A goodbye to chess

11/25/2003 – Just when the game is starting to boom the world's oldest and largest news organization, Associated Press, has decided to cut back drastically on its chess reporting. Only big Kasparov events will be covered, and instead of trusted correspondent Robert Huntington local staff reporters will struggle to file coherent stories on a game they do not comprehend. Rob lays the blame squarely on FIDE in this open letter to the chess world.

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An Open Letter to the Chess World

For the past few years, I have covered chess for the Associated Press. I (and the chess world) have been fortunate in that the AP has seen fit to give chess extensive coverage, sending me not only to both world championships (i.e., the Kasparov-Kramnik match and the FIDE version), but to the top tournaments like Linares and Wijk aan Zee, the FIDE Grand Prix, the Olympiad, among others.

Unfortunately, in late September, immediately after the cancellation of the Kasparov-Ponomariov match, AP informed me that they would no longer be covering most chess events. While they cited economic reasons, the timing of the decision leaves little doubt that FIDE's chronic inability to hold an event as scheduled was the catalyst. They had, after all, twice had to change or cancel plane tickets for me and been put through considerable inconvenience as the Buenos Aires match was moved to Yalta and then cancelled. Regrettable as AP's decision is, one can hardly blame them.

Coal miners used to carry a caged canary into the mine to warn them of invisible gas. If the canary suddenly died, they knew they had to get out quickly or they would perish themselves. Like the dead canary, the decision of the world's largest news organization to stop covering chess regularly should be taken as a warning to act and act now. My friend and colleague Mig Greengard thinks my analogy to the canary in the coal mine is misplaced. For him, the canary has been dead for years and the miners are already dying. He's probably right, but I'm writing this letter in the hope that he's wrong and that there is still time

This letter should not be necessary. In many ways and in many areas, chess is doing very well indeed and is as popular as ever, especially among the youth. More people play chess on the internet than any other game. The current chess boom in India and China, the world's two most populous countries, is remarkable. A year and a half ago, things were looking even better. The Prague Agreement promised to heal the rift that had so damaged chess's reputation among the wider public (people who don't know how a knight moves can recognize petty politics and turf wars). A new, rational world championship format was promised and meaningful reform seemed possible.

That, of course, was an illusion. President Ilyumzhinov has returned to his former ways with a vengeance. Once the Olympiad and the threat of reform had passed, the Kasparov-Deep Junior match was tossed around from December to January and from Jerusalem to New York; the Kasparov-Ponomariov match was announced for Buenos Aires in June, then for Yalta in September, then cancelled at the last minute. At that time, we were told there would be a world championship tournament in December. Now we are promised two events next spring. Meanwhile, organizers in Prague, who had planned an event in September, cancelled it in order to avoid a conflict with the Yalta match. And so it goes on and on. Just when you think FIDE has accomplished all it possibly can to make itself and chess look ridiculous, it surpasses itself. Ilyumzhinov is said to have spent some $30 million promoting chess. If he had given the money to the Fédération avec l'Intention de Detruire les Échecs (Federation Intent on Destroying Chess), the result would not be worse.

I am not placing the entire blame on FIDE or on Ilyumzhinov. No doubt, Ponomariov was extravagant in his demands and contributed to the cancellation of the Yalta match. The inability of Kramnik and Leko to schedule their match is a grave disappointment. At least, they have not announced phantom matches. Kasparov's original breakaway and the formation of the PCA, which drove FIDE into Ilyumzhinov's arms, was a failed revolution. Had he either succeeded or not tried, things would surely not be this bad today. In real life, revolutionaries who fail are properly hanged. In chess, Kasparov shook Ilyumzhinov's hand in Prague only to become just another one of his victims.

These, however, are petty failings compared with FIDE's and Ilyumzhinov's. At a press conference in Bled, I asked President Ilyumzhinov about the sudden transfer of the Grand Prix from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the postponement of the Moscow Grand Prix, the cancellation of the remaining Grand Prix events and the postponement of the Kasparov-Deep Junior match in Jerusalem (originally scheduled to conflict with Kramnik's computer match in Bahrain). His response was to blame the local organizers and sundry others for these snafus. President Truman of the United States used to have a sign on his desk which read, "The buck stops here." If President Ilyumzhinov is unwilling to take responsibility for what happens on his watch, he should step aside for someone who is so willing.

The biggest harm that Ilyumzhinov does is to scare off the legitimate commercial sponsors upon whom all sports depend today. Chess should do well here. While the numbers are small, the demographics are good (well-educated and concentrated in the high tech field). And chess has a cost advantage over other sports. Corus Steel sponsors a huge event at Wijk aan Zee each year, including a tournament with virtually all the top players, strong grandmaster B and C tournaments, along with amateur events. All this cost about $1 million, barely enough for the appearance fee of one major player in a major sport. But when would-be corporate sponsors look at Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, they don't see his incompetent scheduling and rescheduling of major events, his misguided attempts to get chess into the Olympics, or any of the purely chess sins I have been accusing him of. Instead, they see the stories of corruption coming out of Kalmykia, the endless investigations by the authorities in Moscow concerning vanished millions, his ties to Saddam Hussein, the murder of Larisa Yudina, and they look for something more reputable to sponsor. All sports, including boxing, are now more reputable than chess.

It is obvious what must be done in the first place: get rid of Ilyumzhinov even if it means bankrupting FIDE. It is also obvious that, while necessary, this is insufficient. What remains to be done in addition may well be debated, and should be. I can do little beyond advising all in the chess world to regard FIDE as anathema until Ilyumzhinov is gone and reforms are instituted.

While I have few suggestions beyond the obvious one, my diagnosis of the problems I is the product of the unique position I have had in trying to explain chess to non-chessplayers, not merely the wide audience that AP reaches through its member newspapers and other outlets around the world but to the editors and managers of AP. I do hope, without the slightest expectation, that with major reform chess can improve its position among the wider public so that AP will once again consider chess events worthy of coverage.* Without such reform, I have no doubt that chess's reputation will slip yet further and it will have ever more difficulty in reaching a wider public.

I would like to end this letter on a positive note by expressing my sincere thanks to those with whom it has been a pleasure for me to work with over the past few years, not only the various editors and bureau chiefs at AP, but especially those organizers who, even though they are the most professional and upstanding imaginable, stand to lose valuable coverage from AP's decision. I refer in particular to the wonderful people behind the Linares and the Corus tournaments. I also want to thank the players I have had the privilege of covering and watching up close. They are almost all class acts, especially Vishy Anand, and they deserve neither the reputation they sometimes receive from the more notorious players nor the fate to which the politicians who run the game have condemned them. Finally, I want to thank my fellow members of the fourth estate, especially Arvind Aaron, Aviv Friedman, Leontxo Garcia, Mig Greengard, John Henderson and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam. They have made every press room I have ever been in, even those run by the most incompetent and difficult organizers, an enjoyable place to be.

Robert Huntington

* In the meantime, we should expect not only the quantity but the quality of AP coverage to decline since, on those few occasions where AP might still find covering chess worthwhile (e.g., the recent Kasparov-X3D Fritz match), they are likely to send a non-chessplaying staff reporter and we can look forward to, not only such factual errors as the consistent mischaracterization of Kasparov as "world champion," but such verbiage as this (from the AP report of the first match game):

"The two opponents played conservatively at first with Kasparov using his white pieces to keep X3D Fritz's black knights and bishops, which are moderately powerful, at bay.

But during the middle of the game, both players aggressively attempted to position their queens, the most powerful pieces on the board, to check each other's king, which would force an immediate defense of that piece to avoid losing.

Neither Kasparov nor X3D Fritz could maneuver their pieces to checkmate the other's king, and split the match for half a point each."

Robert Huntington, born Sept. 4, 1958 in Lewiston, Maine, grew up outside of Boston, a product of the Fischer boom (peak rating 2084 in the mid-80s), hiked Appalachian Trail 1975; graduated Wayland High School 1976; two years spent playing chess more than studying at George Washington University. Dropped out for a few years, then went to Boston College; BA linguistics and German 1984. Managing editor of Chess Horizons in late 80s. Got tired of starving and went to Boston University Law School (not to be confused with Boston College); graduated 1991 in middle of recession and wound up in Yugoslavia covering Fischer-Spassky for AP. Next few years doing various legal work with some stuff for AP. AP work took off in 2000 and fairly steady from then until Dortmund this year. Skills and interests: extensive experience and knowledge of the Internet, desktop publishing, word processing and a variety of computer applications. Languages: working knowledge of French, German and Latin.

Rob on a non-chess expedition

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