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Grandmaster Profile: Yasser Seirawan

by Alexander Baburin

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I would like to offer to your attention my interview with Yasser Seirawan - one of the most prominent figures on the American chess scene. Yasser, now 41, has been in professional chess for two decades and is a well-respected player, author and entrepreneur. He has strong views on chess and is prepared to stand by them - for example he refused to play in the last FIDE World Championship, as he does not agree with FIDE's policies on many issues. In March he did the same when he pulled out of the rapid chess tournament in Cannes, patronised by FIDE. Many have probably seen Yasser's dispute with Valery Salov on the Net. I must say that I share Seirawan's position in most cases and believe that he is one of the most reasonable people on the chess scene. Besides, I have been his fan since I was a teenager! I hope that you will enjoy the interview.

12th March 2001, Las Vegas
This interview was originally published in Chess Today.

Yasser, I know it is quite late and you had a long day at the National Open, but hope we can cover a few things. First, next weekend a match between USA and China will take place in Seattle. What is the idea of this match?

This match a brainchild of Dato Tan Chin Nam, who is famous in Asian circles for sponsoring many chess events, including the Chin Nam Trophy Cup tournaments in China. He supported chess Kuala Lumpur for many years, decades in fact. I saw him about two years ago in Las Vegas and he said: "Yasser, it would be wonderful if we could organise a match between China and the United States on many boards." We started to make arrangements to have the match in San Francisco. At that time Dato was working with the World Chess Network in developing an online site and at the time the site was not ready to stage the match. Later I was working with the Seattle Chess Foundation in organising the US Chess Championship and the SCF President, Erik Anderson, said to me: "Yasser, we have to have another event, apart from the US Championship." I told him about Dato's idea and he got very enthusiastic. It worked out even better because the current Governor of Washington State - Gary Locke, comes from a Chinese family. Seattle is home of companies like Microsoft and Boeing, which do a lot of business with China.

How did it go then?

This made the match compelling to the potential sponsors. We made an agreement with the Chinese to have this match for 4 years: we will host it in the first and third year, and they will host the match in the second and fourth year. There will be 4 rounds in each match. We play on 10 board with 3 reserves, there will be 40 games in total.

What is your projection for the coming match?

Frankly, many American players are very optimistic regarding their own chances and think that we will defeat the Chinese team soundly. I express some very serious reservations -Chinese on women's board and junior board outrank us and even on men's boards they are higher rated! Frankly, I think that we are underdogs and if we win the match, I'll be very happy!

I suspect that Chinese women and juniors will give you a hard time!

They might give us a very hard time indeed! But we have hope in Irina Krush - our board one player.

What about the Seattle Chess Foundation? Does it have other aspiring plans?

First of all, SCF (now called America's Foundation for Chess — — Ed.) wants to have a state-of-the-art chess centre in Seattle, which would act as a magnet for chess in the State of Washington. The second thing we want to do is to hold international master classes for juniors - when young chess stars from different countries will come to Seattle for study and tuition in summer time. Thirdly, we really would like to create a scholastics curriculum for schools, which could act as a blue-print anywhere - to build up a great deal of materials, so people interested in teaching chess in schools can have it. Finally, we understand that children are motivated by heroes and role-models, and for that reason SCF is keen on organising elite tournaments, such as the US Chess Championship, which we want to build into a $1m event by the end of our 10-year contract with USCF. We do have further ambitions on an international scale - I spoke with some players about even having 'Russia vs. the Rest of the World' match. I would love SCF itself to evolve to the point that we could do something on an extremely grand scale.

How did the Seattle Chess Foundation start?

Erik Anderson, now President of the SCF, was appalled about the fact that the US Chess Championship had been cancelled because of the lack of funds. He immediately started to work. We wanted a group of underwriters and soon people like Scott Oki and Jim Roberts came onboard. With their backing and strong support we had the US Championship fully funded and then began to search out for other underwriters. The underwriters of the SCF pledge themselves to give $100,000 to the Foundation over 4 years. I believe that currently we a dozen of committed underwriters with 4 more people expected to become underwriters soon. We would like to have 20 underwriters. On top of that, because of the prestige of their names and their commitment to what we are trying to do, we've reached out to corporations. And frankly, we have been successful - we have attracted a number of major Seattle companies, including Boeing, ImageX and Starbucks.

What is your opinion on the way chess is going now - with new time control, changes in the system of world championship, etc.?

When you talk about the international chess scene, almost immediately you have to talk about FIDE. Unfortunately, I shocked myself by the fact that I feel completely the odd man out... I don't understand it -I think my values are extremely common sense and reasonable, but almost on every single issue that FIDE has discussions about, I find myself on the other side of equation. For example, I believe that the rating system is an extremely important promotional tool. I think it is ridiculous to use this system as a weapon against the players. And yet for example FIDE refused the Kasparov-Kramnik match, years ago FIDE threw Kasparov and Short from the list - all of this works against the rating system itself. On the issue of the international titles, FIDE seems to think that every federation deserves at least one Grandmaster... I think that FIDE is cheapening the title to the point where being a Grandmaster means very little - today there is a line-up at every Olympiad of players waiting for it. On the issue of the world championship: chess has a marvellous 120-year tradition of world championships, but it seems to me that the world champion title has been cheapened to a single knockout event. This is ridiculous to my mind... On the issue, for example, of copyright - perhaps this something we want to seriously investigate, but I for one do not want FIDE as a manager collecting the money and telling me "here is your percentage!". On an issue of the freedom of speech, which we hold very dear in America - yet FIDE issued an edict that all journalists should speak not of Alexander Khalifman, FIDE World Champion, but rather as Alexander Khalifman, World Champion. And FIDE would punish journalists who do not comply with that by refusing their journalistic credentials...

And on the issue of time controls: unfortunately chess is not very good for TV, but chess is perfect for the Internet. The slow rate of play was perfect for the Internet - let's cater for our audience on the Net. If FIDE wants TV, let's sponsor a rapid chess championship - the games will be over in one hour and TV will be really happy. Keep classical chess the way it is! I think that there are 3 different kinds of chess - blitz, rapid chess and classical chess. And forcing classical chess to become rapid chess makes no sense!

I agree with you entirely on this one -let's see whether TV stations will line up to cover a rapid chess championship. I am afraid they won't... What do you think of the situation when FIDE has become so dependent on one man - Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

It has been a lot of problems with FIDE... I just want to add something about FIDE World Championship. One myth is that now as we've made chess a sport, it will receive commercial sponsorship. But in my opinion moving the event to Tehran is not an example of commercial sponsorship. This was Tehran paying to improve its image, end of story. I don't see Coca-Cola or even Cesar's Palace sponsoring the championship. I am grateful to Kirsan for all the money that he is spending on chess. But basically he is forcing the world of chess to accept his ideas. He has golden rule - he has gold and gets to make the rules! And there are people who will follow him. But I don't see what he has done, as being positive for chess, its image and prestige. I am sure that all the players, including myself, who were awarded prizes in FIDE championships, are grateful, but at the same I have a very clear feeling that this title, the FIDE title has been cheapened.

What are your aspirations as a player?

First of all, as a player I truly admire the world's elite players, when they are playing. It is absolutely remarkable to see Kasparov's continued success in tournaments. I follow big tournaments with interest and I watched the match in London keenly. As for playing, my rating has been around 2640-2650, so I am in 'no man's land' - my rating is not high enough to get invited to elite tournaments and not low enough to be invited to tournaments where people try to get norms! I am no big fan of open tournaments. For example, I admire the National Open, but it is too tough for professionals here - only a few will make money and many GMs will lose money in the tournament!

You were always very entrepreneurial - publishing Inside Chess magazine, writing, publishing and selling books, etc. Now you have your magazine online ( How isthat going?

We went to the Web because of economical reasons. It was no longer economical for us to publish the magazine as a printed magazine. Inside Chess still sell books and software, but sales have been slow, which is unfortunately a common trend in USA. For example, in the past decade USCF was losing about 1,000 members a year. That is 10,000 members paying $40 each - $400,000 lost in membership fees and probably another $400,000 in lost sales, as those people used to buy books, clocks, etc. This is a very negative trend. But fortunately there are two positive trends too - increase in scholastic chess and growth of the Internet. Mind you, this has not materialised in a monetary fashion to the benefit of the registered chess world - it certainly helped chess and the chess audience on the Net will continue to grow. But it is still a question mark of how to moneytise the many chess fans, registered and unregistered, on the Internet.

Talking about Internet, you were involved with - how is that site doing now?

Unfortunately fell a victim of what is known as the burst of the dotcom bubble. The site hired me in October 1999 to serve as the President of, which I did till my contract ran out. When the contract was for renewal, the stock market for Net companies fell dramatically... is still there, but it is not promoting itself and it is not trying hard to raise new members. To my mind, is also suffering because investors for online companies are longer exist now.

Do you see any reversal of fortune in this area?

I think that the Internet craze was exaggerated, just as the Internet meltdown is exaggerated. The Internet will continue to grow and some companies, perhaps companies like eBay and Yahoo, will be around for many years. And such companies will take a look at chess in a close business model and say "Hey! There are a few million people playing chess on the Internet and we are going to cater for this market, because it makes business sense." I think we will see some drift in that direction in the next six months or so.

But at the moment there is a lot of stuff on the Internet and most of it is free. In my opinion this is hard to sustain, unless chess sites have some sponsor's money to burn, like with KasparovChess. What do you think will happen?

I believe that Internet will become far more commercial. So far Internet has got a free ride - free from taxes, etc. Napster is an excellent example. But probably soon Napster will become a subscription-based model and Yahoo will become a subscription-based model - because it will make sense for them to do so. Furthermore I don’t think that advertising itself is a dead model. Banner advertising for well-targeted audiences will grow. Many sales will take place on the Internet - they double every year and it is not too difficult to realise that in a few years there will be trillions dollars worth of sales. Also, I think merchandising will be different - for example, you will be giving online lecture on Najdorf variation. And as you speak, people will see a special offer - buy this Sicilian Najdorf book, as if you do it right now, it's only $9,95!

Thank you, Yasser, for sharing your views with Chess Today!

You are welcome!

This interview was conducted by Alexander Baburin on the 12th of March 2001 and was originally published in Chess Today.

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted