Friday, August 17, 2012

The unfortunate flounce of Andrew Farthing

I've been on the internet for, let's see, about fourteen years now. Yes, ha ha ha, after fourteen years I ought to get some sleep. It does seem like that sometimes: fourteen years without a break. So, carry on reading after the break. Ha ha ha again.

Anyway, fourteen years. In that time, I've been on an awful lot of blogs and discussion forums, most of which, at one time or another, I've decided to leave alone. Over those fourteen years, I've found out, mostly the hard way, that it is not often a good idea to leave by making a speech and banging the door closed. Or, in the language of the day, to flounce. If you don't like it, better just to walk away without making a fuss about it.

Or so say I. Andrew Farthing has a different opinion, for on Sunday, Andrew Farthing flounced. From the English Chess Forum.

This is a shame, since despite my serious differences with Andrew over various issues, I think he's a decent chap. Thinking that, however, doesn't mean that I'm obliged to agree with him. Nor that I'm obliged not to say so. Nor indeed that I have to buy his own account of events, which is that the weight of unnecessary questioning has forced him out of his post.

I'll get on to that, shortly, and on to the question of why there's still outstanding business as regards the ill-fated CAS case against FIDE, and how it came to be undertaken. First of all, though, I'll say a word in favour - sort of - of the Forum itself, since it has come under attack from various quarters.

Not too much. On the whole I try to avoid posts which involve writing on the internet about what somebody has written on the internet about what other people have written on the internet. It rarely makes for digestible reading. Besides, it's not all that important. It's a private forum, it has no official status within the ECF and in my view nor should it have. Nobody is obliged to post on it - not Andrew Farthing, not Nigel Short, not the present writer, not anybody. Personally, I try not to spend much time on it outside the British Championships and the period immediately before and after, though I don't always succeed. But if I want a soap box, I have another one available to me, and I'm standing on it right now.

There are some people who post on the Forum whose posts I dread to read. There are some I personally dislike. There are others who have not the slightest conception of netiquette. There are others who are not remotely concerned to have any knowledge of any subject on which they choose to pontificate. The community of posters includes bullies, near-illiterates, halfwits and a more than generous allocation of people who always have to have the last word. It does not often resemble a Socratic dialogue. Much of the time, it generates rather more heat than light.

However, in this, it resembles every other discussion board I have ever come across. Every one, that is, that was neither dormant, nor free from any disagreement because there was nothing controversial to discuss. There is nothing unusual about the way discussion in the Forum works. It is not particularly indecorous by the standards of the form. Nor particularly foolish.

Moreover, at the same time, there are quite a few people on the forum who know an awful lot about chess, or about the history of chess, or about the Laws of chess, or about the internal politics of chess, or about all sort of other things in chess. I am not aware of any other site within the community of English chess of which this can be said. If you want to discuss what's happening in English chess, I'm afraid the Forum is the best place to go. Whether you like it or not.

Much the same can, of course, be said of the English Chess Federation, and its officials. If you want chess to happen in England, they are the best we have got. They are what they are: amateurs, doing their best, with limited time available to them, time they've had to find themselves, and with the likelihood of more kicks than thanks for giving it. (As is the case for all volunteers, in all sorts of roles. I've served in a few, from trade union rep to chess club competition organiser. I should think most people have.)

It is helpful to be realistic about this. It is not reasonable to compare them to some imaginary white-hot professional team of all-round experts who will do everything and do it right: what you've got is, as with the Forum, roughly what you're going to get.

But what you can reasonably hope for is that they perform in the roles as well as they might. Angus French suggests that:
I'd support anyone who is reasonably competent, listens, communicates and plays a straight bat.
and I'm not inclined to disagree. They're good criteria.

To my mind, over the past few months, the ECF has done rather better - much better - in these respects than it had managed in the period immediately before. It has helped of course that CJ de Mooi has been on a long sulk and has therefore kept away from things for nearly a year, but still. Statements have begun to appear on the ECF website. Financial fiascos have been looked into. Engagement with ECF members has been commonplace, not least on the Forum (since where else would it take place?). Reasons have been given for decisions. Attempts have been made to explain, for instance, how the ECF came to undertake legal action against FIDE without either ECF members or its representative body knowing about it until many months later. These are all good things.

Thing is - why has this taken place? Because nobody asked any questions of ECF officials? Because people just let them get on with their job? Obviously not. That, rather, is how the fiascos occurred - because things, unwise things were allowed to happen without questions being asked. Unwise things like giving CJ de Mooi carte blanche to throw around money as he wished and never mind the invoices and receipts. Unwise things like starting controversial legal actions without telling anybody.

Au contraire. Things picked up when a member of that much-criticised Forum noticed and drew attention, on that much-criticised Forum, to the apparent existence of the CAS case, of which nobody, least of all the FIDE delegate, had previously spoken. Without that, there would be no timeline, no explanations.

So, if you're thanking Andrew Farthing for producing that timeline, that's fair. So do I. But thank, too, the individual whose sharp-sightedness and willingness to make a pain of himself started off that process. And all the people who kept on asking those horrid questions. In that horrid forum. That is why we know more than the nothing we previously knew.

Speaking of the CAS case, after the ol' timeline turned up, I had a question or two to ask about it. It was shortly after that, that Andrew chose to flounce, so I don't suppose I'll ever have them answered. Well, let's peek at the first two, now, otherwise we'll be here all weekend. (Well, you will be. As this publishes I should be on a campsite in Chartres or heading to Dieppe.)
a. When CJ sought the Board's views on January 12 2011, had he previously discussed the matter with any ECF official?

b. Is there any basis for the "understanding" claimed by CJ and mentioned in the Notes for February 25 other than CJ's own claim? By "basis" I mean - is there any documentation at all, paper or electronic, to support it?
To deal with the second of these first, if you will: CJ sent a Power of Attorney to the US lawyers, White and Case, authorising them to act on the ECF's behalf, before the ECF Board had actually voted to permit that. He was then less than frank with the ECF about having done so. By "less than franK" I mean "he didn't tell them". He subsequently claimed an "understanding" that it was not yet to be used, as understanding which appears to have been known only to himself. Or so it seems, failing rebuttal of that point from anybody else.

This is normal behaviour from CJ, of course. In that sense it's nothing new. So why pursue it? Only because CJ is, amazingly, seeking re-election to the post of ECF President. Which means that what he did in 2010-11, in the role for which he is seeking re-election, is a live question, not a dead one.

This seems obvious to me. Perhaps it is less so to others, perhaps including Andrew Farthing. Of course the question could be rendered irrelevant - by ECF Council in October throwing out this conniving charlatan, which I think and hope they will. But as yet, he is still in post and still standing for re-election. And hence his actions in that role remain entirely relevant.

Of course, I could always put the question to CJ himself, via whatever email address he may currently be using. But I think Joe out of Reservoir Dogs already said the last word on that.
EDDIE: Mr Orange, why don't you tell me what really happened?

JOE: Why? It'd just be more bullshit.
So it would. So, let us return to the first question - when CJ sought the Board's views on January 12 2011, had he previously discussed the matter with any ECF official?

What's the relevance of this? It's that between October 2010, when the ECF board write to FIDE, and January, there's a gap. A substantial gap in time. The first event that occurs after this gap is that on 12 January 2011 CJ suggests the ECF send another letter to FIDE, which leads very swiftly to the CAS action. It's CJ's initiative, apparently.

But is it? Did CJ really think up this one on his own? We know that he was in contact with Garry Kasparov - this is mentioned in the entry of January 13. So did Kasparov put him up this? Or, to put it another way, did Kasparov alone put him up to this? Who did he discuss the matter with, in the gap between October and January?

CJ in September

There's at least two good reasons for asking this. One is that when the President of the ECF launches that organisation into a legal action that later goes very wrong, it is not just the historian, but the ECF member in the present, who would like to know exactly how this came to pass, and who was involved in this squalid and duplicitous affair. I would have thought it highly unlikely that CJ acted alone and unadvised. That's what I think, but as yet I do not know. And that is why I ask.

The second is that on the information we presently have, it is impossible to be sure that no ECF officials, no members of the ECF Board were advising CJ - without telling the ECF that they were doing so. This isn't trivial. It's fundamental, because you need officials of an organisation to be working for, and reporting to, that organisation and nobody else.

Were they all doing so? Can we confidently say this? I don't think we presently can. I think it's of some importance that we know. It's a question of trust.

But it's not a question that we're going to get an answer to. Not right now anyway. Because it is unfair to Andrew Farthing to always be putting all these questions to him.

Well, to put on a less sympathetic face than I have done so far, whose fault is that? Who was the Chief Executive of the English Chess Federation when all this was happening? Who was nominally in charge when the ECF was being used by other parties to carry out their own private agendas? Who was the Chief Executive when CJ de Mooi had Ray Keene open Sheffield so controversially and then closed it himself so disastrously, and in between threw money around in such a way that the subsequent audit trail was like tracking yesterday's footsteps in this evening's blizzard?

Big mistakes. That's why all the questions since. Big mistakes and big controversies engender big questions. And without those questions the mistakes would never have been acknowledged. Once that process started, there was reasonable competence. There was listening, there was communication and there was playing a straight bat. But before that process, not quite so much.

Accountability and scrutiny lead to improved performance. That's the process. And it isn't a process you can just shut down when you want - we've looked into it, mistakes were made, fortunately it didn't change anything, now stop it and leave us alone. But that's what's happened in practice.

Arugably it's what generally happens in practice. Because it's not the first time that Andrew has ceased to answer questions when it has suited him. It's only four months since Andrew chose not to tell us how much money couldn't be properly accounted for after CJ's Sheffield spending spree. I wasn't impressed then and I'm not completely impressed now. Should I be? Or should I think that it's a little too convenient that the point at which questions become interpreted as hounding is the point at which the questions become difficult?

I'm not sufficiently impressed to accept this view of Andrew as a fine CEO brought down by malcontents. Too many disasters, I think, for that. And then, for sure, good and honourable attempts to clean up after them. A diligent man, in the end. But cleaning up the mess you yourself have made is something that merits praise rather than eulogies.

I think that's what actually happened, rather than a stellar whistle-to-whistle performance as CEO - though I think that's what Andrew's more vocal supporters (vocal, of course, in telling other people to shut up) would like us to believe. But it wasn't really like that, was it?

Chess is not great at democracy. Neither is any other sport, of course. It's not a problem particular to us or even one particularly pronounced in our community. In every sporting community there are those who appoint themselves in charge of telling other people to shut up. I spent a good part of my life writing about football and it's a syndrome I know well from there.

Nevertheless, if we are no worse than others we are no better either. Within our community there has always been this palpable desire, among some people, to stop other people asking questions. It is a highly unhealthy desire and we are worse off whenever it is pandered to. Democracy thrives on discontent. The opposite is what thrives on its suppression. No doubt, it is often tiresome to deal with criticism and questioning. But that's not, in truth, an adequate reason why it should cease. Answering questions is what accountable people do. And personally, I hold hard to the maxim that the point at which people say "stop asking questions" is the point when you know you need to keep on asking them.

English chess is still under the cloud of the Tunis affair. That was more than twenty years ago, but its repercussions are still with us. It has never been put to rest to general satisfaction. Which is still the case with CAS and Sheffield too.

My guess is that in the near future, the ECF will opt for less engagement rather than more, on the grounds of Andrew Farthing's flounce. This would be entirely the wrong direction in which to go. I hope that in twenty years, Sheffield and the CAS case are not similarly hanging over us. But if they are, it will be thanks to those who, too early, cried "enough".

[CJ and friends: ABC]
[CJ index]
[Reservoir Dogs screenplay]


Anonymous said...

You ask what was happening between October 2010 and January 2011. The events point to an unknown someone trying to put together a coalition to challenge FIDE. I was going to say on the Vice-Presidents issue, but it could have been on anything. Presumably the "someone" was whoever or whatever was putting up the finance. It appears it was only possible to get the ECF and the Georgians on board. So it seems very likely there were ongoing discussions from October to February. As to who knew on the ECF board, pass. The whole Board were informed that something was going on January when they again discussed the writing of letters to FIDE. I quite accept they didn't at that stage give the go ahead for the CAS action but it was misleading in the statement to the ECF April Council meeting to use the form of words "The Board first discussed this issue in February" when in the context "issue" was ambiguous as to whether it meant the appointment of V-Ps or starting the CAS action.

In fairness to Andrew, you can note that he only took over as CEO in October 2010 after the V-P issue had first emerged. He was therefore unaware that the Board had already consulted a domestic legal adviser presumably as to whether it was within its powers to sign protest letters to FIDE about V-Ps. But it was material published in the ECF's own reports on Board meetings of the time.


Tom Chivers said...

I like the forum a bit more after reading that.

John Cox said...

I'm a bit of a loss to know where all these questions are going, Justin. I should have thought that any interested observer would probably by now have formed a view that the answer to them was something along the lines that "CJ, being the deluded starf*cker that he is, went ahead without any kind of mandate, and while CJ is obviously not someone any sane person would appoint to run anything whatsoever, he does have a certain force of personality and was thus able to ensure that the bunch of inadequates who make up the rest of the ECF Board took no steps to control him".

That being so I don't really see what you can expect the ECF to contribute further.

On the other hand, there seem to be some dark hints that there might be more to it than that and that the Full Story hasn't Yet Come Out. What exactly - or perhaps roughly would be better - does anyone suspect that an alternative Full Story might be, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

I think that further questions must be justified at this stage, given the effort that has been needed to extract the information that we do have and that there has now been an escalation of voices trying to shut up the questioners.

It is also justified, given that the ECF will surely never hold an inquiry of its own to get to the full truth of the CAS affair. The ECF Board members voted in April against a motion in Council to investigate the affairs and dealings of CJ. This was an interesting (and decisive) block vote, given that they knew then what Council did not - that CJ had initiated the CAS action before asking their approval, an incident which they themselves had expressed great "surprise" when they belatedly learned of it.

As to whom else CJ spoke about the affair between October 2010 and January 2011 - well who knows, but there are generally only two people whom CJ seems to consult regularly in the English chess community, only one of whom is even a member of the ECF.

The other person is the one who hosted the event at Simpsons in August/September 2010 where CJ first met Karpov and Kasparov and promised to campaign against Kirsan. This significance of this event was higlighted on this blog at the time. Many ECF personnel were invited to this glamorous occasion - though not, I think, Andrew Farthing, who was not yet the CEO. We now know that he was the one Board member who would later vote against the CAS action.

As I say, I don't see any ECF Board wishing to investigate the CAS affair too closely - but someone should. It is always possible that some individuals will come out well from it (for all the complaints about AF's performance in his CEO role, he did make the right decision as a Board member on the CAS affair).

(oh dammit, I now see that I have no chance of defeating this anti-robut thing.)

Anonymous said...

Andrew Farthing will be remembered as the CEO who implemented universal membership long after the CAS pseudo-scandal has been forgotten.