Emil Sutovsky discusses FIDE's policy during the Covid19 pandemic

by Sagar Shah
4/29/2020 – Covid-19 has changed the world of chess drastically. All over-the-board tournaments have been cancelled and the action has shifted to the online format of the game. But what is FIDE's online policy for the next few months? ChessBase India got in touch with FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky for an exclusive interview about the current situation and FIDE's response to it, the Candidates Tournament 2020, the Radjabov conundrum, the World Championship Match 2020, and much more.

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How FIDE is battling the unprecedented situation

FIDE functions through the various commissions that it has formed. With the advent of the corona virus the situation has changed drastically in the world of chess. All of a sudden over-the-board tournaments are non-existent and the entire focus has shifted to online events. Because of this FIDE's online commission has become one of the most central groups in the organization for the next few months. They have to come up with ideas to ensure that FIDE is able to keep chess going and use the unique advantage of the sport where it doesn't lose its form even when you play it online. In order to make sure that the online policies are appropriately formed in the next few months, FIDE's Director General Emil Sutovsky is now in charge of the Online Commission. ChessBase India got in touch with him for an exclusive interview where he speaks about FIDE's plans in the upcoming days. We also touch upon the topics related to Candidates 2020, Teimour Radjabov' situation and the World Championship Match 2020.

FIDE's Director General Emil Sutovsky will form the organization's online policy in the days to come | Photo: David Llada

Interview with FIDE Director General Emill Sutovksy

Interview with Emil Sutovsky about FIDE's online strategy

Sagar Shah (SS): Hi Emil, we are going through some unprecedented times right now. What is FIDE's strategy in the current scenario?

Emil Sutovsky (ES): Well, definitely these times are very different from anything that we have witnessed in the past and it's also challenging for FIDE because you know we did a lot of major things through the last one and half years, and we were on the right track to see some really big changes. But now this situation has made a big impact obviously. In general this has impacted our approach to pretty much everything. We had to come with a strategy quickly because we didn't have time to sit and wait and understand how long this pandemic would continue. So we came up with rather detailed plans both in the way of staging online tournaments or any other online activity. You know FIDE is not only about tournaments, it's not only about top players, we have to see the whole picture in general and if there's an opportunity, we have to make use of it. The interest in chess has surged immensely in the last month simply because people are locked in their homes and that's actually an opportunity for the International Chess Federation to have more people involved with chess during this time and ensure that once this pandemic is over, and I hope it would be over reasonably soon, people are still interested, they still keep playing, teach their kids and so on.

SS: Yes, so what exactly has FIDE come up with? You said there are going to be online tournaments and we have read that there will be online Nation's cup which is a big event to be held from the 5th to 10th of May.

FIDE has managed to gather a very strong line up for the six teams that will participate in the FIDE chess.com Online Nations Cup 2020

ES: Obviously, we have devised various approaches for all the stakeholders in the chess world. The Nation's Cup is going to be a huge event and probably a unique event, in the sense that we were able to get hold of such a strong field in such a small duration of time. Basically every strong chess player qualifying for their team would be playing in it, except Magnus Carlsen. So we have a very strong tournament but it is not the end of it. We plan something very big and very diverse which will be hopefully conducted in collaboration with all the major platforms. We will be announcing the details in a few weeks. But it is going to be something major with a social impact and an aim to get as many people involved as possible.

In addition to that one more project we are working on is the Online Chess Olympiad. You know this summer we had planned to have the Chess Olympiad in Moscow and the competition for the disabled in Khanty Mansiysk. Of course, it wasn't possible to conduct them but we are searching for the best possible substitute. The Olympiad has always been a huge festival with players from all continents and even from countries where chess isn't that popular. So we want to have possibilities for everyone. We are therefore looking forward to having mixed teams where we would have male, female, and junior participants. And once again this is where we talk about some sort of official event. Of course we are also planning to have a World Blitz Championship online. Not planning to replace the regular World Blitz Championship yet. We don't know if that is going to take place this year, once again it depends very much on how the situation pans out. But we obviously feel that this rising interest for chess online can be and should be supported by FIDE by staging some major official events. Chess is one of the few sports where something of this kind is possible.

We are not thinking only in terms of tournaments. We have a string of online seminars. There are twenty online seminars scheduled from April to September in five or six major languages. We staged organizer's seminar already, the first phase of it is already finished and we had over one hundred participants subscribing. It is very important to use this time properly, not only for these online activities but one of the foundations of our plans is that we build up to be ready for the day after. Because I think there is a big danger that after all this is over people might turn too used to this lockdown situation and forget how to basically work! So we have to be ready.

FIDE online trainer's seminar for Asia and Oceania gathered 73 participants!

We also plan a lot of activities with regards to junior chess. All the junior championships had to be cancelled this year so we are planning to have official online competitions. We started with one last week called the FIDE Candidate youth, but of course we are going to have it in much larger scale. And definitely there are some charity events that we are planning like simuls, social and fundraising events for people and players who have suffered from this pandemic. These are really more than words, these are actually concrete steps that we are taking and you can see the ideas implemented already in April with a whole string of seminars being conducted. The month of May would be the start of big tournaments hopefully.

SS: Well, when it comes to you know over-the-board play, one of the major reasons FIDE is in control is because of the ratings but when it comes to online tournaments there are no online ratings that are official. There are so many different platforms conducting several online events. How do you plan to make online chess more serious now that perhaps the next few months are going to be like this?

ES: That's a very good question. In fact, this is one of the points we are discussing now. We are obviously going to collaborate with various platforms and not focus on only one platform. We are discussing possible solutions and that would depend on how the situation unleashes. If it is for two or three months then it is one thing but God forbids if there's a second wave and it becomes a scenario of half a year or so then we would have to act accordingly. I would say rating online games is definitely on the table. What is not on the table is having an official classical tournament in this format.

Rating is an important thing. And as you mentioned various platforms have various ratings. FIDE could sort of help unify them. We are definitely considering that as one of the possibilities. This will be related to online ratings, which will be different from over the board ratings. Once again it is difficult to plan things in a long term basis but short term and mid term we already can plan. One more thing that is very important is the anti-cheating regulation. That's something which is very much on the table. We are looking forward to adjusting it according to the needs of the day. When you are talking about a small tournament then it is one thing, in case of big events it's a completely different scenario. We are talking about algorithms. There are different detection algorithms and there are various technical solutions. Perhaps, I can't go too much into the detail of that but we take them very seriously and we are working with various platforms on these issues.

We do not claim that online chess can fully replace traditional chess. After all a chess tournament is more than just a tournament, it is a social event where there is a lot of communication, you meet people from different countries united by their passion for chess. This component is obviously missing in online play but there are other advantages - you don't have to travel, you can work with more people, and so on and so forth. For example, the online olympiad event that we are planning, we are planning to have it in two groups, namely east and west, so that players can play in their preferred time zones. Once again for all these events you have to take into consideration that in Asia it could be midnight, while in the US it is early morning. It won't work well if we don't take the difference in time zones into consideration. So we are paying attention to all the little details. I think we have a lot of work to do but we have started early and we have a dedicated team. I think we will accomplish a lot of things both in online chess and in preparation for the day after.

SS: One of the things that Arkady Dvorkovich mentioned in a recent interview and as we just discussed that cheating is one of the issues that stops FIDE from going online full-fledged. So apart from putting in cameras where the players are playing and detection algorithms, is there anything else FIDE is looking into?

ES: Algorithms basically exist for automatic detection. There are two types of algorithms used. One is the traditional kind and the other is based on neural networks. When they are combined they yield good results. There are other options which may be used of course with the players' permission. Let me state this very clearly all these are not used secretly without the knowledge of players. I am personally very concerned that many unpleasant things can be derived from this situation where the governments are allowed to follow every citizens everywhere. So these are very sensitive of course. But we have our cards open. We are exploring possibilities like eye tracking which can potentially prove efficient. We will require a sort of reciprocity from the players - (a) obey these regulations; and (b) you are ready to accept expulsion from the event based on suspicion. Certainly, you can't have a player banned for life without concrete evidence but if there's serious suspicion based on computer or algorithm evidence then temporary expulsion can occur. It unfortunately is the only way to proceed. We have to be delicate because suspicion doesn't automatically prove that a player is a cheater, but a decision might have to be taken at some point based on whether the suspicions are profound enough to expel a particular player from a particular tournament but not banned for entire life. Our policy in general will depend on how this pandemic situation develops.

SS: FIDE has worked on a lot in the past couple of years to get a lot of sponsors on board and corporate support. For example, Coca Cola was one of them. So how are they looking at this situation? Will they support FIDE going forward?

FIDE's cooperation with Coca Cola surely did attract a lot of eyeballs from the corporate world

ES: Look, Coca Cola was a very good start. And last year we had two pilot projects, one in Poland and the other in Riga, Latvia. This year we had a written agreement to have like five times more funds from them which would also cover the final stage of the Women Grand Prix in Italy where Coca Cola Italy would be one of the major sponsors, along with a lot of other activities in various European countries. We spoke only of Europe at the time. I met the CEO of Global Coca Cola and we had a good meeting. He was amused with idea of Coca Cola supporting chess. I came up with an interesting detail actually that the last game of the first World Championship match between Steinitz and Zukertort in 1886 concluded on the same day when their big guy Pemberton came up with the Coca Cola recipe. It was literally on the same day at least according to the published information! So I think the day life resumes we would be able to get back on track with Coca Cola in particular when you talk about it. But it is not only about Coca Cola, we also have collaboration with Total which is a very big French oil company. Although I don't know how this agreement will look after this pandemic because they will most likely have suffered a big blow. We have a very good collaboration with CISCO. We think our World Championship match will be partly supported, sponsored, partnered by CISCO company. We are already very much advanced in our mutual understanding in this regard.

Basically chess always has been something very respectable and I can be only sorry for the last twenty-five years where the game has been losing one opportunity after another. A lot of corporate sponsorship was given to sports and arts which would appeal less to the general public than chess, but chess was not in it. It was a shame and when I had the chance to meet the CEOs of several big companies, I saw that they liked chess a lot and some of them were even players. Some of them liked the social value of chess and discussed the possibility of promoting it for kids and have it in their education. Many big companies you know are concerned about the next generation and they are eager to take some responsibility. I think in general we are going to be on the right track after life resumes but at the moment it is obviously very difficult. The Nations Cup which is scheduled for next month could be a sort of an attempt to see whether even in this situation there is a serious interest for chess.

SS: Considering the current situation where other sporting events are just not happening, don't you think chess would get sponsorship much more easily than normal times?

ES: Yes and no! Yes, we have much less of competitors right now and I do think that chess actually represents an opportunity for the big companies in these times, but the question is whether they understand it. Chess has been so overshadowed for so long and the World Championship matches have been pretty much the only events that have caught the spotlight. Even the Candidates has failed to make to the news at times but we saw this year that the Candidates was being covered by all major outlets due to this pandemic. So yes, we try to use these factors to our advantage but we can never know because this is an absolutely unprecedented situation. No company was prepared to face this situation and of course they have to adjust their finances accordingly.

SS: And what about the Radjabov situation? The pandemic is quite serious as we can see, so has FIDE changed its stance on that front?

Teimour Radjabov did not play the Candidates and was replaced by French GM MVL at the last moment

ES: Well, the situation with Radjabov is quite clear to us. We believe that we practically and legally did things right. Practically because we managed to hold the very important first leg of the event. Unfortunately we couldn't do more because of the regulations adopted by the Russian government at the time. Of course we couldn't foresee these things but we did our best to secure all players and there were no unpleasant situations in this regard. So at the moment when we took this decision, it was an informed one but we didn't have all the information unfortunately. That's why the decision was taken as it was. Looking back and saying I knew that this would happen is very easy. In many cases people don't recall what they knew if it didn't happen. But at the same time Radjabov clearly won his spot at the Candidates and deserved to play, and his concerns were very realistic too, I mean they weren't just excuses.

Legally we are okay, once again we consulted our lawyers about this situation. But I think the whole idea... I mean our work in FIDE is based on the principle that we try to be fair. And that's why we are already discussing the possibility of awarding Radjabov the wildcard for 2022. But we can't include him in this tournament in some strange manner. We clearly discussed with the players when the event terminated that it would continue later with the same set of players and the same points. It wasn't called off or anything. But including him in 2022 Candidates can balance out things. It is not something we have decided. It is something we are discussing actually. In general we wanted to get rid of the wildcard policy from the tournament because in my opinion it is simply wrong to assign one of eight spots in such an important event as wildcard. But then again, other opinions exist and it is about finding a balance. So for now nothing has been decided about 2022 Candidates but we are discussing all the possibilities.

Radjabov may well get the wild card for the Candidates 2022

SS: Everyone is very excited for the World Championship to take place in Dubai Expo because it would be something for the first time but right now it is unsure whether Dubai Expo would happen or not.

ES: I think Dubai Expo will happen but it would just move a year ahead. So it will start in October 2021 instead of October 2020. I am in constant touch with the VC of Dubai Expo. We made a huge word and we have a tentative agreement signed. It was not only for having an event but also having something much more than that. Our plan was to put a lot of side activities, lectures, and a tournament with at least a hundred countries participating. We also wanted to have open studio in major cities like London, New York, Moscow, and Oslo, which would attract more people to the event and to the Expo 2020. We also devised a plan for an absolutely different sort of broadcast of the matches. Chess broadcast has seen many changes in the last fifteen years or so but we were planning to change it big time this year. We were really not looking at Expo 2020 as not just another match or just a great venue for another match but something major. Now we will see what to do. I am in touch with the organizers. Of course, it is one of our priorities to have this World Championship match in an absolutely different way from what it has been till now.

Having the World Championship Match 2020 at the Dubai Expo would be a big boost to the sport | Photo: Arab news

SS: Okay so coming to you Emil. You are the Director General of FIDE and FIDE has many different committees that they have formed. So what is your role mainly in all this? Do you have to oversee all this committees as the Director General?

ES: Well, now the situation is a bit different because I am in charge of the FIDE online activities. Usually of course, I would not be doing everything. It is a good team we have. A lot of things are done by Victor Bologan. Arkady Dvorkovich himself is doing a fantastic job, many people didn't expect it but he is fully dedicated. Before the pandemic he was travelling extensively to different countries to meet organizers, sponsors, and federations, and also the various anti-cheating panels and getting to know things in more detail. Obviously it is not a one man show but it is a good team that is working. I personally was in charge of all the World Championships except the junior and the veteran. I am also in charge of some negotiations with regards to how chess life should be modified or adjusted for the ever changing world. I also organize a special commission dedicated to support the chess veterans. That's a very important thing. We care about our older generations. We care not only about the legends of the past, I mean the real legends are comparatively well off, but people who contributed a lot when they were in their prime thirty or forty years ago and often times who have been left forgotten by their own governments or federations. So that is one of my important duties.

And of course I travel extensively to nearly each and every European country to visit their federation and see what they need and so on. I am sort of an in charge of the European region. I also travelled to US to meet people in universities, we had devised this program to bring all the chess activities in top universities under one umbrella. Not just the top chess playing universities but the ones which are academically at the top. So I met people from Harvard and MIT. Of course, there are many talented people there and there is evidence that correlation between chess talent and talent in other areas exist. So that's one of the things I am doing. In general, I am trying to do as many things as possible. One of the recent additions has been two commissions which I would be spending quite some time on, one is the anti-cheating because it is very important especially now, and trainers commission because having good and dedicated trainers is very important.

A giant chess board outside the Science Center Plaza in Harvard | Photo: Harvard University

SS: So you were a chess player before where you had to mostly work alone with your own chess. Maybe collaborating with coaches and seconds from time to time. But serving in administrative positions is a completely different ball game where you have to collaborate with many other people, work as a team, and so on and so forth. Did you find this transition difficult?

ES: No it wasn't particularly difficult for me because even as a player socializing with players wasn't difficult for me. What is difficult sometimes is to work as a team. When you are working with people you should listen to other opinions, sometimes retract your own opinion and take one that of your colleague. In general, I also have an educational background and that's why I think it wasn't too difficult for me. Also my experience in ACP, being president there for almost seven years, was of immense help. I was already involved very much in organizing tournaments and coming up with strategies and plans that are actually implementable. As a chess player I used to hear opinions of different kinds about how you should or should not do certain things but my experience suggests that it is very difficult to come up with an ideal solution. Even in the chess world opinion is often split, be it about time control, or about world championship format, or about how the ratings are calculated, or anti-cheating policies you name it. At the end the day there's no ideal solution and a decision has to be taken and inevitably that would make some people unhappy. But I think in general we are very good at listening to people. We are in constant dialogue with the top players and as well as the wider audience. We are conducting polls and encouraging everyone to offer their opinions and as well as criticisms. We aren't taking the best decisions all the time and there have been more than one wrong decisions in the past one and half years but it is simply impossible not to make it. But I think the vast majority of the decisions taken were successful. Even a few years ago you would remember FIDE would just publish a statement and that would be the end of it. There would be no discussion, no public opinion, nothing. Now we are accountable. Maybe we are not doing it perfectly but nobody is perfect.

SS: So my final question to you is, you achieved so much in chess. You were a strong player and now you are the Director General of FIDE where you are making a big difference. Are you happy with the way things have turned out for you?

ES: I think you have touched on a very important point. Making a difference is necessary and I have this feeling that whatever I am doing does make a difference in the chess world. As a chess player it was very difficult for me to find motivation. I was not into setting targets like getting in to the top ten or achieving a particular rating or something. I was on 2700 and I realistically understood that I would not manage to become the World Champion but I managed to produce quite a few nice games and win some strong tournaments. But the motivation stopped being very strong in chess and being only an artist and play at a much lower level to just produce some nice games from time to time didn't very much appeal to me. So I thought it was time for me to look forward to new and challenging work. At the same time I never claimed that I retired from chess. I mean, I don't think I am such an important person in the world of chess to make a statement like "I retire" even if I do. I keep playing now and then and enjoy it immensely. I also think one day I would take a sabbatical and play some chess. Yes, I miss the atmosphere of chess competition. I already go there in my capacity as the Director General of FIDE and also get the chance to discuss the game with some top players. It fills me with the same passion. This is chess from a different angle but it is still important for me. I want to make chess players heard, their feelings and needs heard, so in that sense I am still very much of a chess person.

SS: Thank you Emil for your time and we wish you the best in your important role as the Director General of FIDE.

ES: Thank you Sagar

Emil Sutovsky's favourite game of chess

Although the interview revolved around FIDE's online policy and Emil Sutovsky's role in the FIDE, we did not want to let this opportunity pass by to ask Emil about his favourite game of chess! After all Sutovsky was one of the finest players in the world of chess, having crossed 2700 on the Elo scale, having won the Gibraltar Masters as well as the Aeroflot Open and many strong events. When we asked him to choose his favourite game, he went for his win over GM Daniel Gormally from the Gibraltar Masters 2005. It was a beautiful attacking victory and at the time when the game was published in several prominent sources, Vishy Anand exclaimed it as the best game of chess he had ever seen! When Anand makes a statement like that, how can you not get tempted to see the game!

Emil explains the ideas behind his move in his win over Daniel Gormally from Gibraltar Masters 2005


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Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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