A New President for the French Chess Federation

by Stefan Löffler
5/5/2021 – France's top players, most prominently Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, have been on bad terms with their Chess Federation for years now. After the deselection of Bachar Kouatly, the association's new president Éloi Relange wants to put an end to the infighting. However, internal struggles within the Chess Federation still persist, as Stefan Löffler found out. | Photo: Bachar Kouatly, who remains Deputy President of FIDE. | Photo: FIDE.

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Éloi Relange is 44 years old, son of the painter Jean-Maxime Relange, father of three and Grandmaster. Hovever, since 2005, he has barely spent any time with chess, aside from the occasional game played for the Paris club Clichy. Instead, he has shifted his focus towards the more lucrative world of professional poker. He is co-founder of a poker academy that is quite similar to the company, whose sale financed the set-up of chess24. Additionally, he has been managing an online job portal for a number of years.

He was first suggested as a candidate by an old friend, Jean-Baptiste Mullon. In July of 2019, Mullon was lamenting the state of the Federation, when Léo Battesti asked him why he did not run for the position of president himself. No, too much responsibility, he replied. However, the very next night, he suddenly woke up and knew that Éloi - whose name is derived from Latin and means 'the chosen one' - would be just the right candidate.

Éloi Relange

After some deliberation, Relange was ready to run, not least because the position of president of the Federation came with hopes of a professional salary. Thanks to Mullon's contacts, the thirty supporters required to become an official candidate were quickly assembled. The troubled relationship between then-incumbent Bachar Kouatly and the national team garnered him additional support.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Étienne Bacrot and Laurent Fressinet all declared that they would not be playing for France as long as Bachar Kouatly was still president of the Federation. They were not invited to the European Team Championship in 2019. Additionally, the board of the Federation had decided to expel technical director Jordi Lopez and team captain Sebastien Mazé from the Federation, two associates who where quite popular with players. The board accused Mazé of a lack of discipline, as well as being responsible for an incident that had occurred at the Chess Olympiad 2018 in Batumi, where one of the French players had to be hospitalised in a severely inebriated state after the "Bermuda Party". This incident only became widely known in France after Kouatly casually mentioned it during the campaign.

Kouatly was born in Damascus in 1958. His grandfather was the first Syrian president Shukri Al-Quwatly, who, according to Kouatly, in 1959, four year before the the military coup of 1963, went into exile to Beirut with his family and since then had no official position anymore. (However, according to the Wikipedia article about Shukri Al-Quwatly, he left Syria in 1963.)

At first, Kouatly played for Lebanon - he still did in 1979, when he became French champion. Starting in 1982, he represented France at five Chess Olympiads. He skipped 1990, as he was also organising one half of the World Championship match Kasparov - Karpov in Lyon at the time. In 1997, he acquired the then-ailing magazine Europe Échecs and turned it back into a profitable enterprise.

The business-savvy Grandmaster founded the company IDEAL - Institut Developpement Echecs Animation Loirsir - and got involved in other areas, as well: summer camps, chess courses and communal events. One of his most successful ideas was his "partie majoritaire": A game of chess between the major and a group, usually students, who choose their moves based on a collective vote. When a city wanted to advertise an event with a famous player, Anatoli Karpov was flown in for the task.

In 2013 Diego Salazar became president of the federation and at that time Kouatly had no official relations with the federation. But Salazar had spent more money than he could make back and after three years, he had to relinquish his position. An interim president was appointed in his stead and in 2016, Kouatly ran for president himself. Unlike his predecessor Salazar and his opponent Stéphane Éscafre, he declined a presidential salary, a fact which helped him secure a majority of almost two thirds. After his dismissal of a secretary for economic reasons, a works council was established, and in autumn of 2017, a number of Federation employees went on strike. When the board fired technical director Jordi Lopez a few months later, practically all top players criticized the step in an open letter. Then came the Chess Olympiad, the Bermuda Party booze-up and the expulsion of team captain Mazé.

On one hand, Kouatly cleaned up the Federation's finances and secured exclusive new rooms in the Château d'Asnières-sur-Seine in the northern part of Paris.

The Château d'Asnières

However, he also kept making more and more enemies. It was only a matter of time until Le Monde would decide to investigate the conduct of the greatest chess entrepreneur as head of the Chess Federation. Championships hosted by the Federation featured events organised by IDEAL and came with inserts in Europe Échecs. Alarmed by the daily newspaper's article, the ministry of sports conducted an investigation and published two reports on Kouatly's conflicts of interest, which Relange and his team gleefully milked. However, as Kouatly points out, the report of the ministry of sports clearly mentions that the conflict of interests did not harm the federation financially.

Then came the pandemic. Roughly a hundred chess clubs have cut ties with the Federation while it was preoccupied with internal squabbles relating to the upcoming new elections. Covid-19 caused the election to be postponed twice. In France, all sports associations must vote in the year of the Summer Olympics. However, when Tokyo decided to postpone the games, the date was moved to April 2021. While Relange was considering whether his perseverance would eventually pay off, a third candidate appeared in the form of lawyer Joel Gaultier, while leadership of the Federation was taken on by an interim president, the diplomat Yves Marek.

Perhaps as a result of his image having been tarnished by the ministerial reports, Kouatly openly proposed a double leadership together with Johanna Basti, who had over the years shown remarkable skill when it came to improving the relationship of the Federation with ministries and other public institutions of the Republic of France. Meanwhile, Relange rallied the malcontents. Gaultier advertised himself as a champion of compromise and reconciliation. Larbi Houari, who had mobilised voters for Salazar in 2012, for Kasparov at the FIDE election in 2014 and for Kouatly in 2016, was the lawyer's greatest trump card. However, the pollster may already have inferred that Gaultier would not be making the cut.

In France, the head of the national association is elected by the presidents of the 810 chess clubs. Depending on the size of the club, they have between one and 16 votes. Two thirds of the clubs have only one or two votes, of which there are a grand total of 1701. While voting via mail was possible, the majority still showed up in person to cast their vote at the election meeting in Paris on Easter Sunday. Voter turnout was above 91 per cent. The vote was decided by a simple majority: Gaultier received 23 per cent of votes, Kouatly 36 and Relange 41.

Journalist and chess blogger Christophe Bouton saw Kouatly put on a smile after a few seconds of incredulous shock. He then went on to congratulate his successor, who is almost twenty years younger than him, and assure his full support. While 'support' is a very flexible term, there is little reason to believe this.

His fellow campaigner Johanna Basti announced that she would be switching to the French Bridge Federation. General director Mathilde Choisy, who had been hired by Kouatly and had a reputation for being extremely efficient, is going to leave the Chess Federation, as well. Jean-Pierre Gorges, the major of Chartres and a personal friend of Kouatly, announced that his city would not be hosting the Chess League traditionally scheduled to conclude in late May or the championship in August this year.

Relange now has his hands full trying to patch up these holes. Meanwhile, the monthly salary of € 2700 which he had hoped his new job would earn him is everything but secured. As a public non-profit organisation, the Chess Federation does have the right to pay its elected officials. According to Mullon, all that is required to decide this is a vote by the executive board, while the governing body for sports and cultural organisations states that it needs to be specified in the articles of association and must be approved by the General Assembly with a two-thirds majority.

On Saturday 24th April the board voted to give Relange the salary. But according to Kouatly a group of people from the Federation is going to take legal measures to cancel this decision which they think is illegal. Should the courts decide that it is indeed illegal, Relange will have to reimburse the money to the federation.

Translation from German: Hugo B. Janz

Editorial note

When a preview of this article was sent to Jean-Baptiste Mullon, Vice President of the French Chess Federation, he responded with the following comment:

Throughout our campaign, we heard that Eloi ran because he needs an income. Ridiculous! Eloi Relange has no need at all, financially speaking. He was looking for a new challenge in his life. He brings a passion for development and innovation, he is successful in his professional life, and he was not involved at all in the previous conflicts at the FFE.

All in our team agreed that we didn’t need a president only for ceremonies and political decisions. We all want a president who is leading the projects himself, day by day. Eloi will be working 100% for the FFE. Could he do this as a volunteer? This would just be wrong. But he accepts a lower income that comes with his salary, compared to what he earned previously. As all sports federations in France, the FFE is entitled to remunerate an elected operative leader.

Two ministerial reports made very clear that Kouatly's position was a big help for his company IDEAL which has been called a "big winner". More than ten recommendations by the ministry have to be implemented and followed if we want the FFE to be considered for government support in the future.

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Stefan Löffler, a journalist and International Master based in Vienna and Lisbon, is member of FIDE's Education Commission, a consultant at ChessPlus Ltd. www.chessplus.net and Programme Director of the London Chess Conference: www.londonchessconference.com.

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