A couple of weeks ago, the latest correspondence chess ratings were published and the world number one is, as before, Joop van Oosterom, the billionaire sponsor of the annual Melody Amber tournaments - which curiously take place in the tax haven of Monaco rather than in his native Holland - and twice World Correspondence Chess Champion.
It's a triumph of will over adversity: a man who suffered a stroke a few years past nevertheless goes on to win the world championship, in a mind sport, not only once, but twice. Or, possibly, a triumph of reality over appearances, since it has been alleged, by people more knowledgeable than I, that Mr Van Oosterom's success is connected to his hiring the services of supergrandmaster Jeroen Piket as a secretary, at the time he was playing in the first of these world championships.
Van Oosterom was, in his youth, a strong OTB player, and many top correspondence players have been short of grandmaster strength outside their specialist form of the game: nevertheless the coincidence is not a happy one and no particular effort seems to have been made to deny the claims. Which makes it all the more odd that no particular effort seems to have been made to confirm them.
Perhaps it doesn't matter. It's not all that easy to read the playing rules on the ICCF website but as far as I can see they make no specific reference to a player seeking or receiving assistance from another person: perhaps because it can't be avoided, although I'm sure it was prohibited when I first played correspondence chess, albeit in rather less exalted competitions, nearly twenty-five years ago. Oddly (it is all oddities, this matter) the Guidelines make reference to a Code of Conduct, but I can find it nowhere on the ICCF site - yet I can find it in a websearch. The pertinent passage is this:
It is expected that players will decide the moves for themselves. It is unacceptable behaviour to have someone else play your games. The whole ICCF ratings and titles system relies on the assumption that games are played by the players named in the starting lists (or approved substitutes).Now, either this expectation is being ignored in the the van Oosterom/Piket case, or it is not. But either way, given that this is the world number one and double World Champion, how can it be acceptable that claims of assistance are made and yet neither accepted nor dismissed? Normally, when there are accusations of outside assistance in matches and tournaments involving world champions and world championships - Kramnik v Topalov, San Luis, even Kasparov v Deep Blue - they are taken very seriously indeed. Yet here, when they're made, everybody seems to pretend that nothing's going on. Chess Today, reporting on the new rating list, said nothing. Chessbase, normally terribly hot under the collar over ethical issues in chess (or at least when FIDE are involved) are silent.
One suspects that there are two main reasons for this silence. One is the Melody Amber tournaments: nobody wants to offend a sponsor. Or, as Dennis Monokroussos put it when Van Oosterom first won the world title:
Congratulations to Joop van Oosterom! It's nice to see someone who has given to our great game (he's the sponsor of the famous annual Melody Amber tournaments) have success as a player as wellWhich is understandable. But not really acceptable, unless one takes the view that ethical issues do not occur if the people concerned are giving you money.
The other reason is simply general embarrassment that these questions are being asked and nobody is answering them. What can one do, in these circumstances, except briefly report the rating list and swiftly move on - or not mention it all? That, too, is understandable. But that, too, isn't entirely acceptable. We are talking about the world championship, and about the reputations of two major figures in chess. That the questions just sit there, that is the real embarassment. And while this is so, it seems to me that to complain about other ethical issues in contemporary chess - which happens all the time - is little better than humbug.
[As with all postings on this site, the views expressed herein are those solely of the author and do not represent the official or corporate views of the blog or of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club, even if such things were to exist.]