Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Great Chessboxing Swindle: a spiv too far

As you get older, I often remark, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between satire and reality. This is an experience I have with increasing frequency, but rarely more intensely than when I heard, through the good offices of our comments box some weeks ago, that Tim Woolgar was a candidate for the post of Director of Marketing for the English Chess Federation.

I got this chess federation off a bloke I know in London

He is, indeed, the only candidate, which prompts the thought that some posts would be better left unfilled if a suitable candidate can't be found, and the further thought that a less suitable candidate than Mr Woolgar might be hard to identify. I mean Tim Woolgar? Really?

Put the cost of the beer bitches on my tab, Dave

I suppose there would be some grounds for preferring a candidate who had some interest in chess as such, rather than someone whose sole interest in our game has been that it comprises part of the freak show which he organises for a living. But in the absence of any actual chessplaying candidate, it's not an absolute disqualification. How it's a qualification, though, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps he wishes to revamp the British Championships so that the games are accompanied by singers, hula-hoop girls and what are tastefully referred to as "beer bitches". Nice. Will Tim be promoting women's chess as well? Still, I suppose Mike Tindall and his mates might turn up.

This time next year, Rodney, we'll be in the Olympics

But why not, you say, appoint a man who has made such a success of chessboxing? Because, as this blog is occasionally obliged to observe, he hasn't. The major success of chessboxing has been in convincing so many gullible people in the media that has been a success, such that one part-time club and one or two shows a year (were there any at all in 2010?) has been reported as if it were a success story of Abba-type proportions. Thing is, the whole point of hype is that the hype is supposed to become reality. But here's Tim - after all this hype and all this time - still with his one part-time club and his one or two shows a year. So what's he got to offer us?

There's a cynical view that somebody who's convinced so many hacks that a Potemkin house is, in fact, a palace, might be just the man to market a niche product like ours: and who could object to a cynical view of marketing? But though it's a cynical view, it's not a very bright one, and there's at least two very good reasons why. The first is that given above, which is that hype which doesn't actually work isn't, in the end, very good hype. The second, which I'll expand upon below, is that if you have someone work for you whose skill is not in telling the truth, you can't be sure it isn't you he's going to fib to.

Did anybody say "total crap"?

This is a guy who makes things up. All the time. He holds a title he invented himself and a rating he invented himself: he invents titles and ratings all the time. He's going to try and get his freak show into the Olympics - and then, he isn't. He's applied to Sport England for recognition - except he hasn't. A well-known International Master is going to come to the club to try out chessboxing - except he isn't. His event - according to his sidekick - achieves "global media coverage on countless national TV networks". Except it obviously hasn't. And so on. This isn't an occasional inaccuracy or a slight tendency to exaggeration. It's a permanent policy of making things up in order to promote his private interests.

Is that what you want in a Director of Marketing? Is this somebody you can trust, do you think, to act in a proper way, and to do so in the interests of chess rather than his own? Is he going to use the role to publicise his own events? If he said he wouldn't, why would you believe him? How far can you believe anything that comes from somebody with such a casual attitude to facts?

You can call chessboxing tawdry, or you can call it a joke. You could call this appointment, if it occurs, tawdry, or you could call it a joke.

Or you could just not appoint this ludicrous individual.

I know, from long experience, that English chess can be a spivvy kind of world. A spivvy world in very many ways. But Tim Woolgar? That would really be a spiv too far.

[Thanks to Angus]
[Chessboxing index]


Anonymous said...

It is possible for the ECF Council to vote for "none of the above" which has the effect of leaving the post unfilled, to be appointed by the directors actually elected. There is a precedent, last year, "none" had a stunning victory over Malcolm Pein for the post of Non-Executive Director.

Sean Hewitt said...

I suspect there is at least a 50/50 chance of 'none of the above' beating Tim Woolgar in this election.

John Cox said...

How on earth could 'none of the above' beat Malcolm?? The ECF would be bloody lucky to have him in place of any, or indeed all, of the present board. What idiots vote in this election?

Actually, I have a depressing feeling I know the answer to that question. But hey.

ejh said...

I don't know specifically (or even generally) what happened in that particular election, but in so far as I can comment, I'm not sure I agree with John above.

My reason for saying so is that though I think Malcolm is basically a Good Thing - particularly in contrast, we might say, to another well-known newspaper columnist and tournament organiser - I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea for the chap who runs the country's leading tournament, its sole chess shop and one of its two regular chess magazines, to also have a place on the board on the game's governing body. I like these things to be kept separate, otherwise you have private interests intruding too far into governance, and that's something I think is best avoided, in sport and elsewhere.

That might not of course be thr reason for other people voting against him .But it would be my reason for not thinking that vote to be obviously a bad thing.

ejh said...

Oh, in checking some things in order to write that last comment I came across Tim Woolgar's statement in support of his candidacy.

Among the several claims that catch the eye in that statement, I particularly noticed this:

we are on course for official recognition by Sport England within the next six months

This, as I mention in the original piece above, doesn't entirely square with the email I received form a Sport England official when preparing this piece last month:

I can confirm that Sport England has not received any recognition applications in respect of chessboxing.

That email was sent to me on 8 September.

ejh said...

(Copies of that email exchange are available on request.)

Anonymous said...

As regards the non-election of Malcolm, the SCCU site http://www.sccu.ndo.co.uk/bcf.htm reported it as follows.

"One was that Malcolm's Board emails (the Board send a lot of emails) would not go direct to him because he did not wish to be swamped. Instead they would be filtered by the President, who would pass on the important stuff. Then it further emerged that
Malcolm would not (?usually) attend Board meetings; he would appoint an alternate straight away. These things were not well received. A feeling arose on the floor of the meeting that a Non-Executive Director should have a more committed approach than this. It went to a show of hands, and the candidate lost by 11 votes to 12. So a card vote, with the same result by 49 votes to 62."

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, Malcolm also didn't attend the AGM. I may have got it wrong but I think the reason was that he was elsewhere, compering (or preparing to compere) a chess boxing event!


Magicalmrmerlin said...

Having competed in one of these chessboxing events I thought i'd add some comments based on my experiences.

On the sport and general standard -
On the whole competitors are not and do not pretend to be great chess players (unlike some of the characters i've run into on the club and county chess scence over the past few years) Having said at least one 200ECF+ player has trained with the London club over the past year. The chessboxing club has a similar following to any town chess club. Around 15 people attend on saturdays. Some are there for the experience, both to learn chess and how to box. Others wish to compete and usually(like myself) do it for fun or as a bit of a challenge. The following is a typical example of how and why competitors get into chessboxing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asdVBZOu1qo. Notice how players of this standard turn up at a chess clubs but quit after 3 or 4weeks. Often the stronger players are quietly huddled away at the other side of the hall instead of offering support - we have all witnessed it.

On outrageous claims - I'm ignoring the freak show comments. Some people find chessboxing eccentric, part of the appeal maybe! Others people find boxing hard to understand full stop. On the whole you will find at least as many freaks at your local chess club!

Number of event - To my knowledge There have been 3 in London in the last year. Similar events have taken place in Europe.

Non existant Elo rating -Apparently Mr Woolgar translated this from the ECF rating and compared it to previous bouts where players were graded using other rating systems. One could argue the practice is amateurism but i doubt its an attempted con.

On professional competition -Headline competitors are to my knowledge paid to compete in events (and expenses paid) or donations made at their request. Several are competitive fighters and at least one makes a living from martial competitions.

On the subject of the ECF post - This is more worrying. Not because Mr Woolgar is a threat to the dignity of English chess. Rather he is the only candidate! Why are people keenly throwing mud online while not standing for their federation? Isnt someone going to stand against him?!

ejh said...

Thanks for that, but before I deal with it point by point (are you under the impression that if somebody received expenses for something, that makes them a professional??) I wondered: which three events have to your knowledge taken place in London this year?

Magicalmrmerlin said...

October 2010, March 2011 and September 2011.

Not at all. I'm pretty sure some of them have been paid (with additional expenses). All depends on ones definition of professional i guess. As i'm aware none of the UK chessboxers train exclusively for chessboxing. Often they compete in chessboxing alongside other disciplines.

Mainly i'm shocked that nobody else has applied for the post. In reality though Tim Woolgar might be worth a try. Hes a club level player with some experience and a lot of interest in the game. Having spoken and played chess with him a few times over the past few months I can confirm there is genuine enthusiasm. He doesnt seem to be in it for the money either (presumably its an unpaid post at the ECF?!). I'm not convinced hes in chessboxing entirely for the money either ..... then again if I see his name featured alongside Del Boy Trotter a few more times ;-) ....!!

ejh said...

Mmm. I'm pretty sure 2010 was last year rather than this.

All depends on ones definition of professional i guess

Well yes. My view is that you're a professional at something if you make, or seek to make, a living from it. Not if, for instance, donations are made at their request, nor even if they do something once and get a cheque for it. By that definition, I'd be a chess professional.

Re: freak show. We're talking about bad boxers and weak chessplayers. That's a freak show, I'm afraid. It's not in any way a serious exhibition of skill in any discipline. It's a freak show.

Elo ratings. When Mr Woolgar claimed his had doubled from 800 to 1600, where did that come from? (Or the others mentioned here.)

It all seems (and has always seemed) a bit school-of-Ray-Keene to me, by which I mean the making of claims that aren't true, but if you look at them in the right way aren't entirely untrue either. Except that Ray's a bit better at this than Woolgar. Mind you I wouldn't put Ray in charge of anything either, and for not dissimilar reasons.

More chessboxing swindle tomorrow, by the way.

Magicalmrmerlin said...

I was confused by the comment "It's not in any way a serious exhibition of skill in any discipline"

A few examples, just a couple of the guys I know of. Sergio Leveque is well above the average in terms of chess. Rating wise hes certainly around FIDE 2100. Thats not freak show material. If the rating detail is online you probably know where to find it! In addition Leveque is a very competent boxer. As is Andy Costello, a seasoned MMA fighter. Gianluca Sirci as well. Now you wont find these guys fighting for world boxing titles but you may have seen them on Eurosport over the last few years. Theyre not bottom of the pile.

Aside from that the challenge of chessboxing is managing two differing disciplines under pressure. Nobody knows of a top draw boxer whos a 2600+ GM and for good reason. Chessboxing is not about going to your local club every couple of weeks and trotting out the Stonewall variation - a comfort zone for many.

As for weaker competitors, they actually tend to be the crowd favourites. Many of them will have put in quite a bit of training in order to compete. The crowds respect their effort and its a fun atmosphere. A lot of its psychology and emotional control which is a skill in itself. Martial art clubs run ticketed events of similar standards all the time. We dont tend to think of these as freak shows.

As with any discipline its easy to criticise - yet when there is an invitation to do better (and i'm sure that invitation is open to readers here)the room empties. Reminds one of all the chaps who rushed for that ECF post actually ;-)

Talk of chessboxing being reported around the world as of the link to the other page - strangely enough is true. During few months that ive been doing it there have been visits from NHK Japan, TV Globo Brazil and London film school etc.

In terms of Tim Woolgars rating. Yeah hes about 1600 strength. I dont know why he would be fabricating such a claim or change in rating though or why it matters to be honest.

ejh said...

Rating wise hes certainly around FIDE 2100.

Well, not certainly, no.

And he's exceptional by the normal standards. I think you and I know that most of the competitors can barely play the game.

As for weaker competitors, they actually tend to be the crowd favourites.

Well, quite. Because it's a freak show.

or why it matters to be honest

There's a difference sense of the term "why it matters to be honest", and I think that's at the nub of it, isn't it?

Funnily enough this reminds me of a lot of other discussions that happen in chess, about ethics and standards in various fields. (This is why I wrote about it being a very spivvy world.) There's always a lot of people prepared to argue that it doesn't really matter, or that it's only the odd discrepancy here and there and so why nitpick.

But it isn't just here and there, and the reason it isn't is that so many people pretend that it is. If you follow me.

John Cox said...

>A feeling arose on the floor of the meeting that a Non-Executive Director should have a more committed approach than this. It went to a show of hands, and the candidate lost by 11 votes to 12.

More committed to what, exactly? Receiving emails and attending board meetings. WTF do these morons think a non-executive director is for?

Christ, I'm probably a member of this organisation. One of these fuckwits is probably representing me in some way. I don't suppose anyone cares enough to post up their names, do they?!

ejh said...

I don't think they're necesarily either "morons" or "fuckwits" for preferring not to appoint somebody who didn't appear to have the time to do the job. Come on John, isn't it possible to respect their reasons for their decision even if you disagree with it?

John Cox said...

You mean it's better to appoint no-one rather than someone obviously very able who is willing to devote time only to those areas of the job he considers important? Frankly I am not able to respect that reason, no. At any rate as anonymous reports it, it sounds ridiculous on every imaginable level.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the attendees of the ECF's AGM in October 2010, they are listed in the minutes at

Anonymous said...

The non exec director post to which Malcolm failed to be elected was offered to Jack Rudd, who accepted. So the post was not left unfilled.

Actually it's getting a little alarming, the extent to which candidates for the ECF board have some connection with Malcolm. Both the candidates for the Junior director are connected with the CSC charity for example.

John Cox said...

So it does, anonymous, thank you. Though it doesn't say who voted how.

It also says this:-

"The meeting then discussed the potential election of Malcolm Pein (MP) to the second Non-Executive Director role. GCh said that MP should only be elected if he apologised for anti-ECF remarks in his newspaper column. MJG disagreed, saying that MP should be elected with no conditions attached. MJA said that MP had been critical in the past, for which CJdM said that he had apologised. CJdM spoke of the positive influence MP could have on the Board. GCh said that the problem with the articles were factual errors, not matters of opinion. DRT said that it was important that confidential Board information did not make it into the press. CJdM said that MP was a busy man and would not view all Board e-mails himself; instead, CJdM would forward only relevant e-mails. This proposed approach was considered unacceptable. CJdM modified his suggestion, indicating that MP would defer his responsibilities to an Alternate. ARH argued that MP should deal with messages himself, as that was part of the responsibilities of the role. SNG asked why MP wanted the post. MJG said that he thought it was because MP wanted to help chess. PWP asked why, if he was that busy, he wanted the post. PJBW said that as a subscriber to MP's magazine, he believed that MP had abused his position as editor of it. ATL suggested that the role of the Non-Executive Directors was to turn up to Board Meetings, and that should be the only criterion considered to elect him. ATL also said that the Executive Members of the Board should not vote for the Non-Executive Directors. CJdM said that Matthew Read would be his Alternate; an employee of MP."

Based on that, I think it's fairly safe to say that GCh, MJA, DRT, ARH, PWP and PJBW are a pack of self-important twerps, who I suspect have contributed less to British Chess between them in six lifetimes than Malcolm does in the average hour.

ejh said...

None of them have, for instance, ever given as much as ten minutes of their time to organise chess clubs, or leagues, or tournaments, or to serve as arbiters, or in any other way ensure that there is actual chess to be played by actual chessplayers and ECF members.

ejh said...

Mind you, it's a shame we didn't get Matthew Read in: after all, he

"possesses an unrivalled wealth of contacts in the chess community".


Jonathan B said...

"... said that it was important that confidential Board information did not make it into the press."

While it is quite reasonable that confidential information not appear in the press or elsewhere, I do wonder about the ECF board's secrecy - see current events - and how much of it is necessary as opposed to something that the board members like for some reason.

This is a subject I shall return to at some point in the future. Just as soon as I can be arsed, in fact.

John Cox said...

They may well have done, Justin. Their contribution has rather passed me by, but many of us are forced to do our good works in darkness.

Unfortunately, their no doubt noble efforts appear to have blinded them to the rather greater contribution that people who combine business acumen, energy, brains and integrity with actually knowing something about the game at a reasonable level can bring to the organisation, or rather could bring if everyone of that description who comes into contact with the organisation either walks away in despair or fails to get elected to it.

When was the last time chess administration in this country ever had anyone who combined all those qualities, I wonder? Or indeed any four of them. I certainly can't see anyone on the present board who could be accused of doing that, though one or two of them have three.

John Cox said...

>The non exec director post to which Malcolm failed to be elected was offered to Jack Rudd, who accepted. So the post was not left unfilled.

How heart-warming. So tell me, what exactly determines whether such a post is 'offered' or opened for election?

John Cox said...

Well, based on this thread


the main culprits seem to have been the MCU and NCCU.

Chippy provincialism, in fact. Just what chess administration in this country needs.

By the way, Justin, your comments about independence and so forth are a sweet notion, but the reality of chess administration frankly is that it can't afford to turn away anyone of ability who's willing to give time to it.

Anonymous said...

Regarding filling of ECF board vacancies, I would think it simple enough. There are annual elections at the AGM. In the event that candidates for election are rejected, or none stand, or directors resign during the year, the Board have the power to appoint a replacement. The appointed person can stand for re-election or otherwise at the next annual meeting. I would not have thought such a process was in any way unique to the ECF.

ejh said...

Well John, there are other realities.

One is that people rarely succeed in obtaining a post if they don't turn up to the interview.

A second is that people "of ability" are not always the right people for a given job, and that the history of sports administration (in its widest sense, including that of sports clubs as well as govening bodies) is full of people of undoubted ability who for a whole variety of reasons and in a whole variety of ways were not the right people for particular posts.

A third is that a very common way to bring about a disaster is to say "such-and-such has lots of ability/experience/money, so we will ignore principles of good governance". I learned this, in part at least, from observing, over a long period, what often happens to struggling football clubs when they get taken over. (Actually I really ought to write something on this subject before long, it's a useful comparison.) Ability isn't enough - we can all think of lots of characters in chess and elsewhere with lots of ability, but we wouldn't want all of them in charge of anything. What they intend to do with their abilities is actually really important, and that's what you can't afford not to ask.

A fourth is that if you're going to be working with people, even if you think their present ways of working and perhaps their whole culture need a big change, you need to have some respect for them and you need to realise that a culture change takes time.

These are practicalities, and realities. You can ignore them if you choose, but they are no less real for that.

ejh said...

One other thing. For good, proper and important reasons, not all organisations are businesses, or operate like them. (Nor, for that matter, do all businesses resemble one another, and paryly for that reasons, not all business knowledge is transferable.)

Hence "business acumen" is not always, in itself, entirely useful, and in fact, can on occasion be a hindrace, especially when people used to operating in a certain way within a business find they can't do so in a different organisation.

A frequent outome is mutual recriminations and the departure of Mr Business Acumen, whose acumen does not always extend to understanding that the situation he was in was an unfamilar one, and he might have acted differently.

Anonymous said...

A win for Chess Boxing by 95 (Woolgar) to 89 (anyone but Woolgar) with 15 abstaining as reported at http://www.ecforum.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=3556&start=107

Jonathan B said...

I believe the abstentions were later revised to 6, so the figures became

for Woolgar: 95
not for Woolgar: 95 (89+6)

John Cox said...

Whatever, Justin. I really can't be bothered to argue with you. You make the occasional reasonable point, but all I'll say is that if you really think the shower of utter nincompoops that makes up the Council of the English Chess Federation couldn't benefit from Malcolm's assistance whether he attends their board meetings or not, then (a) you're wrong and (b) I believe you would find yourself in a very small minority in that view.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being seriously pedantic, the ECF Council is a body which meets twice a year and nominally consists of 200 plus people. In practice because they wear multiple hats, the number rarely exceeds 40. By virtue of running the London Chess Classic, Malcolm could, if he wished, attend ECF Council meetings as a voting member. The Board (of Directors) meet more frequently, usually monthly, and only number about ten or so. It was the Board that Malcolm failed to be elected to.

ejh said...

Whatever, Justin. I really can't be bothered to argue with you.

I'd noticed, John. I'd already noticed.

John Cox said...

Yes, quite right of course, anonymous, it was the Board which the Council thought wouldn't benefit from Malcolm being on it, not the Council itself. The Board had more sense (of course the existence of the council is the fundamental structural problem with the ECF).

You seem very well informed. Which two board members voted against, then? It seems to be a bit of a secret from the thread I read.

And, if the Board can simply co-opt non-executive directors whenever it wants to, why on earth would it ever bother getting the council to consider their appointment? I should have thought ensuring that the council had as little as possible involvement in anything would be the first goal of any sensible board member.

Anonymous said...

In response to John Cox's latest, the reason the Board allow Council to vote for Directors is that like many organisations its rules and regulations require it to be so. It's democratic oversight of the Board, or at least the appearance thereof.

So the Board only get to pick a new member if Council are unable to find or agree on one.

John Cox said...

Still a secret which two board members voted against, then, Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

Pure speculation from someone not at the meeting, but the Minutes indicate criticism of Malcolm from GCh (Finance) and PWP (Junior). So they may> have been the directors involved.