FIDE: Confidentiality Clauses and Secret Votes
An interview with GM Peter Heine Nielsen
GM Peter Heine Nielsen is a Grandmaster from Denmark who has worked at the very highest level in chess for decades. He played in seven Olympiads for Denmark and won the Danish Championship five times. He may be even better known for his work as a second. He’s worked to help both Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen prepare for World Championship matches.
Lichess conducted an interview with Peter via email. Lichess questions are in bold italics.
Thank you for your time Peter. On Twitter, you've been very vocal about the need for transparency in regards to the new FIDE leadership team. In your eyes, how transparent have they been since Arkady Dvorkovich took office last year?
Surprisingly, not very!
The list of decisions by the FIDE board from London 2018 states the following: “To introduce and execute a non-disclosure agreement for Presidential Board members, Executive Directors and other FIDE staff.”
That basically speaks for itself, so does the fact that presidential board meetings, which under the previous administration were open to the public, now happen behind closed doors. To put it bluntly: from a structural point of view, FIDE has obviously become less transparent.
On his campaign page, the new FIDE president stated that: "The primary objective of Arkady Dvorkovich is as follows: To level FIDE up to the highest standards of professionalism, efficiency, and transparency.'" In that respect, it is of course, especially disappointing that FIDE has taken the above-mentioned steps to actually make its leadership less transparent.
An inbuilt problem with the decisions happening behind closed doors and under a confidentiality clause is that we cannot see who suggested them, if there was any debate, and if some voted against. All we are allowed to know is the list of published formal decisions. That is not the promised "highest standard of transparency". On the contrary, it is not transparency at all.
You had an exchange with GM Jacob Aagaard on Twitter where he made the point that certain conversations have to remain private for any organization to function. The example he gave was that your wife (a Lithuanian politician) would never broadcast every conversation she has to the public. What would be your answer to that?
My reply would be that for any organization to remain democratic, there has to be an open transparent layer.
”Real” politics, like Aagaard is referring to, obviously have this transparency. I agree that many things are decided in private conversations, but formally they are decided in an open transparent setting. Any parliament will have an open vote before finalizing a decision. This ensures that:
A) We will have exact knowledge on the votes cast by our politicians. This is completely the opposite in FIDE. Let’s give an example with vice-president Nigel Short. Before the elections, he spoke warmly for transparency within FIDE, but after the elections we can see that this has been limited. We have no idea if Short has actually fought hard for creating transparency but is in the minority, or if he has just backed down on his pre-election promises. In an open democracy we could just check the voting records on e.g. the FIDE board’s decision to have a confidentiality clause, but as it is now we have no idea. This is obviously unsatisfactory for all those who backed Short based on his pre-election ideas, but also it is very unfair towards Nigel. It could very well be that he fights hard within FIDE and we are just not allowed to know!
GM Nigel Short (Wikimedia Commons)
B) In a normal transparent parliamentary system, there will be a published agenda within a certain time frame. This gives the public the possibility to influence its politicians with arguments. To remind politicians of their promises etc. In FIDE however, often we only hear about the upcoming changes when they are already a reality. No open hearings, no published agenda. And when that power is removed from the open, it ends up in FIDE’s closed forums.
Nigel Short had a very interesting pre-election suggestion: to have full transparency on the FIDE board members’ financial interests.
This is also a reality in ”real” politics. As my wife is a parliament member of Lithuania, I thus have to register all my financial interests. Where I work, which company I own, if I have bought shares in any companies etc. This is considered common and completely natural in a transparent democracy. We have people making decisions on the state’s budget (or in chess — FIDE’s budget) and obviously this has risks of conflicts of interest. The public has a right to know that the people whom they elected to hold office do not have private motives or incentives when making decisions supposedly for the common good. The idea is not just preventing this from happening, but removing even the opportunity, and thus defending the very democratic fundamentals of FIDE. This would be a crucial element of fighting corruption within FIDE and would make the public trust it as a democratic institution to a much larger extent than they do today. As Nigel pointed out pre-election, it is a very standard thing in ”real” politics, and could easily be copied into chess politics as well.
I understand the new FIDE leadership wants to emphasize themselves as a new beginning, and bringing transparency and integrity to the chess world. Dvorkovich spoke warmly of this in pre-election interviews. My point then is that now is the time to improve our structures. It is now we have the enthusiasm and the freshly made promises. If we cannot bring standard transparency and anti-corruption standards into FIDE now, when will it ever happen? There were promises of a more democratic transparent FIDE, not one with confidentiality clauses.
What are your thoughts on the FIDE Grand Swiss Qualifier for the Candidates?
I will split this into 2 themes.
A) The financial conditions for players.
Isle of Man has organised a wonderful tournament for many years, and recently they've even had extremely strong participants. That this year it also becomes the “FIDE Suisse” can look like no big difference, but many players have come to me saying that this certainly is not the case. At first sight it looks like the tournament just became even more attractive for players, as now the number 1 prize of a spot in the 2020 Candidates tournament is added, but what people mentioned was the removal of appearance fees. This is a typical phenomenon. In the European Championship for instance, players fight for World Cup Qualification, and strong Grandmasters will pay their own expenses in order to try to qualify for their sporting goals. This is similar to the Grand Suisse, but the difference being that while the European Championship is organised by its own merits, here FIDE just takes over an existing tournament, thus not adding any new sponsorship etc. For the players it has the consequence that now they will have to play practically the same event, but without their salary! One can argue that it’s a free-market, and if dissatisfied with the conditions the easy choice is just to stay at home, but the problem is that a spot at the Candidates is at stake. With only 5 of these being reserved for qualification. (Runner-up, Rating, and Wildcard take the remaining 3) For an ambitious player, it is hard to decline the opportunity to fight for qualification. It is not a criticism of the organizers in any way, I fully understand they also have new expenses, for FIDE arbiters and politicians, but seen from a player’s perspective it is obviously problematic. (EDITORS NOTE 26/11/2019: When contacted, The Isle of Man organisers confirmed that appearance fees were cut, but say that money spent on prizes and player accommodations has increased.)
B) The use of Grand Suisse as qualifications for the candidates.
The Candidates tournament should consist of the best players in the world, fighting for the right to challenge the World Champion. Thus the use of the “Grand Suisse” as qualification for the Candidates, in my view, is problematic. Simply put, luck plays too big a role. Last year, most of the world elite played, but the playoff for the title was between Wojtaszek and Naiditch. Both great players, (and good friends and former teammates of mine) but not players we would normally have on the list of potential qualifiers for a Candidates tournament. An 11 round Suisse has a huge random element. In order to win, one needs not just to play a good tournament, but to massively over perform one's level. Carlsen won in 2018, but had to make a 2900+ performance to do so. So the winner typically becomes the one who has the event of their lifetime. While that is great for an open tournament in general, it is not a good way to decide 1 of the 5 qualification spots for the Candidates. With the World Cup and Grand Prix being knock-out events where rapid and blitz plays a huge role we already have more than enough random elements on the qualification phase. We risk that the 2020 Candidates be significantly weaker than usual. (EDITORS NOTE: Peter answered this question before the event was won by GM Wang Hao)
You said you wanted to discuss the FIDE trainer licensing system?
FIDE has a licensing system for trainers, where you can qualify for 5 different levels of trainer certificates from Development Instructor to FIDE Senior Trainer depending on your skills and experience. It sounds constructive and harmless, but the devil is in the details: In reality it's a FIDE tax on trainers.
GM Jacob Aagaard. Chairman of the FIDE trainers' commission. (Wikimedia Commons)
Paragraphs 4.1 and 4.2 (B 07. Regulations for the Titles of Trainers) state that no trainer who does not have a FIDE license is allowed to be the coach at Olympiads, Youth Championship events etc. This is the stick with which FIDE forces trainers to buy their title and mandatory trainers courses. If you do not buy them, you can’t do your job, it is as simple as that. And unlike chess-titles like Grandmaster, you even have to pay a bi-annual renewal fee. For FIDE it’s just a financial gift that keeps on giving. One could argue that the rules are decided by the TRG (FIDE training commission), who after all are renowned trainers and thus well suited to take care of the general interest of chess-training. But the TRG have a huge conflict of interest. They both arrange the seminars and provide people with the right to buy their FIDE-licenses.
In paragraph 3.2.5 (B 07. Regulations for the Titles of Trainers) it states that the minimum salary for the 11 hour course is €1750 for the instructor and 29 coaches are on the shortlist of qualified candidates to give these courses. The TRG consist of 7 members and all of them are on the shortlist! Of the TRG consulting members, a further 5 are on the shortlist.
It should be obvious that the TRG members face a direct conflict of interest: they have personal financial interest in FIDE keeping a licensing system. By normal democratic and transparency standards, the TRG and the body responsible for doing the courses should be totally separate. Or even better, FIDE should be responsible for the examination part only, thus verifying applicants’ skills, while education is left to the free-market who then will provide much cheaper courses preparing students for the tests.
Lichess would like to thank Peter Heine Nielsen for taking the time to answer our questions.
FIDE was contacted for a response to this article, and GM Jacob Aagaard provided a response shortly before publication, it has been included in its entirety below.
I can see I am one of the main focusses of this interview, so I want to make my position clear and to correct certain misconceptions. Usually we are busy trying to get things done and forget to communicate with the greater chess community what we are trying to do, so this is a good reminder and chance to do so.
Mr Nielsen and I are both Danes by birth. In the Danish Parliament there are a lot of committees where there is no transparency. In the UK a government minister was fired in 2019 for leaking from a committee meeting. My point is, this is normal practice.
The moment you invite the public and press into a meeting, you get a lot of grandstanding and showmanship as everyone cares more about how they look. Having been to a PB meeting, I can assure you this would make it unbearable and inefficient. In reality it would mean that things are debated in a closed setting before or after, rather than on the meetings.
Having said that, I agree with the other points Mr Nielsen is making to some extent, but want to add that FIDE’s performance in 2019 is one of vast improvement from what we had before in my view, although I disagree with a lot of decisions.
I do not evaluate the performance of FIDE on whether or not things are ideal, but if they are improving. They are far from ideal and they are certainly improving.
2) About TRG and a tax on trainers.
I have a lot of criticism of the way TRG was run in the past and Mr Nielsen and I have some overlapping opinions. However his criticism of our work reflects that he is very happy to question people’s integrity in public, on social media and in private without actually establishing the facts. So, let me share a few of them.
Mr Nielsen has never asked me any questions about the things he mentions in the interview. I have ignored some accusations in the past. But I do want to point out that his objective clearly has never been to find out if things are as he portrays them.
TRG does not have a remit of making a profit for FIDE. Actually a lot of TRG income comes through FIDE sponsored events and thus is just moving funds from one column to another. As far as I can see TRG has never provided FIDE with a profit. Everything invoiced was marked as income in the budgets, but as anyone collecting invoices will know, this does not reflect the real World.
The fee for these four year licenses mentioned is as low as 30 euro once per four years. I don’t think it covers all of FIDE’s expenses administrating them. What I do know is that many trainers rely on the licenses for their jobs.
The reason why there is a license requirement for the Olympiad is to prevent the previous practice from many countries of having the captaincy given to officials and their wives rather than trainers. It is to protect the players. The Captain is provided with free accommodation and meals at the Olympiad. For two weeks. Potentially twice. For 30-120 euro. (Ideally I would want to have only one fee, 50 euro, again for four years. A reduction.)
In 2019 two people who wanted to be on the Lecturer list were removed, as they were not qualified and had not paid their own license fee. Otherwise there are plenty of people I do not know and some I do not especially care for, on the list. There is only two criteria. A certain level of competency and willingness to be on the list.
It is easy to defend the minimum fee. We need to ensure competency. We do not want a situation where qualified lecturers are pushed unfairly on price. In almost all cases these are people who just want to help, but have bills to pay and have to take a week off doing the seminar. Mr Nielsen seems to want a situation where anyone can give the seminar and FIDE only charges for the examination. I prefer the current situation where we approve the qualification of the lecturers. Sometimes this has happened less than a week before a seminar. There is no fee for being on the lecturer list. I would love to have more qualified people coming forward as lecturers. The idea that we are in a conflict of interest because we take steps to ensure the quality of the lecturers is peculiar.
FIDE often waive the examination fee, as well as directly or indirectly fund the seminars.
We did indeed forced all members of the Commission to put their name on the list. But only a few actually help out. And only after being continuously harassed.
The only really active members of TRG as lecturers are GM RB Ramesh, maybe the best trainer in the World, who is doing this work for far less income than he would usually expect, as well as doing a lot of free work for TRG on top, and IM Sami Khader from Jordan, who has for example given seminars to small groups of Syrian refugees in refugee camps and organised a TRG seminar in Kabul (where half the participants were women) and many others, where he was not the lecturer, but secured funding, lecturers and so on. These people have put in a lot of unpaid hours trying to improve the situation for trainers around the World and they deserve better than these insinuations.
The Secretary Peter Long has in 2019 given a number of seminars. Without additional payment over his monthly stipend. This has been highly taxing on him and I have taken steps to change his contract with FIDE to protect his health. Till the end of the year I think he will be at home for seven days only.
I want to point out that Mr Nielsen is criticising people who are mostly working for free for an organisation that is indirectly funding a substantial part of his own salary, which comes from working for this organisations Champion.
In 2019 I have worked 500+ hours unpaid for the trainer’s Commission in order to reform it and improve the education we provide. This includes giving lectures and marking exams unpaid. I always knew that I would get politically attacked at some point for my role and for this reason I decided not to complicate matters by taking the same small fees that other people are paid for their work for the Trainer’s Commission (political work is unpaid, the teaching is paid). If I had, I would have been paid 1.5 euro per hour I spent on TRG in average. In reality I am about 1000 euro in the red.
We have showed no favouritism in looking for people to work with. We have of course abused friendships by bullying people who owe us favours or like us, into doing work for us, but we have also sought the help of those who are critical of our work, who have for this reason made more money working for TRG than I, even just by giving a small lecture in our online seminars.
This impartiality will continue going forward and there will be no problem criticising us politically while helping with the work of educating trainers. We need all the help we can get! And we are very careful not to let our personal interests or conflicts affect our political work.
Mr Nielsen has in other settings used stronger words than “conflict of interest”, which I would ask him to stop doing. I think you need to be slow to question people’s integrity. Especially from a position of ignorance and lack of curiosity.
Or even better, register as a lecturer and make himself available to give seminars. We would love to have his practical support.