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Interview with Andrew Paulson, President of English Chess Federation

Chessdom: You were recently elected President of English Chess Federation. What are the latest developments and your plans for the future?

Andrew Paulson: The election cycle of the English Chess Federation is annual so there is great pressure to deliver on promises efficiently so as to justify the confidence of the electorate. So, the Board has dived headlong into all the matters covered in election platform I ran on (among others); we will be having our third Board Meeting in three months on December16th; I hope to have concrete achievements to present at the semi-annual ECF Council Meeting in April.

As each member of the Board is elected separately — there is no slate — my first task has been to build team spirit and communality of purpose among its 9 members and the various other constituencies in the ECF orbit. This is a rather ‘soft’ task, though, as it has no benchmarks; it is more a precondition to further success.

The English chess community, unlike elsewhere in the world, is opinionated and contrarian. Recent history has been particularly rocky and many valuable participants in the English chess scene have been alienated or marginalised: taken their toys home. The second task I set myself was to heal breaches and reunite disparate factions. This will actually have many benchmarks as one by one groups and individuals return to the fold with new compacts and commonweal. And you’ll begin seeing new lines of communication and co-operation emerging with the Scottish, Welsh, Jersey and Guernsey Chess Federations.

Andrew Paulson

We are taking the first steps towards a new business model to bring sponsorship revenue to all the ECF’s interests, projects and affiliates, and to the ECF itself. The ECF will offer a consolidated asset (all of English chess, here and abroad, at every level, every event, any individual) for sponsorship and act as a central clearing house equitably to distribute this revenue to all participants. This demands a more professional approach to communications and PR so that our commercial partners will get the best and broadest exposure possible on our shoulders. Obviously, this requires coordination and collaboration hithertofore unheard of in the chess world, followed by a search for the right financial partners. In the process we are trying to identify a Commercial Director whom we can bring in as the 10th member of the ECF Board.

The ECF has kept its distance in recent years from both FIDE and the European Chess Union for reasons of emotionalism and demagoguery, a holding-our-noses ‘strategy’ without goals: an antipathy to their leaders, ignoring the usefulness of the institutions themselves. I advocated engagement so as to achieve certain concrete improvements in these organisations: both transparency so as to provide better services to their member federations and Public Relations so as to improve the reputation of chess in the general public and with potential sponsors. In part, this means greater personal engagement from EFC members in the administration and committee structure and we are seeking greater participation in both bodies.

A key difference between the English Chess Federation and with World Chess Federation is that our members are people and FIDE’s are federations. We must strike the right balance (and this is not necessarily democratic) in the attention we pay to each constituency of our membership (junior, adult, senior, amateur, professional, arbiter, coach, organiser, parent, fan). We must actively repair some of the areas that have been neglected in recent years (women, disabled, senior). And, we must invest for the future (top players and teams) glory of England.

And, finally, there are some urgent administrative goals: the ECF has no Strategic Plan as it never had a budget or a long event horizon; its voting structure for elections and decision-making needs to be reviewed; the long-discussed option to convert its legal status to charity needs action; and finally the resistance of the UK government to recognise chess as a sport is hindering ECF access to government funding needs to be reversed.

Chessdom: What have you been doing in India to support the Match?

Andrew Paulson: I spent three months in India meeting with over 100 of India’s top companies, trying to evince interest in sponsoring the Anand-Carlsen World Championship Match. I thought that this would be really easy: Anand, the Tiger from Madras; Chaturanga, invented in India; Carlsen, the ‘hottie’; supposedly 58% of Indian adults play chess regularly; and I’m a pretty good salesman. I was wrong: it wasn’t easy. It was impossible. Zero. But now I know all the reasons these Indian companies had for NOT sponsoring that event, and I will build on this and the friendships I made in India to design the right package of Indian events to get these same companies to say yes. Which they will.

Brian Jones and Andrew Paulson

(Photos courtesy of Anastasya Karlovich)

Although there have been half-hearted attempts over the years by FIDE and national federations to find commercial sponsorship for chess, the greatest success has always been with passionate, wealthy patrons. I believe my efforts have been the most wide-ranging and persistent attempt to find sustainable, professional commercial partnerships. Many gears have to mesh in any sponsorship package in order for it to pass muster with a rational Marketing Director of any admirable company we would want to work with. We’re getting there.

I’m already feeling a change in attitude (as we are talking, I am in Delhi): the audience results of the Match are being confirmed and many of the Marketing Directors I met with are getting back in touch with me expressing interest in the future (tails between legs). Indian broadcaster Doordarshan confirmed that the Match’s daily TV audience in India climbed to 200 million as the rounds advanced. The Norwegian NRK-TV numbers were close to 15% of the population of the entire country, 25% of the TV audience at the time. And the worldwide online audience is still being assessed, but will top 10m individuals following the moves from various chess sites. I am agitating to break cricket’s stranglehold on the Indian media buyer’s imagination (>90% of all sponsorship spend).

Chessdom: The former world champion Garry Kasparov is challenging Kirsan Ilyumzhinov for the post of FIDE President. What is your opinion about the elections in FIDE?

Andrew Paulson: When I was standing for the Presidency of the ECF, I was surprised by the extent to which certain issues polarised vocal members of the community: it was clear that there were some litmus tests that I would have to pass, some might say that there was even an ‘enemies list’ I would have to eschew if not deny. Certainly Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was at the top of their list, closely followed by Ray Keene, CJ de Mooi, Ali Yazici, FIDE itself. Evil personified. The stuff of tales (chess-playing) parents tell their children in the dark of night to scare them onto the straight and narrow.

Andrew Paulson and Veselin Topalov

As an example, my friend Nigel Short who knows me rather well first averred that he would support my candidacy on the condition that I didn’t interfere with his voting for Kasparov. I confirmed this (his vote is determined by the Board, not the President). Then, he upped the requirement that I would not support Ilyumzhinov in the election. I confirmed this in writing saying that I would advocate abstention as neither candidate impressed me. Then Nigel upped his requirement even further, insisting that I attack Ilyumzhinov and support Kasparov. I refused (this is not appropriate behaviour for the President of the ECF). He denounced me.

However, Nigel made a very good (though arguable) point: in a democracy, you don’t vote for the good, you vote for the best you’ve got. For Nigel, even if Garry was highly problematic, he was not the diabolical Kirsan! When Garry Kasparov announced his candidacy for the Presidency of FIDE, most people questioned his competence for this position, but rather than thinking about this very seriously, quickly jumped to the conclusion that as bad as Kasparov might be, Kirsan was worse. Maybe.

This is the situation we have to study over the coming 9 months. Both sides are going to make their cases. Both sides have bullet point position papers and talking points defending their candidate and attacking their opponent. I will remain clear-eyed, consider the consequences of our vote, and try to lead the ECF to make the right decision as to how to vote. Nigel has convinced me: we will not abstain!

Chessdom: I would also like to know your opinion about the elections in ECU. There are hints that you will be on the ticket of Zurab Azmaiparashvili.

Andrew Paulson: England has been rather disengaged from the ECU for quite a while. I’d like to change that for many reasons. First, I’d like to advocate for ECU’s financially profitable events to be held in England for the benefit of the ECF. Second, I’d like to engage with other European federations for cooperation on two levels: building strength through unity among the federations of the British Isles and by providing opportunities for our players to have regular, informal encounters with our nearest neighbours on the Continent. Third, the Anglo-Saxons have always led Europe and the World in issues of transparency, corporate governance and anti-corruption. I feel that it is time for England to lead in chess rather than to gripe in the corner.

Gata Kamsky and Andrew Paulson

When I was first discussing the election at the ECU General Assembly in Warsaw several weeks ago (by the way, very little else was discussed by anyone; chess was being played elsewhere!), I argued that I don’t need a position in the ECU in order to realise my goals. However, looking around me at the current administration of the ECU, I realised that that was way wrong! What an embarrassment! As I watched a muzak-video-medley of snapshots of the current President, Silvio Danailov, lurking in gilt chairs beside leaders of European countries I tried to imagine what could he possibly be saying?!?! I challenge all those who know Silvio to write the script; I fear that it would wind up sounding more like a skit …. The Rocky Horror Chess Show on Saturday Night Live!

I find Zurab a very compelling figure. As to his ticket, nothing has been decided yet as far as I know. I would be very happy to help him win the election in any way I could! I will be sounding out my colleagues in the ECF and our friends in Europe on this in the coming months.

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