A Day in the Life (2)

This is a personal account of 14 April 2012, the day of the ECF Finance Council meeting.  The views expressed are my own.

The story so far: Weary delegates are enjoying a well-deserved tea break at the half way point in the meeting.

FINANCE COUNCIL, PART 2

4.20 p.m.  The meeting resumes with item 9, a motion proposed by Sean Hewitt to move responsibility for international rating from Home Chess to International Chess.  Despite the momentary absence of the proposer, the motion is overwhelmingly approved on a hand vote.

4.22 p.m.  Council is invited to approve the Business Plan for 2012/13.  This is approved with none against after the usual extensive discussion.

4.24 p.m.  Next item – the report of the Finance Director, including the forecast for the 2011/12 financial year just concluding.  There is a motion to insert item 21 - the consultation paper on a junior membership scheme – at this point, i.e. to discuss it before getting into the meat of the 2012/13 budget.  There is insufficient support for this request.  Slightly alarmed by the reason for opposing the suggestion given by one delegate, “If I had known that one of the consultation papers was going to be discussed as a concrete proposal, I would have read them,” but I understand what he means.  The Director of Finance’s report is duly noted.

4.44 p.m.  Finally into the meat of the Finance meeting.  Item 12 is the proposal for Membership Fees from 1 September 2012.  These are as presented to Council at the last AGM.  A proposal from the floor to increase the recommended subscription rates for Bronze, Silver and Gold by £2 is defeated on a hand vote 11-21.  A further proposal to remove the £1 discount for online payment is also defeated.

A proposal to increase the proposed 3-year rates so that they are simply three times the annual rate (i.e. no discount, but protection against price rises) was approved 22-8.

As amended by the above, the proposed membership fees were approved 28-3.

5.15 p.m.  An hour and a quarter left, and the halfway point has been reached on the agenda, numerically if not necessarily in terms of substance.  Not good.

Item 13 – the proposal to keep the minimum Membership Fee for Member Organisations at £58 – is quickly approved.  Under the new arrangements, this will apply to very few organisations anyway.

5.17 p.m.  Here’s where it became complicated.  This was the proposal for the Game Fee rates to apply from 1 September 2012.  Many different amendments were proposed from the floor.  The final outcome was as follows:

Paragraph 4.6 of the Game Fee Bye Laws were amended in October 2011 to state:
“The payment of Game Fee is hereby waived …. with effect from 1st September 2012 in respect of games played by Direct Members in competitions organised by the Federation (including the British Championships, the National Club Championships and the National Stages of the Counties Championship) and competitions registered pursuant to 4.3 hereof (i.e. competitions run by Chess Leagues Congresses and Clubs which are registered by 31st October).”
So Game Fees will only be payable in respect of games (or half games) played by non Members:
The Board proposes the following level of Game Fee for results as from 1 September 2012: the alignment of all rates for standard graded games at £2 and for rapidplay graded games at £1 is consistent with the relative voting entitlements under Article 30 that will apply from 1 September 2012.
(a) Standard graded games – £2;
(b) Rapidplay graded games – £1;
(c) Standard graded games submitted by clubs (for internal club competitions) – £2;
(d) Rapidplay graded games submitted by clubs (for internal club competitions) – £1:
Provided that:
(1) for Congresses the respective rates shall be reduced to a total fee per event of £6 per adult player and £4 per junior player irrespective of the number of games played and where a Bronze Member takes part in a Congress such fee shall be effective to upgrade his or her membership for the year in question to a Silver Membership.

Rates for junior events
(e) Standard graded games played between junior players under the age of 18 in solely junior events – 50p;
(f) Rapidplay graded games played between junior players under the age of 18 in solely junior events – 25p:
(g) Standard graded games submitted by clubs (for internal club competitions played between junior players under the age of 18 in solely junior events) – 50p:
(h) Rapidplay graded games submitted by clubs (for internal club competitions played between junior players under the age of 18 in solely junior events) – 25p:
where each graded game will comprise two results and Game Fee shall be payable for each result (all of which terms are defined in the Game Fee Bye Laws).

What’s the significance of this amended version?  The answer is not straightforward and not necessarily predictable.  This is my take on it:

(1)  Removal of complexity.  In process terms, the removal of the different rates depending on the achievement of an 85% threshold of membership makes things clearer and easier.

(2)  Addition of new complexity.  There are now different ‘pay to play’ fees (in non-junior only events) depending on whether the player is an adult or a junior.  Also, the proposed simplified game fee structure has been “de-simplified” again.

(3)  Increased risk of discouraging new/ungraded players.  With the passing of the 85% threshold also went the clause relating to such players not being counted as non-members for the purposes of the threshold if they had not played more than three games.

(4)  Increase in the cross-subsidy of junior chess activity by adult players.  The game fee rates applicable to junior events are a quarter of the rates applicable to non-junior events.  This is a bigger difference than now; currently, Game Fee for junior is half the comparable rate for non-junior events.  On the other hand, some have argued that the changes may result in the avoidance of lost income (through juniors not participating in graded competitions under the arrangements as originally proposed) or an increase in junior chess activity.  What is undoubtedly true is that the new situation requires completely new assumptions to be made.

(5)  Increased polarisation.  There is arguably a greater incentive to become an ECF member or remove oneself from the ECF framework entirely.  The universal £2 game fee rate for standard play in all non-junior events, even where a high percentage of members exists, will undoubtedly lead to strong reactions.  It’s possible that it may lead to higher membership take-up in some parts of the country, where it will be considered that the balance of the financial arguments favours membership in a larger majority of cases.  It is also possible that the universal £2 rate will lead to a fall in the number of graded games, and the assumptions about this will need to be reviewed urgently.

The amended version of the Board’s proposals, as set out above, was duly passed.  My sympathies were with Council delegates during this process; it can’t have been easy to keep track of the various amendments, and the Chairman did an excellent job of navigating everyone through the process.

5.50 p.m.  10 items left on the agenda and only 40 minutes to go.  Fatigue starting to show.   By this stage, the Director of Finance had had to leave, due to another commitment.  The impact on the 2012/13 budget of the decisions made above would clearly be significant and complex.  The ramifications could not possibly be calculated on the hoof during the meeting.  Consequently, I suggested that there was no point putting the original budget to Council for approval.  This was accepted, and the Board was asked to prepare a revised budget for consideration by later special resolution.  In the meantime, the Board was mandated to proceed on the basis of the proposed budget with regard to expenditure, pending approval of a revised budget.

Asked Council to indicate where we should look to make cuts in the expenditure budget if, as seems likely, the impact of the Game Fee decisions is a reduction in budgeted income.  The answer: the International Chess budget.

Sprint(?) for the line

6.10 p.m.  With 20 minutes left, there was no prospect for serious discussion of any of the consultation papers published before the meeting.  Can’t deny my disappointment at this.  Memory of ten 10-hour days in March battling to complete the various papers in time for the pre-Council deadline too strong to ignore.  And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Briefest of mentions of the Charitable Status paper before touching on the Codes of Conduct, which had been intended for a Council decision in the case of two out of the three draft documents.  In the light of concerns expressed by some delegates, it was decided to treat all three draft codes as documents for consultation, with nothing to be implemented at once.

6.17 p.m.  Item 22 – County Championship rules.  With delegates visibly wilting, Alex Holowczak manfully soldiered on, seeking Council views on various suggested changes to the championship rules.  He nearly made it, when his flag fell.

6.30 p.m.  It’s all over.  The BCF extraordinary general meeting never made it to the surface.  It had been planned to insert it in a break in the ECF meeting after the Financial Capital consultation paper, but that never made it either.

Aftermath

7.25 p.m.  Back at Paddington in good time for the 7.50 train to Worcester.  Problem.  Delays and cancellations showing everywhere.  Depending on which Network Rail official you believe, there had been (a) a lightning strike or (b) a cable theft between Paddington and Reading.  Result: signal problems and very few trains.

7.48 p.m.  Bad news.  Worcester train cancelled.  Next one scheduled for two hours later, but who knows?

7.55 p.m.  Announcement: Trains to Worcester are starting from Reading.  Advice is to take next available “fast” train there.  Rush for “19.06″ to Plymouth; it leaves at 20.01.

8.32 p.m.  Arrive Reading.  No trains to Worcester.  No staff nearby to ask.  Eventually find someone, who advises catching the 20.40 to Birmingham.  It is 20.40 when he says this.  It leaves dead on time.  I reach the platform at 20.41.

Advice is now to catch the 20.50 to Oxford, where a cab will be provided.  Board shows it is “on time” until 20.52, when it disappears.  Turns out, it never left Paddington.  Sinking feeling grows.  Only compensation is presence of two charming ladies who are also trying to reach Worcester.  Best company I’ve had all day.

Told to wait on same platform for 21.11 to Oxford.  At 21.07, told that there is an Oxford train on different platform going right now.  Sprint for it and get on.  Having made it on time, am unsurprised when it departs late.

9.52 p.m.  Arrive Oxford.  No trains to Worcester, of course.  Taxi arranged by Network Rail for myself, the two ladies and one slightly strange man, who mumbles to himself as we go along.  “Buckle up,” says taxi driver, “it’s a twisty road.”  He’s not kidding.  I’ve driven it many times myself, if not quite that fast.

11.10 p.m.  Arrive Worcester Shrub Hill station.  Mumbling man worried about cost of taxi home; turns out he leaves couple of miles from me.  Give him a lift.

11.37 p.m.  Manage to arrive home on the same day I set off.  By this stage, feels like a result.

Aftermath to the aftermath

Sunday morning.  As expected, lot of activity on the English Chess Forum during and after Council meeting.  Comment needed on some of it.  Feeling very tired and a little grouchy, which probably shows.  On the Forum off and on throughout the day.

Worried about implications for workload of Council decisions.  Cancel participation at next weekend’s Bournemouth congress to free up some time and energy reserves.  Not happy about it, but feels necessary.  Tomorrow the real work begins again.

A Day in the Life (1)

This is a personal account of 14 April 2012, the day of the ECF Finance Council meeting.  The views expressed are my own.

And so it begins…

5.45 a.m.  Awake to a loud buzzing.  Infernal alarm clock.

6.10 a.m.  Check e-mails.  Just for once, nothing of note received overnight.

6.30 a.m.  On the road to Worcester Shrub Hill station.

6.45 a.m.  COFFEE #1.  First signs of life in me, if not anywhere else.  Continue meeting preparations.

7.08 a.m.  London train departs, on time.  Amazingly, hardly anyone else seems to be up and about on this crisp Saturday morning.  What can they be thinking?

Continue re-reading the Board and Council papers.  There are an awful lot of them this time.  Who writes these things?  Oh, right… that would mostly be me.

9.26 a.m.  Arrive in Paddington three minutes early.  In the light of later events, fail to appreciate the wonder of this.

9.45 a.m.  Emerge from Baker Street tube station to the sight of a large crowd of drinkers outside a pub wearing mostly red, a few blue scarves.  Must be a football match going on.  News to me.

9.48 a.m.   COFFEE #2.

10.00 a.m.  Buy expanded third edition of Anand’s games collection at the Chess Shop.  Having bought the previous two editions, feel mildly resentful.  The additional contents amount to 200 pages out of 540.  Have the words “Volume 2″ disappeared from the language?

10.12 a.m.  Walk to Euston.  Could be the last taste of fresh(ish) air for quite some time.

10.30 a.m.  Arrive at Euston Square Hotel.  Most of the Board already there.  COFFEE #3.

Board meeting

11.00 a.m.  The usual pre-Council Board meeting.  Most substantial business is discussion of the tenders for the online membership management solution and website redesign.  Board opts overwhelmingly to proceed with Cvent proposal.  Discussion of whether to amend budget proposals to include work on general website redesign and, if so, what amount.  It’s agreed that Director of Marketing will raise the subject at Council during the discussion of the budget, making the case for modest expenditure, to assess Council’s appetite.

12.50 p.m.  ECF Board meeting closes.  Brief meeting of BCF management committee begins.

1.05 p.m.  Lunch break.  Council delegates start to arrive in the meeting room.

FINANCE COUNCIL MEETING

1.30 p.m.  Start on time.  It’s a formidable, 24-item agenda, with a maximum available time of 5 hours (less a short tea break), i.e. about 12 minutes per item on average.  Piece of cake…

1.34 p.m.  Items 1-3 completed and Minutes approved.

1.35 p.m.  Matters arising from the Minutes not otherwise on the agenda.  Alex McFarlane, representing the Scarborough congress, read out a statement asserting that the President’s Report approved at the previous Council meeting should be considered inaccurate in the light of subsequent information.  Discussed for 25 minutes without clear conclusion.

2.02 p.m.  Chief Executive’s Report.  Updated Council on the Board’s decision regarding the online membership solution.  This prompts 8 detailed questions from one person alone.  Council not being asked to approve Board decision, but discussion continues regardless.

2.25 p.m.  Still on my report.  It mentions the CAS lawsuit against FIDE.  Despite my pointing out that this is the following agenda item, discussed for 10 minutes, mainly regarding the non-reporting of the case to Council at the 2011 meetings.

2.35 p.m.  Back to the events following the 2011 British Championships and, in particular, matters relating to a teleconference of the Board directors, referred to erroneously by me at the time as a Board meeting but technically not one.  This leads to mild hilarity when Mike Gunn refers to his having been overseas and therefore “not present at the non-meeting”.

2.52 p.m.  A few delegates are starting to grow concerned at the slow progress and press the Chairman to move to next business.  The Chief Exec’s Report is approved, with – if memory serves – one vote against.

2.56 p.m.  Update on lawsuit.  Delegate comments are overwhelmingly disapproving of the Board’s judgement in deciding to initiate the action and of its failure to brief Council on it.  It is decided that the most appropriate way to express approval or disapproval is to vote on acceptance or rejection of the FIDE Delegate’s report.  On a hand vote, the score was 17-15 in favour of approval, but the closeness indicated the need for a card vote.  This saw the report rejected, 73 to 103.

3.13 p.m.  The first piece of finance business: item 7 (Report on ECF accounts for the year ended 30 April 2011).  We’ve averaged 22 minutes per agenda item thus far, but this is a quickie.  Approved with none against after four minutes.

3.17 p.m.  Introduce the report of the Chairman of the Finance Committee, who is unavoidably absent.  Discussion of the first half, concerning the annual accounts, takes just over five minutes.  Questions stray onto the second half, which concerns the accounts of the 2011 British Championships.  John Philpott explains to Council the work that he completed on these and talked through the figures.  Council is satisfied with the corrected accounts as presented but concerns are expressed over lapses in the processing and approval of transactions, which are breaches of the ECF’s Financial Bye Laws.

Connecting this to earlier discussions, a motion is proposed which, after debate, is modified to the following:

Council considers that the conduct of the President brings his performance in the role into question and calls for a full review of his activities.

After a close hand vote, the resulting card vote saw the motion defeated 84 – 93.

4.05 p.m.  Just past halfway in terms of time; a third of the way down the agenda, with the most substantive topics still to come.  With some relief, delegates welcome the Chairman’s  announcement of a ten-minute tea break.

 

 

Finance Council meeting

The ECF Finance Council meeting will take place this Saturday, 14 April in London.  The number of items on the agenda stands at an eye-watering 24, so it may prove to be a stern test of the excellent stewardship of the Chairman to complete everything without unduly curtailing discussion.  I have a feeling that delegates will have reason to thank the author of the ECF’s Bye Laws and Regulations, who set a cut-off time for general meetings of 6.30 p.m.

The principal business of Finance Council is the approval of a budget and the setting of membership subscription and game fee rates for the coming year.  The Board is proposing the rates set out at the AGM last October, but of course Council may wish to change these.  Once the rates are decided, proper communication of the new membership scheme and game fee arrangements agreed at the AGM can begin.

A chance to have your say

Included on the agenda are several consultation papers on:

  • Charitable status
  • Governance
  • Financial capital
  • Changing the ECF’s financial year
  • Codes of Conduct
  • Junior membership scheme

These papers are all available on the ECF website, and after the Council meeting I shall make sure that they are clearly signposted on the Home page for ease of access.

One of the points which has struck me during my time with the ECF has been the sense of detachment so many people seem to have when it comes to the decisions and actions of the Federation.  It seems to be an “us” and “them” culture, with the thousands of ordinary chess players on the one side and the ECF on the other.  If I had to categorise the various associations and organisations which make up the ECF, I would venture to say that they too see the ECF as “them”, not “us”.

I don’t really get this.  The ECF exists by consent.  It does what it does by consent.  If its priorities are wrong or if it’s doing things that the majority don’t want it to do, the power to stop or change this rests with its members.  In practice, its “members” include the county associations, leagues, congresses and other organisations which between them cover pretty well every chess player in the country.   Nevertheless, many players seem to feel disenfranchised and without a voice.

In practice, most of us just want to play chess and don’t much care what the national federation does.  I understand this, and it’s a perfectly reasonable attitude to take.  I became involved in the ECF because I believed that what a national federation does IS important, even from the perspective of someone who simply enjoys playing the game.

A large part of my enjoyment comes from competing in congresses, leagues and club events.  These are not self-sustaining.  Without an influx of young players, the inspiration of elite success, a positive image and an infrastructure of events for players at every level to enjoy, numbers will fall, events and clubs will disappear and the game will virtually vanish into the shadows of an online-only existence.

I have faith in the power of chess to survive as a game, and perhaps my fears of a transition to a screen-based activity are misplaced, but I strongly believe that the loss of face-to-face human contact over a chessboard would greatly diminish the pleasures of our game.

But I digress.   In my opinion, an effective national federation is essential to achieve what is needed for competitive chess to survive, let alone prosper, in the long term.  For me, this is a given; others may disagree, and if this is the majority view, the ECF should change (or cease) accordingly.

Important changes

The changes under consideration in the various consultation papers are important.  For the most part, they offer the prospect of significant change:

Pursuing charitable status would alter the nature of the federation, creating separate bodies for elite and amateur chess.  It has the potential to affect the culture and priorities of the ECF fundamentally.  Becoming a charity may seem a superficial change, but in my experience it is transformative and invigorating.

Governance cuts to the heart of how the organisation operates and deals with questions of representation, culture and moral authority.   It’s about what say each of us has in what the ECF does and how it does it.  It’s about what it means to be a national federation.   Less grandly, it’s about how the organisation is run, the appropriate empowerment of those involved and the way their actions are overseen.

Codes of conduct define standards.  During my time as Chief Executive, there have been a few occasions when the ECF has been asked – no, expected – to intervene over incidents at chess events.  To the surprise of many, its power to do so is limited in the extreme.  There is no nationally accepted code of conduct for chess events, although the FIDE Code of Ethics does apply to the minority of events which are FIDE rated.  The consultation paper asks the question: should the national body play a more formal role?  It also addresses the question of internal codes of conducts and complaint procedures, a longstanding gap.

Financial capital may sound like the driest of dry subjects, but at its heart lies the question of how to approach the development of English chess.  Whether to save or spend money is a decision we all face from time to time.  Is it best to keep funds tucked away or to develop a programme of targeted investment in constructive new initiatives?

The notion of a Junior membership scheme tries to address the question of how to maximise participation in chess at a young age. Finding the right balance isn’t easy.  Divert too much of the ECF’s money into junior activities and adult players understandably question the fairness in their having to subsidise this one part of the population.  On the other hand, if we cannot attract, retain and develop sufficient young players, chess in this country will wither away.  The consultation paper is likely to generate strong views.

It’s a lot to ask that people take the time and trouble to read these consultation papers, but I hope that many will and that they will make their views known.  Whether from individuals or organisations, all responses will be listened to.

The questions posed are not easy, and it is important that the resulting decisions are right and reflect what the chess players of England want.  The way to make this happen is to make sure that we know what that is.  It’s in your hands.

Annual General Meeting

As soon as humanly possible, I’ll be producing the official minutes of the ECF’s Annual General Meeting, held at the Euston Square Hotel, London on Saturday, 15 October.  In the meantime, what follows is a summary of the main decisions taken.

Extended sentence

To begin on a personal note, I was re-elected as Chief Executive with no votes against.  This means that ChEx readers will have to put up with another twelve months of my ramblings.  (Sorry about that.)  Although there was no candidate opposing me, I did not take my re-election for granted, and I am grateful for the support shown.  I’m sure that I made mistakes during my first year, and doubtless there will be things I get wrong in the months ahead as well.  I do promise, however, that I shall give of my best and follow my conscience and my judgement in trying to do what’s right for the ECF and English chess.

Achievement Report and Long Term Strategic Plan

Both papers were approved nem con [none against] and without any questions posed or comments made.  As the author of the papers, I confess that I was ambivalent about this.  I may be in a tiny minority in believing this, but I genuinely do think that these documents are an important part of the ECF’s health as an organisation.

It’s a common enough reaction among chess players to question the value of the ECF and to ask what it actually does, so the Achievement Report has to be tested against whatever benchmarks members wish to apply to see if the reported actions are adequate.  Similarly, when a planned action was not completed, is the explanation satisfactory?

With regard to the Strategic Plan, I acknowledged during the meeting that this was something of a holding document, as the ECF makes a transition from its current form to something (or rather, two somethings) different.  I did try to set out some indication of how a split into a charity and a non-charitable body would affect the goals and nature of the organisations, and this is something on which members need to be reflecting.

The “glass half empty” part of my nature causes me to worry about the absence of challenge.  Members’ time is limited, of course, and I’m sure that the issues relating to funding had a greater immediacy and prominence in the minds of many, but we do need to be looking further ahead as well.

I should very much welcome feedback on either document if readers want to contact me in the usual way.

Directors’ reports

All of the directors’ reports were received and approved.

The Director of Finance’s report led to lengthy discussion of the draft ECF annual statement of accounts, which showed a deficit for 2010-11 of £5.6k.  This was a disappointing outcome, to put it mildly, given the expectations of a significant surplus during the bulk of the year.  An unexpectedly heavy workload in the Director of Finance’s day job meant that there had been very little time to delve into the reasons for the deficit or to finalise the accounts.  Unfortunately, this left the Board and Council without definitive answers to their questions, and approval of the accounts had to be postponed.  It will take place as soon as practicable by mail and e-mail.

One sentence in the Director of Marketing’s report proved controversial.  Referring to the incident prior to the British Championships prizegiving, Stewart Reuben stated, “Had the Marketing Director been consulted initially there would have been no problem.”  Many felt that this assertion was questionable, and a statement to this effect from Alex McFarlane was read by the Chairman.  Council members reiterated their support for British Championship  organisers, and I took the opportunity to repeat the Board’s view that the regrettable accusations made by some following the incident were entirely without foundation.  A proposal to note (rather than approve) the Director of Marketing’s report was overwhelmingly defeated; Council members appeared to accept that the statement was the expression of an opinion which, whilst they might not agree with it, was within the director’s right to express.  The report was approved on a show of hands, with 3 votes against.

Directors and Officers Responsibilities

A number of changes were approved, removing outdated references (to a Manager of Chess for Schools and to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and bringing responsibility for the Voting Register Officer under the Non-Executive Chairman, a more natural home.

The age limit for the players covered by the Director of Junior Chess & Education was lowered from 21 to 18.  This brought the regulations into line with existing practice, whereby the Director of International Chess has dealt with the World Junior Championships (for U21s) rather than the Director of Junior Chess.

Elections and Appointments

Every year at the AGM, the members of the Board are elected, along with the FIDE Delegate and the Chairmen and members of the Finance and Governance Committees.

The results of the Board elections were as follows:

  • President – CJ de Mooi was re-elected on a hand vote, with 1 vote against;
  • Chief Executive – Andrew Farthing was re-elected on a hand vote, nem con;
  • Non-Executive Chairman – Mike Gunn was re-elected on a hand vote, nem con;
  • Director of Finance – Gareth Caller was re-elected on a hand vote,  nem con;
  • Non-Executive Directors – John Wickham and Jack Rudd were re-elected on a hand vote, nem con;
  • Director of Home Chess – Adam Raoof was re-elected on a hand vote, with 1 vote against;
  • Director of Junior Chess & Education – Phil Ehr was elected in a poll, defeating Sabrina Chevannes by 107 votes to 91 (with 4 votes for “Neither of the above”, 1 spoiled ballot paper and 3 abstentions);
  • Director of International Chess – Lawrence Cooper was re-elected on a hand vote, nem con;
  • Director of Marketing – Tim Woolgar was elected in a poll, receiving 95 votes in favour against 89 votes for “Not this candidate” (6 abstentions).

Nigel Short was re-elected as the ECF’s FIDE Delegate on a hand vote nem con.

John Philpott was re-elected as Chairman of the Governance Committee on a hand vote nem con.  Richard Haddrell and Andrew Leadbetter were likewise re-elected to the committee (with 1 vote against in the case of the latter).

There was no candidate nominated in time for Chairman of the Finance Committee.  However, Mike Truran has offered his services, and the Board expressed its intention to appoint him and sought Council’s views.  None of the members present objected.  Ray Clark, John Philpott and Ian Reynolds were all elected to the Finance Committee on a hand vote, nem con.

Goatcher Chandler was reappointed as Auditor.

The Future Funding of the ECF

It will be recalled that the Finance Council in April 2011 voted in favour of moving to a membership scheme as its future funding model.  Following a period of consultation, the AGM was presented with a paper setting out the final version of the membership proposals and a set of detailed changes to the Articles and Byelaws for approval.

Following considerable discussion, the results of the polls were as follows:

  • The amendments to Articles 1.1 and 5.14, removing the need for individual Direct Members to sign the £1 guarantee, were approved by 184 votes to 22, a majority of 89%;
  • The amendment to Article 30(1), concerning the allocation of voting rights based on actual or deemed Game Fee, was approved by 156 votes to 23, a majority of 87%;
  • The changes to Byelaw No.1 (Direct Members) were passed by 137 votes to 57, a majority of 71%;
  • The changes to Byelaw No. 2 (Game Fee) were passed by 134 votes to 61, a majority of 69%.

An amendment to Byelaw No.2, seeking to exempt members of national federations other than the ECF from payment of the “Pay to Play” fee for congresses was defeated in a hand vote 19-8.

It should be stressed that Council did NOT set the membership or game fee rates at this time.  The ECF’s rules require that this is done by the Finance Council (i.e. in April 2012).  The meeting was asked to note a paper setting out the rates which the Board proposes to present to Finance Council next April, which it did on a hand vote, with 2 votes against in the room and 10 directed proxies against.

County Championship rules

An amendment granting the Director of Home Chess discretion to nominate a central venue for the Final of each Championship, subject to Board agreement.  This amendment, from the SCCU, was intended to give flexibility to the Director of Home Chess, so that, if the finalists are from the same geographical region, it would not be mandatory to insist that both travel to a central venue when a more local solution might be preferable.

Comments

For most people, the decision over the funding proposals will be the dominant feature of this year’s AGM.  Some members expressed deep reservations and questioned whether they would continue within the ECF if the changes were implemented.  Others were clearly anxious about specific aspects.

I am extremely conscious of these concerns.  I recognise the scale of the challenge in the months ahead, not least to communicate effectively with players and organisations across the country to explain what is happening and to try to persuade as many people as possible of the benefits and value of supporting the national federation.

There are anxieties about the implementation of this project, particularly the IT solution for online membership.  I understand these concerns and the reasons for them.  I shall be committing as much time as possible to ensuring that the project is carried out in as professional a manner as possible.  For many, this statement may be a cause for scepticism, and I understand this.  However, I have experience of implementing projects on a much larger scale and of greater complexity in the past, and I am optimistic that this can be done in a satisfactory way.

I shall report progress over the coming months.  For now, I would ask for patience.  I know that people have many questions about the practical details of the scheme but would respectfully ask that the Federation be given some space to work at this time.

Bookends

“Old friends / Sat on their park bench / Like bookends”  (Paul Simon)

This rather touching, if melancholy Simon and Garfunkel song about old friends and ageing was resonating in my mind as I was driving back home to Worcester on Saturday evening.  Paradoxically perhaps, I had spent the day watching a collection of worryingly good juniors playing in the Witney Rapidplay, which I was attending in order to present the prizes, along with the ECF Website of the Year Award for the splendid Witney Chess Club site.

The event itself had been a genuine pleasure to watch.  It was run by a friendly and capable team of local players, led by Alan Kennedy, whose relaxed warmth and wit in introducing the event set the tone for what followed and made sure that the players and their parents had a stress-free, enjoyable day. I’m grateful to Mike Truran for the invitation and for his kind hospitality, despite his not having the decency to let me win our blitz game.  (Alan beat me 2-1 as well – really, is this any way to treat an honoured guest?)

Days like this help to recharge the batteries of this occasionally weary soul, preventing me from drowning in the murky waters of the ECF’s funding debate and other important but not always uplifting matters.  They’re a reminder of what a joy the game of chess is and of the decency of the vast majority of people involved with it.  There have been days over the last couple of months when my work for the Federation has left me feeling anything but joyful, so the reminder was both timely and very welcome.

Everyone I spoke with was unfailingly friendly, and the conversations touched on everything from junior development programmes (Witney Chess Club’s is self-evidently a tremendous success, built upon a determined effort to reach out to local schools and provide a supportive and encouraging environment) to daytime chess clubs for older people and the age-old question, “How do we attract and retain more female players?” (to which I wish I had a good answer).

One doesn’t expect to solve the problems of English chess through chats like these, but it all helps.  I did learn a useful tip for those looking for a best-selling snack treat: chocolate frogs.  Helen Hackett, of Hackett’s To Go, who was providing the abundant catering for the event, could hardly restock the supply fast enough.  Junior event organisers, take note!

The day before, I had accompanied a small delegation from the Worcestershire Chess Association to the home of the remarkable Bert Foord, where we were to present an engraved glass gift as a token of the association’s appreciation for Bert’s astonishing twenty-five years as WCA Treasurer, a post he had relinquished a few months previously.  What I hadn’t realised until then was that Bert’s quarter century of voluntary service on behalf of the WCA had not even begun until AFTER Bert had retired from full-time work.  Now in his nineties, he still enjoys regular tussles with his chess computer, his pleasure in the game undiminished after more than seventy years.

Bookends.  It was the juxtaposition of these two events – both unalloyed pleasures from my point of view – which caused my mind to wander to the Simon and Garfunkel song.  Part of it was a reflection on ageing – my work with Age UK tends to lead me to think about this and, let’s face it, I can lean towards the melancholy – but most of all it was the combination of the young children and the nonagenarian, bookends united in their love of the same absorbing, inspiring, maddening game.

It’s tempting to focus on the development of younger players, and of course this is vitally important for the health of the game.  We should never forget, however, that one of the marvels of chess is that it both spans and unites the generations as few other activities can.  I want very much for the ECF to grow junior chess, but this has to be in parallel with work to promote opportunities for older players as well (everything in-between).

Bookends come in pairs.  If you let one go, the books fall off.

 

61 Years and Counting

Last week witnessed the 61st Paignton Chess Congress, possibly my favourite event on the English congress circuit.

For each of its 61 years, the congress has taken place in the same venue, the grandiose Oldway Mansion.  This was formerly the home of Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875) of sewing machine fame and was sold to Paignton Council in 1946 after being requisitioned by the RAF for the duration of the Second World War.

The mansion is undeniably impressive, as shown by the seemingly endless procession of wedding parties choosing to use the building as the backdrop for their special day.  One of the incidental pleasures of playing at Paignton is to imagine the efforts that the wedding photographers must have to make to avoid cluttering the background of their shots with a gaggle of chessplayers.

I can remember once talking to someone at Paignton who told me that it was the first chess congress he had ever attended and how blown away he was by the surroundings.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he should not expect venues like this at the next event he tried.

Paignton inspires astonishing loyalty among its participants.  2011 was my fifth appearance, an unbroken sequence since returning to the game just under six years ago.  Five consecutive years doesn’t come close to being a record; there are people still coming to Paignton who first took part decades ago, and one of the delights of the event is the sense that each year is a reunion of old friends.

Apart from the setting and the enjoyment of seeing so many familiar faces, what makes Paignton such a pleasurable experience?

  • Time to think – With the exception of the 5-round Boniface Morning tournament, the games are played at the leisurely pace of 40 moves in 2 hours, with another hour to reach move 60, only then followed by 30-minute “quickplay finish”.  By comparison, most congresses are frenetically fast.  Of course, outside the Premier, most of us are so used to moving at a faster pace that the games are generally all over within about four hours, but it’s nice to know that there is more time, just in case.  In five years, I’ve never lost a game at Paignton (although I’ve drawn far too many), allowing me to fool myself that the only reason I ever lose elsewhere is the lack of time for my immense chess genius properly to emerge.
  • Time to relax – I do like to be beside the seaside, and the schedule at Paignton allows for a week-long holiday with just one game a day.  Most people choose to play in the afternoon event, starting at 2 p.m., which allows the entire morning for walking, excursions, shopping, and the like.  The combination of chess with large doses of fresh air and exercise always acts on me like a tonic, and I know I’m not the only one.  Those allergic to fresh air and exercise – or just desperate for as much chess as humanly possible – can opt to play in the morning tournament (9.30 – 13.00) as well as the afternoon event.
  • No child geniuses - Paignton is always held in the first full week after the August Bank Holiday, which means that the schools are back.  As a result, the congress tends to consist only of those of us whose chess has, shall we say, settled on its mature level.  I have nothing against juniors, I hasten to add, but it is nice just once a year to have a week’s chess minus the humiliation of some bored-looking child rattling off a series of depressingly strong moves without apparently needing to think at all.  For seven days, the rest of us can kid ourselves that our future is somewhere other than twenty years behind us.
  • Friendly organisers – Alan Crickmore and the excellent team of arbiters play their part in establishing Paignton’s welcoming atmosphere.  I remember how Alan came up to shake my hand in the Oldway cafe on my first visit to the congress, for no other reason than that he liked to make a point of saying hello to every new participant.  It’s touches like that which bring punters back year after year.

Last year was the event’s 60th anniversary, and each participant was rewarded with a copy of a fascinating book, 60 Years in the Same Room – A History of the Paignton Chess Congress, by Bob Jones (still available for purchase from Keverel Chess Books).  Alongside the records showing the quite ridiculous number of times that Keith Arkell has won the Premier (15 up to 2009 – the period covered by the book – and he’s added a couple more to the tally since then), chess minnows like myself can see our names recorded in the roll of honour (3rd= in the Intermediate 2009, not to forget a share of the U116 Grading Prize in 2007, I’ll have you know).  One of the joys of Paignton is that it makes you feel a part of chess history.

If you have never played at Paignton, I warmly recommend it.  Don’t wait too long – the Council has sold the site to private developers, and its future is none too clear.  For now, the organisers have indicated that 2012 and 2013 are confirmed – good news indeed! – but beyond that, no one knows.

Back in the saddle again

I know – it’s been a long, long time since my last blog entry.

Sad to say, I can’t claim that this was because I’ve been away sunning myself on a tropical island or trekking in Nepal.  The truth is much more prosaic (and kind of depressing when I think of it), namely that I’ve been busy all summer working on ECF business and the blog took a back seat.

If it helps, I have been feeling guilty about not posting, and the gentle reminders from friends desperate for my latest ramblings made sure that the guilt was never allowed to fade for too long.  Thanks, chaps!

Previously on “ChEx”…

When I last posted, I was encouraging feedback on the funding proposals and anything else about the ECF that people wanted to discuss.  Since then, my consultation paper was published and I received dozens of responses (probably over a hundred in all), as well as the usual lively exchanges on the English Chess Forum.  I’m grateful to everyone who took the trouble to comment.  All of the responses were helpful, even if, inevitably, it wasn’t possible to incorporate every suggestion into the final proposals (published a few weeks ago).

My previous post included a list of the chess congresses in which I’d be playing, in case anyone wanted to collar me for a chat.  The last in the list was the Cheltenham congress on the Whitsun Bank Holiday.  Amazingly (for me), this was to be my last event for over three months, a drought broken only by the wonderful Paignton congress on 4-10 September.

Coming attractions

Now that I’m playing again, I’m due to play in several congresses over the next couple of months, so if you’re going to be at any of the following and want to make contact, please do so:

Fareham, 24-25 September - a new event from Norman Went’s Spectrum Chess

Dudley, 1-2 October – another new event in the calendar, this time from Tony Corfe’s Castle Chess

Scarborough, 21-23 October – one of the biggest and best congresses in England, set in a terrific venue with views onto the North Sea

Bury St Edmunds, 29-30 October – a well-established congress but a new one for me.  I’ve been invited to present the prizes at the end, a clear sign that the organisers have already heard my reputation and twigged that I won’t be one of the recipients.

Hampshire, 4-6 November – the Hampshire Championship, held in a school in Eastleigh and open to all

Torquay, 18-20 November – another trip to the English Riviera.  Here’s hoping for an Indian summer…

If this seems like a lot of chess, it is!  The way I see it, I’ll have a relative lull in my ECF work once the papers have been published for the AGM, and it will take a little time after that for everything to accelerate to its usual madness.  Who knows how much chess I’ll have time for in 2012, so why not seize the day?

Have your say

The recent debates about funding, charitable status, cheating and other topics may have left you itching to have your say on what the ECF is up to at the moment.

It genuinely does help me to hear the views of the chessplayers the ECF serves, so if you have any comments or questions, please do get in touch.  My e-mail address is chief.executive@englishchess.org.uk.

As an alternative, I’m pleased to report that I’m being allowed out in public again to see if I can still remember how to move the pieces.  You’ll be able to find me at the following events:

  • Exmouth (22-25 April)
  • 4NCL (30 April or 1 May) – not playing, but I’ll be visiting on one of the days
  • Worcestershire Megafinal, UK Land Chess Challenge (8 May)
  • Rhyl (13-15 May)
  • Cheltenham (28-30 May)

Feedback is always welcome, or just come and say hello.  It can be a lonely journey down towards bottom board, so I’m always happy to chat!

Finance Council report

While I’m working on the detailed Minutes of last Saturday’s Finance Council meeting, I thought that a summary of the decisions made might be worthwhile.

International Chess budget

More than 90% of this budget relates to a single item – the cost of sending a team to the European Team Championships.  Of the £18,500 allocated to this, a large proportion relates to expenses (event fees, accommodation and travel costs).  The budget did allow for payment of fees to the players, although the amount budgeted would not have allowed for the strongest possible team.  The Director of International Chess had intended to seek external support to make up the difference and allow the strongest team to go, otherwise the best team affordable within the budget would have been sent.

Council voted to make the full European Team Championships budget conditional upon additional financial support being found which would enable the strongest available team to be sent.  If the additional funding could not be found, the ECF’s spending should be restricted to the amount required to cover expenses only.  In this case, a “development” team would be sent, which would not require players’ fees.

2011-12 Funding from Game Fee and Membership

The Board’s proposal to Council was to leave Game Fee and Membership subscriptions unchanged for the coming year, with substantial increases the following year in accordance with the Funding Paper.  The budget deficit in 2011-12 would have been funded by a transfer of £15,000 from the Permanent Investment Fund (PIF).  Council’s preference was to fund part of the deficit from increased player/member contributions as follows:

  • Game Fee is to rise from 54p to 58p for Standard Play League and Congress results (with proportionate increases in the other event categories);
  • Basic and Basic Junior memberships will increase by £1 to £13 and £8.50 respectively;
  • All other Direct membership subscriptions (Full, Standard, Junior, etc.) will increase by £2;
  • The membership fee for organisations (leagues, etc.) will increase from £54 to £58.

The effect of these changes will be to reduce the budget deficit for 2011-12.  As a result, Council voted to limit the amount to be requested from the PIF to “up to £10,000″.

Future Funding

As expected, there was a lengthy discussion of the options set out in my paper on the future funding of the ECF.  The resulting card vote was as follows:

  • Option 1 (Membership scheme) – 91 votes
  • Option 2 (Membership/Game Fee combination) – 71 votes
  • Neither of the above – 7 votes

Following this vote, one of my principal tasks over the coming weeks and months will be to draw up detailed implementation proposals for Option 1, along with the necessary amendments to the ECF’s Articles.  The latter will need to be voted on at the AGM in October, with a 75% majority required in order to be passed. 

Clearly, in view of the closeness of the vote on Saturday, a 75% majority cannot be assumed, and part of my brief is clearly to design the detailed proposals in such a way as to address as many of the concerns and objections of those who preferred Option 2 as possible.  The debate at Council was very helpful in setting out a number of these.

It would be fair to describe the decision on Saturday as the start of a journey rather than its end.  There is still lots to do!

Charitable Status

During the debate on future funding, I briefed Council on proposals to pursue the establishment of a charitable body to undertake the bulk of the ECF’s current activities.  Not everything that the ECF does fits within the definition of “charitable aims” (basically, anything to do with professional chess is out), so a non-charitable organisation would also be required.  Nevertheless, if a charity can be established for most of the ECF’s work, this should open the possibility of membership subscriptions and other donations being eligible for Gift Aid.  The effect of this would be to reduce the amount that members would have to pay in order to achieve the same total level of funding for the charity.

Again, there is plenty of work to do on this before we’ll know what is possible and whether the Charity Commission will accept the new charitable organisation (which the ECF Council will need to approve, of course), but I am optimistic.

Multiple directorships held by one individual

Lawrence Cooper’s proposal to allow a single individual to stand for and hold two directorships on the ECF Board (currently the maximum is one) was overwhelmingly defeated.

Amendments to rules for the County Championship draw

A couple of minor amendments were passed allowing a little more flexibility in the draw for this event.  Currently, it has to be done by the end of January, which can cause practical problems if the weather is uncooperative and may require a journey specifically for this purpose.  Giving room for the draw to happen as late as February may mean a cost saving, because those concerned may be meeting anyway at other events during that period.

So much to do, so little time…

The Finance Council meeting is just six days away as I write, and it feels like the right moment to draw breath and take stock.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the ECF is concentrating exclusively on its future funding options right now, but – believe it or not – there are other things going on!  Here are a few of the items from my “To Do” list:

Disciplinary Code / Code of Ethics - The recent case of a junior player at a weekend congress caught using computer assistance, along with the well-publicised events surrounding some members of the French team at the 2010 Olympiad, has highlighted the need for clarity over the ECF’s powers and the sanctions applicable for cheating and other offences.  The plan is to draft a Code of Ethics for presentation to the AGM in October.

Charitable Status - I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but it’s going to be a major task, affecting the organisation of the ECF and, inevitably, the way that it’s funded.  The intention is to identify all of the ECF’s activities which would fit the definition of “charitable” and create an organisation which would be devoted to these.  The remainder – at first glance, likely to be International Chess and the British Championships – will be undertaken by a non-charitable organisation, such as the ECF is now.  Both organisations will need adequate governance and funding arrangements.

VAT review - Independently of the charitable status issue, it has been suggested that the ECF would benefit from an expert review of its VAT situation.  There is a potential candidate to undertake such a review, and I hope to be kicking this off shortly.

IT systems review - Now that we have a new Manager of ICT in place, the time is right for a review of our somewhat basic and dated systems with a view to introducing greater automation if we can, particularly in the area of membership administration.

Game Fee administration - The procedures now in place for calculating the amount of game fee due from congresses are looking promising.  My next target is to look more closely at the procedures in respect of leagues.  Currently, I’m not satisfied that the checks within the ECF of the amounts due and the amounts paid are robust enough.

Proposals for long-term development of English chess - This is an item from the 2011-12 Business Plan.  It’s all too easy to become lost in the challenges of the moment, such as funding, and forget the goal of the ECF to develop chess in this country.  I haven’t given this enough attention to date, and I want this to change.  Obvious places to start: Women’s chess and Junior Chess & Coaching.

Improving the “shop window” – The website and, to a lesser extent, the Chess Moves newsletter, are vital demonstrations of what the ECF can offer by way of valuable and interesting information.  I have a number of ideas for enhancing these, which I hope to implement in the coming months.

New funding arrangements - There’s no denying that implementing whatever Council agrees in April is not going to be a trivial task.  It will require work on a number of fronts if the changes are to be introduced smoothly and successfully.  Even Option 2 is not simply routine: people will need to be persuaded of the benefit of continuing to support the ECF at the new, higher price.  Splits in the Federation cannot be afforded.

*

There are moments when I wonder just how much time all of this is going to take and shudder…  This is probably true of all jobs, although self-motivation can be trickier when the job in question is voluntary, I suspect.  For my part, I tend to keep myself going by indulging in a non-critical, but “fun” activity, like my articles for Chess Moves.  I have plans for a special ChEx Bookshelf article on one of my chess heroes, Viktor Korchnoi, in the May/June issue, and writing that will be sheer pleasure.

Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to do.  This leads me to a simple plea:

HELP WANTED!

I’m six months into my stint as Chief Executive and I am no closer to finding an Alternate or a Strategic Planning Officer.  In both cases (or they might be the same person), I would want to work with the individual to deliver the programme of tasks set out above.  I’d like to think that this would be an attractive and interesting challenge for the right person or persons; it would certainly make the likelihood of delivering everything and doing it well greater if I could fill the positions.

If there is someone out there who has read this post and is intrigued and/or excited (as opposed to bored and/or horrified!) and would be interested in helping, please do get in touch.