Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sonic Oosterom Boy

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 well
Which 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.]


Anonymous said...

Sonic Oosterom boy - is that a reference to the forgotten group Westworld, who were the future of popular music for about ten minutes c1986?

Tom Chivers said...

I wonder what the feeling amongst top CC players about this issue is?

Jonathan B said...

Perhaps part of the reluctance to investigate is an acknowledgement that any rule for correspondence chess that bans human assistance (or computer assistance for that matter) is entirely unenforceable and therefore as a competitive activity at the highest level, correspondence chess is 100% dead.

(Not so at the humble level I play at I'm glad to say).

While I'm here... let's say, for the sake of argument, that the fellow is getting Dutch humanoid assistance.

Imagine the implications - a man who despite his wealth and privilege has an ego so crushingly small he needs other people to believe he excels at (correspondence) chess.

That would deserve pity as much as disapproval.

Anonymous said...

Piket, who moved to Monaco to get a 'real' - non-chess - job.
may or may not have helped Van Oosterom with his games but it is well known in the Netherlands that for many years Van Oosterom has hired two Dutch IMs full time to work on his correspondence games.
I think it was Hans Ree who described Van Oosterom as the new 'Turk' - just a puppet who took the credit for the achievements of those behind him.
As jonathan b says, it's pathetic.

ejh said...

I think it was Hans Ree who described Van Oosterom as the new 'Turk'

Tim Krabbé?

and therefore as a competitive activity at the highest level, correspondence chess is 100% dead.

I don't see this at all, because I don't see why it's significantly easier to get somebody else to help you now than it was, say, twenty or fifty years ago.

I should stress that I don't actually know whether or not Van Oosterom is getting assistance and if so, how much and from whom. He was a strong OTB player i nhis youth and that's precisely the sort of person - strong, but with business commitments that make it hard to play regularly OTB - who often turns to correspondence chess and thrives.

But it really does bother me that there are questions hanging over the world champion, serious ones, and yet they are just left to hang there.

Anonymous said...

Maybe just give him a call and ask him? Or write him a letter or email? Why do we assume he wouldn't tell us how it is?

I think we may assume that CC GMs own Fritz and Rybka and use it when useful. Why not allow them to consult friends or employed titled chess players as well.

What strikes me is that ``cheating'' is common in business, politics and love,
but in sports people are assumed to always play by the official rules.

ejh said...

Why not allow them to consult friends or employed titled chess players as well

Well, basically for the reasons give in the Code of Conduct set out in the original piece.