Storm in a tee-shirt?

Last Saturday, 6th August, should have been a great day of celebration for British chess. The strongest-ever British Championship ended that day, with a play-off between our two leading players, Mickey Adams and Nigel Short, for the title (Adams won). Everybody present in Sheffield, and those (myself included) following on the internet, agreed it had been a great championship, full of fine, fighting chess. A large measure of the credit was owed to the ECF President, CJ de Mooi. In the two years since he took office, he has been tireless in his efforts to promote the game, travelling the length and breadth of the country, often at his own expense, to attend chess events, present prizes, glad-hand sponsors, etc. He has been the President we have been looking for for several decades, and the contrast with many of his recent predecessors has only strengthened the good impression he has made.

The British should have been his finest hour, because it was CJ himself who announced, 12 months earlier, that he would ensure that this year’s British would be the strongest ever. To that end, he personally underwrote the cost of getting out all the top players, and as many other GMs as possible.  It is rumoured that he ended up putting some £16k of his own money in, to ensure that this happened. Saturday’s prize-giving should have been the culmination of his efforts, and the chance for British chess to acknowledge his remarkable contribution. But then it all went horribly wrong.

 CJ de Mooi – Egghead or egg on face?

As well as ECF President, CJ is well-known as a TV celebrity on the BBC Eggsheads quiz show. He is also an active campaigner for various causes, such as homelessness and homosexuality. CJ is homosexual himself and has never made any secret of it. Fair enough. The problems started when he turned up to the last round of the British, wearing a tee-shirt issued by a homosexual campaign group called Stonewall. The tee-shirt had an aggressive, “in-your-face” slogan printed in large letters on the front. Since he was present on the day as a spectator, little notice was taken, although I do know from one of the officials present that at least one other spectator expressed some disquiet at the sight. Nonetheless, nothing was said or done, nor should it have been, in my view.

But come Saturday morning, CJ turned up to present the prizes, wearing the same tee-shirt. And this was no accident; the day before, he had boasted on his Twitter account of his intention to do so. This was his first big mistake. Personally, I don’t care what political causes a man supports, be it saving whales, banning bombs or calling for independence for the Isle of Wight – there is a time and a place for such campaigning, and the prize-giving of the national chess championships is not it. For all the game’s faults, it is hard to imagine the head of the Football Association turning up at Wembley to present the FA Cup, wearing a tee-shirt bearing an overtly political slogan (actually, it’s hard to imagine him turning up wearing a tee-shirt at all, but more of that later). By the same token, the head of the national chess federation should not try to hijack the prize-giving of the national championship, to promote a political cause, however dear to his heart it may be, and however much money he may have put into the championship itself. Olympic athletes have been banned for such things.

Hands up, who wants to go home early?”

Luckily, one of the control team had the good sense and moral courage to approach CJ, and ask him whether he really thought his dress appropriate to the occasion.  Precisely what happened then is not wholly clear, because the various statements issued by the various parties are not 100% consistent. It seems that when CJ resisted the idea that anything was wrong, it was suggested that perhaps he should present only the adult prizes, the junior ones perhaps being especially sensitive – after all, rightly or wrongly, many parents might be reluctant to see their young child’s photo appearing in the press, next to a pro-homosexual campaign slogan. Sadly, our Egghead was unreceptive to that suggestion too, and instead threw a hissy fit. That was mistake number two. He declared that it was either all the prizes, or none at all. After various consultations between officials, he ended up sulking at the back, whilst all the prizes were presented by someone else.

Thus far is bad enough. But what happened next is far worse. Witnesses at the event all testify that the argument over the prize presentation had attracted no notice at all amongst the spectators or players. That could have been the end of the matter. But unfortunately, hell hath no fury like a president scorned, and CJ is nothing if not a skilled self-publicist. Immediately the prize-giving was over, he went on Twitter, to announce to the world that he had been “banned” from presenting the prizes, and it was “disgusting”. He then spent the rest of the afternoon giving interviews to various newspapers, claiming he was the victim of homophobia, and dragging the reputation of British chess through the mud. He even attempted, via Twitter, to interest a BBC radio phone-in host in the issue. In a few hours, he more than cancelled out all the good he and his money have done British chess over the past two years. For the President of a national federation to behave in such a fashion is totally unforgiveable.

Later that evening (conveniently too late to make the following day’s papers), he issued another statement, now admitting that he had over-reacted and offering his resignation to the ECF Board. As I say, he is nothing if not a skilled self-publicist. Naturally, after his outrageous behaviour in relation to the press, the Board should have accepted his resignation with alacrity and bade him goodbye, whatever the good work he had done over the past two years. But, of course, they did no such thing, as he knew very well they would not. Instead, they closed ranks, kept their mouths shut and voted behind closed doors to decline his resignation. Game, set and match to the Egghead.

“I didn’t get where I am today by wearing tee-shirts!”

There are many morals to this story. One is that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is – a TV celebrity, even a minor one, who is willing to spend thousands of pounds of his own money on getting a few GMs  to play at the British Championship may perhaps have an ulterior motive.  Another is that if you sup with the Devil, you need a long spoon – skilled self-publicists are very handy things to have around when they are inside the tent peeing out, but can become a very dangerous enemy when they decide they would rather stand outside the tent and pee in. And thirdly, none of this shambles would have occurred, if the organisers of the British Championship had made it clear to everybody on the prize-giving presentation party, that they were expected to wear a suit and tie. In a world of crumbling values, perhaps some standards really are worth maintaining.

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