Dear Chess Family,
A few mornings ago, I read FIDE’s statement condemning racism. While it does provide the ideas of unity and equality, there are issues I would like to bring to the organization’s attention. There was an air of idealism in the letter that may be a bit presumptuous and even naive. My response is made with the utmost respect and support of FIDE’s aims and objectives as the international representative of chess. I remain committed to being a source of positive change in chess.
I have been personally affected by racist acts, one of which had a life-altering effect on my family. Most Black people who live as "minorities" in countries around the world have been targets of racism in varying degrees. This statement is not to recount my racist afflictions outside of chess. I intend to assess social justice and address some of the statements made in FIDE’s condemnation of racism.
Dr. Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum
16 June 2020
The Universality of Chess
For the past 20 years, I have served the chess community as a journalist, and in 2001, created the website, The Chess Drum. Idealized initally as a magazine project, it became an online initiative designed to highlight the accomplishments of Black players around the world. The main idea was to provide a platform for an overlooked segment of the chess community and proudly demonstrate the universality of chess.
Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Kenya and Nigeria at 2018 Chess Olympiad!
Photos by Daaim Shabazz.
My chess journalism efforts have taken me to cover six Olympiad tournaments, one World Championship, and several Grand Chess Tour events. I have been involved with chess for 40 years, the last 20 primarily as a chess journalist. Over these years, I have been able to amass tens of thousands of pages of information and taken hundreds of thousands of chess photos. These literary and visual testimonies have shown the universality of chess.
As an enthusiastic junior player, there were chess mentors in my circles, but I saw relatively few Blacks at chess tournaments and gracing the annals of chess publications. Some years later, a White master-level player named Vince Berry asked me curiously, "Where are the Black GMs and IMs?" referring to the highest levels of chess. I didn’t know. This conversation motivated me to conduct research and build a communication platform.
Early on after launching the site, one British player told me my site was "prejudiced… in a good way," but I wouldn’t be able to find much information. He teased me for an article I wrote on the India chess scene as proof that I’d have to look elsewhere. IM Javier Gil even accused The Chess Drum of being a racist website due to its emphasis on the African Diaspora. (see discussion) Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to this long-standing debate on social (in)justice.
The FIDE Statement on Racism
Saturday, 13 Jun 2020 18:27
During the past few days, we have received a few inquires about what is FIDE’s policy regarding racial discrimination, and how we deal with such cases.
FIDE condemns racism in the strongest terms, and we stand for non-discrimination as one of the founding pillars of the Olympic Movement, to which FIDE belongs. This is reflected in the Olympic Charter, Fundamental Principle 6: "The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
Chess players tend to travel a lot, and the more you travel the more you are exposed to racism and xenophobia. Sadly, that has been the case for our colleague Pontus Carlsson and many others: we have heard their testimonies, and we would like to offer them our support. But most incidents occur outside the chess competitions: at chess tournaments, we are proud to say that the incidents are minimal, and we will stay alert to prevent this from happening. In fact, no one has filed a complaint about racial discrimination at any of our official events at least since the current administration took office in 2018. The Chess Olympiad, where players of 180+ countries live together for two weeks, is a true celebration of the unity of humankind in all our diversity.
We believe there is something truly beautiful about chess: it makes us focus on what we have in common as human beings, rather than in what makes us different.
The reason why is that when you play a game of chess with someone, it is like if you could see his/her thoughts. You get into your opponent’s brain, and you establish some kind of communication, even if both players don’t have a language in common. At the chess board, differences in age, sex, religion, color, or economical status become irrelevant: they simply vanish. You immediately develop some respect for a person you are exchanging ideas with at such a deep level.
We could even say that chess is the ultimate equalizer. It is for this reason that chess is gaining so much popularity as an educational tool. The educational benefits of chess are not limited to intellectual development: the game is also a formidable tool for social development in children.
The best contribution FIDE can do to fight racism is to keep working to bring this game to schools, and to honor our motto: "gens una sumus".
First, I appreciate the spirit of the statement, and given the FIDE motto (GEN UNA SUMUS), the tone was expected. FIDE "rejects discrimination" and describes its stance in Article 4.4 of the organization’s handbook. However, the notion that racial discrimination in the chess world is minimal may be a bit presumptuous. What is the history of racial discrimination at FIDE events? Have there been reported cases? If so, how were they mitigated or resolved?
Secondly, we have to determine which acts constitute a violation. How do we identify structural racism, a racist act, or merely a cultural faux pas? How do we discern racism from elitism? How do we assess the damage? What are the penalties for such violations? These procedures are needed if we are to claim that the chess community has minimal cases. Sometimes it is not always obvious. I present the following historical case:
The Case of South Africa
If we would go back into FIDE history, we remember President Dr. Max Euwe traveling to South Africa in 1974 on a three-week fact-finding mission to evaluate allegations of racism within the chess community. At the time, there were two opposing bodies (SACF and CAPSA) who, according to Nick Barnett, were not on speaking terms.
South African chess was split down the middle. The SA Chess Federation went along with the apartheid government while the SA Council on Sport (SACOS) whose motto was "No normal sport in an abnormal society" excluded itself from all existing sporting bodies. Its members were not even supposed to watch sport on TV. CAPSA (Chess Association for the People of South Africa) was affiliated to SACOS.
Olimpbase.org further tells us how the story unfolds:
At the FIDE congress meeting in Helsinki, 1973, the decision had been made to investigate whether or not the treatment of coloured chess players in Rhodesia and South Africa was in violation of the principles of FIDE. Dr. Euwe went to both countries and prepared a report which was circulated at Nice (France). Nowhere in his report does he offer any evidence of discrimination against coloured players in either country, neither does he even suggest that he feels either country should be excluded from FIDE.
Dr. Max Euwe’s giving a simul on his 1974 trip to South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Keith Rust
On the agenda of the Congress meetings at Nice was a proposal introduced by Moroccan Chess Federation to exclude both countries. Their proposal was signed by the representatives of Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, USSR, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Argentina and Cuba. From reading Dr. Euwe’s report one might have expected him to be completely opposed to this proposal and he is a powerful enough figure for his views to carry much weight with Congress. But there was another issue at stake. The office of president was open to re-election and opposing Dr. Euwe was vice-president R. Mendez from Puerto Rico.
At the start of the Olympiad it was thought that Euwe was likely to lose the election as Mendez had the support of many of the smaller countries. But the Soviet Federation saw a way to use the situation to their advantage – they offered Euwe a deal whereby he would get the votes of the Eastern Bloc countries if he supported the exclusion of Rhodesia and South Africa. Euwe agreed. As soon as the exclusion was announced South Africa withdrew from the Olympiad.
What a difference an election year makes!
What is the point of all of this? The point is even with the president’s three-week mission, the complaints of discrimination and exclusion were missed (or ignored). There did not seem to be a way of accurately assessing the situation. If not for prospects of reelection, Dr. Euwe may not have reconsidered his position. South Africa’s apartheid system had many layers, and perhaps Dr. Euwe asked the wrong questions.
Dr. Euwe’s report (Informant 19, pp. 278-280) details his tour of Africa. He admits that sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa and Rhodesia) was all previously overlooked in terms of chess development. Just three years after FIDE suspended South Africa, the United Nations placed the country under international sanctions. This intriguing history needs to be researched and written in greater detail.
“The racism and the male supremacy of the society in which I live are the most important matters of principle in my life. I try to live by pro-human principles. This means that I must fight racism and male supremacy continually because I am a United Statesian and a male in an imperial society.”
~International Arbiter, Jerry Bibuld
We honor the memory of activists like the late International Arbiter Jerry Bibuld, who lobbied fiercely for CAPSA and fought in favor of sanctioning the South African apartheid regime. He stood courageously for the rights of players in the African Diaspora and would undoubtedly be a participant in the current discussions on racial justice.
Currently, FIDE may perceive the organization’s racial incidents as minimal, but perhaps there needs to be a better reporting structure. It is almost like saying you have minimal coronavirus cases, but with unclear procedures for testing. What is the process? What constitutes a racist act? Is there a special commission for these matters? Who is to be contacted? It may very well be that the process isn’t clear.
FIDE’s African Quandary
If we look at the pecking order of chess, you will find developing countries at the bottom of the federation rankings. There are many reasons for this: lack of chess culture, lack of financial support, and lack of competition. The Internet age has helped close the gap somewhat. We know this by the increasing number of first-round upsets of Grandmasters at the Olympiad. However, challenges persist.
At the 2004 Olympiad in Mallorca (my first Olympiad), I remember stepping into the hall for the General Assembly and seeing Libya’s Nizar El-Haj, who at the time, was serving as the African Continental President. He looked flustered and was walking around as if he was trying to find someone. As soon as I introduced myself, he immediately told me, "They have forgotten African seats!" I sensed the frustration in his voice.
At the 2004 FIDE General Assembly in Mallorca, African federations were completely forgotten and the delegates were in the back with the observers and journalists!
Nizar ElHaj (middle) was visibly upset over the exclusion of African seats on the floor. Turkey’s Ali Nihat Yazici is behind him. Photos by Daaim Shabazz.
One can say that is an honest error, but similar mistakes been repeated at Olympiads that I’ve attended. The truth be told, smaller federations struggle to have their voices heard and only seem to become a priority during election campaigns.
Fortunately, President Arkady Dvorkovich has pledged to be more inclusive of smaller federations and has supported hosting major events in diverse places. While not directly responsible, he showed support of the historic the Grand Chess Tour event in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
Speaking of the election cycles, there has been a controversial issue revisited every election cycle. Complaints are that smaller federations should not be given equal weight in terms of the voting. Voting was a point of contention in a number of elections. In 2010, I wrote an op-ed piece titled, "Africa: Too Much Voting Power in FIDE?" I contended,
In the upcoming election for FIDE President, there has been a lot of talk about the voting structure of one-nation, one vote. This idea is in line with the democratic ideals of general bodies, but seems to have met the ire of chess pundits and commentators. For the past two campaigns there has been the question of whether smaller federations should have an equal number of votes as larger federations.
. . .
The implication is that Zambia and Gabon should not have as much voting power as the USA. There are countless other African examples on blogs and discussion groups. It appears to be an "insert African country" format. (see essay)
Because of this perception, there is an idea that smaller federations should not receive a single vote in the General Assembly because they could heavily influence the outcome as a voting bloc. It is the one-country, one-vote that keeps these countries engaged in the democratic process. If the most powerful nations ruled FIDE, what incentives would they have to involve others?
At the 2014 Olympiad in Tromso, I saw egregious examples of how African federations were treated unfairly, and labeled "lazy" by a FIDE official because they were dealing with a continental crisis and had not resolved a vote. It was an election year, and candidates were jockeying for African votes. The preconceived notion of many were that smaller federations (particularly in Africa) were "corruptible." Is this inherent to Africa? Of course not. The elitist and racially-tinged rhetoric must stop.
Disappointment in the South African delegation after losing the bid for the 2018 Chess Olympiad. Both Georgia and South Africa had given their presentations after which FIDE Treasurer Nigel Freeman presented his report on his site visits. He offered his opinion to the General Assembly that "Georgia was the superior choice," before the vote was taken. Garry Kasparov, who was supporting the African bid, could be heard saying, "This is ridiculous!" It threw into question the sanctity of the vote after Georgia won the bid, 93-58. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
Zero Tolerance… for Racism/Elitism
Due to Germany’s challenging requirements, some African players were denied visas for the 2008 Chess Olympiad, and two teams fielded only two players. Granted, the organizing committee does not issue the visas, but a high rate of visa denials make it a challenge to maintain the spirit of the event. Bill Hook of the British Virgin Islands complained after he scored four forfeit wins in the tournament (Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi).
If visa requirements are a challenge, this may put the participation of smaller federations in jeopardy. Imagine a team that has gone through trials, qualifications, and raised funds throughout the year. The visa application is suddenly denied because the embassy decides the applicant does not have sufficient employment, bank account reserves, or are students. If a federation’s country has strict requirements and cannot guarantee a reasonable chance to secure a visa, it is best not to bid to host the Olympiad.
The 2008 Olympiad in Dresden had introduced a "zero tolerance" policy. This rule states if a player was not at his board when the round started, he/she loses automatically. The organization can set the time allowance at their discretion. In the tournament, all but a few of the infractions were suffered by smaller federations. Bear in mind, many of these teams were staying 20-60 minutes away while well-endowed teams stayed right across from the venue.
Amon Simutowe of Zambia (left) questioning the forfeit of Suriname’s Roger Matoewi (far right) who was literally seconds late. Simutowe wanted to play the game and moved his victorious king from e5 to e8. The arbiter stood firm on the policy (far left). Photo by Daaim Shabazz.
The Gabon – U.S. Virgin Islands dispute at 2008 Olympiad in Dresden.
Photo courtesy of Barthelemy Bongo Adanga Ndjila.
Gabon’s Jean-Pierre Moulain (tan suit) discussing forfeit with arbiter while U.S. Virgin Islands’ Michael Smith (middle) gives his viewpoint. Moulain (8.5/10) met Smith (0.5/10) at the board, shook his hand and he went to take a quick bathroom break. At some point, the Chief Arbiter Ignatius Leong announced the match would begin in one minute. Moulain returned to the board, but was forfeited. Smith insisted that the rule be enforced. Gabon decided to forfeit all the boards. Photo courtesy of Barthelemy Bongo Adanga Ndjila.
A similar violation also occurred in Palestine-Jamaica when GM Evgeny Ermenkov forfeited after leaving the board. In one instance, a forfeit was levied against Malawi whose tram had broken down. Despite the incident being confirmed, arbiters upheld the forfeit. Bear in mind, the "zero-tolerance" did not have previous testing at such an important event.In a 2008 essay, "GENS UNA SUMUS: Are We One Family?" I stated,
President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov made statements at the FIDE General Assembly impressing upon the delegates that professionalism of chess was a priority. This was a direct result of FIDE’s appeal for recognition in the Olympic Games, but at what cost? The question here is whether the Olympiad is the best tournament to introduce such a new rule. Olympiad tournaments have many logistical challenges. In Dresden, teams were spread in hotels throughout the city as far as an hour tram ride away. The more expensive hotels were next door to the playing site and those teams had no problems making the rounds.
If players are relying on public trams in unfamiliar cities without any regard for logistical challenges, then the forfeit rule becomes unfair. In future Olympiad tournaments, there has to be consideration of the layout of the venue and other factors before imposing such a strict rule. If there is an Olympiad village where players come from an equal distance, then such a time rule can be reasonably applied. This issue will be revisited in the next President’s Executive meeting. However, the lesson is a harsh one for many nations who were adversely affected. (see essay)
What are we celebrating at Olympiads?
When one looks at the global landscape of chess, it is majestic in its far-reach. From large industrial nations to small islands to pastoral lands, this game has continued to enthrall those who partake in its multifaceted subtleties. No better event exemplifies the glory of chess than the biennial Olympiad. This glorious event is a celebration of chess and demonstrates a level of inclusion not often seen in other sports.
The 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, Germany, was notable for a number of reasons. FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov sought to market chess to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and tested new ideas on the biggest chess stage. Unfortunately, FIDE imposed the "zero tolerance" rule, which turned out to be a disaster. It was also the tournament where they changed how Olympiad medals were awarded. This eliminated most non-professionals from medal contention in a non-professional tournament and caused one to raise questions. Are we celebrating the universal spirit of chess at the Olympiad?
In what tournament can you score 9.5/10
and not get a prize, medal or even a mention?
In the past six Olympiads (since the changes), Grandmasters have won all but two of the board medals in the Open section. The gold medalist in Batumi scored 5.5/8 (+3) and 2873 TPR. While this performance is magnificent, there is something peculiar about the criteria for individual medals. In essence, a 2800-rated player can compete for a medal playing near or below his expected level.
In Batumi, one top player scored 5.5/9 (+2) and was 11 points from earning a bronze medal with 2803 TPR which was lower than his rating! In the 2014 Chess Olympiad, Sweden’s Pia Cramling scored 10/11, and this result was only good for a bronze medal. If we are basing team medals off of points, why are we not basing individual medals off of points (or percentage)?
Ten years ago, I wrote about this issue in the aforementioned article, "GENS UNA SUMUS: Are We One Family?"
The chess community understands and appreciates the excellence of professional players. They have a long history of accolades and their success, to a great degree, this is expected. However, if an unknown player from Vanuatu, the Maldives, Comoros or Liberia happens to score 9/10 or 11/11, there should be a way of recognizing this feat on the largest stage in chess. We may have uncovered the next rising star.
When IM Robert Gwaze of Zimbabwe scored 9/9 (2690 performance) at the Bled Olympiad in 2002, it stood as one of the brightest moments of the tournament. In Dresden, he would not have received a mention. The success of smaller federations can help the global appeal for chess. This will also help all chess nations advance their own initiatives. In my view, this is what GENS UNA SUMUS is about. (see essay)
Mashala Kabamwanishi of Democratic Republic of Congo scored 9.5/10. Wonderful result!
Photo by Congo Chess Federation.
Some players from obscure countries are still proud of the medals they won decades ago. Everyone knows how proud Geoffrey Borg is of his medal for Malta. How about Robert Gwaze’s magical 9/9 in Bled? Players in African circles still talk about the Zimbabwean’s feat! Mashala Kabamwanishi, an unrated player from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), got 9.5/10 the 2018 Batumi Olympiad.
Under the old medal system, a player like Kabamwanishi would receive a hero’s welcome if he brings home a gold medal. There may even be a chance of popularizing a new chess culture. While we understand the variance of play at an Olympiad, we must recognize strong performances, and if it is possible, some type of commendation. In Batumi, Kabamwanishi got no recognition. In what tournament (anywhere) can you score 9.5/10 and not get a prize, medal or even a mention? There is one… the Olympiad.
For decades, players from unheralded nations have bagged medals and essentially put chess on the radar in those respective countries. It creates national heroes, helps nations foster hope for chess and helps with fundraising. Some players even earn national accolades, become ambassadors, motivational speakers and take on immediate legendary status. These players (most likely) will never compete for a world championship or win an elite tournament, but what better way to celebrate a lifetime achievement? Again… what are we celebrating at Olympiads?
My suggestion was to create inclusive criteria so that all players (not just the elite) have a reasonable chance of scoring a historic result. If FIDE is concerned about players from small federations piling up huge scores, they should make some adjustments in the criteria and/or establish additional awards. Who knows what lies ahead for a medal winner from Suriname, Fiji, or the Congo? This strategy can be a boon to chess, and help us gain global appeal, sponsorship, and goodwill.
"As an avid chess player, I was dismayed to see a black man representing Sweden in a major chess tournament as of late."
~Posting on Stormfront.org, discussing Black chess players
Diverse Cases, Diverse Places, Diverse Platforms
One may believe that this response to FIDE is not purely about racism. That is true. It is more about social justice and equity. Racism is just one of many "isms" that we face in this world. Social justice is an overarching theme that touches so many aspects of society. As far as chess is concerned, we still struggle when trying to resolve conflict. Although social injustice exists everywhere, it is often hidden in plain sight… even in chess.
The Jamaica-Finland touch-move controversy at the 2006 Chess Olympiad in Turin stands as one of the most disheartening cases I have ever seen. The Finnish Grandmaster Tomi Nyback picked up his king hovered it over a square, put it down and attempted to move another piece. When Matthews enforced "touch move," Nyback claimed to be adjusting the king. This incident happened to an absolute gentleman of the game in (now-IM) Shane Matthews, who was so distraught that he abandoned the game. It was an example of the esteemed Finnish Grandmaster getting the benefit of the doubt. Justice was not served. (see case)
Jamaica’s Shane Matthews at
2006 Chess Olympiad (Turin, Italy)
Photo by Daaim Shabazz
There are many other ways that chess players can become disgruntled and lose the fire for chess. Many people are on social media and it is a place where you can insult people, and not worry about getting punched in the face. You even have chess players trolling fringe websites, making vile comments. In 2005, I ran a story on white supremacists discussing Black chess players. One Serbian chess player stated,
"As an avid chess player, I was dismayed to see a black man representing Sweden in a major chess tournament as of late."
Of course, this player was referring to GM Pontus Carlsson, who was raised in Sweden. They referred to the "mud flow" in Scandinavian countries. Someone calling you a name is infantile. Someone assuming you’re unintelligent is ignorant. Someone putting roadblocks in front of you is a shame. Someone killing you because of your race is a moral tragedy.
America has exploded in protests after the brutal murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. The offending officer Derek Chauvin (above), was charged with second-degree murder. This has touched off a wave of protests and has begun a discussion on racism and social justice. Many companies and organization have used this opportunity to rethink their procedures and craft condemnation statements. FIDE offered a statement on the 13th of June, 2020 and you have just read my response.
Can we call out every incident when someone says something offensive? Of course not. If we chase down every offending lead, we will expend energy and time instead of dealing with the broader issues. Based on the issues raised in this essay, here are some of my suggestions for FIDE’s consideration:
- Establish a reporting system for racial/discrimination/sexism
- Establish criteria for racism and its possible sanctions
- Empower FIDE Anti-Cheating Commission to implement stronger deterrents for false cheating accusations (i.e., FM Josh Colas, WGM Mihaela Sandu) to include, but not limited to, financial reparation to the aggrieved player
- Make countries bidding for Olympiad include a history of granting visas to participating nations and whether there could be any problems
- Ensure fairness in logistics at Olympiad venues (i.e., Dresden Olympiad had players nearly one hour away on public transportation)
- Ensure integrity in the arbitration of tournament disputes
- Provide more exposure in Olympiad broadcast coverage for lower-echelon teams.
- Establish inclusive criteria for Olympiad individual medals
- Devise a rotational system for hosting the Olympiad
- Establish a "Grandmaster Developmental Institute" to provide financial fellowships and training for those from CACDEC nations (via application criteria)
Toward the end of the FIDE statement reads,
"We believe there is something truly beautiful about chess: it makes us focus on what we have in common as human beings, rather than in what makes us different."
In my view, we should embrace commonalities as well as differences. We should see race. We should know nationality. Why would we not acknowledge our differences? When you go to an Olympiad, the differences are what make it so exciting and memorable. We can appreciate our distinct origins as well as the common passion for chess. The diversity can help us to grow, and the commonality can unify us against social and moral injustice. Now is a good time.
Video by Batumi Olympiad Committee