Zhang Zhong answers: It was indeed a ban

by ChessBase
3/12/2017 – We recently reported that the "golden couple" GM Zhang Zhong and WGM Li Ruofan had been excluded from the Asian Zonals. The Singapore Chess Federation explained that it was not a “ban”, the players were "simply not selected and endorsed by the Federation to take part." In a detailed response to their federation the two players describe what it means when you are barred from practicing the profession you love.

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Open response to the Singapore Chess Federation

By GM Zhang Zhong

I would like to respond publicly to the article recently published by Mr. John Wong, the Vice President of the Singapore Chess Federation (SCF) on the ChessBase website on 22 February 2017. I had chosen not to respond until now as I did not wish to distract my friends and students, who were playing at the Zone 3.3 Championships.

First and foremost, both myself and my wife, IM Li Ruofan, would like to sincerely thank GM Emil Sutovsky and the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) for their invaluable support and assistance throughout our dispute with the SCF. Even though we did not manage to participate, we remain grateful for the work that they have done. We are heartened that there is an organisation like the ACP who is willing to fight for the rights of professional chess players even when chess federations do not. “Injustice done to one is a threat to all” is a powerful motto. Here is the link to ACP’s open letter which was published by ChessBase.

I will now address Mr. John Wong's letter point by point. Some may not be delighted with such a detailed read, but I think it is important because it concerns our personal reputations. With that in mind, I apologise in advance for this lengthy letter.

Mr. Wong wrote:

1) "First, there is no “ban” on GM Zhang Zhong by the Singapore Chess Federation (the “Federation”). GM Zhang was simply not selected and endorsed by the Federation to take part in the Zonal. Clearly, ACP’s understanding of the ban differs from ours. To deem someone as banned from the Zonal simply because their national federations did not send them to take part seems dubious. To mis-characterise the issue in this manner is unproductive and risks creating misunderstanding"

This betrays from the start a willful ignorance of the meaning of the word “ban.” According to all standard dictionaries, the definition of the word "ban" is to "prohibit, especially by legal means". The organisers of the Zonals Championship published an open invitation to all federations. It stated that all players were welcome to join. The only requirement was that the respective chess federations were responsible for registration. Conditions were also offered to male and female players rated above 2550 and 2350 respectively. The SCF declined our request to participate. To claim that this is anything else but a ban is simply an attempt to muddy the waters and is in fact, in Mr. Wong's own words, dubious and unproductive.

I will like to mention that there is no selection process for this tournament given that it is an individual event. As such, Mr Wong's claim that I was "not selected" is also not true.

Mr. Wong further wrote:

2) "He had not complied to the Federation’s request to ratify the Federation’s Players Agreement despite multiple opportunities provided. Every other player for Singapore had signed it. No exception should be made for him merely because he happens to be the top-rated player."

Below are a number of facts Mr. Wong has misrepresented and conveniently omitted.

  1. I have never declined signing the agreement because "I am the top rated player". By claiming the above, the SCF had given the impression to the public that I am acting like a prima donna. This is simply false for reasons that will soon be clear.

  2. The above-mentioned SCF-player agreement is a new document that all players were required to sign whenever the players are representing the country. This document was implemented for the first time in connection with the Baku Olympiad in 2016. Back in June 2016, the selection process for the team was incredibly chaotic and this document was also put together in a rush. We received the document on 29 June 2016, and were given strict instructions to sign it by 1 July 2016 – a mere three days!

I am currently working in Shenzhen, China, and I only read the email on 1 July 2016. Concerned, on 1 July 2016 I quickly replied to SCF and mentioned that the respective agreement was too complicated for me due to the poor level of my English. There were too many clauses and I think it is only fair that we should be given more time to fully understand the various clauses.

We received a reply that this agreement had to be signed by all players and accompanying persons when travelling for overseas events. There was no attempt from any of the SCF officials to translate and explain the clauses to us, even though we clearly needed help in this area. These were the only reasons why Ruofan and I had not signed the agreement. The SCF were fully aware that English was not our first language and to compare us with "every other player for Singapore" was simplistic and clearly indicated a lack of thought, and consideration for us.

Chinese-born Singaporean GM Zhang Zhong, twice Chinese champion and the 2005 Asian champion, at the Malaysian Chess Festival 2014. Zhang is married to ...

... Chinese-Singaporean chess player IM and WGM Li Ruofan (at the 2008 5th Dato’ Arthur Tan Open)

Nevertheless, we still proceeded to play in the Baku Olympiad, where both Ruofan and I were the top performers for our teams respectively.

I will also like to clarify that in regarding this agreement we had not received a single reminder from the SCF during and after the Olympiad. This issue only re-surfaced when I applied for SCF's support in funding my participation for the World Rapid and Blitz, on 8 November 2016. Both Ruofan and I had thought that since the Olympiad had ended and since there was no correspondence from the SCF whatsoever, discussions on the player agreements were no longer required.

On 22 November, more than two weeks after my request, the SCF declined my request for funding for the World Rapid and Blitz because of the fact that we had not signed the player agreement for the Olympiad, an event that had concluded more than two months earlier. I will disclose more with regards to this incident in a future article.

Claims that we were given multiple opportunities to sign the agreement and giving the public the impression that both Ruofan and I were exhibiting "diva-like" behavior were not true and are grossly unfair. I have worked with and played for Singapore since 2007 and both of us have been known to be hard working and cooperative with the authorities and representative bodies.

We would like the leaders of the SCF Exco to supply any evidence of reminders that they had issued, or evidence that we had explicitly declined signing the agreements between 10 July and 22 November 2016. If SCF proves unable to do so, we insist for them to withdraw this out-of-line claim.

Mr. Wong also wrote this:

3) "In the World Rapid Championships in Qatar, players were asked to reply that they had understood the Rules and Regulations of the event before proceeding to register online. One of the rules for their participation was that applications for the event could only be made by the federation. Section 3.3 of the Regulations for the FIDE Open World Blitz Championship 2016 & FIDE Open World Rapid Championship 2016 states: "Applications have to be sent by the National Federation only". Quite evidently, GM Zhang was in breach of that rule."

I am completely bewildered by this statement. Clearly, the SCF had the impression that I had bypassed the Federation, perhaps intentionally, by signing up for the World Rapid and Blitz Championships. But this is clearly not the case. I am a professional player. I have played many chess tournaments all over the world, and I understand the various norms and protocols for most if not all events. For the World Rapid and Blitz Championships, all federations can nominate a player of their choice to participate, but there was also a clause that says that players above 2500 are eligible to participate. I had registered directly with the organisers in 2015 and there was no issue. I even played pretty decently there.

By going directly to the organisers, I wanted to confirm that the conditions are still available (I was and I am still rated above 2500). The organisers did not decline my invite nor insist that I had to go through the SCF to sign up. Perhaps, the organisers understood the difficulties of professional chess players and did not see the point of creating more inconveniences for them. There was no intention to disrespect the authority of the SCF.

Many members of the current SCF Executive Committee were in the 2015 Executive Committee when I signed up directly with the World Rapid organisers. No one had protested then. Why has this become an issue only in 2016? Even if this was deemed to be an area of concern, the SCF did not bring up this concern with me. Or, in the most extreme case, issue me a warning of sorts for the "disrespectful behavior" of signing up directly with organisers. Instead, in a stealth move, this became a reason for SCF to block my entry for the Zonals.

A further excerpt from Mr. Wong’s article:

4) "In spite of these issues, we had thereafter invited GM Zhang to meet us in the presence of the Singapore sports authority to iron out any differences. Sadly this option was not taken up. As for IM Li, she is GM Zhang’s wife and appears to have taken a position in support of her husband."

Again, Mr. Wong had conveniently omitted certain facts and had also misrepresented others:

  1. IM Li Ruofan has supported my stance as a matter of principle and not just because she is my wife. Everyone has a right to an opinion and my wife has also chosen to take a principled stand on this matter. To claim that she has disputed SCF's claims just because she is my wife is again simplifying matters and disrespectful.

  2. After going through various correspondences, including liaising with SportSG (the leading authority on all sporting matters in Singapore) seeking translation help in regard to the agreement’s clauses, both Ruofan and I had agreed to sign the player agreement on 23 January 2017. We mentioned too that we would be willing to sign all such similar agreements in the future. We also confirmed that, if needed, we are agreeable to sign a backdated agreement for the Baku Olympiad. The statement that we had still declined to sign the agreement is therefore once again not true. We request that the SCF withdraw this factually wrong statement.

  3. We then received a response from Mr. Leonard Lau, the SCF President. The exact correspondence can be seen in the attachments. Mr. Lau gives the impression that we are back-tracking on our decision not to sign the agreement. This is once again not true. We had never out-rightly declined signing the agreement. We simply did not understand the contents of the agreement and sought more time to do so. Notwithstanding this, we had already decided to cooperate with the SCF and had agreed on ratifying these agreements. It is the SCF who continues to take on a negative attitude and continued to decline our request to participate in the Zonals!

  4. Lastly, the invitation to meet with us only came after the SCF had officially declined our registration. we are professional chess players. Chess is our life, and we love playing the game and we love its sporting spirit. The Zonals are a qualifier to the World Cup, and both Ruofan and I would have had serious chances to qualify had we been given the opportunity to participate. In addition, Singapore has adopted us and I am now a Singapore citizen. Being the best chess player in this country, I had taken it upon myself as a duty to make Singapore proud and to put Singapore on the chess map. All chess players should also know that the monetary incentives are secondary. The top prize of the Zonals is traditionally low, and I have to forego several lessons with my students to play in both the Zonals and the World Cup (if I do qualify) and would have suffered a net financial loss in all probability.

By banning us from the Zonals, the SCF might think that this is just another event, and that we can always choose to play in other events. To us however, the manner in which our situation was handled gives us the impression that chess federations are free to deal with us however they like, without respecting our love of the game and our rights as professional chess players. In depriving us the right to compete in the most important regional event, the SCF, in the words of Emil Sutovsky, had not taken in consideration fundamental sportive spirit and principles. By instituting a ban on us and with the harsh tone from SCF's emails, the SCF had showed that they had absolutely no intention of reconciling or working with us, despite everything that we had done for the country.

We are professional chess players who are always prepared to work with our national chess federation and give our best for the country. However, the invitation to meet us only after banning us is neither a fair nor logical process. We were never given an opportunity to be heard and for the merits of our case to be considered before the federation decided to ban us, and now that the damage has already been done, a meeting would not serve any meaningful purpose.

In view of the seriousness of the matter, we will consider taking further action due to the inaccurate comments in Mr. John Wong's letter and the unfair treatment given by the SCF. We will be disclosing other controversial incidents with the SCF [on our Facebook page] in the near future. Thank you once again for reading this far.

Yours sincerely,
GM Zhang Zhong
IM Li Ruofan

Read this “Bisik-Bisik” conversation with Edwin Lam Choong Wai in 2008 with the golden couple from China GM Zhang Zhong and WGM Li Ruofan. As if a match made in heaven, both of them were born in 1978 and share the same Chinese astronomical sign of the Horse. And, interestingly, they also share the same passion for the game of chess.

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