WHY THE USCF SHOULD NOT
by Vincent J. Hart
Contrary to his intention, in his September 2001 Chess Life commentary, Jim Eade has compellingly demonstrated that the USCF should not support FIDE attempts to get chess into the Olympics. Eade has shown that the movement to put chess in the Olympics disregards the interests of the dues-paying majority of USCF members who have shown their willingness to support the game of chess by spending their own money. In his view, the mission of the USCF is to reach people who have little or no present interest and to develop elite players. The chess hobbyist does not matter.
It is very frustrating that Eade's vision of the USCF mission excludes the vast majority of USCF members.
"I summarize our mission with two expressions: chess literacy and chess excellence. Chess literacy is the ability to read and write chess notation and to know the basic rules of the game. Chess excellence is the ability to compete at the highest levels and advance the art of the game."
Eade's mission expressly ignores the vast majority of members who are long past literacy, but will never reach excellence.
Why does Eade think that the players who actually put money into the game are irrelevant? In the last five years, I have bought more than one hundred and fifty chess books, four clocks, and a half-dozen sets. I have played in four or five big Swiss tournaments per year including two trips to the World Open as well as dozens of small club tournaments. Including some lessons I took, I am confident that I have spent more than $1000.00 per year on chess even after counting the prizes I have won. Nevertheless, Eade's vision of the USCF's mission does not include me.
Eade thinks that the USCF should stop "glorifying high entry fee/high prize fund tournaments" even though this is where a large number of chess players have shown a willingness to spend their money. He thinks that over-the-board play is unworthy of the USCF's attention other than competitions for the elite players like the U.S. and World Championships and the Olympics. He thinks that the USCF should be trying to develop players who will achieve that level of excellence rather than focusing on the rank and file who pay the bills.
It is odd that Eade applauds FIDE's efforts to "commercialize" chess while on the other hand denigrating the big-prize class tournaments that actually show a profit. No doubt Eade supports the USCF's misguided attempt to get out the business of selling books and equipment. It is not exactly clear what Eade means by "commercial," but it apparently does not include figuring out who the paying customers are and then trying your best to service that market. Eade advocates a radical shift in the "organizational soul" of the USCF because "it is plausible to speculate" that financing will be easier to obtain if chess becomes part of the Olympic games. What responsible business operates like that?
Does any rational person really believe that being in the Olympics is going to have any effect on the popularity of chess in the United States? How many curling competitions has anyone attended lately? Does anyone know who holds the world record in that combination of rifle shooting and cross-country skiing known as the biathalon? How many people follow synchronized swimming, handball, orienteering, dressage, archery or rowing? It is ludicrous to suppose that putting chess in the Olympics is going to attract any significant number of new players to the game or to inspire young people to achieve a higher degree of chess excellence.
It is simply not true that American young people are deterred from striving to reach the upper echelons of chess by inadequate promotion of the game. The problem is that the influx of Russian chess players has made the career of a chess professional more difficult than ever. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the laws of supply and demand in the United States produced about as many professional players as the game could support. Russian chess, on the other hand, did not operate on free market principles. The government heavily subsidized the game because they thought it proved the superiority of the communism. With the fall of the USSR, the west has been forced to absorb many more chess professionals than the popularity of the game warrants. Given the glut of professional chess players, the only incentive that is going to drive a young person to "go for the gold" is their inner love for the game. This is also the only basis upon which anyone could responsibly encourage a young person to pursue the game.
We must recognize that the Soviet system raised the bar on chess excellence to a level that we cannot in good conscience recommend to our young people as a goal. Chess should be an enriching experience for young people as part of an otherwise well rounded life. The choice to pursue excellence in chess should be made freely in light of the wide range of choices available. The USSR, on the other hand, encouraged a single-minded devotion to chess among young people who showed potential. Russia's subsidy of chess professionals as well as the lack of other opportunities created an incentive for young people to dedicate their lives to chess at an early age to the exclusion of other activities. This is not something we want to duplicate.
The simple fact of the matter is that the upper echelons of American chess are going to be dominated by products of the Soviet system and by the current crop of American Grandmasters for some time to come. There may be a few young Americans who challenge, but not very many. Eventually, however, the playing strength of the current grandmasters will decline and there will be more room at the top for those young people to whom chess was not just another front in the cold war. Perhaps we will see a time again when there are non-professional players in the US Championship. In the mean time, the USCF can still promote the game and serve the hobbyists who actually love and support the game.
Chess is still a wonderful game, but the USCF and FIDE are never going to return chess to what it was when one of the most powerful nations on earth chose to subsidize the game at a level out of all proportion to its inherent appeal and significance. I sympathize with GMs and IMs who devoted their lives to the game and find it difficult to make a living now, but I am already doing what I can support them. I buy books that they write and I pay large entry fees to subsidize their prizes at tournaments. I do not object to some of my dues being used to promote the interests of the elite players. Nevertheless, I will never fill up a cup to play in a tournament because the USCF dreams of finding sources of funding that will better enable it to ignore my interests as a player.
My objection to drug testing is simply a matter of my desire for privacy. Only my physician and my wife have any legitimate interest in knowing what prescribed medications I take and the conditions for which I take them. Why should I have to disclose this information to enjoy my hobby? I do not have to submit a urine sample to build a model railroad. I do not have to prove that I am clean to collect stamps. I will not do so in order to play chess.
I would also like to point out a couple of the other arguments in favor of mandatory drug testing that seem particularly un-American to me. In the same issue of Chess Life that contains Eade's commentary, Tim Redman asserts that we should be willing to take drug tests in order to prove that we are clean. Excuse me Mr. Redman, in America people are not required to prove their innocence. Even more offensive was Dr. Press's insinuation that the objection to drug testing proved that people were using performance enhancing substances. That reminds me of a certain Senator McCarthy who would assert that anyone who objected to his witch hunts must be a communist. Given the recent scandals surrounding the Olympics, it is very amusing for Eade, Redman, and Press to claim that they occupy the higher moral ground.
Eade notes that the USCF has "recently struggled for both solvency and relevancy." I would submit that the reason the USCF is insolvent is because it thinks that most of its members are irrelevant. If it would focus on who pays the bills now rather than searching for new money, its future would be much more secure.
Vincent J. Hart
Mount Prospect IL