At the age of 22 you are the youngest president of a national chess federation in Europe. Under which circumstances did you take this job and what is motivating you?
Eetu Tiiva: The discontent with the current situation of the federation had started already in 2020, especially in terms of leadership and communication. There were also doubts if the chairperson of the board would continue. Some of the active people thought that it was time for a change. Initially, I thought that I would support a more experienced candidate. When I started to receive suggestions that I should stand as a candidate, after a long consideration, I decided to run because I knew that there’s no need for other major changes. Apart from some groundwork in communication and internal practices that needed to be done, there were no major issues. Furthermore, the financial situation already started to show some signs of improvement compared to the darkest times. I was familiar with the members of the board, staff, and the volunteers. The good team with its mix of experience and fresh visions gave me confidence. One must not know and do everything oneself. Even though I am somewhat young, relative to my age I have extensive experience with chess activities. I qualified as a tournament official in 2015 and ever since I have been an active arbiter and organizer in clubs and in the federation. During these years, I have served as secretary of our arbiters’ commission for two years and as chairperson of the national league committee during the challenging times of the Covid-19-pandemic. I have also met many players and active people from the clubs and feel well connected with the community, which is also reflected by the strong support I received in the election. I am grateful for the faith that the Finnish chess community has placed in me.
How many events, active players, active clubs, and federation staff did Finland have in 2021 and by comparison in the last year before the pandemic 2019?
Eetu Tiiva: To be honest, the numbers are rather grim. A lot of work needs to be done in order to reach the levels before the pandemic. The number of events dropped by around 65 %. The number of active, licensed players dropped by 40 %. We have lost about 10 % of our clubs. During the worst period of the pandemic our federation had only one part-time (60 %) employee. We are now back to a full-time employee, our general secretary, and we just hired a part-time employee to manage our competitions both OTB and online.
The pandemic put your federation into a severe crisis because its income depends mostly on licensed competitive players, many of whom are now inactive, and government subsidies are directly related to the licensed players. How do you want to remedy the financial side?
Eetu Tiiva: It is true that we faced severe financial challenges in 2021. We didn’t get extra subsidies to cope with the pandemic. The number of licenced players dropped because the clubs and the federation were not able to organize as many competitions as before the pandemic, but that has improved in autumn. The worst is over. We are grateful that we have received some donations, and we have made licenses for five or ten years in advance available.
Selling advance licenses is borrowing from the future.
Eetu Tiiva: That is true and not ideal. The launch of advance licences was a necessary temporary solution in order to avoid an acute cash crisis. We sold around thirty five-year licences and around thirty ten-year licences, but from the beginning of this year they are no longer available. We have to find new resources through online chess, school chess and new players. For the time being we have to adhere to a strict cost discipline. We have calculated that we will manage this year without major financial issues, but there is no extra money to spend. It is essential that we can activate our competitions as soon as possible since the pandemic has again gone worse and currently there are no OTB activities. On the other hand, the numbers of players in tournaments during the autumn were very promising and higher than before the pandemic. The annual public subsidy will of course help. Private funding is also an option we have to inspect, but we have to be realistic and work hard. Gaining sponsors requires a good product and a clear project and vision.
Do you have online-only members?
Eetu Tiiva: The clubs, not the players, are members of the federation. In order to buy the licence, the player should be a member of a chess club, but some exceptions have been made. There are some who buy a licence in order to support the federation or to get Shakki!, the Finnish chess magazine. Our strategy commission is currently preparing modifications of our licence system, and online memberships or licences may be an option.
For every licensed player there are probably 500 online players in Finland, where this ratio seems especially high. How do you want to benefit from the online boom?
Eetu Tiiva: Yes, the ratio of online players to licensed players is rather high in Finland, but the situation is probably quite similar in many countries. Even though I find that OTB chess is the most fundamental part of the activities of our federation, we should not disregard the possibilities that online chess offers us. We offer weekly online activities which are open and free to all Finnish players. Through these events we do reach new players and hopefully some of them will become new OTB players as well. We aim to offer specific support for new players to decrease the threshold to also participate in OTB events. We also held a Finland – Sweden online match in March 2021 in cooperation with Assembly, which is the biggest E-sports event in Finland and it was broadcast by the public service media company Yle. Such events give us additional visibility, and we are keen to organize more of that in the future. As Finland is geographically a big country, in more remote areas, players and clubs have gone inactive since the distance to competitions and to the nearest active clubs may be hundreds of kilometres. We want to reactivate some of these clubs and players by adding the possibility to attend the lower divisions of the national team league in a hybrid or online group. In the end of February we will hold the Finnish Team Blitz Online Championship for the first time as a hybrid event.
Gaining sponsors requires a good product and a clear project and vision.
Please describe your vision for chess in Finland!
Eetu Tiiva: It would be easy to build castles in the air, but I find that one must also be realistic of what can be achieved. Our vision is that chess remains a vibrant hobby in Finland also in the future. Our licensed players are ageing, so we must attract new young players. The aim is also to develop a new generation of top-level players. In an ideal scenario we will also increase the visibility of chess.
Which steps and leading style will get you there?
Eetu Tiiva: The first step is to be able to organize our normal activities, but we must not waste this time either. Since we are not able to organize all of our normal activities, we develop our online activities. Also, this year organized chess activities in Finland turn 100 years old. We have planned a special gala and a jubilee tournament to celebrate and gain extra visibility. In terms of leadership, I do have visions and ideas, but it is also fundamental to be able to be open-minded and listen to the ideas of others. My role is to coordinate the work and to create an encouraging atmosphere so that fresh opinions and ideas will be expressed. It’s all about the team. We do not have a big number of staff or volunteers, so it’s extremely important to be able to work together and to find a suitable role for everyone. Everyone is good at something.
You mentioned the ageing of the player population, can you quantify it? What do you want to do about this?
Eetu Tiiva: Ageing of the playing population is a challenge for many national federations, including us. I am keen to get the statistics and analyse it myself. The key is to reach younger players in schools and online. At the same time, we must not forget our active senior players either.
What do you want to do for and about chess in schools?
Eetu Tiiva: Our federation has invested heavily in creating teaching materials and training teachers during recent years. Unfortunately, due to the prolonged pandemic, our resources are quite limited at the moment, and it’s no different when it comes to school chess. We must maintain contact and offer something to those schools and teachers who already have chess activities in their schools. We should perhaps plan one of our national youth tournaments in a way that it also benefit our school chess activities. An important part is to get our school club players licenced under the federation in some fashion, since this would be beneficial in terms of funding.
Your top player Tomi Nybäck is a senior game programmer. What role does Tomi play in your plans?
Eetu Tiiva: Tomi has been our best player since nearly twenty years. He has played in our national championship league for many years, and he has also been an essential member of our national team in many Chess Olympiads and European Championships. Therefore, he has been important for our federation and also a good example for our young players that a Finnish chess player can reach the top level in chess. Unfortunately, due to a very difficult and unfortunate case in the Finnish league Tomi’s team was relegated, and Tomi announced that it’s unlikely that he will be a part of the federation’s activities. In a way I do understand his decision, since it was a difficult call with no winners in any case. Resolving the issue would be important for us.
The European Chess Union’s Education Commission, led by Jesper Hall, is currently preparing visits to several countries to consult and assist the national federations in building and improving school chess programmes. Finland is one of these countries. European federations can also get ECU assistance when applying for of up to $5,000 special project funding from the FIDE Development Fund.