Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Interview with USCF Executive Board Candidate Mike Atkins

As I mentioned previously, my real belief about USCF politics is that all power and decisions should be handed over immediately to Greg Shahade. However, since that movement hasn't really taken off, I've asked Mike Atkins, who is running for the USCF Executive Board, to answer a few questions. I don't claim to know very much about how to run a non-profit organziation or what what type of person is best suited for the EB, but I will be voting for Mike because he's:
1. involved in chess,
2. doesn't have an obvious ax to grind, and
3. seems
. a. intelligent,
. b. sane, and
. c. friendly.

EV: So let’s start with the high drama question: give us your take on the lawsuits and the Polgar/ Truong vs. Rest of the Board conflict.

MA: The evidence that I have read about in the lawsuits seem to say that Truong was the fake Sam Sloan. It also seems pretty clear from the evidence suggested that Polgar, through her webmaster Alexander, accessed and posted confidential e-mails from the attorney representing people she had sued. Many laws and ethics have allegedly been violated and at the minimum, Polgar and Truong should be removed from the EB. Anyone who sues its own organization with the intent to destroy it should be forever removed from leadership. She has benefited greatly from the support of the USCF and her lawsuit has the effects of chopping off a hand that feeds her and this just doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like a cancer on US Chess that should be irradiated and removed.

EV: What 2 or 3 initiatives would you try to implement if you were elected?

MA: 1. Getting more involved at the leadership level with FIDE. Why aren’t there any Americans at the highest level?
2. Getting a major international in the US. Don’t know if this is possible, but wouldn’t one of the major 2700+ events in the US be cool?

EV: If you could change one USCF rule, policy, or procedure, what would it be?

MA: I would find some way to change the USCF rule on touch move. If anyone contests a claim, it almost ALWAYS results in a honesty dispute. Some of the nastier situations I’ve seen have involved touch move. Without an objective witness, the dispute has to go back to the original position even when you are 110% sure that you know who is moving. The only way to eliminate this is to have more directors, MANY more directors, or have every game under video. This is possible in a small international, but could you imagine what it would cost in the World Open?

One other thing I would change would be to shorten the EB campaign “season.” The US shortened its period of time from election to inauguration from March 4 in the Constitution to January 20 when it became clear that it no longer took a month to travel distances in the developing country. It should probably change it again because it seems like Obama has lost some of his momentum in having to wait 2 ½ months from election to inauguration. The USCF doesn’t need from the first week in January to June to allow candidates to attack each other. The longer it goes the more people attack. Have the filing deadline in March or April and only a couple months to campaign, plenty of time for the forum posts and one presentation in Chess Life and Boom – election.

EV: Do you feel like the governing structure of the USCF works? If so, why? If not, is it changeable and what should it be changed to?

I have been a long-time member of the ANA, American Numismatic Association. They have the same structure, ED and a Board of Governors which function like the USCF EB. While they don’t have Delegates, the Board is suing the previous Executive Director after years of disputes, sound familiar?! It would be interesting to look at 20-30 different national organizations and see how they are organized. Since the Delegates are the supreme authority and they instruct the EB and ED, I can’t see them ever allowing themselves to be taken out of the picture. I’ve been involved in USCF at the national level since 1996 which was the advent of the internet for EB elections. Everyone I have seen has been bitterly contested with outrageous accusations flying back and forth. It would be nice to see what they were prior to the internet. I suspect similar, although on a smaller stage and with less dirty laundry exposed to the public.

I think it is designed to work but has been struggling for a dozen years. It’s admirable that Bill Hall survived the 2007 influx of 4 new members, I don’t remember that having happened since 1996. Every new board seemed to attack the old ED and have a new one pretty soon after taking office. I think the EB should instruct the ED on what the quarterly and annual goals are and track the progress of those goals. Individual EB members ought to contribute based on their areas of expertise, but they should not micromanage. They should give the ED the power to get the job done and step back and let him/her do it. The ED should not have to be constantly looking over his/her shoulder. I wonder if we’ll ever get back to the ten and twenty year

EV: Which other person do you tend to agree with most frequently in USCF politics?

MA: Let me answer in the negative. For the past decade or so I have been listed on Sam Sloan’s website as “The website of my arch-enemy Michael Atkins” That is really a major claim to fame and is he someone I am pretty much diametrically in opposition to in about 99% of life. You really need a sense of humor to deal with him.

EV: A lot of USCF EBs have seemed to me to be strangely afraid of offending FIDE. Do you agree with this perception, and if so, why do you think it is? Either way, what issues do you see as the most important between the USCF and FIDE?

MA: Last summer I was among a group of directors who exchanged a long series of e-mails with Stewart Reuben, an English IA who is either on the FIDE Rules Committee or the head of the committee, as well as being head of the Organizer’s committee. It seemed like the discussion boiled down to “Our rules are better than your rules.” Stewart made the observation several times that he and FIDE were often unaware of certain USCF differences as no one from the USCF was there to participate in the rules meetings. That is something that has to change, we must participate and if we don’t then we should not complain afterwards. I might be wrong, but from reading FIDE reports in the past from USCF FIDE reps, it has seemed like the reps sometimes do not represent what the EB or delegates tell them to represent. That needs to change too.

Past USCF EB’s have challenged FIDE when needed, and Bill Goichberg’s challenges to FIDE in the future Kamsky-Topalov match stand out. I think we would do better in FIDE with more representatives in the committees and in the leadership. It is hard having much influence from the sidelines. We need to challenge and do it even louder when it is warranted, but get more involved. That is easier said than done because FIDE meetings always require international travel. How about an Olympiad and Congress here in the US? How about a USCF President of FIDE one day? Does it really take being a Dictator to be President?

EV: Do you think the USCF is going to go bankrupt? Or would they have without the generous bequests? What’s your assessment of the current financial situation?

MA: If the Polgar/Truong lawsuit is victorious, probably yes. I don’t think that will happen so the answer is a qualified no. I qualify that because it is certainly possible to go bankrupt, just like a person can go bankrupt if they spend more than they take in. A lot of money has been lost over the past decade, partly because I think the Board and Executive Director has been in such constant change that long term plans have been impossible. In the days when there were strong Executive Director’s who ran it like a business for a decade or more, we did better than than an ED who is looking over his shoulder fearful of getting fired any minute – how can you run an organization like that.

The recent bequests were wonderful gifts that can help the USCF greatly. It was interesting that only days after being announced, numerous threads in the forums popped up about how to spend it and arguments ensued and that is such a microcosm of the USCF. The money ought to be frozen until the Delegates meeting in August, nothing wrong with a little interest. The delegates should decide what to do with it. One option is to pay off the mortgage to the USCF building which will then increase monthly operating funds by about $50,000 from what I have read. In any case, it is the delegates who should decide in a vote in August what exactly to do with the money.

EV: If you were going to make cuts in the USCF budget, where would they come from?

MA: Before doing that I'd have to study and learn the budget better, talk to current EB members, talk to USCF staff. It isn't a job for one person and a group can often prevent one person with a grudge from running amok. I'll know this area better as time goes on.

EV: Do you think it's a conflict of interest for Bill Goichburg to be President of the CCA and of the Excutive Board? If so, do you think that's a problem. If not, why?

MA: I don't see a problem with Bill being President of both CCA and USCF. He is prevented from organizing USCF nationals while on the board. When the tournaments in the US do well, both USCF and CCA do well. I'd rather see the connection up front that worry about what is going on behind the scenes with people who have less transparent motivations.

EV: I was very disturbed last spring to hear that the USCF pays an agency, Meetinglink, to find hotels for the US Open and National Scholastic tournaments. What was really shocking about this is that they pay this (1 person) agency $20 per room per night. That seems like an astoundingly large amount of money. What do you know about this and what are your thoughts on it?

MA: Companies like these know the hotel business better then most and can find good deals simply because they tend to know more hotels, are motivated to get contracts because they get 10% of the room night revenue as thei income. They can find hotels that would otherwise go unfound and they do the contracts with the hotels. If I ran a lot of personal events I'd probably use that service because dealing with hotels can be such a pain. Finding them and getting room rates under $100 and doing all the contract details takes quite a bit even for one of my events, if there were dozens and dozens like the USCF of CCA, it would save so much time that the 10% would be worth it. When they do really large tournaments, especially on a repeat basis which involves less work, they often give some of that 10% back to be fair. I don't see this as much of a controversy, just a service to make your life easier.

EV: How much work do EB members do in a typical week and what does it consist of?

MA: I guess I will find out. It isn't a job that pays anything so it is labor of love, an avocation. I've been involved in chess since 1973, getting more and more involved since 1996. A lot of the work of the EB consists of communication with each other when issues come up, talking with members of the USCF to get different perspectives. People with areas of expertise that differ from what is on the board would especially valuable.

If any other EB candidates would like to do an interview, send me an email!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that interview. I was planning to vote for Mr. Atkins until the cancer reference. Those of us who have loved ones who have died too young or at any age of cancer have a hard time with that analogy. A bad board member is not a cancer on the organization. I might reconsider based on the weakness of the other candidates.

Greg Shahade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Shahade said...

Cancer has multiple meanings in most dictionaries, with one of them not being related to the medical definition.

For example in Merriam-Webster:

: something evil or malignant that spreads destructively (the cancer of hidden resentment — Irish Digest)

Here is from

2. any evil condition or thing that spreads destructively; blight.

The world has voiced their opinion on the many meanings of the word "cancer". Your narrow definition isn't what the dictionaries seem to believe.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was inappropriate when David Brooks said that Sarah Palin was a cancer on the Repubican Party even though my opinion of Sarah Palin is probably not much higher than Mr. Atkins' opinion of Susan Polgar. Maybe you haven't watched a friend die at age 30, an uncle die at age 40 or have dear friends who have lost children, spouses and parents to cancer.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

oh, wow, chill out. your grief doesn't mean other people can't use metaphors.

Anonymous said...

One more question: How do you square your opinion that Mr. Atkins "doesn't have an obvious ax to grind" with his statement that Ms. Polgar and/or her lawsuit are "like a cancer on US Chess that should be irradiated and removed." Removed with an ax?

I am looking for candidates without axes to grind. Unfortunately this interview doesn't really leave me with that impression of Mr. Atkins.

Anonymous said...

Truth does not mean "axe to grind', although sometimes the truth can hurt.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

having an opinion isn't the same as having an ax (axe?)

Anonymous said...

Truth does not mean 'ax to grind', although sometimes the truth can hurt.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather died of cancer and I could care less about the analogy. So Anon, don't pretend to speak for all (or any) of us in that boat.

On the FIDE issue, Mike missed that the USA has a VP on the FIDE Presidential Board, Bill Kelleher. Outside of that factoid, I don't know anything else on the FIDE personalities involved (Stewart Reuben has a book on organizing international level tournaments on Amazon, so he's probably just as good a source as any).

All that said, I won't discount any candidate at this point. Thanks Elizabeth for the interview offers, because you may be the only source on US Chess news I trust at this point.

Anonymous said...

"Thanks Elizabeth for the interview offers, because you may be the only source on US Chess news I trust at this point."


Anonymous said...

Does anyone where I can find an (preferably impartial) overview of the current situation of the USCF. I find the whole thing rather confusing.

Anonymous said...

Mig Greengard, when he chooses to cover it, is a pretty good souce of U.S. chess news on his blog. His relationship with Kasparov is well known and disclosed but unlike most other chess bloggers and reporters, I never get the sense that he has a dog in this fight and, like a lot of us, he seems to find it all fairly ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Adkins callous use of the word "Boom", when women and children are dying from explosives every day, is unforgivable. I am now going to vote 5 times for Sam Sloan, the voice of reason and non-craziness.

Anonymous said...

Here is a question: What if the USCF's lawsuit is unsuccessful or not successful right away and Atkins has to serve on the board with the cancers he seeks to irradiate? Awkward, no? Or maybe like Obama and Hillary, there can be a rapprochment.

Anonymous said...

On a related note, Susan Polgar posted this entry "The USCF lost $419,968 so far this fiscal year" on her blog -

Since her blog comments are "moderated," all comments are one-sided.

In any case, does anyone know the detail of the losses? I assume the cost related to ongoing lawsuits linked to Polgar and Truong is a big part of the expenditure.

Anonymous said...

To the financial question...

Either Polgar didn't read the Q2 Profit/Loss statement or her math is fuzzy, or somehow $90k went missing in a week (the Q2 PL was created last Friday 1/9/09). The Q2 PL states a Year-to-Date loss of $328,928. Last year at the same time we sat with a loss of $241,666. At first blush this looks like we're doing worse, but you have to delve into the line items. Numbers below are rounded.

Revenue is comparable to last year (~$358k this year against $367k last year). Expenses tell the story; magazine, standard payroll, and Governance costs are DOWN (whoo!). HOWEVER...we have $190k in FIDE Tournament Expenses (!!!compared to $90k last year) and $80k in contractor fees that didn't exist last year. Those expenses alone explain the difference between $329k this year against $242k last year.

Before anyone is accused of mismanagement (and if you look at the expense ratios, it appears the office is doing a good job) we should understand where the FIDE money went (um, Bronze Medals?) and what the contractor details were. Mike Nolan is a contractor, and you definitely want to keep him around.

Anonymous said...

Which other EB candidates have asked for an interview? This is a great platform for them to put their messages out!

Anonymous said...

I saw on Google alerts that you are going to interview Sam Sloan tomorrow. Is that still on?

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Well, Sam wrote to me and asked, and I initially said yes, but then changed my mind. While I'm all for free speech and dissenting opinions, I'm not going to spend my free time with someone who writes or posts how-to articles about rape. (In fact, that's one of litmus tests as a voter: I only vote for anti-rape candidates.)

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Oh,I almost forgot-- candidates I support must also be against child prostitution.

Call me an ultra-liberal special-interest lobby.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry Elizabeth, I thought the rape thing was gone from his website. I didn't know he had involvement with or supported child prostitution though.

I fully understand your position and I agree, that stuff is totally unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

There was a link on his web site to his own experience with a young girl in either Cambodia or Burma or Vietnam. Dylan McClain's colleague, the great Nicholas Kristof should report on that.