Several times during the past few years, I had the pleasure of attending FIDE arranged meetings of chess rating experts in Athens, Greece. Just last Tuesday I received an email from FIDE Qualifications Chairman Mikko Markkula, pushing for another such meeting very soon. Mikko and former FIDE Treasurer and Executive Director David Jarrett had been the primary organizers of the previous conferences, and Mikko always provided a detailed agenda of what he needed us to accomplish during the meetings. I figured we would see one of those agendas from Mikko within a short time. Instead, not three days later, I received an email with the shocking news that Mikko had died suddenly at the age of 64.
Across all those meetings and the associated get-togethers such as sharing mealtimes, I probably spent fewer than 50 hours in Mikko's company, yet somehow I feel that I gained a very clear picture of him, and I would like to share a bit of it with you. I know that he held various key posts in FIDE for a long period of time, administering ratings and titles, and Stewart Reuben has provided an excellent appreciation of Mikko's accomplishments and contributions. Carol Jarecki also had very nice words about his efforts. But I wasn't really involved much in Mikko's long years of service to the chess community, so others such as Stewart and Carol are better qualified to recap those. I would just like to talk about the man himself, as I knew him in those all-too-few hours.
The first word I would use to describe Mikko is "solid". He was shorter than I am (admittedly, almost everyone is shorter than I am) and each year I saw him, he would shake his head in exasperation and pat his stomach, making a good-natured joke about how he was growing in too many directions. But he always seemed strong and healthy and vital to me, which makes this news such a shock. He loved to go on long walks through the streets of Athens, and one year he even switched to a hotel that was farther away from our meetings, so he could have longer walks. It is easy to imagine Mikko as some great wrestler or weightlifter, planting his feet, clasping his hands together in a puff of chalk dust, and then bearing tremendous burdens all on his own. I think that might be a good image for what he did for the chess world. He bore an amazing burden as a volunteer administrator, traveling to countless meetings and overseeing so many details himself, and combating fraud, while staying true to himself and his principles.
The participants of FIDE rating conference 2010 (left to right): Mikko Markkula (Chairman of FIDE Qualification Commission), Stewart Reuben (Secretary of FIDE QC), Nick Faulks (Councillor of FIDE QC), David Jarrett (FIDE Executive Director and moderator of the panel), Jeff Sonas, GM Bartlomiej Macieja and Vladimir Kukaev (Director of FIDE Elista Office)
Mikko was interested in all aspects of FIDE ratings and titles, and had an incredible grasp of how things worked and how we got to the current situation. I know that he had a comprehensive written record of the minutes of all the various FIDE congresses going back before many of us were born, almost certainly the most complete such collection in existence. And it really seemed that he had most of those events committed to memory. He was not simply an advocate of the status quo, not by a long shot. There were at least ten times during our meetings when someone would suggest a rule improvement and Mikko would immediately explain to us that he had originally supported this idea long ago, and who had opposed it and at what meeting in what year, and why it had failed to get sufficient support. This always provided a useful context to our discussions. I really don't think anyone had a more solid grasp of the relevant FIDE regulations, and we are all poorer for losing Mikko.
Another word that must not be omitted, when describing Mikko, is "Finnish". He had decades of experience as Finland's ratings administrator, with incredibly detailed records of every rating and every event. I am sure that he knew every Finnish player personally, and could recite extensive details about their ratings, their titles, their tournament performances, and their stories. Mikko's sudden absence will unquestionably be a terrible blow for chess in Finland.
In his FIDE work, Mikko was certainly acting on FIDE's behalf, not just Finland's, but his extensive hands-on experience as Finland's ratings administrator gave him a wonderful ability to take the abstract regulations we would be discussing and frame them into a real-world scenario. For instance, you have to play nine rated games, within 24 months, in order to get an initial rating, and at first glance it might not seem to matter too much whether that number was eight or nine or ten games. But after hearing Mikko, it was hard not to feel for the poor Finnish players that Mikko kept talking about, who only managed to play a single annual tournament and face four rated opponents each year, and so could never manage to accumulate the necessary nine rated games in any 24-month period. 25, yes, but not 24. It is so easy in these abstract discussions to seize upon one hypothetical situation and gnaw it constantly, even if it is not a realistic or common scenario, and Mikko was wonderful at taking the discussions out of the abstract and into the practical. He was a fantastic representative of Finland and I am very sorry for their loss.
Setting aside the chess discussions, the next word to describe Mikko has to be "cheerful". On very rare occasions, I would see a frown on his face, invariably when he was discussing fraud or unfair practices. But otherwise he seemed to wear a perpetual friendly smile. He loved to tell jokes, even if they were the same ones every year, and I have searched my memories in recent days to try and remember some of them. Despite the fact that he had greatly enjoyed the time he spent in the USA working for IBM, he still loved to gently tease me – sometimes I was the only representative from the USA in these meetings – about various matters American. The language, the chessplayers, the U.S. Chess Federation, the climate, it didn't matter, everything was fair game! But of course he was welcoming me with these jokes, not pushing me away. There was one riddle he must have told me three years in a row: "What is the most commonly spoken language in the world?". After asking this, Mikko would wait patiently with his eyes twinkling for me to try and figure out what was wrong with the obvious answer, and then, just as I started to respond, he would interrupt and say "Bad English!!" and laugh uproariously. Of course his command of the English language was as good as mine, if not better!
Mikko Markkula – in front of him a heavily used copy of Arpad
Elo’s book “The Rating of chess players, Past and Present”.
On the subject of language, I remember one somewhat embarrassing dinner in Athens where I was surrounded by various chess dignitaries (including Mikko) who started comparing notes about who could speak the most languages. I think Mikko was at the very top of the list, although there were several at the table who spoke at least four or five languages. Whereas I sat there thinking about my own mastery of English, plus a few years in school learning Spanish, hoping nobody would ask me how many languages I knew! That was the same trip when my two daughters accompanied me to Athens, and they were jet-lagged but grimly determined to make it through that dinner. My younger daughter Emma kept falling asleep in her pasta, whereas my older daughter Katie wasn't faring much better over her own plate. But Mikko could see what was going on, and kept Katie diverted (and awake) by encouraging her to try the various exotic foods in front of her, especially the tzatziki (a Greek yogurt/cucumber dip). Also my daughters were struggling to keep track of all the foreign names and so just remembered Mikko as "the friendly guy with the big hands". That is a fun memory for the three of us.
The final phrase I would use to describe Mikko is "open and honest". He was forthright, and told you what he thought, and didn't hold back, even if he wasn't in the majority. That is why I feel comfortable describing Mikko despite my limited time with him – I never felt like there was anything from him that was being concealed. Somehow praise from Mikko felt particularly valuable, probably because he didn't go overboard praising everything left and right. My daughters still have happy memories of Mikko calling them "delightful" – they certainly felt the same way about him – and I myself have a very special memory of him complimenting me on my ability to convey complex topics in a clear and visual way, the very last time I saw him (on a train to the Athens airport). It didn't feel like he was trying to win you over, it just felt like he was telling it like he saw it.
In the Wikipedia article about Mikko, it says "Markkula is known for being a stickler for the rules and for checking title applications carefully. He has caused many title applications to be rejected." This paints a picture of a petty administrator who is obsessed with his own ability to enforce the rules, and it may be how he was perceived by some. But that is not how I see it. I much prefer the image of Mikko as a cheerful strongman, patiently bearing the burdens of the chess world with incredible durability and persistence, with an incredible memory for chess stories and FIDE regulations, and always with one more joke to tell! I am very sad that Mikko Markkula is gone, so suddenly, but I am quite grateful to have known him in the final years of his life.