The German aftermath of the European Team Championship
After Germany's surprise victory at the European Team Championship, one might have expected positive effects for German chess – even if mainstream media attention was rather limited. However, within a few days it turned out that old conflicts had never been healed and surfaced again. Last Monday this culminated in the exclusion or at least suspension of top player Arkadij Naiditsch from the national team.
Germany won the European Team Championship last month in Porto Carras, Halkidiki (Greece), beating Armenia in the final round | photo © ChessDom
These conflicts go back to at least a year ago prior to the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk 2010, when all four top players (Naiditsch, Meier, Fridman and Gustafsson) declined to play for Germany. Reasons were, briefly, lack of financial support from the federation, lack of chess support and – last but not least – lack of communication between federation officials and top players.
A meeting between both sides could not be arranged because former federation president Robert von Weizsäcker was always too busy. The German magazine Schach quoted Jan Gustafsson
I do not expect from the federation that they make us richer, but they should make an effort to turn us into better players!
– referring to dedicated opening coaches in various other countries.
Naiditsch explained his position in a provocative open letter at ChessVibes, where he attacked several federation officials, including von Weizsäcker and federation coach Uwe Bönsch, whom he considers completely unsuitable for his position.
Things seemed to change for the better in 2011. In June, von Weizsäcker didn't run for another term. His successor Herbert Bastian was greeted with high hopes from the German chess community, probably in part because he is himself a very active chess player. Sponsors were found to secure the participation of the "A-team" at the European Team Championship, and to hire Rustam Kasimdzhanov – former FIDE World Champion, but maybe more widely known as regular second of current world champion Vishy Anand – as opening coach. Bönsch had the function of "team captain", responsible for organizational and logistic aspects – players say he hadn't done anything else at earlier occasions.
At the event, the entire team overperformed. While Bastian said that he expected the team to finish higher than their 10th seeding place, probably noone would have even dreamed of a gold medal prior to the event.
In hindsight, the conflict may have been seeded during the event, centering on the role and merits of Bönsch for the success of the German team. Already before the tournament Naiditsch was almost removed from the team due to a "cynical comment" about Bönsch – which Bastian managed to prevent. During the event, reports on the German federation homepage kept mentioning Bönsch but not Kasimdzhanov. According to Bastian, this wasn't done intentionally but reflects the fact that Bönsch kept in touch with the home front during the event; he acknowledges that such "lack of fine-tuning" was a mistake.
Most controversially, the final blog entry of Melanie Ohme, who played on the women team, was "edited" – without permission from Ohme - before being cross-posted on the federation homepage: The original version says
An outstanding tournament for the German men and their coach Rustam Kasimdzhanov, who certainly made a major contribution to victory.
– the edited version reads
An outstanding tournament for the German men, besides federal coach Uwe Bönsch also theoretical guru Rustam Kasimdzhanov certainly contributed significantly.
After the tournament, the situation escalated on 14th November with a newspaper article quoting Naiditsch:
Of course I hope that our title will have positive effects for German chess, but that's now up to the federation. I am very skeptical. I even believe that most members of the presidential board aren't happy about our victory. Noone has congratulated me. ... He [Bönsch] has a permanent position with the German federation and earns roughly 50 000 Euro per year. But he thinks that he goes on holidays rather than to a European championship.
The same article cites Daniel Fridman on Bönsch:
He arranges the hotel accommodation or makes sure that we always have enough beverages.
The article was mentioned on a German chess blog which led to heated discussions. Herbert Bastian repeatedly joined the discussion, which was met with a mix of surprise, praise but also criticism.
His first official response was posted on the federation homepage 19th November. Bastian:
This hate campaign has personally touched me a lot and made me reconsider my own engagement. I cannot understand at all that, in a country like Germany with its national history, it is still possible to point with the finger on someone and then stones are thrown without any justified reason. And this from chess players who are widely considered to have above average objectivity and analytical capacities!
He mentioned that Bönsch's actual salary is far less than the 50,000 Euro quoted on the Internet. Elsewhere Bastian states that he did congratulate the entire team by phone right after their victory, and also had personal email contact with Arkadij Naiditsch. Bönsch found an additional sponsor, had sole responsibility to select the team and determine the board order, and – after consulting the players – contracted Kasimdzhanov. Bönsch has other responsibilities besides the national A-team; Bastian suggested that the A-team wants another more expensive coach to be hired solely for their purposes, who could only be paid via a substantial raise of amateur contributions to the federation.
Fridman responded with an open letter where he criticizes anonymous Internet insults against both Bönsch and Naiditsch, and also Bastian's reference to German history. He stressed that the quote by the "journalist" (his quotation marks) was taken out of context from an interview that took about half an hour. In the core of his statement, he denies that the national team wants more money at the expense of amateur players, rather suggesting that available money for top sports should be used more efficiently.
The final escalation happened on 27th November when the Presidential Board of the federation unanimously decided that the player's contract with Naiditsch will not be renewed for 2012. Given reasons are recurrent public statements on federation officials which were deemed unobjective and factually wrong. Naiditsch thereby violated "letters and spirit" of his player contract, which specifies that criticism should be handled internally and not via the media.
The decision will be reassessed in summer 2012: if Naiditsch in the meantime documents that he is ready to cooperate with the federation and its representative "in a fair and professional manner" he may rejoin the national team for the forthcoming Olympiad.
The Presidential Board separated sportive success from disciplinary measures against Naiditsch. Accordingly, he and all of his teammates will receive a distinction from the federation (Goldene Ehrennadel des Deutschen Schachbunds) as well as an extra bonus payment for winning the gold medal.
Bastian clarified that Naiditsch will lose some financial benefits from the federation which would allow him to hire a personal coach for training sessions. However, if he is readmitted into the national team next summer, he may also receive all benefits for the entire year 2012. In this respect, current disciplinary measures may be considered a punishment that can later turn into a warning.
Bastian appreciated that Naiditsch, in another interview, stated that "spontaneous statements shouldn't be overestimated" which he considers a step in the right direction. He stated that the latest interview by itself may not have lead to disciplinary measures, but the cumulative effect of many incidents made the decision inevitable. According to other sources, it was Bastian's influence that allowed leaving the door open for Naiditsch.
This report was, in part, made possible by Bastian's speedy responses to email inquiries. Naiditsch declined commentary, referring to a forthcoming press release. Gustafsson, Buhmann and Bönsch were also contacted but did not reply. Daniel Fridman's email statement may be an appropriate way to close this report:
Unfortunately there are hardly any more reports on the tournament itself, which I regret a lot. I can understand that the current discussion attracts a lot of interest, but please accept that I do not want to make any further statements on this topic beyond my letter published at the federation homepage. It would be nice if, in the future, people will again discuss more about chess and not about persons.
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