by Robert Huntington

To the chess world:

For the past few years, I have covered chess for the Associated Press.  I
(and the chess world) have been fortunate in that the AP has seen fit to
give chess extensive coverage, sending me not only to both world
championships (i.e., the Kasparov-Kramnik match and the FIDE version), but
to the top tournaments like Linares and Wijk aan Zee, the FIDE Grand Prix,
the Olympiad, among others.

Unfortunately, in late September, immediately after the cancellation of the
Kasparov-Ponomariov match, AP informed me that they would no longer be
covering most chess events.  While they cited economic reasons, the timing
of the decision leaves little doubt that FIDE's chronic inability to hold
an event as scheduled was the catalyst.  They had, after all, twice had to
change or cancel plane tickets for me and been put through considerable
inconvenience as the Buenos Aires match was moved to Yalta and then
cancelled.  Regrettable as AP's decision is, one can hardly blame them.

Coal miners used to carry a caged canary into the mine to warn them of
invisible gas.  If the canary suddenly died, they knew they had to get out
quickly or they would perish themselves.  Like the dead canary, the
decision of the world's largest news organization to stop covering chess
regularly should be taken as a warning to act and act now.  My friend and
colleague Mig Greengard thinks my analogy to the canary in the coal mine is
misplaced.  For him, the canary has been dead for years and the miners are
already dying.  He's probably right, but I'm writing this letter in the
hope that he's wrong and that there is still time

This letter should not be necessary.  In many ways and in many areas, chess
is doing very well indeed and is as popular as ever, especially among the
youth.  More people play chess on the internet than any other game.  The
current chess boom in India and China, the world's two most populous
countries, is remarkable.  A year and a half ago, things were looking even
better.  The Prague Agreement promised to heal the rift that had so damaged
chess's reputation among the wider public (people who don't know how a
knight moves can recognize petty politics and turf wars).  A new, rational
world championship format was promised and meaningful reform seemed

That, of course, was an illusion.  President Ilyumzhinov has returned to
his former ways with a vengeance.  Once the Olympiad and the threat of
reform had passed, the Kasparov-Deep Junior match was tossed around from
December to January and from Jerusalem to New York; the Kasparov-Ponomariov
match was announced for Buenos Aires in June, then for Yalta in September,
then cancelled at the last minute.  At that time, we were told there would
be a world championship tournament in December.  Now we are promised two
events next spring.  Meanwhile, organizers in Prague, who had planned an
event in September, cancelled it in order to avoid a conflict with the
Yalta match.  And so it goes on and on.  Just when you think FIDE has
accomplished all it possibly can to make itself and chess look ridiculous,
it surpasses itself.  Ilyumzhinov is said to have spent some $30 million
promoting chess.  If he had given the money to the Fédération avec
l'Intention de Detruire les Échecs (Federation Intent on Destroying Chess),
the result would not be worse.

I am not placing the entire blame on FIDE or on Ilyumzhinov.  No doubt,
Ponomariov was extravagant in his demands and contributed to the
cancellation of the Yalta match.  The inability of Kramnik and Leko to
schedule their match is a grave disappointment.  At least, they have not
announced phantom matches.  Kasparov's original breakaway and the formation
of the PCA, which drove FIDE into Ilyumzhinov's arms, was a failed
revolution.  Had he either succeeded or not tried, things would surely not
be this bad today.  In real life, revolutionaries who fail are properly
hanged.  In chess, Kasparov shook Ilyumzhinov's hand in Prague only to
become just another one of his victims.

These, however, are petty failings compared with FIDE's and Ilyumzhinov's.
At a press conference in Bled, I asked President Ilyumzhinov about the
sudden transfer of the Grand Prix from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the postponement
of the Moscow Grand Prix, the cancellation of the remaining Grand Prix
events and the postponement of the Kasparov-Deep Junior match in Jerusalem
(originally scheduled to conflict with Kramnik's computer match in
Bahrain).  His response was to blame the local organizers and sundry others
for these snafus.  President Truman of the United States used to have a
sign on his desk which read, "The buck stops here."  If President
Ilyumzhinov is unwilling to take responsibility for what happens on his
watch, he should step aside for someone who is so willing.

The biggest harm that Ilyumzhinov does is to scare off the legitimate
commercial sponsors upon whom all sports depend today.  Chess should do
well here.  While the numbers are small, the demographics are good
(well-educated and concentrated in the high tech field).  And chess has a
cost advantage over other sports.  Corus Steel sponsors a huge event at
Wijk aan Zee each year, including a tournament with virtually all the top
players, strong grandmaster B and C tournaments, along with amateur events.
All this cost about $1 million, barely enough for the appearance fee of
one major player in a major sport.  But when would-be corporate sponsors
look at Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, they don't see his incompetent scheduling and
rescheduling of major events, his misguided attempts to get chess into the
Olympics, or any of the purely chess sins I have been accusing him of.
Instead, they see the stories of corruption coming out of Kalmykia, the
endless investigations by the authorities in Moscow concerning vanished
millions, his ties to Saddam Hussein, the murder of Larisa Yudina, and they
look for something more reputable to sponsor.  All sports, including
boxing, are now more reputable than chess.

It is obvious what must be done in the first place:  get rid of Ilyumzhinov
even if it means bankrupting FIDE.  It is also obvious that, while
necessary, this is insufficient.  What  remains to be done in addition may
well be debated, and should be.  I can do little beyond advising all in the
chess world to regard FIDE as anathema until Ilyumzhinov is gone and
reforms are instituted.

While I have few suggestions beyond the obvious one, my diagnosis of the
problems I is the product of the unique position I have had in trying to
explain chess to non-chessplayers, not merely the wide audience that AP
reaches through its member newspapers and other outlets around the world
but to the editors and managers of AP.  I do hope, without the slightest
expectation, that with major reform chess can improve its position among
the wider public so that AP will once again consider chess events worthy of
coverage.*  Without such reform, I have no doubt that chess's reputation
will slip yet further and it will have ever more difficulty in reaching a
wider public.

I would like to end this letter on a positive note by expressing my sincere
thanks to those with whom it has been a pleasure for me to work with over
the past few years, not only the various editors and bureau chiefs at AP,
but especially those organizers who, even though they are the most
professional and upstanding imaginable, stand to lose valuable coverage
from AP's decision.  I refer in particular to the wonderful people behind
the Linares and the Corus tournaments.  I also want to thank the players I
have had the privilege of covering and watching up close.  They are almost
all class acts, especially Vishy Anand, and they deserve neither the
reputation they sometimes receive from the more notorious players nor the
fate to which the politicians who run the game have condemned them.
Finally, I want to thank my fellow members of the fourth estate, especially
Arvind Aaron, Aviv Friedman, Leontxo Garcia, Mig Greengard, John Henderson
and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam.  They have made every press room I have ever
been in, even those run by the most incompetent and difficult organizers,
an enjoyable place to be.

Robert Huntington

*  In the meantime, we should expect not only the quantity but the quality
of AP coverage to decline since, on those few occasions where AP might
still find covering chess worthwhile (e.g., the recent Kasparov-X3D Fritz
match), they are likely to send a non-chessplaying staff reporter and we
can look forward to, not only such factual errors as the consistent
mischaracterization of Kasparov as "world champion," but such verbiage as
this (from the AP report of the first match game):

"The two opponents played conservatively at first with Kasparov using his
white pieces to keep X3D Fritz's black knights and bishops, which are
moderately powerful, at bay.

But during the middle of the game, both players aggressively attempted to
position their queens, the most powerful pieces on the board, to check each
other's king, which would force an immediate defense of that piece to avoid

Neither Kasparov nor X3D Fritz could maneuver their pieces to checkmate the
other's king, and split the match for half a point each." homepage