The true cost of volunteers

Anyone familiar with the chess world soon realises that it is governed by its own version of Godwin’s Law – any discussion about what is wrong with chess sooner or later ends with someone attributing the malaise to too little money. But I would like to suggest that the real problem is slightly different, although related. The real trouble with the chess world is that there are too many volunteers.

In most walks of life, people who do a job of work get paid for it.  Indeed, they would not do the work unless they did get paid for it, and nobody with half a brain would expect them to. But in chess, things don’t work that way. Almost everyone in the chess world expects things for nothing. Players expect to be able to join a well-run chess club without having to pay the equivalent of even a £1 per week annual subscription. They enter tournaments, expecting that the organisers will be working for no payment, and indeed, they will be outraged if they discover that the organiser has actually made a profit from the event and not reinvested it in the following year’s tournament. Only a crook would actually pay himself a fee for running a chess tournament. Another classic example of this is live online coverage of chess tournaments. Chessplayers now expect this, as of right, but woe betide any organiser, who attempts to recover the thousands of pounds this can cost, by charging a fee for access to the broadcast. A few years ago, the Staunton Memorial did so, charging the princely sum of 50p per day. The result was that the charming termites on the Egregious Chess Forum compared the tournament’s main organiser with Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot!

“Abe Lincoln once walked five miles through the snow, so he could return a library book and save three cents. That’s my kind of guy!”

Tournament organisers themselves frequently expect arbiters and other backroom staff to work for nothing, or at best, expenses only. The recent British Championships in Sheffield was a typical example. Quite apart from the hundreds of thousands of pounds in assets that the ECF has received in recent years, the event itself  attracted some 950 entries, some paying as much as £200 per time in entry fees, it received some £30k in sponsorship and donations, and it got the venue free. Yet despite this, all of the backroom staff and arbiters were expected to work for expenses only, and my spies tell me that they were accommodated in a dirt-cheap B&B, where most self-respecting people would hesitate to kennel their dog.

And it is not only arbiters who are expected to provide their services for nothing. Anyone who has ever done any significant amount of writing on chess will be familiar with the website or magazine owner, who expresses his admiration for one’s work and says how much he would love to have one’s contributions in his magazine, only then to add the traditional weasel words, “The only thing is, I don’t have a budget for this”. The best retort I ever heard to this came from my friend Yochanan Afek, the Israeli IM and endgame study composer, who instantly replied to one-such shyster, “Neither does my landlord!”

So why is the chess world like this? There is only one answer – because people put up with it. Arbiters do work for expenses only and organisers do run tournaments for no payment. And, contrary to what many may think, the effect of such good-natured volunteering is far from beneficial. By doing work for nothing, volunteers undermine the economics of chess, and give chessplayers a misleading impression of the true cost of the game.  This in turn perpetuates the penny-pinching, miserly stinginess that permeates the entire chess world. The result is chess clubs that meet in dingy back rooms and draughty church halls, with no facilities and not even basic refreshments available, just because everyone is too tight to pay a realistic subscription. And then they sit in their dingy hovels week after week, wondering why they never attract any new members, and blaming everybody but themselves. Likewise, anybody who has played an international chess event in this country in recent times will be aware that hardly any of the arbiters are under the age of 50, and most have been doing the job for years. One of their number recently admitted to me that hardly any new arbiters are coming through, and one of the reasons is the fact that they are expected to give up all their holidays and free time, to do a thankless job for no reward.

“Jack Benny really liked my book. I know, ‘cos he called me up from the library to tell me!”

The answer is clear: all those of us who have volunteered to work for nothing at chess events in the past  – and, mea culpa, the present writer is one of them – have  to start saying no, and demanding a realistic level of payment for our services. Only that way can chess start to develop a proper appreciation of commercial realities, and attract entrepreneurial people, who will feel it is worth investing in chess. At the moment, they take one look around the hapless, amateur chess world, realise that nobody is willing to pay for anything, and take their money and run.

As a wise man once said, “If you think hiring professionals is expensive, try hiring amateurs!”

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