Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thoughts on Professionalism

It's day 1 of the 2012 London Olympics. The sports have started after an amazing opening ceremony. As I was watching the opening ceremony (a repeat actually, as I didn't stay awake, or get up ridiculously early to watch it) I noticed tennis superstar Novak Djokovic carrying the national flag for his country. Of course, this immediately made me think about the Olympic spirit and the original amateur status of the games and how things have changed. In fact, the big question is probably whether things should have changed. I guess if the Olympics is to be the pinnacle of sporting achievement, then the best participants from each sport should be included, whether they be amateur or professional. This will, of course, put the amateurs at a huge disadvantage but it seems impossible to me to have it any other way, especially as there is a somewhat grey area as to what constitutes professional and what is considered amateur.

To some extent, similar issues exist in the world of chess. Currently, there is a British Championship taking place which has both professional and amateur players competing. But should this be the case? There is a case for making the tournament more elite, even a closed round robin tournament for perhaps 12 players. It would be possible to stage qualifiers for this, and there would be fierce competition for the event with Britain having over 30 GM's. Say the top 6 players all played, and then 6 of the following 20 qualified, there would be a tournament of probably category 14. A tournament of this quality may also be more attractive to sponsors, though this is only speculation. Historically, the British Championship also doubled as a sort of Commonwealth Championship and the tournament had a distinctly international flavour, with representatives of the home countries being joined by Australians, Canadians, Indians New Zealanders and other players from Commonwealth countries. This changed a few years ago after an influx of top Indian players started to dominate the tournament. Now the British has a definitely home feel to it, and also a semi professional feel.

Here in Australia it is virtually impossible to be a professional from just playing chess (I'm not sure how easy it is in any country). Even the very best players in Australia work as chess coaches or have jobs outside of chess. Funnily enough I'm a full time chess coach and can count myself as a chess professional, though I have no misgivings about my playing strength which puts me at the top end of club players or in the bottom level of internationally rated players. Nevertheless, I'm confident that my client group, which are mostly beginners and novices from Primary School age, learn to enjoy the game and improve. But one of the issues that we have here in Australia (and I guess in other countries) is an uneasy relationship between the professional chess coaching companies and the National and State Federations which is run on a strictly voluntary basis to avoid conflicts of interest. As much as I would like to give back to the game in an administrative form, I have stayed away from standing for posts at state and national level, and I have been asked to join. Instead I've helped out at a club level which is no less important to my mind.

The London Olympics will showcase a number of great sporting achievements and I believe that some Australians will prove to be golden superstars. In chess, the Olympiad will be held in Istanbul from August 27-September 10th, and I will be hoping for great performances from both Australia and England. The Australian team is under strength with both GM Zhao, GM Johansen and IM Xie all unable to play. But however our players do, I along with the rest of the Australian chess fraternity will follow with pride our team. I'll also be wondering whether Australia will be performing above their ranking of 57 in the World and how it would be possible to move up the list. Will the work I'm doing contribute to future generations of Australian Olympiad players? Can Australia improve their lot without the full cooperation of the voluntary and professional sectors? And if this is needed, how is it going to come about?

Anyway, there's nothing wrong with having an amateur status. There have been some great amateur players over the years, with World Champion Max Euwe being probably the cream of the crop. Before being World Champion in 1935, Euwe was World Amateur Champion, a title he won in 1928 in the Hague. It was held at the same time as the 1928 Olympic games in Amsterdam, and was part of the chess Olympiad. Here's a couple of games from that event showing Euwe's excellent attacking and tactical ability.

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