The following open letter was sent to me for publication by Mike Truran and he has agreed that I should display it on BCMBlog. To put you in the picture, Mike was until a few days ago a non-executive director of the English Chess Federation. In conjunction with a number of other directors of the federation, he decided to resign from his post last week. The background to the ECF crisis has been summarised elsewhere on the web and I (JS) don't propose to summarise it here (though I may say more at a later date). Links to various background material: SCCU Report of the ECF Council Meeting of 26 April 2008 - Debate at the ECF Forum - Debate at the Atticus CC forum.
Here is Mike Truran's open letter in full:
There is a story (apocryphal or otherwise) of how the Chinese army once decided to establish a military garrison in the middle of the Gobi desert. The garrison was built, supply lines were established, soldiers were dispatched, all at ruinous cost. It apparently took some years for it to dawn on people that nobody, friend or foe, was particularly interested in the middle of the Gobi desert. The point of the garrison was the garrison’s own existence.
Sometimes I’m reminded of the story when thinking about the ECF. It’s as if the main purpose of the ECF is to raise enough funds to perpetuate the ECF. Certainly its purpose doesn’t seem to be to be to sort out the woeful state of chess in this country. The ECF president only a few days ago was apparently heard to say “The ECF is about more than chess”. Let’s hope that’s right, because it sure as hell isn’t particularly about chess.
There has been a lot of speculation about why four of us recently resigned as ECF directors, with many fanciful theories raised on various forums. I speak for myself on this, although I believe that my fellow directors share similar although not necessarily identical thoughts. I resigned because I have lost faith in the ability of the ECF as it is presently structured to take meaningful action to sort out English chess – or indeed in the ability of the ECF to even understand that there is an issue.
When I signed up to Martin Regan’s ticket and agreed to stand for re-election as a non-executive director I genuinely believed that there was at long last an opportunity to revitalise English chess and embark on a radical programme that would restore English chess to its rightful position in the world. I now believe that the vested interest lobbies in Council and on the Board will all they can to prevent meaningful change, and that even if Martin and his team had been able to force through the changes needed the resulting fall-out would have made life intolerable.
I’m a senior business executive in my real life. Time is a valuable commodity for me. That said, I’m willing to give my time for free when I see goodwill and a genuine intention to make things better amongst my colleagues. What I’m not prepared to do is to waste my time pushing water uphill. Life’s too short and I have better things to do.
Have you ever been to an ECF Council meeting? If you ever get invited, run like hell in the other direction. There are, I know, good and competent Council members who recognise that there is a problem with English chess and would like to do something about it. Meeting after meeting these members’ voices are drowned out by a vociferous minority who either bang on about arcane points of order and constitutional minutiae or about their own particular hobbyhorses, which usually involve some variant of the “What does the ECF do for me?” or “What’s the Board trying to slip past us this time?” themes – and usually (which I find more soul-destroying than anything) without a scintilla of doubt as to the correctness of their own opinion and with an absolute refusal to countenance the possibility that there might just possibly be valid points of view other than their own. Most of the subjects discussed involve operational matters which should be within the Board’s remit and so not even on the agenda. The atmosphere typically ranges from the unpleasant to the poisonous. No meeting passes without some confrontation or other between Council and the Board. I recall on one occasion overhearing one Council member saying to another member “I wouldn’t trust this Board as far as I could throw them”. On no occasion can I recall any strategic discussion about how Council thinks the ECF (and the Board on behalf of the ECF) should be developing and improving English chess. The ECF discussing strategy? Don’t make me laugh. It’s much more exciting to discuss whether game fee increase should be 1p or 2p.
ECF Board meetings are little better. The late lamented John Dunleavy once said to Martin Regan “Well, Council have at least given you half a ticket”. As Martin commented recently, that wasn’t enough. In the end, it seems to me that the Board split right down the middle between those who sought radical change and those who wanted to preserve the status quo. In business a divided Board never achieves its objectives. This Board was no different, and I think that in the end Martin and his team recognised that the drag on the reform and modernisation agenda from those who looked to block substantive progress at every turn was going to be insuperable. In any event, as with Council, getting the Board to discuss anything other than trivia was always difficult. As a for instance, I recall one memorable occasion when we spent an enthralling quarter of an hour or so debating whether one particular job title should be “…………Manager” or “Manager of…………”.
So where are we now? An organisation with the turnover of a fairly large Cotswold tea shop has a business plan it has neither the resources nor the skills to deliver, seemingly living in a fantasy world in which all manner of lofty ambitions are signed up to year after year with no discernible will to provide the finance to achieve those ambitions. Any meaningful debate about what the ECF should be delivering as opposed to what it actually delivers is immediately hijacked by lobbyists complaining about the cost of chess in England. All Martin and his team wanted to do was to get the debate out on the table. We really didn’t care whether membership was pitched at £2 or £50. What we wanted to flush out was a vision from Council, the elected representatives of chess organisations in England, of what the ECF should be doing and where it should be going. If Council just wanted the ECF to produce a grading list, with no office and a skeleton service (£2?), that was fine. If Council wanted the ECF to run properly funded international teams to represent England, provide appropriate conditions for our top players to play in the British Championship, invest properly in junior chess, have a properly resourced and skilled office delivering proper value added services for members etc etc (£50?) that was fine too. Once the vision was agreed, the costs would follow. We couldn’t even get the debate started.
Well, I’ve said my piece and, having said it, can hardly be excused from the obligation to offer some thoughts on how matters might be improved. So here goes, for what it’s worth…………
• The ECF needs to tear up its present structure and start again. Council in its present form is unworkable, and the Board is emasculated by the need to refer any meaningful decisions to Council. To my mind the present Council structure should be replaced by a small number of shareholders, duly elected by their constituents – in effect the shareholders who hire or fire the directors. As a starter for ten suggestion, these members could, for example, be representatives of the regional unions and/or the major leagues, with the unions/leagues taking responsibility for the democratic processes whereby these members were elected. I recall writing to Gerry Walsh before the BCF morphed into the ECF suggesting that the change of legal status was a golden opportunity to get the structure fit for purpose for the 21st century. True to form, nothing happened.
• The ECF needs to allow its Board to get on with things, as would be the case in the real world. The Board, as Council’s appointees, needs to be able to set the overall strategy for the ECF and then to set about delivering it. If Council isn’t happy it should get rid of its directors and appoint new ones, not seek to second guess them at every turn.
• The ECF should work out what it is for and what it should be doing by way of core activities and value added services. Once that is decided, the chess playing public should fund that level of activity and service on a non-subsided, break-even basis. Whether that is done by way of membership fees or game fees isn’t the issue. The issue is what the chess playing public wants and what it is willing to pay for. Nobody is going to sponsor the ECF in current circumstances, even if the ECF had a brand worth investing in, or indeed any sort of compelling proposition with which to convince potential sponsors. We can’t expect any of this to be funded by sponsorship under current circumstances, and if we think it will be we delude ourselves. Anyway, sponsorship should be used to fund the “icing on the cake” over and above properly funded and resourced day to day activity. Chess players are going to have to be prepared to stump up themselves for what they want. If they are only prepared to pay for a skeleton service that perpetuates the downward spiral of chess in England, so be it. If they want to pay the money needed to re-energise chess in England, that’s fine too. What they shouldn’t do is pretend that they can get something for nothing. What they should do is have the debate about what they really want and what they are really prepared to pay.
• Finally, the ECF needs to get some competent people onto the Board – and that I fear includes replacing some of the present incumbents. Whether you agree or disagree with the views of Martin and his team, it would be pretty hard to argue (based on what they have delivered in the real world) that they were not competent to do the job. With their loss I fear the ECF has missed another golden opportunity. Nobody is irreplaceable, but I suspect the ECF will have to work quite hard even to find people of the calibre of Martin, Peter and Claire, let alone persuade them to act as ECF directors. The ECF’s reputation is just too low.
It distresses me to see how English chess has declined over the last couple of decades. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I compare chess in England with the buoyant state of affairs in countries like Germany, France, Turkey…………I could go on. I suppose we could wait for the old guard on the Board and in Council to die off before we try to put things right. I suspect that by the time that happens chess will be completely moribund in this country.
We really do need to start over. But I’m not holding my breath.
The other day I was leafing through “Chess Monthly” for 1991 (!) and came across the following (concerning, I believe, something called the Edwards Report which had been commissioned by the then British Chess Federation to “review all aspects of chess activity and organisation in the UK, taking into account the various interests of all levels and groups of players, both amateur and professional, together with organisers and sponsors”). I quote:
“The committee was unanimous in agreeing that the BCF is designed for a structure of British chess that is largely superseded. It recognised that the cumbersome structure with an unwieldy Council and Management Board was ill-equipped to handle the increase in professional chess of the world’s number two chess nation. Difficulties in recent years in finding and keeping sponsors have resulted from the lack of professional commercial management.
The major recommendations of the report are:
1. To appoint a competent, professional, full-time General Secretary.
2. To start a National League.
3. To reform the management structure of the BCF to simplify the organisation and improve communication to members.”
Progress to date:
1. Not achieved.
2. Achieved, but not by the BCF.
3. What do you think?
Seventeen years on we’re still waiting. I had almost forgotten until “Chess Monthly” reminded me that we used to be number two nation in the world. Does anybody in the ECF care any more?
Let me finish with a quote from David Norwood, then the BCF’s Publicity Director, also from 1991:
“The BCF……is simply the sum of its parts: individuals, clubs and counties. If what is commonly termed the ‘grass roots’ then continually demands: ‘What does the BCF do for me?’, as if expecting immediate benefits from above, there is something intrinsically wrong. The BCF can only be what its members make it.”