Wednesday, 9 May 2007

FIDE vs Short (Part 2)

Following my original post about a prospective charge being made against Nigel Short by the FIDE Ethics Commission, there has been a strong reaction from the English Chess Federation. Here is the complete text of their response, signed by ECF chief executive Martin Regan and international director Peter Sowray and sent on 8 May.

It is unusual to see the ECF making such a robust and open criticism of the World Chess Federation, and it will be interesting to see how FIDE responds. So far FIDE has published nothing on the FIDE website, either about the original charge or the ECF response. In fact, but for Malcolm Pein's report in the Telegraph (based on his own conversation with Nigel Short), the world's chess media have been remarkably silent about what could prove to be a very significant issue.

In particular, ChessBase's website has been like the dog that didn't bark in the night (as in the Sherlock Holmes story). Usually they enjoy a bit of juicy scandal and they are often quick to leap to the defence of their good friend Nigel Short. Why nothing on this latest story? Perhaps they have other fish to fry: they may be looking ahead to next year and the 2008 Dresden Olympiad. As a major live chess broadcaster, they may be slightly reluctant to risk spoiling their relationship with FIDE at a time when big contracts may be up for grabs.


  1. You think this story has got legs then? My hunch is it will disappear, because FIDE surely aren't stupid enough to pursue something that will only embarrass them further...

  2. John Saunders9 May 2007 at 23:07

    Many's the time I have started writing a sentence with words like "FIDE surely aren't stupid enough to...", then had a little think, scratched my head... and crossed the words out.

  3. John Saunders9 May 2007 at 23:20

    A few hours after posting my blog, ChessBase's dog has finally barked! They've posted Malcolm Pein's original Telegraph column, appending some comments from Chairman of the Ethics Commission Roberto Rivello telling us that Short's case is not the only one coming up before the beak. "It is very important, particularly in the interest of Short and of the other defendants," writes Rivello, "that these are not the usual 'rumors', the pro or cons of some FIDE officers, but normal proceedings in front of a serious organ of sportive justice, as it happens in every other international sportive federation."
    Well, really - threatening poor Nigel with "a serious organ of sportive justice" - sounds like a cruel and inhumane method of torture to me.

  4. Well, it is in fact quite true to say that this is a perfectly normal thing for sporting federations to do. We are, after all, very familiar indeed with this or that football manager or player being called before a governing body to explain remarks they've made (usually just after a game and usually on the subject of a referee or the opposition).

    Moreover, where these remarks bear on the integrity of an official - for instance, a referee accused of favouring the other side - they are normally taken very seriously indeed and the usual outcome is a retraction and a fine.

    Now one may ask whether, in this day and age, such actions are appropriate, but the fact remains that they happen and are normal. The additional fact remains that in the course of the newspaper interview which is the subject of controversy, Short made some very serious allegations. (Those relating to Topalov, you will recall, led to a torrent of protest from Chessbase readers and a clarification-cum-rowing-back from Nigel, which may be the reason why Chessbase has been slow to act this time.)

    Now it occurs to me that if I, as a member of two chess federations - the English and the Aragonese - were to make allegations of corruption against named or unnamed officials of either, I would expect to face a disciplinary case and if I did not, it would be open house for any individual to make allegations of a similar nature for ill-motivated reasons.

    What I am saying, as I'm sure your readers will see, is that it is wrong to approach this matter as if it were necessarily outrageous. It is not. It is perfectly normal and reasonable within the context of sporting federations. It may indeed be outrageous in the context of this individual case - but that would depend on whether or not Nigel can actually substantiate the allegations he is making.

    If he can, then FIDE are indeed acting unwisely, because the response to any disciplinary action would surely be that Nigel put the information into the public domain and invited the injured party to sue. But if he cannot, then he should not be making the allegation and FIDE are acting reasonably in calling him to account for it.

    I am in favour of the ability to expose malpractice among officials (and anybody else) and if I were not I would not be a supporter of Kingpin. I am also in favour of this whether or not I personally like the individuals who make allegations. But I am also in favour of people being able to substantiate allegations when they make them, and the more important the allegation the more important it is to substantiate them. This applies even if the accused individual is of poor reputation, as is the case here.

    I appreciate that not all true stories can be proven and that many powerful but corrupt individuals have escaped exposure for too long because this is so: but even so, there are ways and means of asking questions and unless Short is confident of his ground then he may have gone about it the wrong way. If he's right, though, then - while this is not always true - in this instance I do not think he has anything to fear.

  5. Ejh: "it is wrong to approach this matter as if it were necessarily outrageous."

    Yes, of course, in an ideal world - but the chess world is hardly that. As I've said before, it is more like the Wild West, where lawmen are quite liable to be shot down by the baddies (only figuratively, of course). I'm not quite sure whether you are making a general point or whether you are accusing me of having written something to that effect (which I haven't).

    Context is everything. One of the huge problems in this case is that Azmai and Makro are so close to the top of the FIDE tree. Makro is effectively the day-to-day FIDE boss while Kirsan is the figurehead. Plenty of other people in the chess world have had to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous journalism without the FIDE Code of Ethics being invoked but apparently Azmai and Makro think it is there to protect them. Inconsistency of application, perhaps?

    ejh: "... would expect to face a disciplinary case and if I did not, it would be open house for any individual to make allegations..." Not necessarily - the law of libel operates to protect all of us from defamation and presumably Azmai and Makro could pursue their case in that way. However, given the contrast between their enormous power within FIDE and the difficulties and risks in mounting a libel case, it is hardly surprising that they should have chosen the avenue that they have.

    I'm all for correct procedures and the rule of law but I find it hard to suppress a wry smile at the Orwellian paradox of a FIDE Code of Ethics.

  6. Cart before the horse, John. It doesn't matter how bad any individual's reputation is, if serious allegations are made against them then they are entitled to have those allegations shown to be true and until that happens they are enetitled to the protection of whatever rules exist. I don't think a line that says "well, we know FIDE are crooks therefore they should nor invoke a Code of Ethics" is acceptable - I want to be shown that they're crooks, not just told it. I'm perfectly prepared to believe it, but I'm not prepared to assume it.

    Of course the law of libel exists and is probably available to the individuals concerned in a way that it would not be available to, for instance, someone like myself. However, I'm not in favour of the open-season approach to journalism which says "we can say what we like because the accused can always sue". That approach gets us Sam Sloan and the Sun and I don't much like either. It should not really be necessary to engage in long and expensive court cases before people find it necessary to produce evidence to support the allegations that they make: and, as I say, if Short has such evidence (which he may very well have) then he can surely make it public.

    Of course it's entirely possible that the FIDE officials may be misusing their power in order to try and cover up their own wrongdoing. I've been on the wrong end of that process before now (among several examples, I once received a threatening letter from lawyers acting for the late Robert Maxwell). If they are doing so I think they are being exceedingly unwise since Short will surely put the information he possesses in the public domain and invite other people to join him in this. But it's also possible that Short has said something that is either entirely untrue or that he cannot back up and if that's so, then he should not have said what he did.

    The point is that at this stage, we're not in a position to know either way - we may very well have opinions and they may very well be right, but we're not in a position to be reasonably sure. That being so, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with what FIDE have done. There are, after all, Ethics Commmittees at all levels of the game (God knows, they sit often enough in connection with Surrey chess) and this is precisely what they do.

  7. From what I can find, Nigel Short appears to have been charged for calling the Fide Vice President Zurab Azmaiparashvili a “dumbhead” and claiming that this player "by his own admission cheated to win the 2003 European Championship."

    Serious allegations I would have thought.

    The second part ought to be relatively simply. Either Azmaiparashvili did make such an admission [of cheating] in which case Nigel is in the clear. Or he didn't in which case he (and the ECF?) are in the sticky brown stuff.

    The first allegation, that he called him a dumbhead, is equally straighforward. If he didnt call him that he's ok. If he did call him that then, in my opinion, there can be no defence to simply abusing someone.

    Lets hope that Nigel and the ECF have all the right answers!

  8. Interesting discussion. Whilst I appreciate the points ejh makes, my concern is that in terms of disciplinary action in the context of FIDE's code of ethics, Azmai and Makro are so senior as to be potentially untouchable. Whereas Short, on the other hand has less political power and this may affect his ability to get a fair hearing.

    In English law, I think calling Azmai a 'dumbhead' could be defended as fair comment as long as Short can show that he didn't say it with malice, and that it is simply his honest opinion.

    The accusation that Azmai admitted cheating should be clear cut. If Short has evidence to show this is true (signed statements from witnesses or video/tape recordings) then he has the defense of 'justification' - i.e. it's true!!!

    If not he could be in trouble...

  9. RE: The allegation that Azmai cheated at the European Championship of 2003.

    He took a move back against Malakhov in round 10. That Azmai picked up a bishop, put it back then played a rook move instead is a matter of public record - and indeed he acknowledges it himself (see, for example, New in Chess 2003/5).

    While there is no debate over whether or not this happened, I'm sure there will be people who wish to argue the toss as to whether it counts as "cheating"

  10. Jonathan B's recollection of the Malakhov-Azmai game is similar to my own. The odd thing about it was that Malakhov acquiesced and allowed the replacement move, thereby prejudicing his own chances and those of other competitors.

    As a journalist I wouldn't have described what Azmai did on that occasion as cheating, but only because it is not my style. I think one could justify using the word; and one might almost be tempted to use the same word to describe what Malakhov did. Would a player acquiesce if the opponent illegally castled or played Ne6-c4 I wonder?

    However, for some reason the laws of chess treat the retraction of a move in a slightly different way from an illegal move. Law 4.6 ("A player forfeits his right to a claim against his opponent`s violation of [touch piece move], once he deliberately touches a piece") implies that a player has the right to make a claim or not. I'm not quite sure if it is only the player involved who has this right. Has the arbiter got the right to intervene without invitation? Can another player or even a spectator go to an arbiter, tell them they have seen a move retraction? Maybe they have but as soon as Malakhov touches a piece, there would be no going back as there could be if an illegal move had been made.

    Off-topic I know, but interesting.

  11. Any developments in the case against Short, or are FIDE busy with the Candidates Matches?

  12. I'm guessing that the FIDE Ethics Commission likes to conduct its affairs away from the glare of publicity, so it is hard to judge whether anything is progressing on Nigel Short's case. However, given the English no.2's appetite for publicity, he'll probably make sure we are all kept up-to-date when anything significant happens.

    As to whether the Ethics Commission should favour publicity or not: this is a moot point. In other sports and games, disciplinary action attracts a lot of media coverage and this is perhaps no bad thing when the authorities want to deter other players from misbehaving.

    However, a constant worry which pervades the chess world is not to do anything which might put off potential or existing sponsors of the game. Hence the tendency for 'dirty washing' to be done behind closed doors. However, this means that the deterrent effect of any punishments meted out is lost, and also that the authorities appear weak and ineffectual to the media and the public, who see players doing or saying outrageous things and apparently getting away with them.

    Despite the risk of putting off sponsors, my own preference is always for 'open government'. Unfortunately, the culture in chess seems to derive from the style of the former Soviet bloc countries which still rule the roost; or, closer to home, from the 1950s mindset of some British chess administrators who like to get things sorted out without a lot of fuss (i.e. with the 'no publicity' box ticked).