Interview with ICCF President Eric Ruch

(español)

ICCF President Eric Ruch (FRA) has gratiously agreed to an interview, the format is a bit different. It is sort of “live” because we post his answers as he provides them to us and resend questions to him in order to make this a cordial conversation, as if we were sitting in front of each other perhaps after a blitz chess game or a bottle of beer. You, the reader get to watch how this exchange unfolds…

Eric has sent us a short bio, we invite you to take a look.

 

 Interview with Eric Ruch, by Gino Figlio

1- Dear Eric, thanks for agreeing to this interview. How do you see the current situation in ICCF?. What are the main achievements in the last few years and the most difficult challenges for the organization in the near future?

Before answering your questions, I would like to send my greetings to all correspondence chess (CC) friends in Peru. I have had the chance to visit your wonderful country in 1987, spending 4 weeks in Peru! It remains one of my best memories and I am looking forward to visiting it again in the future.

When I was elected President of ICCF in 2009, the organization was in a very chaotic situation. That stands back to the end of 2004 when, shortly after the Congress in Mumbai (India), the President of ICCF, Josef Mrkvicka (CZE), had to resigned. Probably most of you remember the turbulences which ICCF had to cross the following year: the acting President Max Zavanelli (USA) trying to convene an extraordinary Congress in Trinidad and Tobago was in open conflict with an opponent group (the “Frankfurter 5” led by Med Samraoui (ALG) and Alan Borwell (SCO)). This situation almost led to the collapse of the federation and to the most hectic Congress I have ever been, in Villa La Angostura (Argentina) in November 2005, during which Med Samraoui was elected President. I have been a great supporter of Med who has done a tremendous work as Zonal Director Africa – Asia and then as President, and he has boosted the interest of CC in these countries. Unfortunately, his spectacular arrest during the Congress of Benalmadena (Spain) in October 2007 was another blow to ICCF and George Pyrich (SCO) had to deputize him for several months. During 2008, it became quite clear that Med would not be able to “come back” to CC and ICCF and the following Congress in Pleven (Bulgaria) was the first one on records without the ICCF President in chair. His resignation in February 2009, was the logical outcome of his painful personal situation.

My first goal when I was elected President in 2009 (and re-elected in 2011) was to restore some stability which is necessary for ICCF and the only way to move forward and adopt the necessary actions to modernize the federation.

The major achievement during the last years is the ICCF webserver, which is now fully operational with almost all functionality implemented, including the ratings, the ratings history and the forecast. It is a wonderful tool and I am really pleased to see that many federations are now using it for their national events (and this trend is still increasing). During the last one and half year (December 2009 – August 2011), the number of active players (players who are currently playing in at least one tournament) has been increased by 10% and the number of registered players on the server by almost 20%. But we have also noted a stability of the number of postal players, mostly in European countries where the postal services are reliable and of good quality, and ICCF is committed to offer tournaments to all players whatever is their preferred way of sending the moves, post or server.

Related to the success of the server, is the increasingly popularity of the Direct Entry (DE) programme. Since 2010 under the lead of Jean-Christophe Chazalette (FRA) and now Ian Pheby (ENG), Direct Entre commissioner, the automation process of the DE on the server has been greatly improved which should ultimately result in a better service to the players with more timely process of the entries. In 2011, the number of DE entries has increased by 28% with represents a daily number of 3.75 entries! Finally, our continuous efforts of explanation of the benefit of the DE programme has led more countries to join in 2011, and since January 2012 the BdF (Germany, the most important ICCF Federation) has also become member and Sweden is about to join which means that almost all national federations are part of the DE.

In 2009, we have also decided to implement a new structure of the World Championship (WC) cycle. During too many years, the number of qualifiers increased in such a way we have has three CC world champions crowned in 2011 and I am quite that most of our readers do not know their names! The correspondence chess world championship is probably the most valuable intangible asset of ICCF and in 2009 during the Congress in Leeds (England) we have proposed the new Tournaments Rules including the regulations for the WC cycle from the preliminaries to the final. The goal I have set is to have a Final starting every 18 months in 2012 (and we will surely achieve this intermediate goal) and every 2 years from 2014 onwards.

Since end of 2010, a tournament calendar is distributed quarterly to all delegates and can be downloaded from the ICCF website (http://www.iccf.com/downloads/CalendarofEvents2011-Edition6.pdf) which should help the players to organize their CC season. It is very important that we can stick on the planned dates which mean that the end-dates of the tournament shall be known and of course respected. The situation has been greatly improved over the last two years although I think that we have still much room for further improvements.

Finally I would like to mention the ICCF registration process which was voted by the Delegates in Järvenpää (Finland) in 2011. I have to admit that this highly technical subject may not be considered by the CC players with the importance it deserves. When I become President in 2009, I was really astonished to discover that ICCF – almost 60 years old – was not registered in any country, which means that ICCF had no legal existence! Really threatening! One of my first task, with the help of Jean-Christophe Chazalette (legal counsel to ICCF) was to investigate several possible scenarios with the help of lawyers and tax advisors, and this led to the new ICCF Statutes voted in 2011 which define ICCF as a Swiss organization (as FIDE and many others). The process is not fully completed and we are currently working on the opening of an office in France for the ICCF daily operations.

There are many challenges to ICCF and CC in general has to face in the coming years.

ICCF is a volunteer based organization and all ICCF officials are devoted to bring their talents and time to the benefit of the players. But as volunteers, we have all our family, work etc. and sometimes we have to reduce the time we can offer to ICCF or even resign from our position. ICCF is always looking for new volunteers to replace those who have contributed to the growth of our Federation and need to step down. But in the last years it has proven to be more and more difficult to find volunteers and at each time I have the opportunity to discuss with National Federation Delegates I stress the urgent need for new “blood”. Last year, there was no candidate for the so important Marketing Director position, and this is of course very detrimental to the future prospect of ICCF. ICCF is not the organization of a few people, but it belongs to all Federation and to all CC chess players worldwide. Any help will be welcome!

The constant increase of the power of the chess engines tends to increase the number of draws in modern CC. I have elected this theme as the main subject of the 2010 Congress in Antalya, Turkey and there have been intensive and very interesting discussions. A group of experts has been working afterwards and their conclusion have been presented and discussed last year. It has resulted in the adoption of a new tie break rules (the so called Baumbach tie break) replacing the SB tie break as the standard for ICCF tournaments. The Baumbach tie break emphasizes the number of wins in a tournament as the main criteria between tied players. It is only a small step compared to more “revolutionary” changes such as the 3-1-0 scoring (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss as in football for instance) which I favored. But there was still too much opposition within the Delegates to adopt this new rule.

ICCF has also to face to decline the number of affiliated National Federations. In 2009 when I stepped in, there were about 20 “silent” Federations that had no paid their dues for many years. The decisions adopted by the Congress in Mumbai in 2004 (to apply levies to late fees and eventually suspend membership or exclude federations after several years of non-payment) were never implemented. On the long term, it is not acceptable that some federations continue to benefit from ICCF services while letting other federations bear all the financial burdens. With the help of George Pyrich (SCO), ICCF Finance Director, an active policy to recover ICCF dues has been implemented during the last three years resulting in the payment made by some federation but also the suspension of the exclusion of some others. This is unfortunate but necessary and 12 Federations have been suspended or excluded and 4 others may be under a suspension threat if their dues remain unpaid till 2012 Congress. But it should also be noted that some Federations have understood the message and have been re-admitted such as Ecuador and some others will be proposed for re-admission (Panama in Zone 2 for instance).

I am also actively contacting FIDE Federations that are not member of ICCF and I have had some promising contacts when I attended the FIDE Congress in Poland last October. I hope that this will result in new ICCF members during the coming years.

2-Thanks Eric. As an observer I believe ICCF has made consistent progress in the last few years. I wanted to comment on a couple of issues I found very interesting. The economy plays a big role in the practice of any sport/hobby. It’s encouraging to see new players joining ICCF given the current economical situation of the world however one cannot stop wondering if some federations would welcome a decrease in the costs of tournament organization. It seems like ICCF needs a wider base, more national events and from this bigger pool of members, higher participation in international events may follow. Why not make all national events free of charge to federations?

Players in federations disaffiliated due to lack of payment may need some support to continue the practice of correspondence chess within ICCF. Is the ICCF structure prepared to embrace these players as individual members?. If the answer is no, should there be such provision?

Dear Gino, you are right that nowadays the economy plays a key role in any human activity and correspondence chess in general and ICCF as a federation are also impacted by the global economy.

Twenty years ago, before the internet age, ICCF was almost the sole international CC federation offering worldwide postal tournaments and it had a dominant or even a monopolistic position in the CC world. During the 90s the email age and during the beginning of the 21st century the server age, boomed the development of many national / international organisations offering low cost way of playing CC. In a sense it fosters ICCF to rethink his economic model and focus to what I would call “serious CC” play in which the thinking time is counted in days and not in seconds and the time limit in 10 moves in 30 days or more, while at the same time introducing new types of tournaments which proved to be very popular (e.g. the Champion’s League, the Chess960, …)

ICCF had also to invest in the development of the server and increase the tournament fees in 2002 – 2004 to cover these costs. Around 2006, the number of ICCF and zonal tournaments played on the server started to increase rapidly, shortly after followed by the national tournaments. Between end of 2008 and end of 2010 the total number of players registered on the server and also the number of active players has increased by more than 20% and although we do not have the audited figures for end of 2011, this trend should be confirmed. The growing success of the webserver tournaments has made it possible to revisit the tournament fees. In 2010, during an Executive Board meeting in Paris, we started to analyse the possibility to decrease the tournament fees and this work resulted in the vote by the Congress in Antalya of the tournament fees reduction at 01/01/2011. Maybe ICCF did not advertise enough this decision and the price decrease of both the ICCF and the national tournaments by an average of 20% ! Another decision made a year later and applicable from 01/01/2012 is the increase of the Direct Entry rebate to the National Federation from 30% to 50% of the Direct Entry fees.

The obvious aim of these price reductions is to stimulate CC plays in national and international tournaments and if it proves to be successful further reduction will be proposed to the Congress in the coming years.

There is a long lasting policy in ICCF to help players in some countries and for many years the tournaments organized in Zone 4 (Africa – Asia) have been free of charge. It has also been decided last year that each Zonal Director will have some “wild cards” to grant fee entries to players who would be in a difficult financial situation.

But in the current financial situation, your proposal to have all National Federations events free of charge would adversely affect the ICCF financial stability unless other fees are increased. There is also a responsibility of each National Federation to support their players (for example in France, all national events are free of charge and accessible to all players, depending on their qualification, once they have paid their membership fees of 15€ a year).

Your second question refers to individual membership in ICCF.

As you know, ICCF members are the National Federations who vote at the election and in Congress. Since 2005, ICCF has opened the possibility to players not belonging to National Federation to enter most of ICCF and zonal tournaments through the Direct Entry (DE) system. This feature has proven to be very popular not only for players coming from country which are not member of ICCF but also from countries which are member. Nowadays, most of the Federations have open this possibility to players form their country and some large federation (Germany, Italy,…) have joined the DE in 2011. The following chart illustrates the success of the DE

This allows players from non-member countries or suspended federations to enter ICCF tournaments (only ICCF Olympiads are limited to Federations).

The further step you suggest (having individual membership within ICCF) is technically difficult and maybe not the way to go. Besides the fact that the “individual membership” would require a drastic modification in ICCF Statutes and Internal Bylaws, there would be many questions to answer: would those players be eligible to vote in Congress and for Executive Board election? How could we add individual votes and Federation votes? Would these players still be eligible for individual membership if a Federation of their country is admitted to ICCF membership?

But the most important question (at least for me) is: should ICCF go in that direction? I have first to say that this question has never been discussed in the last 11 Congress I have attended, so I will give you a personal answer not an official ICCF answer. I think that ICCF should encourage new countries to join the federation and help isolated players in a country to create their own federation. It is now easy with the webserver to know if a dozen players of a given country are actively playing on the server and introduce them each other. This could stimulate the birth of a federation. Of course, some players may not be very much interested in the management of a national federation and prefer continuing to play though the DE. For those players I do not really see the benefit they can have of an individual membership in ICCF while for the others the National Federation is a way to benefit of the webserver to organize local events and national championships. We have to work more extensively into that direction to stimulate the interest in CC in countries not belonging to ICCF or in suspended federations, which is I think the best way for players in those countries to play in ICCF and national tournaments.

Besides these considerations, I do not think that the idea of individual membership would be welcome to most Delegates and would have a chance to be adopted by the Congress.

 

3- Dear Eric, I agree with your assessment of the positive effects of recent ICCF policy regarding tournament fees. Lower costs usually mean higher number of registrations. I only have access to publicly available data and decided to look at number of finished games in the last decade to see the trends. We know that games and tournaments nowadays last about 2 years and therefore changes in the number of total finished games probably reflect factors occurring 2 year prior.

The following graph shows the number of ICCF finished games from the rating reports in the last 10 years (2002-2012). I decided to estimate the total for 2012 by simply multiplying the sum of the first 2 reports (2012-1 and 2012-2) by two.

We can see how the upward trend displayed from 2005 to 2009 suddenly reverted in 2010, showing some recovery in the next couple of years but still not back to 2009 levels. My hypothesis is that this drop in finished games in 2010 reflects a decreased number of registrations in 2008, in clear temporal relation to the world economic crisis.

The slow recovery observed in 2011 and 2012 perhaps is caused by the success in recent ICCF policy decreasing entry fees. It is a bit discouraging to know that the total number of players has increased but not the total number of games being played or finished. Recognizing the negative effects of the world economy can help design a short term plan and you certainly have already taken action.

One wonders if decreasing the fees for national events more drastically could be more successful than making changes in the other ICCF tournament fees.

I attempt to answer this question by looking at the percentage of national events from the total of finished games in the last decade. Again this data is obtained directly from ICCF rating reports.

We can see how the percentage of national event results had stabilized around 30% from 2004 to 2009. Since 2010 this percentage has gradually increased. My hypothesis is that national tournaments tend to have lower entry fees and therefore may be preferred in the context of economic challenges.

Another observation is how national events represent a fraction of the total entry fees collected by ICCF, experimental or drastic changes in fees for national events may not pose a significant risk to ICCF financials as opposed to changes in the rest of events.

Finally, I have to agree with the points you make about individual membership in ICCF. Maybe a discussion to take up again in the following decade.

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