“I ask again WHO ARE YOU?”

 

In the face of bitter opposition a maverick businessman fights a campaign to lead the English Chess Federation. And succeeds.

Sounds familiar?

As Andrew Paulson spars with his detractors in the bear pit that is the English Chess Forum, he can take heart from the story of another outsider who fought a similar battle.

 

Northern Man at the ECF

 

Martin Regan

Martin Regan

 

When the esteemed editor of Kingpin asked me to write an insider’s view of the most hotly-contested elections the English Chess Federation has seen for decades, we both expected I’d be soundly thrashed and, therefore, free to dish the dirt.

Not that Kingpin is a magazine that looks for scandal, but instructions such as “If there’s a Transvestite on the board, we need to know,” gives some steer towards the average reader’s expectations.

Unfortunately, I won. I am now the chief executive of the ECF. Thus, tales of Nosher and the Great Raymundo, the deviousness of the Penguin, and the casual backstabbing that goes on during any election must be curtailed. I am the CEO and frankly I must behave like one.

However, that is not to say that the story is without interest, just without its most interesting nuggets of gossip.

In late October [2006], the 220 or so delegates who make up the Council of the English Chess Federation gathered together in Bristol to vote in the first fully contested election to the management board since the year before the year dot – or at least 48 of them did, many of them bent under the weight of the proxies they carried. In the murky world of chess politics there was no other subject worth speaking about.

Indeed, one county official was so outraged at the very act of my standing that he sent a withering e-mail:

“I have been involved in chess for over 40 years and I have never, ever heard of you. I ask again WHO ARE YOU?”

The use of capitals suggested I was his worst nightmare.

Many of the Southern delegates had arrived to stop the Northerner at all costs. Others came from the far corners of the North with the intention of reluctantly supporting the candidate from Cheshire – the Midlands as far as they were concerned, but at least not the South.

Others arrived bemused that anyone would even wish to stand for election, and the suspicious noted that I live in Alderley Edge and had read in the Daily Mail that this rather pleasant village was the “Champagne and Swinging Capital of the North”. They drew their own conclusions.

So here I sit with a flute of champagne in one hand and a strange set of car keys in the other , attempting to explain the unexplainable. Why should any man, or indeed woman, wish to stand for election to the ECF?

At first it seemed merely an interesting idea, but by the end of the second bottle of wine it was a no-brainer. After all, I was Chairman of Cheshire and North Wales, a county and half a country no less – running chess in a full country couldn’t be that much more difficult. And I also ran a large publishing business, 50 times the size of the ECF.

No Problem.

Forgetting for a moment that CNW generally holds its meetings in a phone box and that those who work in publishing are definitely not chess players, my mind was made up.

“I’m going to stand for election for the ECF” I declared giddily, “and I’m going to create a team to challenge for every directorship.”

My drinking companion, a chess organiser of considerable experience, nodded , rolled the last dregs of wine around his glass and declared sagely: “ You’re a ******* nutter.”

The following morning, hopes that I could forget the plan were dispelled by a phone call from my organiser friend.

“You have to speak to Rob Richmond,” he told me. “I’m sure he’ll be up for it, and O’Rourke is bound to throw the North behind you.”

The man with the impressive ability to the throw the North anywhere was Bill O’Rourke, the current president of the Northern Union who was somewhat persona non grata with the ECF following a bitter internal fight over a pilot membership scheme. More importantly, he held the power of proxy of over 20 votes and I was going to need every one.

Robert, who had resigned as ECF’s finance director a few months previously over that same membership issue, seemed perfect. Not only did he understand the finances of the Federation, he knew where the bodies were buried – I was to find an awful lot of buried bodies in the ECF, some of them still breathing.

Then it was a quick call to Brian Driscoll, the President of my own county, and one of the most respected officials in the game. A man who had once served on the old BCF Board and was still having the therapy.

“What are you doing for the next year or so,” I asked breezily..

“Why? What are you after ?” – did I mention he knows me well?

“You’re going to be ECF president,” I said.

“Why?”

Oh, we can change things for the better, improve chess, make it fashionable again. Let’s get back to the Seventies. Besides you spend most of your time in London, and you’d be good at presenting prizes to precocious kids.

Brian, who had his own strong ideas on what needed improving, agreed and a War Council met in Manchester’s Chinatown. Robert, who I later found survives on curries (and they must be Indian), travelled up from Nottinghamshire and even agreed to eat Chinese. He was serious!

We all thought that with the right team, it would be a shoo-in. The existing board had not been sure-footed and the chief executive was suffering from health problems and seemed unlikely to stand. Yet it was never really about personalities. We all believed that English Chess was suffering from an almost imperceptible decline. Hardly noticeable on a week-by-week basis, but looked at over the years, dramatic. It just seemed to us all that progress had stopped in the early 1990s. The only bright spots 4NCL and UK Chess Challenge had had little to do with the Federation.

‘a man who delivers’

But getting the right team was clearly not going to be easy for someone who knew little about national chess politics. Rather desperately, I contacted John Saunders, the editor of BCM, and asked if he knew any ‘disgruntled Grandmasters’. His reply that he had never met a gruntled one was not inspiring, but he consulted his copious contacts book and passed me on to one Grandmaster who knew another, and I finally landed at the door of Malcolm Pein.

Malcolm can often give the impression of being so laid back as to be almost comatose, but speaking as a businessman, he is one of those rare as hen’s teeth individuals – a man who not only has the ideas but can actually deliver them.

With Malcolm blitzing the chess glitterati of London, the Northern bid was taking on a much more cosmopolitan feel. Robert Richmond was also tireless in his search for curry houses in the Midlands, suitable for hosting secret meetings with chess officials.

Within no time, top class people such as Peter Sowray, John Upham and Richard James had joined the slate, Mike Basman was supportive as was Raymond Keene and Harry Lamb. And then there was Nigel Short.

He called from Athens to wish me luck, fell into a conversation about the ECF’s rather lame stance when it came to things Fide, gave me some priceless and totally libellous gossip about the recent Fide elections (which I am now in a position to check out) and half an hour later was pencilled in as my Fide Delegate.

I was rather pleased with the coup, but the pleasure lasted barely 15 minutes. The first team member that I told, promptly resigned and said he would consider standing against me, just to stop Nigel.

Some of my Northern supporters also went into meltdown – they still remember the ‘Manchester World Championship Match That Never Was’ and two previously supportive grandmasters made it clear that I had made the worst decision since the Tories elected Iain Duncan Smith as leader. Nosher was in it for himself, was the cry.

'a huge asset to the ECF'

‘a huge asset to the ECF’

They were wrong. It will distress Kingpin readers, but having met Nigel at the EU championship at Liverpool, he came across as someone completely committed to fighting the ECF’s corner at Fide, had a solid grasp of the problems facing us all at grass roots level, and had an impressive view of international chess affairs thanks to his work as head of the Commonwealth Chess Association. He would have been, and hopefully one day will be, a huge asset to the ECF.

But chessplayers nurse their grudges with a care that is frankly creepy. Remember the patzer you crushed at Southend in 1987 – No? Well believe me, he remembers you; remembers how your handshake didn’t show respect and how you failed to make eye contact. Oh, he remembers you. And he hates you!

The maelstrom of grudges and petty disputes in the chess world had some consequences. The web site which we created to outline our policies had a section for supporters. I had 94 names which were about to be uploaded when a breathless call from Robert Richmond, halted the process. He went through the list.

“He’s hated in Surrey… She once offended the organiser of the Surbiton Rapidplay… Include him and you lose Tunbridge Wells.”

In the end the section for supporters was quietly dropped.

But the campaign was underway and the Way Forward team was launched.

The team brought a level of professionalism to proceedings that is unusual in the chess world. We launched a website www.new-ecf.co.uk , created a series of exciting and costed policies and contacted each one of the 700 chess officials listed in ECF Yearbook. We also sought the support of our leading grandmasters.

Such competence occasionally backfired. One county official reported me to the Information Commissioner for spamming (the enquiry is still on-going), one enquired as to my birthday, then bizarrely announced that he could not offer me support because Leos and chess “did not go”, while a third informed me nonchalantly that although he agreed with all the policies, he would be voting against me as “I could never support a northern person.” The Grandmasters, usually so quick to comment on the deficiencies of the ECF, were notable for their complete silence.

All this was counterbalanced by the detailed advice about the workings of the ECF received from those who were studiously neutral (though I suspect voted against me). People like Stewart Reuben and John Dunleavy, to whom I owe a debt.

It was, however, clear that the mood for change was gathering pace. Scores of ordinary players contacted me to ask how could they become involved; how could they influence the vote? It was heart-breaking to tell them that in most cases they couldn’t.

The evening before the poll was spent furiously bending the ears of those who carried the most proxies. It looked as if it was going to be close, but a final count of confirmed support, convinced me we had lost. We had gathered most of the floating votes, but the board always starts with an in-built advantage of around 60 votes. We were about 20 votes short.

We were overly pessimistic. Brian was defeated comfortably enough by long-serving president Gerry Walsh but I then defeated the existing chief executive Roy Heppinstall by 119-116 (after two recounts) and, as a consequence, Robert Richmond and Peter Sowray were elected unopposed. Claire Summerscale, who had stood as an independent but supported all of our policies, also swept in.

It was, as pointed out by John Dunleavy, a typical ECF Council decision. “They’ve given you half a ticket,” he said wryly.

But half a ticket is better than none. And now is the time to start delivering.

Setting aside our detailed policies and the need to reverse the general decline of English chess, the underlying theme of the Way Forward team was very simple:

We should all cease to have such very low expectations for our sport. Because until that happens we will continue to decline.

As for Transvestites – I found none.

 

First published in Kingpin 39 (Spring 2007)

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