Background

“A crisis is also an opportunity”

28 Apr 2020

The world federation has big plans with online chess. The star-studded FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup from 5 May is only the start. General Director Emil Sutovsky told Stefan Löffler about FIDE’s strategy.

Emil Sutovsky
Emil Sutovsky (photo: FIDE)

General Director Emil Sutovsky explains FIDE’s online strategy

While clubs and tournaments have shut down and many federations have become inactive, the World Chess Federation is trying to stay ahead of the game. FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich told the Extraordinary General Assembly at the end of February that online activities would be prioritised. In a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant he talked about plans for online competitions including a digital version of the Chess Olympiad.

FIDE’s online activities are being coordinated by its General Director, Emil Sutovsky, who is also head of FIDE’s Global Strategy Commission. The Israeli grandmaster, whose rating peaked at 2703, was President of the Association of Players from 2012 and became the main advisor to Dvorkovich soon after the Russian politician announced his candidacy for FIDE President in June 2018. He gave a video interview to Sagar Shah, who runs Chessbase India, and answered our additional questions by email.

“A crisis is also an opportunity”, says Sutovsky. As chess platforms are booming and the media interest is strong since the lockdown, he expects chess to gain considerable popularity during the pandemic. As with any other sports federation, FIDE is preparing for the changed future, and many scenarios have to be taken into consideration. But unlike other sports, chess can be played online. FIDE has coorganised a youth team event and is about to stage a star event that begins after the Magnus Carlsen Invitational.

Fide slogan
Fide slogan (FIDE.com)

Virtually all top players except the world champion will play during the FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup from 5 to 10 May. The four strongest chess nations Russia, the United States, China and India will be joined by a European and a Rest of the World selection. Each match will be played on four boards, one of which is reserved for female players. After a round-robin the two leading teams will face each other in the final on 10 May. The former world champions Kasparov and Kramnik will serve as captains of the European respectively Indian team.

A digital Chess Olympiad in July

The event is partly also a test run for the digital version of the Chess Olympiad, which has been postponed to 2021. The probable date in July is earlier than what was foreseen for the over-the-board Chess Olympiad in Moscow. The final decisions have not been taken, says Sutovsky, but most likely the online matches will be played on six instead of four boards and all teams will be mixed, consisting of two male adults, two female adults, one male junior and one female junior. For the Swiss system phase, the event will be divided into two groups, West and East, by time zones in order to avoid late night play. Unlike the traditional Chess Olympiad, there will be a K.O. phase at the end.

FIDE is also preparing to hold the World Youth Rapid and Blitz Championships online. The continuation of the Candidates tournament, which was interrupted half-way at the end of March, and the world championship match itself, remain to be played over the board, says Sutovsky. Ideally, all championships with classical time control should still be over the board, and he stresses that classical chess has a strong social component that needs to be preserved.

FIDE is not only considering which existing competitions are viable online, but is also looking into new match-ups between teams of different cities, companies and universities. In order to provide players with serious practice and opportunities to earn money, hundreds of online tournaments are being planned according to Sutovsky. “FIDE is co-operating will all major platforms to create win-win-situations”, both when organising events as well as on their regulation and all-important anti-cheating measures (see The Hunt is On). If and how online games will be rated is still a matter of discussion, again including the platforms.

A spirit of cooperation and open ears

“Stay home, play chess online” is FIDE’s new slogan. Yet its online strategy is not only about competing. Communications and E-learning are other aspects. The active Trainers Commission has announced an impressive programme of online seminars. FIDE recently launched a newsletter. Its current issue (subscription link) is focused on online chess.

FIDE General Director Emil Sutovsky, interviewed by Sagar Shah
FIDE General Director Emil Sutovsky, interviewed by Sagar Shah

Sutovsky stresses the importance of hearing the players, to conduct polls and to listen to criticism. “We took some wrong decisions. It’s impossible to avoid mistakes with hundreds of decisions to make, but the vast majority was in a good way, always trying to be fair.” Unlike the former FIDE leadership from which “you got decisions, no discussions, nothing – we try to be accountable!” Sutovsky describes his approach as “to bring understanding from the professionals into the decision making. I see myself as very much a chess person who went into chess management, rather than a chess manager who now directs his colleagues.”

Are there sponsors that explicitly support FIDE during the crisis? Sutovsky points out that the corporate world itself is preoccupied with adjusting to the new challenges. He adds that FIDE has many promising contacts and that Cisco Systems, the leading provider of network technology, can be mentioned in this context.