Chess Journalism and Ethics

Edward Winter

(1988 and 1989)

In November [1988] the FIDE General Assembly will be asked to approve a proposed ‘Code of Ethics’ which would be applicable to the Federation’s ‘officials, member federations, the delegates and counsellors of member federations, affiliated organizations, International FIDE title holders and all competitors in FIDE registered tournaments’. The document, drafted by Mr David Anderton of the British Chess Federation, is reproduced in the FIDE President’s Circular Letter No. 1 1988/89 of 12 August. The Clause which has caused most controversy is 2 (d), which stipulates that the Code will be breached by a person (‘meaning either an individual or organization’) if ...

‘... that person publishes or distributes written matter, (including any writing, sign or visible representation) which is threatening, abusive or insulting, or uses in any public place or meeting words which are threatening, abusive or insulting in a case where having regard to all the circumstances hatred is likely to be stirred up against any racial group within FIDE (meaning a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins) by the matter or words in question.’

This text is based on the United Kingdom’s Public Order Act of 1936 (aimed at curbing the activities of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), but faulty copying has resulted in ambiguity: it is not made clear whether ‘in a case ... where ... hatred is likely to be stirred up ...’ refers to both a person who ‘publishes or distributes ...’ and a person who ‘uses ...’ or only to the latter. In the Public Order Act it obviously applies to both.

Even when that little drafting/copying error has been corrected, the Clause will continue to look silly. Is racial hatred often – or ever – being stirred up in the chess world? Are FIDE officials etc. regularly – or ever – making abusive visible representations at each other? Are they endlessly – or ever  – insulting each other for not being of the same ethnic or national origin? There is a decidedly rushed, post-Calvo look to the proposed text; laws and codes introduced in the context of a specific controversy rarely serve any useful purpose. FIDE exists to organize chess, not courts-martial against those with objectionable opinions.

People do not get their morality from what they read. It is already there and they take it to what they read. Consequently, barriers should not be erected against opinions, however absurd or obnoxious they may be, but against falsehoods, i.e. cases where there is a deliberate attempt to deceive by presenting untrue or misleading information which a reader would, in good faith, be likely to believe. If A writes racial insults about B, he will demean only himself and it is hardly worth taking measures against him. But if A unjustifiably calls B a thief then action is required, because an independent observer cannot be expected to know that the remark is untruthful. Yet one looks in vain for any reference to the notion of truth in the proposed Code.

The poorly conceived draft would lead to complications and inconsistencies, particularly since the list of ‘FIDE officials etc.’ intended to be covered by the Code contrives to be both long-winded and nebulous. All kinds of scenarios can be imagined which highlight the hornets’ nest that would inevitably result from the Code as currently presented.

Let it be imagined, for instance, that one day a notorious Genevan bleater pens two articles. In Chess Notes, without a scrap of reason or justification, he accuses a British player of corruption. His thirst for malice slaked, he then writes his New in Chess column, making a true but tactless remark about chess organization in, let us say, an African country.

Both pieces provoke complaints. The FIDE Ethics Commission would be powerless to do anything about the C.N. item. This would have less to do with the absence of a racist slant (otherwise the aggrieved British player could play the ‘different citizenship’ card against the C.N. Editor) than with the fact that we do not – apparently – fall into any of the categories of person covered by the Code and would thus enjoy immunity.

But now let us consider the second piece written: the true but tactless remark offends somebody in the African country under consideration. A federation (any federation in the world, apparently) could complain to FIDE, not only because of the racial slant (however minor the offence) but also because the remark was published in New in Chess, a magazine edited by Jan Timman, the holder of a FIDE Grandmaster title. Thus tactlessness but not untruth would be punishable.

Nor is it clear whether the editors of magazines linked, however vaguely, to a national federation could also be charged by the Commission. They already enjoy less freedom of expression and room for manoeuvre than other editors, and this Clause would serve only to accentuate the imbalance. On the other hand, the C.N. Editor, for one, would be perfectly prepared to defend himself before the FIDE Ethics Commission even if not technically required to, because any responsible writer should believe in accountability and be prepared at any time to defend, or apologize for, anything he has written.

If there is to be a Code of Ethics (and the idea in itself is not objectionable – other proposed Clauses covering bribes to influence the results of games, etc. have not incurred the hostility even of FIDE’s perennial detractors) then Clause 2 (d) needs to be entirely reworked and greatly simplified. The non-issue of racism should give way to the central question of respect for truth. A quarter of the present length would suffice for something like:

‘The Code would be breached by a person if ...

... that person writes or publishes, or uses in a FIDE meeting, injurious words which are mendacious or deceitful.’

(The opportunity has been taken to discard ‘in any public place or meeting’, unless FIDE wishes the Ethics Commission to discuss alleged insults made by A against B in a public house or on a street corner. It might be better still to omit the words ‘or uses in a FIDE meeting’ and limit sanctions to the written word.)

Such a revamped clause could expect to gain the support of those journalists who deplore the way their profession is being shamed by unscrupulous ‘colleagues’, although there would naturally still be a negative reaction from the kind of writers who, in the words of Clive James (Snakecharmers in Texas, page 228), are ‘famous for never having written a sentence both true and literate at the same time’. At the moment chess journalism is an easy game that virtually anyone can play. Uncorrected half-truths, quarter-truths and untruths have become so ingrained in the literature of chess that it is difficult not to welcome any carefully controlled measures which offer the prospect of an improvement.

That is one view. Another is that chess politicians are villains and that the press, with scrupulous objectivity and honesty, is doing a magnificent job of investigative journalism and truth-seeking. That is certainly the view of Mr Larry Evans, a crusader for the depoliticization of chess. From the many texts which resplendently demonstrate his journalistic integrity, dignity and veracity we pick the following, which appeared in a Leisure Linc article dated 15 January 1988. Mr Evans is addressing Donald Schultz:

‘Don, isn’t it true that your beloved FIDE is now running in the red thanks to Campo’s plunder? Campo, the man who told me in our interview that he doesn’t care about money, is now the first FIDE President in history to get a salary ($70,000) plus an expense account that would choke a cow. Didn’t Campo also stack the FIDE office with his own cronies like Dr Lim, Abundo and Miss Lagoza, his travelling companion whose salary is also paid by FIDE? (Since Campo is a married man, perhaps the less said about this the better.)

FIDE drove two Americans Reuben Fine and Bobby Fischer out of chess. And that was in the good old days before FIDE became Campo’s private cesspool.’


From George Stern (Woden, Australia):

‘May I make a comment of my own on C.N. 1712 – on Ethics? I am in total agreement with your statement: FIDE exists to organize chess, not courts-martial against those with objectionable opinions. But the remainder of C.N. 1712 appears to contradict this statement, in that it seems to justify such courts-martial.

My own view as a dedicated democrat and anti-censorship advocate is that, within the limits of the laws of a normal western society, anyone should be permitted to say or publish anything – even blatant lies – so long as everyone else has the right to say or publish anything in rebuttal. In the normal give and take of publication and counter-publication (such as is exemplified in the pages of Chess Notes!) the truth will eventually emerge. If anyone transgresses the limits of the laws, then the injured party has recourse to the established courts of the land. The imposition of a further layer of semi-official, semi-judicial organs such as a FIDE ethics committee, which can impose its own penalties outside of the normal legal channels, seems to me to smack not only of what you have rightly called “courts-martial” but also of “courts-kangaroo”.’

There is, we are sure, much to what Dr Stern says, although certain difficulties arise at a practical level. There follow a few thoughts of our own.

We do not see any contradictions in C.N. 1712 or anything that could be taken as justifying courts-martial against those who express objectionable opinions. The purpose of our proposed rewording of the controversial paragraph in the Ethics document was to concentrate on factual matters.

The notion that any civilized society should be happy with a system allowing blatant lies to be told (even if, as is certainly not the case now, rebuttals were always given an equal airing) is anathema to us. The casual reader may still be lured into the trap of thinking that there is no smoke without fire. Let us suppose that Dr Stern held a chess title which a certain journal suddenly accused him of having acquired dishonestly. After facing what might well be a long hard slog to have his rebuttal printed, Dr Stern’s reputation would still remain tainted, for some people would naively imagine that there must be something to the accusation against him (‘Surely they wouldn’t have written it if it was groundless’). The originator of the libel would have been successful.

Going to court over such a matter would probably be inconvenient and expensive; vindication through a fair and objective judgement within the chess world itself ought to provide a welcome alternative to the aggrieved party. At the moment there are too many falsehoods and not enough exposures.

The issue of how untruths may be curbed will not go away. The debate throughout 1988 on the Code of Ethics has been distasteful and unproductive. C.N.s 1244 and 1278 indicate that Mr David Anderton was an unsuitable choice to deal with such an issue, but it was positively sickening to see how the ‘freedom of the press’ argument was bandied about month after month by writers and journalists who are themselves the chess world’s most flagrant practitioners of fabrication and deception.


See too pages 32-34 of the November 1988 CHESS.

In August 1989 the FIDE General Assembly, meeting in Mayaguez (Puerto Rico), abandoned Clause 2 (d) of the proposed ‘Code of Ethics’. The decision was correct, overdue and inevitable, but after all the strident claims of attempted ‘press-gagging’ by FIDE, it is notable, though scarcely surprising, that few journalists responded to the abandonment of the Clause with any expression of relief or, Heaven forbid, gratitude.

Our Editorial (C.N. 1712) argued that the conduct of some chess journalists was deplorable, but that the proposed Clause was not the answer. We developed these arguments in an article for our ‘Chess Lore’ column in New in Chess (the magazine, it will be recalled, which had published the controversial Ricardo Calvo letter/article that was apparently at the origin of the entire Ethics/free speech debate). The result was ironic in the extreme: New in Chess summarily suppressed our article.

The indisputable facts are these. For about two years, we had been contributing regular ‘Chess Lore’ articles to New in Chess. The written agreement with the publisher, Mr W. Andriessen, was that the articles would cover both historical and topical matters. To quote that Gentleman’s request to us (two letters, June 1987):

‘A regular column in New in Chess magazine dealing with whatever subject you think worthwhile writing about ... We think especially of book reviews or subjects of historical importance, but other matters are welcome as well. Write about what you think interesting. Reflective pieces about current trends in the chess world would indeed be highly appreciated.’

On 12 April 1989 we wrote an article entitled ‘Ethics’ which contained factual and documented criticisms of certain writers, including contributors to the 1/1989 New in Chess. The magazine’s grotesque response (18 May) was to refuse to publish the entire article on the grounds that we had been engaged to write on history only (‘to our mind these historical articles have come to be an essential part of the magazine’).

In a reply dated 20 May we reminded New in Chess of the exact terms of the agreement, as given above, and asked it to reconsider its decision, failing which we should be obliged to resign from the magazine. (The opportunity was also taken to remind New in Chess that we had not received a guilder for the best part of a year.)

Our letter was simply ignored, and it was only when, on 30 July, we threatened legal action for double breach of contract that we were curtly paid off. Apart from the flatly untrue ‘historical articles only’ claim, there has never been any explanation for the censorship, and certainly no criticism, whether general or specific, of our article.

These, we repeat, are the indisputable facts.


Below is the ‘Chess Lore’ article written for New in Chess.

The 1/1989 New in Chess shows that some journalists continue to view Clause 2 (d) of FIDE’s proposed Code of Ethics as an attempt to limit their freedom of speech (or ‘gag’ them, in journalese). ‘It is all very simple, and there is nothing complicated to discuss here’, concludes Mr Timothy Hanke, who revels in his own right to free speech by categorically condemning someone with the aid of the phrase ‘If the rumours that reach my ears are true ...’.

In fact, it is all horrendously complex, and unsurprisingly the chess community has so far failed to resolve issues which have defeated so many of the world’s national governments. To quote Edmund Burke, ‘Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed’. One man’s freedom is another man’s repression, and it is the need for balance between their respective rights that has exercised the minds of Burke and John Stuart Mill (‘The liberty of the individual must be this far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people’). So far it hasn’t exercised the mind of Timothy Hanke, but if people tried to use the pages of New in Chess to call him, on the basis of rumours that had reached their ears, a drunkard, thief, murderer or any other false appellation, he would be grateful for our Editor’s refusal to publish the calumny. An overriding freedom is for an innocent person not to have his name damaged by lies, and few would be impressed by a libeller’s claim that his freedom of expression was being restricted.

The complexity of such issues is in itself the strongest argument for ensuring that the power to take punitive action rests with the only body qualified, the judiciary. It is not for FIDE to sit in judgement on the ethics of what anybody writes or says. The disputed clause in the Code drafted by Mr David Anderton of the British Chess Federation is both unworkable and unwarranted, and FIDE’s wisest course will be to bury it at the first opportunity. However, a careful study is still needed of a central question which has been disregarded so far: are chess journalists doing a responsible job? In other words, was FIDE’s proposed Code, however ham-fisted and ill-advised, an expression of justified concern about how the game is reported?

A detailed examination of chess journalism 1980s-style makes it difficult to avoid a feeling of revulsion. To be sure, the game has some outstanding commentators. Two who come to mind are George Botterill of the New Statesman & Society in the UK and John Tomas of the APCT News Bulletin in the USA, their articles being models of informed independence. But this very excellence serves only to underline the sorry spectacle elsewhere. At the opposite end from Botterill and Tomas is a torrent of reporting founded on little more than speculation, bias, inaccuracy and self-interest, an apposite example being the hysterically simplistic reaction to FIDE’s proposed Clause 2 (d). The irony of the whole affair is that responsible journalists (i.e. those who care for truth and whose only mistakes are honest ones) would have nothing to fear from any Code of Ethics. If guilty of an offence they would have already made amends before any proceedings started; if innocent, they could easily demonstrate this on the basis of documentation. Things would be much harder for those who start out with their conclusions and prejudices and then rummage for, or compose, evidence to fit in with them.

Over the ages, chess has had no shortage of unscrupulous writers, but nowadays things are much worse when they ought to be much better. Despite all the technological and travel possibilities which should facilitate good journalism, writing remains a neglected and poorly-paid profession easily monopolized by those who have the energy but not necessarily the principles. It is far less bother to throw together conjecture than to research facts, and the speed with which the chess world now revolves offers bad writers better chances of escaping public exposure than in the days when every paragraph was subject to leisurely scrutiny. Another major consideration is that the present strife between FIDE and Kasparov has led to controversial but intricate issues being simplified out of all recognition, strictly down party lines. It is not to the world champion that one turns for political nuance. Worse, key roles in the debate have been sought by one or two twin-hatted individuals who bestride both politics and journalism. For them, it is worth recalling the words of Emanuel Lasker (American Chess Bulletin, January 1905, page 2):

‘As a general rule, a man whose business it is to sell news to the newspapers should, in my opinion, not be one vitally interested in this news. The public has a right to expect a reporter of events to be an impartial critic and chronicler, serving not his friends or his own interests, but the public.’

That Lasker’s wisdom is currently being ignored is demonstrated by the 1/1989 New in Chess, which opened with a memorable piece of full-throttle speculation by Mr David Levy about the Burning Issue of what Campomanes may or may not decide to do around the middle of next year. ‘With understatement that would make any Englishman proud’, the contributor conceded that his opinion was ‘slightly subjective and based in part on second hand information’, though that can hardly explain all the feeble argumentation (especially in paragraph 5, something to do with Aquino and Marcos). Hurtling through the various rumours that had reached his ears, Mr Levy omitted to declare an interest which would have revealed him as more than ‘slightly subjective’: he was the campaign manager of the electoral alliance between Raymond Keene (his brother-in-law) and Lincoln Lucena which Campomanes trounced in the 1986 FIDE Presidential Election. Given Mr Levy’s desire to flaunt his prophetic powers, it is just as well that he drew a veil over that episode, during which (Chess Life, November 1986) he declared that ‘right now I find it utterly inconceivable that we can lose this election’. He has yet to reveal how much money, if any, he wagered on that.

The report on FIDE’s Thessaloniki Congress (also in the 1/1989 New in Chess, but penned by a totally different Keene brother-in-law, David Goodman) lacks even a token admission of being ‘slightly subjective and based in part on second hand information’. A hallmark of the partisanship which besets nearly every paragraph is the frequent theorizing. Goodman gives a gush of garrulous guesswork, such as: ‘Presumably ...’, ‘In a move that some delegates suspect was pre-arranged ...’, ‘They had apparently decided ...’, ‘Perhaps Campomanes didn’t want ... perhaps he feared ...’, ‘Campomanes is likely to employ ... FIDE may even try ...’, and so on for six pages. It is likely, presumably, that some people may even apparently suspect that, with such journalism, David Goodman could perhaps fill, possibly, an entire issue of New in Chess.

Just as there are players who can annotate a stronger game than they can produce, so there are writers who can talk better ethics than they can practise. During a period which largely coincided with the 1986 FIDE Presidential Campaign, Mr Goodman was the Editor of Newsflash, a magazine published under the aegis of the British Chess Federation’s publicity director, who happened to be Raymond Keene. The journal, for some reason not retitled Gens una sumus, also provided employment for Mr Keene’s sister (‘Advertising Manager’). So, did Mr Goodman stand out as a champion of free speech, giving full rein to all points of view? Alas, no. During the entire period of his editorship, he printed nothing remotely favourable about Campomanes and nothing remotely unfavourable about Keene. The sternest test came when Campomanes’ victory had to be reported; in a resourceful display of family unity, Newsflash (5 December 1986) spared Mr Keene embarrassment by contriving to avoid mentioning him by name a single time. All writers should believe in accountability, and Mr Goodman may one day disclose his own notion of ethics, independence and freedom of expression as applied to himself. Why, for example, has he so often assailed Campomanes and others on the basis of gossip and conjecture yet persistently passed over in silence the documented and irrefutable aberrations of Raymond Keene?

One does not have to be a supporter of Campomanes to recognize that the various Keene/Goodman instant world championship books (which have been subjected to detailed scrutiny elsewhere) were monstrously unfair in their treatment of the FIDE President, but the ruling body’s reaction in such cases should never go beyond publication of serenely reasoned rebuttals. Although that could turn into a full-time job, it is better than setting up tribunals. As Tom Stoppard wrote in Night and Day, a brilliant satire upon the British press: ‘Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.’

In his own small corner, the present writer has often enough been a prey to journalistic mendacity, as can be shown by three brief examples chosen at random but all strictly factual and provable as a matter of public record. 1) Larry Evans stated that I had written something ‘unscrupulous’. In fact, he had not only deformed the (perfectly innocuous) words in question but had also failed to attribute them correctly (the writer was Lodewijk Prins). 2) Eric Schiller, scoring three falsehoods in one sentence, published an unfathomable claim that my magazine, Chess Notes, had abridged and ‘manipulated’ two letters he had submitted. The incontrovertible truth was that every single word from him had been published. 3) Raymond Keene declared to CHESS readers (in an interview with David Levy – it’s a small world) that I had written a ‘flood’ of political documents, whereas I had had no involvement with any. The élan with which these gentlemen fabricate information is matched only by their reluctance to apologize once exposed. Dozens of other documented examples are on stand-by in case of a challenge.

No-one is above criticism, and those of us who have, over the years, panned the FIDE President on specific issues would never deny others the same right. Where the facts are against Campomanes he deserves censure, but there should be no place for nebulous truculence, whether based on sour grapes over the last Presidential Election or aspirations for the next one. A betting man could safely wager 1,000 dollars with Mr Levy that whatever happens in the 1990 campaign, he and his ubiquitous associates will, as in 1986, misreport it. For anyone who cares about truth in chess literature, the last few years have been a nightmare, but, let it be stressed again, it is not FIDE’s job to rectify the situation. Matters will improve once editors become more vigilant and readers protest more forcefully, though ultimately, of course, it is for the offenders themselves to mend their ways. A number of chess books recommend that impetuous players should sit on their hands to avoid making hasty or speculative moves. This would also be excellent advice for certain chess journalists.

Latest update: 5 August 2014.

See also Ricardo Calvo: Persona non Grata

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.