Yesterday saw the conclusion of this year’s British chess championship, a fortnight-long event held in Sheffield. This was generally deemed to have been an interesting tournament with some good, exciting and high-standard chess – but it concluded amid high-profile acrimony that had very little to do with the game itself.
The main tournaments – in which upwards of 900 people took part – ended on Friday, with only one issue remaining to be decided. The two leading British grandmasters, Cornishman Michael Adams and Nigel Short (ex of Lancashire, now of Greece), had tied for first place in the main championship and were required to meet again in short-form quickplay chess on Saturday morning to determine who would be this year’s champion.
Before that happened, however, at 9:30am on Saturday, came the general prizegiving ceremony, covering a considerable spread of chess ability.
The prizes were meant to be handed over by Connagh-Joseph de Mooi – commonly known as CJ de Mooi – who, as well as being a model and a panellist on the BBC show Eggheads, is also president of the English Chess Federation (ECF), having been elected to the post in 2009.
In Sheffield yesterday, de Mooi – who describes himself as a “gay equality” supporter – was wearing a red T-shirt sponsored by the charity Stonewall and bearing the legend “Some people are gay. Get over it!” In the lead-up to the presentation, de Mooi’s choice of attire was questioned and this led to him not presenting the prizes. Amid conflicting accounts of what had happened, a considerable hooha kicked off, both in the tournament hall and online.
At first it was unclear who had made the request of de Mooi: candidates ranged from the tournament organisers, the on-the-day arbiters, the management at the Ponds Forge centre where the event was being staged, or even a chess player or a parent of a junior player.
Gradually a clearer picture emerged. Just before midday on Saturday, de Mooi commented on Twitter: “I’ll make an official statement when play is over [in the Adams–Short playoff]. I stress this was not an ECF board (the members here were supportive) or venue decision.”
Then, late afternoon, de Mooi commented directly on the English Chess Forum (which, confusingly, is not linked to the English Chess Federation), both in an official “Statement” and in a personal – but still public – addendum. “At this morning’s prizegiving ceremony of the Darwin Strategic British Chess Championships 2011,” de Mooi wrote in the statement, “an arbiter approached me saying she had ‘personal reservations’ about me wearing a Stonewall T-shirt when presenting prizes to juniors. It was apparently inappropriate for me to wear something mentioning ‘sexuality’ in such an environment.
“I did not consider this an issue as I had worn it the previous day in the playing hall and no objections were raised. I am fully CRB [criminal records bureau] checked and was registering my public support of a charity. The other 2 arbiters said ‘no problem with it’ and ‘I hadn’t actually noticed’ but after a discussion returned and suggested if I wanted to wear it, I could just present to the adults. I refused saying ‘I either present all the prizes or none’ but I would leave it as their decision.”
There was then “consultation”, after which de Mooi says he was told “there had been ‘some complaints’. He then sat out the presentation ceremony.
“Personally, I was incensed,” de Mooi said in his addendum. “No matter how I try to drag chess into the 21st century, I seem to continually face ‘antediluvian’ attitudes. Whether it relates to lifestyle, accepted tradition, maintaining a status quo, whatever – if change wasn’t wanted or expected, why was I elected? I am utterly passionate about chess – I have used up most of my personal savings to provide ‘the strongest’ and ‘best ever British Championships’ this year and really don’t want to have to deal with this sort of stuff too.”
He added: ”I won’t change (in either sense!) and will continue to work hard to promote chess and what I think is right. I have heard nothing but support from the GMs [grandmasters], other players, sponsors ECF board and many other parties.
“If this isn’t what the English Chess Federation wants, please ask me to stand down or vote me out in October. However, you know who I am, what I do and what I support (incidentally, I don’t support gay rights, I support gay equality) I humbly dare to suggest that no-one has any issue with my chess endeavours and how I work to promote and support the game. […] I am happy and honoured to be ECF President but I am foremost CJ de Mooi and it’s him who defines the job, not the other way around.”
De Mooi has since offered his resignation “for the benefit of the ECF and the future reputation of chess”. He also said: “I am a passionate person and I know that’s one of the main reasons people are able to support me. However, although I don’t apologise for who I am, what I choose to promote or how I go about doing that, I may have over reacted on this occasion (despite my ‘irritation’) and it’s unfortunate that something such as this threatens to overshadow a magnificent event that so many people worked for, most far more than me.”
The mention of a female arbiter – the chess equivalent of a referee or umpire – made it easy to identify the person who had initially spoken with de Mooi, as there was only one such person present at Sheffield. Lara Barnes – a chess player and arbiter based in north-eastern England – is a familiar face on the Scottish chess circuit, where she is well-liked and respected.
This morning, Barnes – having earlier commented on Facebook – posted her response on the English Chess Forum: “Here is my side of the incident (I am posting against the advice of some, but I am getting hate emails claiming that I am homophobic and need to clear this up). I spoke to David [Welch – tournament manager] and Alex [McFarlane – chief arbiter] before the prize-giving suggesting that the T-shirt in question may not be advisable seeing as children were going to be in photographs with it and the charity in question was promoting a sexuality-based issue. I personally raised over £200 for the same charity on the Sunday night quiz [midway through the tournament] […] I was just worried that children who had come for chess may be exploited in photo opportunities for a different issue/charity.
“They [Welsh and McFarlane] were reluctant to speak to CJ about it and I said that I would. I told CJ that we usually dressed up more formally for the prize-giving and that it was only my opinion that his T-shirt may be controversial. He said ‘well I won’t present the prizes then’. When I told David Welch this he said that I had made a mistake in his opinion. I then left it to the ‘officials’ to make any decision. I believe that they still wanted CJ to present the prizes to the British Championship for which he had made a large financial contribution and huge publicity effort. He declined, saying ‘all or nothing’.
“May I add that, and many of my friends know already, it would be highly hypocritical of me to ‘oppose’ any gay-equality charity as I have had gay relationships in the past. Any thought of ‘anti-gay’ anything was never in my mind when I suggested the T-shirt was inappropriate for a national chess championships prize-giving, it was just inappropriate. I have many Wychwood Brewery T-shirts promoting real ale, but I would not wear them to the British Championships prize-giving. My only fault may have been being naive to the controversy that this brought up.”
Barnes also says that in today’s Sunday Times article on the controversy, “CJ’s claim that he was ‘banned’ from wearing the T-shirt is just untrue.” She also said: “He was never asked to ‘take it off’. I only queried whether it was appropriate, had he said ‘yes, I believe it is’ then I would not have had anything further to say at the time and he would have gone ahead with the prize-giving. He is the president of the organisation for which I do voluntary work and I would have bowed to his authority.”
The Sunday Times piece was co-written by grandmaster and 1971 British champion Ray Keene, who has been tweeting vigorously about the controversy since the start. Keene – long retired as a player – is a noted chess author and organiser but is himself no stranger to controversy. The dispute has also been covered by the Guardian.
Also noteworthy is that this year’s British chess championship was unusual in having a dress code. This was set at “smart casual” – but seemingly only applied to players, not officials.
Asked this morning what would happen in a similar situation north of the border (where the British championship is held from time to time, most recently in 2003 in Edinburgh), Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland, said: “As executive director I don’t often get asked as I am normally working the event. Often when I am, I will be wearing my Chess Arbiters’ Association top, a Scottish Chess top or a Scottish Junior Chess top. If I ever had to present at the Scottish [championship] I would be in a suit.”
“For official events like the Scottish championships / SJC Chess For Kicks final etc I would wear a suit”, said Chess Scotland president Michael Hanley. “In fact I was ‘suited up’ at the Scottish but had a chat with Lord Kirkwood and asked him to present the trophies as he had just agreed to be new honorary president. For less formal events like Hamilton Junior Congresses, I have no problem wearing a T-shirt advertising my business.”
Oh, and while all the T-shirt palaver was going on, there was some chess taking place. Adams and Short drew the first of their playoff games, before the former world no.4 Adams won the second to retain the British title. It would be neat to be able to report that one of the players used the Stonewall System in one of these games – and Short, known to have a wry sense of humour, was perhaps tempted. But a pair of more mainstream openings – a Queen’s Indian Defence and a Caro-Kann – were played…
Update, late evening 7 August: A statement from Andrew Farthing, chief executive of the English Chess Federation – along with new statements from Lara Barnes and CJ de Mooi – can be found here, about two-thirds down the page. Basically it seems that there has been a cooling-off period, time has passed in a useful way, misunderstandings have been sorted out and the two main parties have found it in themselves to say nice things about each other. CJ de Mooi’s offer of resignation has been declined by the ECF.