Q&A with Bessel Kok

by ChessBase
2/17/2006 – Dutch businessman and long-time chess supporter Bessel Kok has thrown his hat into the ring to run for the presidency of FIDE, the international chess federation. We submitted a list of questions, including several from readers, and received detailed responses on issues such as sponsorship, time controls, and of course, the world championship.

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Q&A with Bessel Kok, candidate for FIDE president

The campaign team of Bessel Kok and Ali Nihat Yazici, presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the FIDE leadership in this year's elections, solicited questions and we opened the floor to Daily Dirt readers as well. We have also submitted similar questions to the current FIDE administration and will be happy to publish their responses. Our thanks to Mr. Kok for his time and his thoughts.

1) What other sports federations can FIDE learn from and why? What specific initiatives could we import? (Thanks to Matt Phelps)

There is no doubt that at this point in time FIDE has a lot to learn and adjust to in the modern world. I initially had some talks with the Chairperson of the Netherlands Olympic Committee, Ms Erica Terpstra and I have also visited the offices of UCI (International Cycling Union) in Aigle, Switzerland and was invited to see how they are doing things there. Despite the problem that this sport may have with drugs they are doing a great job.

The team has also reviewed the business models of successful organizations such as FIFA, UEFA and FIBA to see what we can learn from them. We have also looked internally of course to chess Federations that have been successful these last few years and looked at the Turkish business model to identify which facets of an organization very close to home could be imported into FIDE.

These include in summary format:
• Better marketing skills in promoting the benefits and image of chess
• Better communication between the executive team and top players or stakeholders
• Better use of information technology
• Better financial planning
• Better management of resources available
• Attracting more commercial sponsors to the game
• Effective distribution of funds to develop the sport

These areas are all being developed in further detail in an overall strategic plan which would form the basis of the way forward for a NEW FIDE !

2) FIDE’s stated goals are admirable but vague. FIDE must try to please professional players, amateurs and fans, and the federations themselves, which in many cases have developed interests separate from the players they represent. Is your view more trickle-down or bottom-up? I.e., emphasize the professionals so they can spread the game via spectacle or spread the game wider at the grassroots directly? Perhaps we could put it this way, if a donation of a million dollars comes in to put toward new initiatives (or expand current ones), how would it be distributed? Should FIDE itself sponsor pro events, amateur events? (Thanks to rockrobinoff)

We believe that even the way our team ticket has been made up clearly addresses these precise points. I have an excellent legacy of honest, open and transparent communication with Grandmasters coming of course from the GMA days. My colleague, Ali Nihat, has revolutionized, literally, the game of chess in Turkey by addressing the grassroots. From around 1,000 members in 2000 they now have a membership level of around 120,000 people and the target is to go to around 3 million by the end of 2010 ! Funds should be directed towards promoting the grass roots and expanding our player base. What we are expecting is that FIDE’s budgeted activity reflects what is expected from the world federation. Today the Turkish Chess Federation budget alone is over 2 million Euros per year! We have no idea what we have been missing out on all these years.

3) As president, how would you define success or failure in various areas? What would you expect/hope to have achieved after one year, two years?

Success can be measured firstly by the number of players that Federations start to reflect in their membership numbers. Then it is reflected in the financial position of these same Federations. Failure would be reflected by the situation we have today where a very large number of Federations are still not capable of paying to FIDE annual dues of between 1,000 to 2000 Swiss francs per annum. Despite all the millions that the current administration claim to have poured into chess, we are still left with a legacy of poor Federations both financially and structurally.

Within the first two years we would like to see an overhaul of the business model so that the organization is staffed with competent people who are capable of discussing and promoting the game with sponsors and stakeholders. People who are accountable to the chess world and who have to deliver results.

4) How can we balance corporate sponsorship with the traditions of the game? Must we be reduced to doing whatever sells or are there any lines that can’t be crossed? E.g. if Samsung or ESPN says they’d put up millions for world championship decided by blitz shuffle chess, exaggerating to make the point.

A stable, united, classical World Championship is an objective that everybody in the professional chess world desires today. Sponsors are not the people who are demanding changes in the basic parameters of the cycle. Ideas such as the time control of 90+30 or a World Championship based solely on a knockout, were dreamt up by the FIDE Presidential Board, implemented and only after the massive protests all round the world, were these ideas shelved or changed. Obviously it took at least couple of years for these mistakes to be acknowledged by the current administration.

What do sponsors want ? They want a professional organization to deal with who is consistent and communicative. It appears today that we are doing sponsors a favour when we allow them to talk to us ! We believe there are enough sponsors out there willing to back chess but they want a commitment that the organization is being professionally managed. We are confident that we can offer this perspective to them.

5) FIDE officially represents the federations, not the individual players. Should FIDE be more involved in promoting the sports’ stars?

Of course, the icons of the sport or our chess heroes are what normally start to motivate somebody who has learned the game, and who has started to play to take a more serious interest in the sport. Our icons are however poorly promoted. The chess world suffers from having the image limited to a very few number of people. If you ask the general public to mention top chess players I doubt whether they could recall more than two or three names!

How do you address this lacuna? Well, by first bringing respectability back to the game. By getting major sponsors in IT, telecommunications, leading consumer goods to back our strategy and work with us for a common interest. There are lots of great people in the chess world and we must not be averse to singing their praises and promoting them.

6) What are the necessary conditions and steps to establish a unified and viable world chess championship? What comes first, next, etc.? And how would this decision be reached? No matter how many panels are convened or polls taken, in the end it would be your decision to say tournament or match. What factors would go into that decision? (Thanks to Susan Grumer and everyone else.)

As we have had course to state in several interviews or debates, we have started to talk with top professional Grandmasters and we are listening to their views. We have also talked with potential sponsors who are interested in taking it further, but as I said, only if they feel that FIDE is professionally managed. Once the 2006 elections are over, a task force of players, organizers and stakeholders will be set up to come up with proposals of a stable world championship cycle. The new cycle will be proposed to the GA in 2007 for its consideration and approval.

We do not believe that the FIDE President should have the final say on the format. This is like saying that the FIFA President can change the format of the World Cup based on his gut feelings or preferences. This would be absurd in football but unfortunately not so in chess!

7) The faster control adopted by FIDE hasn’t found much support among players or sponsors to my knowledge, while decreasing the quality of the games dramatically. By what alchemy will decisions be made regarding matters of format? How to balance the players, the fans, the sponsors, the quality of the chess itself and the traditions of the game. E.g. time control, tournament system, rating formula.

Well the new controls have had no impact in shortening the duration of international events such as the Olympiad. 150 nations meet up every two years and play 14 rounds over 17 days normally. The only benefit of the faster time limit is to allow Swiss-system tournament organizers to get in more than one round per day.

If this is not an objective then the time control introduced only serves to deteriorate the actual standard of the game. Now that FIDE recognised that its perpetual ‘zeitnot’ system was inadequate we have seen some modifications in San Luis and Khantsky. Also have a look at Corus and compare the quality of the games here. There is no discussion about the level !

The other point on the 90+30 time control promoted by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in the past has been to make chess more popular with the media. Realistically no commercial TV station can afford to give more than one hour slots to any entertainment concept whether it is chess, snooker, basketball or any other form of entertainment. The span of attention of people today is much shorter with the large variety of options available through satellite TV, internet etc… Also our sport is much more complicated to follow for the untrained person and this needs presenters who have both technical and presentation skills. You don’t just bring a shot of people holding their head in their hands and a shot of the pieces.

Look at what Yasser Seirawan has been doing during Corus 2006 on Playchess. The live video relays are great and the number of people following live is huge. This is a great opportunity for the chess world.

8) The future is important, but perhaps we can learn from the past. What, if it can be summed up, went wrong with the Prague Agreement? Do you feel you fulfilled your intended role as well as possible? (Business plan.) (Thanks to edu, greg koster, others)

Both Kirsan and Makro [FIDE vice president Georgios Makropulos] went on record asking ‘What happened to Bessel Kok after the Prague Agreement ?” Shortly after the PA, I met up with IMG, a large sports marketing company which was working for football clubs like Manchester United, and we had drawn up a business plan for them and for FIDE using business consultants. We had met in London to discuss this plan and for a time afterwards we heard nothing.

It transpired that IMG and FIDE had had bilateral discussions at the time and had decided to work out together an agreement without our group. They argued that since the World Championship cycle belonged to FIDE, why was there any need for Bessel Kok? Obviously, there was a hidden agenda by some people within the FIDE structure to try and push FIDE Commerce. Everyone in the chess world knows the story about FIDE Commerce and I do not have to delve on this subject. Obviously, subsequent discussions failed miserably and the whole thing collapsed. Further attempts from my side to organise one of the reunification matches also were treated impolitely by FIDE despite the efforts and expenses made in Prague 2002!

The result is well known to the chess world today but the biggest charade is that Kirsan or Makro are saying today “Where was Bessel Kok after Prague ?”

9) As a chess fan yourself, how would you like to see the world championship decided? The matches, the giant KO, the exclusive tournament? Why? Or is the championship passé and should we just go with big tournaments and the rating list, like tennis and golf? Do the traditions matter or do we need to start from scratch?

Personal preferences are not of course on the agenda in our campaign. We have many opinions and suggestions regarding match tournaments, knockout formats or classical matches. A balanced mix like everything else in life is probably the right approach. We have become to used to people taking strong positions to back up their opinions without really having to be there in the first place.

We have to bring back democracy and professional attitudes to chess organization. We all have our opinions and there is validity in many of the formats which could be studied. The main message is however that the majority of stakeholders have to agree on a format and once we do that we all work to implementing it as a stable cycle so that professional players can plan ahead and at the same time we would have clear regulations which everybody would respect.

10) Will FIDE recognize Kramnik’s title? I know this is a tough one to give a yes/no answer to, but principles must have a place along with practicality. If FIDE decides to stay with tournament world championships, is it unreasonable for a “long match faction” to perpetuate the schism?

No. Kramnik's title was never recognized by Fide and Vladimir never asked for it. However (with initially some hesitation) he finally signed the Prague agreement and subsequently kept "his side of the agreement" correctly. The real issue is therefore whether after so many years, the failure to organize Fide matches and the ultimate retirement of Kasparov, the Prague agreement calling for a reunification match still has legal and/or or moral value. This has become even more complicated since (as far as I know) Topalov became a World Champion in Argentina without any obligations towards the 2002 Prague agreement.

The opinions on how to deal with this are diverse. Personally, as a President I would bring the parties together and in an open dialogue, see if a compromise solution can be found.

11) What structural changes in the FIDE decision-making mechanism do you envision, if any? (Thanks to Alkelele)

Today the process of back-room discussions, compromise, haggling and negotiations have become a matter of style which leads to poor results.

The Right Move Campaign has some distinct characteristics from the old FIDE style. We are open, approachable and we believe in communication. We answer questions on a timely basis and honestly. We have no hidden agendas and we are extremely professional in the way we are doing things from our website, our printed communication, our presentations, right down to our strategic plans. This is the way we would like to see the decision making mechanism operate in the future in FIDE.

It will require some adjustments to a frame of mind more than to a physical infrastructure. The mechanism needs to be a means to an end rather than the other way round.


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