Taken during the FIDE World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the 7th of August, 2023, by IM Michael Rahal, FIDE Press Officer of the event.
You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel.
– I’m joined by International Grandmaster and FIDE Chief Executive Officer since 2022, Emil Sutovsky. Emil, good morning and thank you for coming to the interview.
– Hi, Michael.
– Emil, as a player, you went over 2700 in 2012, but now you’re basically just playing a few games each year. Your main role now is FIDE’s Chief Executive Officer. You were Director General from 2018 to 2022. Tell us about your new role in FIDE since last year, what does your job entail, and the difference with being a Director General?
– Thank you. A good question. I keep doing more or less the same things, but it’s just more responsibility because now we have a wider scope of activities. I also have to take various decisions, which my present position reflects more because the description of Director General is a bit vaguer than CEO. Obviously, most of the decisions are related to the commercial side and professional side of the competitions because, as you are fully aware, FIDE does both the professional part and the social and educational part. So, I’m more focused on the commercial side, professional broadcasting, and I’m also in charge of all major events like World Championships, World Cups and so on. In the Olympiad, of course, the responsibility is huge, and it is growing. The number of our competitions is getting bigger and our team also has expanded to that effect. I hope that the results which we bring are well felt in the chess community.
– We’re in Baku, in the trophy room of the Marriot Boulevard Hotel, in the wonderful surroundings of the World Cup 2023. The World Cup was originally planned for South Korea, but finally came to Baku. And I know that your personal and professional involvement was key, it was fundamental in bringing it here. Tell me, how did the bid come about?
– We had negotiations with South Korea throughout 2022, and during the Olympiad in Chennai it was announced publicly that they’re going to submit a bid. For us, it would have been great if South Korea emerged as another major player on the chess map. As you know, we are trying to develop chess and stage it in as many countries and continents as possible. Of course, South Korea is an important strategical region where we’d be happy to host an event like the World Cup or similar. While we were expecting them to submit a bid, it started to take more and more time and when the deadline finally came, nothing official had been submitted. In parallel, we were taking to Baku. As you know, I was born in Baku. And actually, my first serious chess partner was none other than Garry Kasparov himself. We lived on the same street, literally 100 yards away. And I remember visiting him when I was 5 or 6 and so on. We played the game. Of course, he was already a top player and I was just a kid. It was an inspiration for me. I left Baku over 30 years ago, my family moved to Israel, but the ties remained and I think it was also noticeable throughout the years when I was a player and later a coach. I helped many of the young Azeri players since Radjabov. At one stage or another many of them were my students. So, I kept this good contact with the local federation. And we did organize some projects before. But when the idea to stage the World Cup emerged, I came to Baku in advance to have some negotiations and to meet the sports minister who supported the idea. And then we managed to organize a meeting with the President of the country, Mr. Aliyev, and, of course, the FIDE President, Arkady Dvorkovich, led the delegation. I was a part of it and the decision was taken. I think it’s very natural that it’s organised in Baku, with its vast chess tradition and strong players. Typically, there was a well-known squad from Baku in Open competitions, but in recent years, the ladies from Azerbaijan have also progressed enormously, finishing top five in the Olympiad. Therefore, it was a natural choice and I think it was a good decision. And the level of organization is something we are pleased about.
– We’re about to finish the third round, which is halfway through the tournament. Is it running as planned from what you’ve seen? Would you have changed anything?
– In general, I’m happy. I think the event itself is unique for chess, a combination of the top players participating but also an opportunity for representatives from many countries. There are over 90 countries here taking part, and the champions are participating. For the first time ever, an Indonesian player qualified for the top 16: that’s already something very meaningful and hopefully can boost interest for chess in the country. FIDE has brought a huge team here to help the local organizers. Previously, that was not the practice, but already for a few years now we have been doing it in order to secure the highest possible level of organization. It’s a long four weeks event, and it requires a lot of preparation. Obviously, we can always find ways to improve. I think that one major area we will try to invest more and improve is making the games more spectacular on screen: maybe using other more sophisticated approaches to broadcast the events, because we have been improving the quality of the broadcasts, but the format remained the same throughout. Chess has been broadcasted over the last 20 years, and I still think that we can do a lot about it. It’s a major investment, but I think that’s what’s required in order to go up to the next level.
– It has been argued that three candidate spots for the World Cup might be too much. Do you agree with that?
– It’s difficult to balance it. There is an opinion shared by many players and Magnus himself that the format of knockout shall be applied to the world championship, the winner should become a world champion or at least a challenger. The event is grueling, and you really have to show your best to get into the top three. Where is the right balance? It’s very difficult to say. We have the Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man in October, an amazing event. Some say “it’s just a Swiss event, just 11 rounds”. Why are there two spots for the Candidates? My feeling is that the chess community is always striving to find a perfect solution for everything. And it’s always difficult to know what is the perfect solution. You have to balance it in a smooth way in order to be both fair in terms of sport competition, but also to provide more opportunities. I think three spots is not too much because if we had selected only, let’s say, round robin events, traditional Wijk or Stavanger tournaments, it also would be too elitist, something we don’t want to do. If we only use ratings, then it’s also due to your previous results – they have a lot of weight, which is also not ideal. So now we have a nice combination. This year we also started the FIDE Circuit: throughout the year, if you play good tournaments and you amass these points, they allow you to qualify. I’ve discussed these issues with 80% of the top players and, in general, they are pretty satisfied with the model. I think it is reasonably balanced.
– Another question regarding chess events which might connect with the comment you’ve made regarding the broadcast. We just recently enjoyed the Global Chess League in Dubai, a joint project between FIDE and Tech Mahindra. And now we have the World Teams Championship in Dusseldorf, another joint project between FIDE and a top logistics firm. Is this the way to go for the future? Trying to make joint projects with big partners and sponsors, and also the new dynamics in the broadcasts we saw in Dubai? This might be good for rapid chess. But can we use this in classical chess, making it more spectacular without crossing the line of seriousness, which is something that might be worrying?
– There is always the question regarding when you draw the red line or if you draw a line at all. FIDE’s role is very responsible. We are the guardians of the game. But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck in the past, so we have to experiment with these new trends. It’s not a coincidence that we have all these new formats. The Dusseldorf World Team Championship is played with a faster time control of 45 minutes plus 10-second increment, it’s like semi classic. Now we have the Tech Mahindra league which is rapid. Being a big organization it’s very easy to just enjoy what we have. We have the World Championship, which always has good organizers and brings a lot of attention. We have the Chess Olympiad, we have the World Cup, but we always experiment with new formats. We see that there is demand from the chess community for something like that. It’s also the chicken and egg paradox: if you create something that would be appealing for TV networks, that’s great. But you wouldn’t want to ruin something before building something big. It’s no wonder that World Championship matches and classical formats still find the biggest sponsorship because, in the contemporary world, chess still retains this unique feeling of being special, for sharp minds. It’s not necessarily about the speed, but about tradition, about reputation, about many companies still using chess related topics in their commercials. So, we have to play with very narrow margins. But again, we are not just sitting on our laurels and claiming that the ancient game is still played and so on. But when we experiment, we cannot and don’t want to start with our major events. We start with strong events to see how it goes, but not the most important ones. We analyze how the public opinion responds, how chess professionals react, if there are new audiences. We do have a hard-core chess audience which would watch any major chess event. The question is to try to be appealing to a wider audience without ruining what we have and without having a chess revolution. We have to advance very cautiously.
– Let’s talk about the Toronto Candidates, which will be held in April 2024. There are still a few months left, of course, and many players still to be decided. But at least in my understanding, it’s the first time when both women and open events will be held at the same time and place, a new decision. Why was this decision made? What reasoning is behind having the two at the same time? Are there any conversations with Magnus Carlsen, is he considering to come back and play?
– What we have seen in recent years is that in spite of our numerous efforts to increase prize funds, improve the playing conditions and the coverage of events and so on, the Women’s Candidates Tournament does not attract as much attention as the Open Event. Our aim here is to try and get both events under one roof in order to increase the attention for the female competition. It’s quite difficult even to find a venue for the tournaments, and now we will have eight players in each event both playing at the same venue. We are expecting massive coverage there and let’s not forget that Toronto, Canada, hasn’t enjoyed major events since 1988: it will be huge. We also count on the event benefiting from the fact that a lot of streamers are coming from North America and particularly Canada – we see it as a chance to promote women’s chess and to promote our best players. To date, we have many leading players with a large fan base, but basically very few top female players in the same situation. It’s an opportunity to improve.
– Sounds great! Has there been any conversations with Magnus? He is here playing the World Cup and it’s clear that he wants to win. Most likely he would get the rating spot?
– Magnus obviously wants to win any event he participates in. I would say that even Carlsen himself doesn’t know if he will play or not. He’s very likely to qualify through the World Cup or by getting the rating spot. I think that the probability of his participation is more than 1%, indicated elsewhere by him earlier this year. I am not sure how you measure this percentage.
– Unlikely, but not impossible maybe?
– Yes. Magnus is still in love with the game. What could be more thrilling and more exciting than coming back and winning the Candidates? Also, the Candidates is a very challenging tournament – winning the Candidates is not at all less than winning a World Championship match because you have to overcome eight players in a double round robin. It’s not easy, right? When there is a dominating champion like Carlsen, beating him is bigger than winning the Candidates. But otherwise, I’d say that it’s very challenging. I would not exclude Magnus playing, but it’s too early to say, and I think he will make the decision only when the time comes. Of course, I would be very happy if he decides to play because the press loves these comeback stories. In general, I don’t think we will know that until the end of December.
– Let’s talk about rating. Everyone wants to know what is happening to the rating system. Since the K=40 was introduced and the rating floor went down, we’re seeing many cases, especially kids, who increase their rating by a huge amount of points in a very short period of time. Recently, there’s was an unbelievable case: an Indian player that went from 2000 to nearly 2600 in three months! Mr. Sonas, an important theoretician, has made some proposals for new rating regulations that may come into play on the 1st of January 2024. He suggests an increase of up to 400 points for everyone below 2000 in incremental stages and also the elevation of the rating floor from 1000 to 1400. Do you agree with the proposal? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction? Please tell us a bit more about why this is happening and if you think this will go forward: it’s a major change to all players reading this interview that have a -2000 rating.
– We have been addressing this situation for quite a long time already. You mention an example of someone going up 500 points, but the problem is exactly the opposite. The problem is that the rating deflation is staggering – you have thousands of strong players who start so low that the numbers do not reflect their real playing strength. What we asked Jeff Sonas to do it to compare the actual data from every rating section to see if it is reflecting the expected score. Let’s say I am a 2600 player, and I’m playing a 2200 player – I’m expected to score 92%. Sonas started measuring whether indeed a 2600 scored 92% against 2200’s in each of the rating sections, measuring thousands or even tens of thousands of games between each other. The data is already pretty much reflective – what he found is that in every single batch of results, the results are not what you expect. The 2600 does not score 92%, but for example 88%. If a 2100 plays against a 1600, he is not scoring 99% as expected, but only 91%. Therefore, the correlation between the real strength of the player and his rating is missing, and it happens mostly on the lower levels. The lower you go, the bigger the gap between the mathematical expectation and the real data and this has to be addressed. That’s one of the reasons to raise the rating floor. The other question is whether the K factor should remain as high, to prevent such jumps. But that’s a relatively minor problem. The question is if we should go, let’s say 400 points or 300 or 200 points: that’s a mathematical situation, as there are other things to be considered, for example, titles. Also, an immediate change may cause inflation. We saw deflation for such a long time, now we have to be careful not to compensate for it in one go: maybe we should spread the points over time, months maybe, even years. These technical decisions are important and very difficult to measure. There are many variables and parameters to be taken into account. Let’s take an example: a ten-year-old 1400 Indian player is much more likely to be underrated than a 1600 coming from a different continent and a different age group, for example a 1700, 50 years old European. The younger guy plays more games because he’s just getting engaged and the older guy might just be an amateur player from a club who plays ten games a year. These variables also have to be measured and it’s not easy. I think we should take a balanced decision to see how it reflects on the community, and how players feel about it, and then adjust: it’s not a huge drama if in one year we see that the K factor should be 30, instead of 20 or 40. We might raise the rating floor to 1200 starting next year and then 1300. The simplest would be just to take one decision and stick to it and protect it. We often are criticized but I think that’s actually the smart thing to do: adjust and then think what can be done better. It’s easy to think “we are FIDE, we can decide and go” but that’s not the way to go – we are actually listening, we hear many proposals and ideas, and of course, we can’t be perfect. The chess community in general has so many different interests. We have professionals, kids, amateur players, those who come from traditional chess countries or countries with very limited chess events; those who participate mainly in opens and those who participate mostly in round robins. When we try to solve these questions, we have to think how it will affect all the communities and it’s very difficult. We are working non stop and I’m really proud of our team, but it’s impossible to have the same level of perfectionism or even efficiency, because chess is huge. We do our best in general to focus as much as possible on the most important questions, and I think in general we succeed.
– That’s a great note to finish the conversation on, Emil. Most people know you now as a politician, but many of them forget that you’re a 2700 player, with a slightly lower rating now, of course, because when you stop playing, your rating goes down. You love to play 1.e4, which is your favorite move. I was talking to Vishy Anand the other day and of course Vishy is legend, one of the best players in the history of chess. He was saying that he still enjoyed playing, but he didn’t enjoy losing, which is something that happens to all of us when we get older. Do you still feel the urge when you see the top players playing, to go out there and fight, or do you prefer to take a more relaxed point of view now? Do you still enjoy playing longer games? Do you still enjoy playing blitz? What’s your situation as a chess player now?
– I do play chess occasionally. I play for my team in Israel 10-11 games per year. That’s the only classical chess I can afford, basically. Obviously, I could take a week off and play some tournament, but I wouldn’t play it well because I’m rusty. I haven’t been doing any serious preparation. After you were a top-100 player for 20 years, I wouldn’t feel good underperforming. Therefore, if I can’t afford to prepare properly, I would prefer not to play. I still enjoy enormously following the games and analyzing – for example I was discussing the games the other day with Peter Svidler and it was a pleasure. I rarely play blitz competitions, mostly when it’s a memorial of someone who is dear to my heart. I have even helped organizing a couple of these events and I played maybe 2 or 3 for people who I not only knew, but I loved and cherished, a sort of a tribute. But all in all, I think that in the chess world most of the younger generation probably won’t know that I was a top 20 player, but I can live with that. I had a rather successful career in chess, not only rating wise but I won maybe something like 40 big tournaments. I don’t have any regrets or something like that I quit too early. For me, it’s important that my contribution now is meaningful. Not only me, but as a team, we have managed to do a lot to make the chess society better, to provide more opportunities, to provide incentives for players to improve. I think that is very important. Nowadays, you know, many people are talking, but very few are doing. We are doing things – you can see it by the number of tournaments, by the prize money, by the chess programs, the social programs, by the opportunity for kids from all over the world to study with the best players for free. It’s very important. I think that chess has a bright future, and I am happy if I can contribute to that.