Thursday, April 10, 2014

Those who do not learn from history

Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
Let us suppose, for an optimistic moment, that we take an opportunity presented by the departure of Andrew Paulsen, whatever we think of that departure and the process by which it was reached.

We're not going to, of course, but let us suppose it anyway.

Suppose we recognise that there are some serious problems of political and organisational culture within the English Chess Federation. Suppose we understand that the disasters of the past thirty months or so haven't been accidental, but have arisen out of the structure, the priorities and the modes of behaviour which have developed within that organisation. Suppose we accept that we need to identify them in order to change them.

Wouldn't that be a thing?

Of course there might be as many different answers as there are people to give them, and mine may be no better than the rest. But here they are anyway. They're not prescrrpitions so much as observations. They're not about specific organisational reforms and nor are they about particular individuals. They're about ECF culture.

As it stands, ECF culture stinks. Here's some ways we might improve the smell. Although we won't.


The scandals of the past three years have had secrecy and murkiness at their core.

  • In the Paulson affair, we have seen a conspiracy to remove the President, with no public statements from the conspirators, followed by a murky deal made to secure his resignation.
  • In the CJ scandal, monies were distributed without proper (or any) record-keeping. The resulting chaos was then dealt with behind closed doors without the details being made available to the members.
  • In the CAS case, a secret deal to back a legal case was deliberately kept from the members in whose name it was carried out.
In each instance, the lack of transparency means it is hard to have confidence that the same will not happen again. Assurances to the contrary are not worth very much especially when you can see the lessons very much not being learned.

It's a cycle. People with the power to do so employ secrecy to obscure public scrutiny of the consequences of their secretive actions. Secrey begets scandal which begets more secrecy, and round you go. A cycle, and a hard cycle to break.

It's also a hard cycle to break because, to put it bluntly, a large constituency within English chess neither likes nor understands open discussion and prefers to close it off at the first opportunity. It doesn't come naturally to English chess. Not as a community, as a body of people.

But as long as that culture persists, problems will be inadequately addressed because they are covered up as soon as they occur. (They will hence recur as soon as they are able.) You will also have people who will take advantage of that culture to use the ECF for their own secretive ends, to treat it as their own personal plaything. As Nigel Short did over the CAS case, as CJ de Mooi did in a variety of ways, as persons known and unknown have done over the Paulson affair.

We can have that happen again, and again, ad infinitum. Or we can learn to do things in a more open and hence a more honest way.


By "politics" I mean politics external to the organisation. FIDE politics. Kirsan v Kasparov politics. Danailov v Azmai politics.

Every time that the ECF is seriously involved in those politics, every time it invites its protagonists to play out their conflict inside the organisation, it brings disaster. It degrades our standards. It subordinates our own interests to the interests of cynics and politicians.

ECF FIDE delegates and Presidents should not be organising secret legal cases on behalf of their political allies. ECF Presidents should not be standing for positions in the European Union as soon as they've got their feet under the table, because that stuff isn't what the ECF is for. Nor should they be removed from their positions when they do so, because it's not for their opponents to decide who ought to be ECF President. And because it's not that important. And because of the rancour and chaos that it entails.

We have votes in politics, and we should use them (or have a good reason for choosing not to do so). But it's not what we're here for, and if we behave as if who we support in FIDE was our major purpose, then all we do is make a plaything of ourselves.


I said this in 2011. Nothing has changed since, except in so far as things have got worse.

With the CAS case, there was a question - to this day, unanswered - as to who was pulling CJ's strings. (Short? Kasparov?) Similarly, one of the many murky aspects to the Paulson affair has been how much pulling of strings there has been. Who has been working for whom. This applies both to the conspirators and to their target. Who does Andrew Paulson work for, really? It's a fair question. But what unannounced role have other persons played in removing him? What has been their motive?

It's not the answer to the questions that matter so much that they need to be asked in the first place. ECF officials are supposed to be working for the ECF, which means the members of the ECF, to whom they should be accountable. I don't think all of them have, in fact, been working for the ECF. Manifestly, few of them have cared to make themselves accountable. Secrey and backstairs manoeuvres are the rule. (Oddly, this doesn't save us any of the controversy or argument that it is supposed to.)

At present, the only real form of accountability in the ECF is via Council and its capacity to interrogate. This is important. Anybody who expresses a wish to get rid of Council, despite its baroque structure, does the ECF no favours. But it's not much use if important matters are hidden from Council. Or if delegates do not attend Council. Or if Council is only there to be informed after the fact, when coups and resignations and legal cases have already occurred and been settled.

Accountability is not a tick-boxing exercise. It's a culture. We haven't got it. We should have it.

- - - - -

Now I take it as read that none of these things are going to happen, not least (though not only) because the normal way of dealing with ECF crises is to blame them on persons, preferably no more than one, who have preferably since left the organisation. The CJ scandals? Well, they were all down to CJ of course. The CAS case? Well that was nobody's fault at all, except maybe CJ's a bit (and definitely not Nigel Short's, dear me no). The Paulson affair? Well I reckon we can just blame that on Andrew Paulson, can't we?

I mean if we're singling out Andrew Paulson for the last two months and chaos and bullshit, we wouldn't want to blame Andrew Paulson on the people who supported him, spoke out in favour of him, or voted for him, would we?

Because that was most of us.


For all the cultural and organisational deficiences of the ECF, the present circus could not have occurred had we not been foolish enough to elect a man about whom we knew very next to nothing, on the basis of a programme which could never have been carried out. (Of course it couldn't, because that programme was formed on the basis of practically no knowledge of English chess whatsoever.)

Why did we elect this wholly unsuitable individual? I haven't got a better answer than because we were fantasising. We were fantasising about who he was and who we thought we would like him to be. We wanted him to wave a magic wand and revitalise English chess. Which he was never going to do, because he didn't have the power to do it. Nobody does.

It's easy, normal, and sometimes even right, to talk as if the English Chess Federation was an obstacle in the way of English chess, But it's isn't really true very often.

Matter of fact I think the ECF does its job decently enough, when it is just trying to do its job, when it's just trying to do some basic things for mostly amateur chess players,employing very limited financial and human resources. It does that OK. The disasters mostly happen when it tries to be something that it isn't, and when it tries to do things that it can't.

Listen. England is a country which is not interested in chess. We know that. It is not in the papers, it is not on the television and if you see some strangers playing in the pub it's a red-letter-day. We care about chess, but hardly anybody else does.

It's true that something happened in the early Seventies to change that for a while. But it changed back a long long, time ago. The glory days of the Seventies and Eighties are not, in fact, going to come back any time soon, or maybe ever. Nor would they come back if only it weren't for these bumbling incompetent amateurs and their stupid organisation.

But we don't want to believe that. We want to invoke magic words like SPONSORS and PUBLICITY FOR CHESS as if a nation's sporting and intellectual culture will be changed by holding a tournament - or ten - in the capital city. (Will it? How many top English tennis players have Queen's and Wimbledon brought us?) It might change a bit. Playing chess in schools might change it too. A bit. I mean these are good things, but there's not a Mr Miracle available to somehow finds lots of money for chess that wasn't there before. Nor would it make a lot of difference if there were.

But we don't want to believe that. We want our Seventies and Eighties back. That's the desire and the myth that we projected onto Andrew Paulson.

But Andrew Paulson was what he was. He wasn't what we wanted him to be. We knew that, really. That'll be our excuse - oh, we didn't know he was connnected to Kirsan, we didn't know he had problems working with other people, it wasn't our fault!

But there wasn't that much invisible about Andrew Paulson. We knew who he was connected to, even if we didn't know who he was. But we weren't really interested in who he was. We wanted him to be something that he wasn't.

And sure as hell, he wasn't. He wasn't any superman.

[Andrew Paulson index]


Anonymous said...

The ECF is the national affiliate of FIDE and ECU. As such it has a monopoly position.

If it's a concern to individual players as to who is the FIDE President and to a lesser extent, the ECU President, the only way of influencing such a choice is through the ECF's vote and public statements. Therefore international issues are the ECF's affair and if you don't want it so, then advocate the splitting of the ECF into a domestic and rather narrower international body.

I don't agree by the way that the explosion in the 1970s was purely by chance. The BCF desires credit for promoting chess in secondary schools from at least the 1950s onwards with initiatives such as the Sunday Times competition and trying to build a training infrastructure. It also facilitated the big tournaments of the early 1970s by not getting in the way. International success was a slow burn and if the ultimate objective was an English player in a World Championship match, that was only achieved in 1993.


ejh said...

Therefore international issues are the ECF's affair

Of course they are and nothing I've written here or anywhere else suggests otherwise.