'I would have payed $50,000 to play Kasparov...'

5/6/2004 – A few days ago American GM and chess political insider told us some of the reasons he believes were responsible for the mess in the chess world. In the second part of the interview Yasser describes in microscopic detail the role FIDE world champion Ponomariov played. And how he himself would have handled the situation. Read Yasser's 'Tragedy of Errors Part II'

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A Tragedy of Errors – Part II

Multi-media interview with Yasser Seirawan

By Frederic Friedel

The following interview was conducted at the end of November 2003, in the famous Athletic Club in New York. High-profile American GM Yasser Seirawan was there as a live commentator, for ESPN, on the match Garry Kasparov vs X3D Fritz. After an exhausting (but exhilarating) week Yasser had a few hours to kill before his flight back to Holland, where he sometimes lives. I used the opportunity to chat with this eloquent and highly entertaining player in the world chess arena. The video interview is on ChessBase Magazine 99. It offers a unique insight into the events that have led up to the current situation, given by a man who was at the center of it all. We bring you a transcription of the 44 minute interview in two parts. Part one was published a few days ago.

Yasser Seirawan: Enshrined in the Prague Agreement was a very crucial thing for the comfort of the players: it was the Grandmasters Steering Committee. Let me emphasize that title: steering, committee. We were not the ultimate rulers, but we would help the players in times of crises and need, to ensure fair matches and to steer the matches towards their conclusion. Make sure that all the players were on a level playing field. Presumably the four title aspirants would accept the thoughts and help of the Grandmasters Steering Committee. Anyway, I founded the Grandmasters Steering Committee, we had a vote, we had all the paperwork done, we met in Bled – and then, suddenly FIDE appointed the World Chess Championship Committee, which totally superseded anything the Grandmaster Steering Committee was doing. In fact it abrogated the Grandmaster Steering Committee, and was a clear violation of the Prague Agreement. FIDE violated the Agreement. Worse, they had three people: Israel Gelfer, Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Georgios Makropoulos (see the FIDE web site), three fine gentlemen, but they did something that in my opinion you simply cannot do. In January two of them, Zurab and Makro, went to Wijk aan Zee and met with Ponomariov, almost “forcibly”, and interfered with him during a tournament. Now Zurab, who is a superb grandmaster, knows just how tense grandmasters get during competition. The last thing you are going to do on the eve of an important game, or during a tournament, is to weigh in on something of momentous importance and say “Sign this, right now, or you are losing the opportunity of your life.” The person is going to resent the intrusion – he’s going to be angry. And guess what, Ponomariov became very angry, and the next thing you know he is no longer in communication and everything has to go through his agent Danailov.

The next biggest mistake was when did FIDE put the match Garry Kasparov-Ruslan Ponomariov up for auction? When did they say we would like to receive bids, these are the minimum bids, this is what is going to be required, we are accepting bids now, etc.? There was never a bidding process. The first thing I know is the president has awarded the rights to the match to Buenos Aires. Well, how about that? I had actually begun some very preliminary discussions in Seattle, but I didn’t even know how I would submit a bid. Perhaps other people were in the same situation. There was no bidding process, it was a diktat. I saw something on the FIDE web site where the Argentine president had met our FIDE president, it was a great meeting, everybody’s happy. I really question the methodology chosen, but the second question that occurred to me was isn’t Argentina being devastated by one of the worst economic crises in modern history? Are the citizens really going to be happy that a million dollar match is being played in the capital at a time when you have such financial misery? And did the Argentine government have the money at all? Didn’t they just default from a 60 billion dollars IMF bank loan? Fortunately these were not issues I had to deal with, but I thought, I sure as heck hope that FIDE had the money in the bank, because then everything’s going to be beautiful, because Argentineans love chess, which has a wonderful cultural significance in Argentinean society.

But no sooner did a month or two pass when my dear friend Miguel Quinteros makes a public announcement that everything is great, except we are going to play the match in November. Wow, that was quite a shock. But then I get a converse press release from Kirsan Ilyumzhinov saying everything is wonderful, beautiful, we are on schedule, the match is going to take place in June. Time out. This is NOT the way a world organisation runs a world championship match. This infuriated me. Not only were the two announcements in contradiction to each other, but guess whom I am believing. I’m believing the guy on the ground, I’m believing the local organiser, and when he says the theatre is not ready I’m not going to say yes it is! I’m going to say “It is not?? Can’t we get another theatre?” I don’t know whether Kirsan wanted to remain positive in the public eye or something, but I thought before you guys start talking to me, Joe public, why don’t you meet together and make a joint announcement about the match? Well, not only did I get upset, and I have no vested interest, but the players were getting really antagonised. Kasparov and Ponomariov were both spending lots of their resources, lots of time and energy, devoting themselves to a match that was disappearing. Garry cancelled some lucrative tours and deals, Ponomariov hired very serious coaches, spending a lot of money in anticipation of a big payday that suddenly goes out of view.

It is very easy to look at these things in hindsight, and list all the things that went wrong. Perhaps Ponomariov could have been nicer, perhaps Kramnik could have been nicer, everybody could have been nicer. But at the end of the day the people most responsible were FIDE, and when you consider the lack of a specific contract between all four players, committing themselves to the Prague Agreement, cancelling Kramnik from the FIDE rating list, organising a competing man vs machine competition in the hopes of upstaging Vladimir Kramnik, failing to really give Ponomariov the feeling that he was a part in the whole Prague Agreement, slamming the door on the Grandmasters Steering Committee, the whole fiasco of failing to allow a bidding procedure to take place, the diktat of selecting Buenos Aires, the contradictory public announcements, and then moving it to Yalta… Before I continue, I have to come to Yalta

That was another painful experience. FIDE announced that Yalta would have the match Kasparov-Ponomariov, these are the conditions, Putin and the president of the Ukraine as well would make the openings ceremony first moves, wonderful flowery announcements. One small problem: they didn’t have a players contract. I would have thought that even a minimal intelligence would have understood that first you get the contract, then you announce that you have the contract, and then you say by the way something really good has happened, and we are going to have a wonderful match with Mr Putin making the first move. No, they did it completely backwards. They put Ponomariov in a situation where he could lord it over FIDE. And I think in the time that led up to the demise of Yalta we saw a lot of payback taking place. In my opinion a little unfairly – FIDE didn’t need to be beaten so badly. But when you look at everything that had happened you can imagine that Ponomariov had built up a certain amount of resentment, of anger. And he was given a golden opportunity to get back a few lashes. Probably he took it too far. But when you look back at all the mistakes that FIDE made you have to say that’s it, those were the guys who were responsible.

ChessBase: In the end Ponomariov did not sign the contract and did not agree to play. Would you have done that in his place?

Seirawan: Oh God yes. The way I look at it is this: Ponomariov is one of the luckiest men in the world. He won a lottery ticket. He won the knockout championship, even though the odds were against him, as they are against any one of the 128 players, but he came out the winner, power to him, got his title, and it just so happened that it was on his watch that someone, it was myself, I have to confess, provoked a discussion about unifying the world of chess. Ponomariov was in a position to be one of four players playing for the unified world championship title. He had every opportunity to become a future giant of chess. Just imagine if he had beaten Kasparov and then Kramnik, he would immediately and overnight establish himself as one of the world’s greatest chess players at the earliest age of anybody. In my view it was a no-lose situation. Even if he lost the match against Kasparov he would have gained incredibly valuable experience, his name would have been in hundreds of thousands of articles around the world, anyone who was a chess fan would have become familiar with Ruslan Ponomariov’s name. He wins from a marketing perspective, from an opportunity perspective, and from a simple financial perspective of winning a minimum of $450,000. From all of those perspectives I cannot understand his decision.

For myself personally, given the opportunity to play Garry Kasparov in a twelve-game match, a simple match, not for the world championship, not for the greatness of Seattle, just I get to play Garry Kasparov twelve serious games of chess – I’d write Garry a check personally for $50,000. There has to be no prize fund for me. I’ll go down in history as having played one of the world’s greatest chess players ever in a serious match. And quite frankly if I lost the match with such a marvellous score as 7:5 I’d be very proud. If I lost it very badly I wouldn’t be, but at least I would have the opportunity of saying I played head-to-head, one-on-one, mano a mano, with Garry Kasparov, twelve games in a very serious match. I’d love that opportunity. And here’s a kid who could be playing for the world championship, giving his own title serious prestige, a million dollar match, getting an opportunity to unify the world of chess, and really earning the thanks of chess fans around the world, who are tired and want to see their house in order. He would have been a big winner, regardless of the outcome. Now its egg on everybody’s faces, probably more on Ruslan’s face than he would like, probably more than he deserves. I wish him success in his chess career, and hope he goes on to become a really great player. But should he not, he’ll rue the day that he refused to sign that agreement. He missed a terribly golden opportunity.

ChessBase: What about the other match, the one between Kramnik and Leko…

Seirawan: I haven’t thought too much into the Kramnik-Leko side of things. There were a lot of problems there, but I must say I was much less attuned to what those problems were. It seems that the players had a very high opinion of the marketing value of this match, and were reaching higher than the sponsorship existed.

ChessBase: What would you do now, if you had the means and were commissioned to solve the problems of the chess world?

Seirawan: Well, first of all the whole experience with the Prague Agreement and its failures has led me to the determination that the world championship title as it currently exists is an anachronism. It has simply outgrown its usefulness. I don’t believe that the world champion should be sitting back doing nothing for two, three years, waiting for a challenger and earning millions of dollars. Vladimir Kramnik is classical chess world champion, Ruslan Ponomariov is the champion of FIDE, they should be active, they should be playing. They are the hottest ticket in town, the fans want to see them, not the chorus of players all fighting to play the role of challenger.

So the first thing I would do would be to totally revamp the elite world of chess. Funnily enough I would go back to the days of the Grandmasters Association GMA, organise six premier events, with a pool of players, the top four at the end of a season would play a quadrangular, and the two best of the quadrangular would play a match for the championship. This would be an annual circuit, very, very simple. I would make the pool of players have two dynamics. The first dynamic is you want to be in the top four, and the second is you don’t want to be in the bottom rungs, because there you face demotion. I would have candidates tournaments, open Swiss tournaments, that would allow people to become a “Candidate master”. The candidates and the players who faced demotion would play candidate matches in the seventh and eighth events. So you would have an existing pool of players including four and a few others who haven’t been demoted, and the candidates winners creating the new pool, so that again you would have a season of events, the playoffs and the championships. Everybody would have six opportunities to qualify, to become part of the elite pool. This system would really satisfy the desires of sponsors, the desires of the chess fans, the champions at the end of the year would, just like in the NBA, have to defend their title, they would have to play in the season events in the next year, they’d have to win the playoffs and have to win the championships. I think that this makes the most sense, both from a practical point of view and from an economical point of view. I see this as a utopia for chess.

ChessBase: Have you ever though of running for FIDE president?

Seirawan: No. As a political entity I don’t feel drawn to such organisations. I’m not a very good political person, I’m not someone who compromises very easily. Also, quite frankly I find myself out of step with the goals of FIDE. I don’t think that the policies that they are pursuing, the rapid tempo of the games and speeding it up more and more, the drug testing, are the type of policies I would support.

ChessBase: And a professional chess organisation?

Seirawan: That is much more interesting. I would hope that if such an organisation or entity is created that I would have a function within it.

ChessBase: Thank you very much for this wonderful, informative discussion.

In the next few days we will be publishing a new "open letter" and interview by Ponomariov, reports on ACP controversies against FIDE, and an extensive discussion with Garry Kasparov. At the end of it all you, dear readers of ChessBase.com, can express your opinion on the situation in the chess world today. In order to prepare for the momentous task we advocate, in addition, a careful study of the following documents. Taking a week off your regular job might be in order. But it could be worth your while. Maybe you will come up with a proposal that gains widespread acceptance and solves the problems of the chess world.

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