with ICA support and get them to expand from five annual events to six (one every other month, ideally). Recognize the winner, give that winner a slot in the World Championship Cycle, and just generally encourage the GCT wherever possible.

Match play is a different animal.

Traditionally, chess (and more specifically, the World Chess Championship) has been about match play (two players getting together to play a series of games to determine an ultimate winner). At some point in the past, match play became less of “a thing” and gave way to tournament play. Sadly, tournament play is almost exclusively how chess players interact with one another.

This is where recognition of the World Champion comes heavily into play.

Set up a ladder system for the ICA, encouraging match play between players at different points on the ladder. The World Champion would be listed at the top, and then using ratings, determine a definitive ranking of players from 1 to 100. Rather than only defending the World Championship once every three years (see the 2018 cycle’s results), match play would encourage an annual championship defense… with every third year being a required player based on the outcome of the ICA’s World Championship Cycle.

An automatic qualifier for the Cycle would come from the GCT (as suggested above), the top two qualifiers from the Chess World Cup, the top two rated players on the ratings list (that are not otherwise qualified from the other categories), a nominated player by vote of the General Assembly of Federations (one vote per federation, no absentee voting, no giving your vote to anyone else to cast), a nominated player by vote of the top 100 players, and a fan voted nominee (utilizing a poll or some form of verifiable social media to prevent multiple votes being cast). These eight players would then compete in a double round robin tournament (no more than two games per day per player, preferably one game per day per player) to determine the “mandatory championship contender.”

Outside of this cycle, however, individual match play would be encouraged by the ICA to give a competitive feel to match play that hasn’t currently existed outside of the World Chess Championship match since the pre-1950s. Encouragement would come in the form of match prizes being funded by whichever sponsor wanted to jump on the specific “match card” for promotion (like the UFC has sponsors plastered all over the Octagon during fights).

This idea is the one that will meet the most resistance but I believe will draw the most attention from non-chess players (casual players or fans of competition that don’t necessarily include chess) because they can latch onto big names that provide “exciting competition.” Ask someone who five of the top 50 players are right now and only die hard chess fans would be able to come close to being correct.

There is one more competition variation that I did not consider… but now that I’ve gotten this far into the article, I want to include it. The PRO Chess League is team play, run and formed by IM Greg Shahade, and is another exciting version of chess. The ICA would formally recognize the PRO Chess League and work to aid in endorsing the promotion of team play.

Now that we’ve got some basics out of the way, there are some bullet points that also need to have the ICA declare for better chess:

  • No tournaments will be held in locations that will prevent all competitors from attending.
  • No tournaments will be held in locations that force local customs on the competitors.
  • Proven cheating will result in a 5 year ban from the ICA, meaning the player cannot enter any tournament where the ICA is providing the prize funds. They would also be removed from the ICA rating list for that time. A second offense results in permanently banning the player.

I believe that allowing for an alternative that promotes chess, doesn’t charge players for being listed on the ratings list, doesn’t charge member federations for belonging to the organization, and is generally trying to do things that would be working towards making chess more popular would have federations leaving FIDE in favor of this ICA idea.

Without getting into detail, the ICA would be able to put chess on TVs like poker has been, provide high quality documentaries, build chess academies for youth players (or maybe financially supporting already existing chess academies), provide a spotlight for chess play (both promoting match play events as well as tournament play events), and maybe even working to include other forms of competitive play (other than team, match, and tournament).

Corruption is bad. Perceived corruption is the same as corruption. Perception is reality. If someone perceives FIDE to be corrupt, it is corrupt. FIDE has to work on correcting that image and the only way to do that is to get rid of those who are in the spotlight of the perceived corruption.

None of the ideas expressed here would be without consulting some of the top players in chess. One thing that FIDE is famous for is ignoring the very members they are governing in favor of just doing whatever the hell they want. I’m honestly surprised that the top players in the world haven’t already formed their own federation and driven FIDE out of business.

Wilhelm Steinitz declared himself World Champion in the 1880s (utilizing a match with the next best player at the time to legitimize it) and there was no governing body back then. FIDE didn’t pop up until the 1920s, and wasn’t even a position of power to do anything until 1946. Why is a floundering and corrupt body being allowed to continue when FIDE isn’t even really completely necessary?

Before FIDE, players determined who would play for the World Championship based on the ability to raise funding. I don’t think we should go back to those days but FIDE isn’t running the show in a sustainable and uncorrupt way. A replacement is necessary unless FIDE can right the ship, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

I just wanted to put this out there as a possible alternative.