Three years ago, Russian businessman Andrey Filatov became the President of the Russian Chess Federation (RCF). Now he takes a step back to assess the work he and the RCF have accomplished in that time.
In this interview with Sport Express, Mr. Filatov talks about how chess is experiencing a boom, both in Russia and around the world.
CREATING A DEMAND FOR CHESS ONCE AGAIN
Sport Express: Mr. Filatov, what goals did you set for yourself when you were elected RCF President?
Andrey Filatov: The main thing for me during the election campaign was to make chess popular. It was the message I tried to get across to people, and I mentioned it at every single interview I gave. My main priority is to make chess popular again, create the kind of demand for the sport that had been missing for a long time.
With this goal in mind, we examined (and continue to examine) everything we did. In order for us to achieve the desired results, we developed a series of programmes and projects.
SE: Could you go into more detail about these programmes and projects?
AF: One of our most important programmes is the “Chess in Schools” programme. The project has made significant strides over the past three years, primarily thanks to the fact that we have found a long-term and very reliable partner in the Elena and Gennady Timchenko Foundation.
We started out in one region of Russia, Pskov Region. Now we work in seven and have expanded as far as Trans-Baikal. It is a simple yet very effective project – regions are lining up to become part of it. This is what popularization means, when the people want to take part in programmes like this. I’d like to see the “Chess in Schools” programme reach even the remotest corners of the Russian Federation.
We have produced a teaching kit that includes a textbook, an exercise book and a teaching manual. These cover the first year of the programme. Right now, we are working on the materials for the second year, which should be ready in 2017.
We have used our own funds, along with money provided by the Russian Olympic Committee, to provide hundreds of schools across the country with equipment and books about chess. And we are continuing this work. The project has helped get thousands of children interested in chess.
SE: Are chess lessons compulsory in these schools?
AF: Obviously, if the head teacher or governor of a given school wants to make chess lessons compulsory, then we are all for it! But the situation in every region – in every school – is different. Chess is a wonderful extracurricular activity, so it’s not one of our goals to make it compulsory. The kids have got enough on their plates as it is. Our goal is to teach the children how to play chess, how to think analytically.
We are currently in the process of setting up a commission alongside the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation that will provide help for regions that want to participate in the programme. The logical result of the programme has been the growing interest in the White Rook tournament for school teams.
THE PROFESSION OF CHESS COACH SHOULD BE A COVETED ONE
SE: The tournament was popular in the USSR and then disappeared. How did you manage to get it up and running again so quickly?
AF: You’ve got to understand that White Rook does not exist in a vacuum. The final, which traditionally takes place on June 1 – the International Day for Protection of Children – is just the tip of the iceberg.
The idea of the tournament is to get as many schools involved in the preliminary stages as possible. President Putin officially opened the tournament back in 2014, which helped create a wave of positive momentum and afforded us the opportunity to develop White Rook both in Russia and abroad.
In 2015, the tournament went global. And it has been that way ever since, with more and more countries getting involved each year. In recent years, White Rook has been won by teams from Armenia (2015) and China (2016). We are currently holding talks with the chess federations of the United States and France, among several others.
Teams from every region in Russia make the final round. It’s not the perfect system yet, but more and more regional governors are beginning to understand the importance of the competition.
SE: What’s the situation with chess coaches in Russia right now? After all, a huge responsibility rest on their shoulders. Is the Russian chess school alive and kicking?
AF: The best trainers in the country usually come together at the finals of the White Rook and other tournaments. They work with the children and with chess coaches from the regions. We try to offer as much help to the coaches as we can, with seminars, recertification courses, etc.
The RCF is planning to open up a certification centre in 2017 in conjunction with the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation which will give coaches the opportunity to further their qualifications and earn a decent living.
One of the goals I have set for myself is to make the profession of chess coach a coveted one. Right now, we have a shortage of qualified chess coaches. We are trying to rectify the situation, but it is a slow process. It takes more time to produce a quality chess coach than it does a top-class athlete.
SE: What’s the thinking behind the RCF project “Chess in Orphanages”?
AF: It is charitable project that has been in place since 2014. What we do is we provide chess sets for orphanages and provide training for coaches. But the goals are different. We’re not looking for tournament victories, we just want to help kids who are in a difficult situation.
To date, we have introduced chess training in 300 orphanages in 64 regions of Russia. Chess teaches you to make decisions independently, it helps kids develop their social skills, something that is lacking in orphanages.
In 2016, we held the “Ascendency” chess tournament for pupils at orphanages and orphan boarding schools. The winning team (Simferopol Specialized Boarding School No. 1) won the right to take part in the White Rook tournament. This year around 40 teams will take part in the final tournament.
SE: What other regional projects do you consider to be a priority?
AF: We want to see the revival of chess clubs. There’s a lot of work to do in this area, as there are issues connecting with renting properties, which is always tricky. Chess players need a “home.”
In the past, there was no shortage of chess clubs around the country. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s the situation began to change – the buildings that housed chess clubs were either sold or were simply shut down.
We have started work to rectify this situation in Moscow, renovating the Central House of Chess Player. I must extend a special thank you to the Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin, who helped us greatly in this matter.
The Central House of Chess Player on Gogolevsky Boulevard is a Mecca for chess enthusiasts around the world. Dozens of grandmasters have played within the walls of this building. Bobby Fischer visited the place. It’s more than just a beautiful building where chess tournaments are held. It’s also a one-of-a-kind museum and a school of chess. The club is open to poets, writers, musicians, businesspeople.
The Central House of Chess Player will host concerts, readings, book presentations, sponsored events and business meetings. It gave me great pleasure to see that the newly elected President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, found the time to visit the club at number 14, Gogolevsky Boulevard, during his first official visit to Moscow.
I’d like to see a similar club in all major Russian cities. The local authorities and the Russian Chess Federation should consider opening and supporting such clubs.
SE: As a rule, though, local chess federations don’t have the necessary means or capabilities. Just try and get the mayor or governor of a city to give you a building.
AF: The key is to make friends with them – create boards of trustees and get decision-makers to sit on these boards. I am extremely grateful to Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the President of the Russian Federation, who agreed to head up the RCF Board of Trustees. The board is doing a great deal to promote chess in Russia.
The RCF Board of Trustees is made up of well-known politicians, businesspeople, chess players, officials and cultural figures – all people who are passionate about chess. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the board Andrey Gurev (PhosAgro) and Eduard Taran (RATM Holding), who are doing great work to promote the sport of chess.
Regional federations should take a look at this experience and set up their own boards of trustees. I understand that it is difficult in terms of budgetary financing. As chess players, we don’t have the infrastructure. Our goal is to create the infrastructure and use it as an example of how things are supposed to operate. The most important element of this infrastructure is to establish ties with the community. That means working – and I mean really working – with the media. If you want to get people involved in your work, then they’ve got to know what it is that you do.
WE MAKE FRIENDS WITH JOURNALISTS
SE: For a large portion of the media, chess is still a complex and confusing topic. What are you doing to change that perception?
AF: We explain the game to them, show them how to play. We make friends with journalists, columnists and editors. We never refuse to give an interview. We send out press releases and try and inform people about the game. In terms of media coverage, there has been a real breakthrough in recent years. We have worked systematically and are now seeing the results. Our events are covered daily by newspapers, information agencies, internet sites, radio stations and television news programmes. I’d like to say a special thank you to Sport Express, the leading sports newspaper in the country, which dedicated a lot of column inches to chess.
The only thing that is missing right now is a regular chess show on one of the TV channels. This would bring tens of thousands of people to the game.
SE: In order for the media to pay greater attention to chess, however, you need to hold interesting competitions on a regular basis.
AF: I’m happy with the current tournament setup. The number of competitions is increasing at all levels. There are more children’s stages in the Cup of Russia tournament, for example. A massive number of children play chess in Russia, and they need somewhere to test their skills. We support these tournaments, and many more besides.
In addition, we send the winners of competitions in Russia to the world and European youth and junior championships. We hold one of the biggest tournaments (with over 2,000 participants) of any kind – the final stage of the Russian Championship (for participants aged 8 to 20).
That’s why we put up such a good performance at the world and European youth championships in 2016, winning a record 25 medals and taking first place overall in the team competition.
SE: Is there any kind of government support for developing young talent?
AF: One of our biggest achievements was getting chess included in the programme of the Sirius Educational Centre for Gifted Children. The opening ceremony was attended by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who stressed that Russia has always helped to promote the development of chess, and chess has always benefitted Russia…
The Sirius Centre is unique, the only one of its kind in the world. Thanks to Sirius, children in every region of Russia have been given the opportunity to prove themselves. As a rule, high-ranking officials such as vice governors are responsible for how well their region is represented at Sirius. The fact that young chess players have been accepted onto the programme is very important for us. It means that greater attention will be paid to young chess players.
The work of the chess coaches and young players at Sirius is supervised by the 14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, who, despite the fact that he is still active on the chess circuit and one of the best players in the world, nevertheless devotes his time and energy to developing future champions.
SE: How much does it cost?
AF: Not a penny – it’s absolutely free. The Talent and Success Foundation pays for flights and accommodation, while the RCF pays for the coaches. Sixteen sessions are planned for 2017. Only our top experts work with the children. The competition is fierce – lots of people want to get onto the programme. I’d like to see Sirius become one of the most important points for developing youth chess players.
DON’T LET THE CHANCE PASS YOU BY
SE: What about those who have already chosen chess as their profession? Are they making a decent living?
AF: Just like in any sport, it depends on how well they perform. It’s possible to make a living playing chess in Russia, especially if you are at the top of the profession. The top grand masters all clamour to take part in the Russian Championship Superfinal, the main competition in the RCF calendar. As a rule, the Superfinal is held in one of the Russian regions.
The Chess in Museums programme, which we set up in collaboration with the Elena and Gennady Timchenko Foundation, has already been held in Kazan, Chita, Kaliningrad and Novosibirsk. The 2016 champions won cars (provided by Renault Russia), and this tradition is set to continue in 2017.
We hold top-tier competitions in Moscow every year. The traditional Tal Memorial, which attracts the strongest players in the world, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The tournament is made possible by the continued support of Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and true chess enthusiast Arkady Dvorkovich.
In 2014, we resurrected the Aeroflot Open, one of the most prestigious open chess tournaments in the world. The 15th edition of the competition will take place in Moscow in late February.
And let’s not forget the Candidates Tournaments in Khanty-Mansiysk and Moscow. Sergey Karjakin placed second in Khanty-Mansiysk before going on to win the tournament in Moscow and earn the right to challenge for the World Chess Championship.
SE: I want to ask you about the match in New York, which made Karjakin one of the most recognized sportsmen in Russia. Hardly anyone gave him a chance. Most experts predicted a rout…
AF: Karjakin played fantastically. He has won a fair amount of super tournaments (he’s won Stavanger twice, Wijk aan Zee, the World Cup and the Tal Memorial), has been the World Rapid Champion and recently became World Blitz Champion.
The very fact that he qualified for the World Chess Championship match is an achievement in itself. Let’s not forget that the last time a Russian challenged for the title was in 2008, when Vladimir Kramnik lost to Viswanathan Anand.
The Russian Chess Federation was very supportive of Sergey during his preparations for the match. I have no doubt that the example set by Sergey Karjakin will be inspire young chess players to believe in themselves and move on to the next level. The opportunities are there – the main thing is to not miss them when they present themselves.
SE: When will we see our Russian teams win the Chess Olympiad?
AF: Our women won the Olympiad three times in a row starting in 2010. At the most recent tournament in Baku, everything rested on the final match against China. Unfortunately, we couldn’t repeat the success of the previous tournaments.
The competition in the men’s tournament has grown massively over the past 20 years. Chess is becoming more and more popular, and there are no weak teams in the tournament any longer – there are five or six teams that have a legitimate chance of winning every time. So I can’t say with any certainty “when” a Russian team will win the Olympiad.
The important things is that the RCF is doing everything it can to support the national team. The players are supremely motivated thanks to the sponsorship they receive from Federal Grid Company of Unified Energy System. We hold regular training seminars with the best coaches.
In 2016, Volga Group helped us equip the national team with supercomputers, which are an essential part of the game today. The results should come. This year, we will take part in the world and European championships, while the next major challenge – the Chess Olympiad – will take place in Georgia in 2018.