Ricardo Calvo: Persona non Grata

Edward Winter

(1988, with additions)

The 1987 FIDE General Assembly, meeting in Seville, took the unusual step of passing a resolution censuring a chess writer, the Spanish International Master Ricardo Calvo. The Assembly’s minutes record that the ‘Committee on the Ricardo Calvo Case’, comprising A. Denker (Chairman), J.E. Molina Marino and M. Aaron, had recommended ‘a suspension of five years banning him from all events of FIDE’. After a lengthy discussion, FIDE delegates voted (72 countries for, 1 against and 2 abstentions) for a milder resolution which condemned Calvo’s ‘admitted election irregularities’ and the text of his ‘insulting and defamatory’ letter, which ‘brings chess into disrepute’. Calvo was declared persona non grata, but was not precluded from playing in FIDE events.

Reaction to the resolution has, predictably enough, been hostile, not to say hysterical; both ‘McCarthyism’ and ‘Stalinism’ have been duly evoked. Here we shall try to analyse the issues with rather more recourse to nuance, afterwards taking the opportunity to outline C.N.’s editorial policy on controversial topics.

Calvo’s offence was to have written a two-and-a-half page letter in New in Chess describing his Latin American electioneering on behalf of Keene/Lucena in the second half of 1986. ‘My only weapon’, he said, ‘was a letter by Gary Kasparov giving me full powers to arrange a tour of simuls, exhibitions and lectures to most Latin American countries.’ Calvo’s item briefly described the results obtained in each country visited. For instance, ‘El Salvador supported us because I promised that in case of victory Kasparov would give a simul, free of charge, to the victims of the recent earthquake’. (Keene and Lucena’s subsequent withdrawal annulled this offer to the destitute.)

Calvo painted federations black or white according to their voting intentions. Those unswayed by the prospect of a simul by the world champion were branded as corrupt. One sample passage will give the flavour:

‘There are also open veins in the economy of these regions, where a girl must become a prostitute from 14 years on, or a boy must become a policeman or a soldier of the dictator if they want to survive. In these situations, chess delegates are delighted with a small piece of the big cake of money, or power, or travelling away from their unhappy surroundings. They are grateful for a free ticket, or a good meal, or oh my God, the possibility of a post in the FIDE, with a beautiful flag over an international table. I believe this is the kind of people who have supported Campomanes.’

The letter was not without own-goals. An example: ‘under the (questionable) assumption that Kasparov represented the Truth ... ’; ‘questionable’, though certainly the mot juste, does not fit in with Calvo’s thesis. In his syndicated column Larry Evans called the letter ‘a solid piece of journalism’, showing solidarity with his own kind. In reality, it was a savage piece of post-campaign sour grapes which was worthless. It was devoid of detail, evidence or proof.

But if it is understandable that FIDE and its member federations were incensed, we do not believe that the matter should have been voted upon in Seville. One reason is that Calvo’s letter, deplorable as it was, could hardly be called unique. Topical chess journalism nowadays owes far less to inspiration and perspiration than to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Sections of Kasparov’s Child of Change are no better than the Calvo letter, yet it is most doubtful whether the General Assembly would care to pass a similar resolution against the world champion for the ‘insulting and defamatory’ way he has brought ‘chess into disrepute’. If the FIDE General Assembly were to debate every case of untruthful and unscrupulous chess journalism, it would find itself in permanent session.

It is the role of the international legal system, and not of FIDE or its member federations, to sit in judgement on cases of alleged defamation. Unlike FIDE, the courts can oblige an accused person to attend the hearing and, if guilt is proven, can punish more rationally than by a declaration of persona non grata. Moreover, although it is virtually inconceivable that Calvo could have substantiated his assertions, it is equally true that nobody has disproved them. (They are so vague that there is nothing on which to take a grip.) However obvious it may seem that Calvo was guilty of gross distortion, votes of censure should be reserved for strictly factual matters. Point 3 of the FIDE resolution stated, ‘It was agreed that if IM Calvo so requests, he would be given a hearing by an objective FIDE Committee which would determine if there were any extenuating circumstances.’ We should like to know whether he was also offered this opportunity before the Denker Committee and General Assembly met.

Although a number of FIDE delegates, mainly European, spoke against the original Denker proposal on the grounds that free speech was all-important and it was not FIDE’s role to judge such matters, not one of them (not even David Levy, from the Scottish Chess Association) spoke against the resolution eventually agreed (which, it might be thought, was open to the same objections).

Both the FIDE debate and the subsequent press reaction muddled two distinct questions. Denker had stated that the issue of free speech was secondary to Calvo’s ‘admitted election irregularities’. (He has also used the term ‘election fraud’.) However, such descriptions are surely exaggerations, for there is nothing illegal (as opposed to unethical) about trying to obtain votes by offering simultaneous displays by Kasparov. As noted above, Calvo called this his ‘only weapon’, a telling comment on the barren Keene/Lucena campaign programme. No doubt he calculated that an appeal for support to do Something Great for British Chess would have had limited impact on those struggling to rebuild their lives in the Salvadorean rubble.

It is significant that the press (a tendentious article by David Spanier on page 17 of the Daily Telegraph of 10 December 1987 is a random example) has steered clear of the election irregularities/ethics question, dealing exclusively – and in simplistic terms – with the free press issue. A free press is not one that allows anyone and everyone to rant à volonté. Paradoxically, an editor’s refusal to publish a dubious item is a positive way of upholding press freedom, and even the dismissal of an editor is a victory, rather than a defeat, for free speech if he has acted against the interests of truth and justice.

It remains to be revealed whether New in Chess attempted to check Calvo’s statements, whether it offered those criticized the right of reply and whether it received adverse reaction after publication. Certainly nothing was printed.

The FIDE resolution, wrong-headed and heavy-handed as it was, may be seen as a reflection of anxiety at the lack of integrity that marks so much topical chess comment. Sapiens nihil affirmat quod non probet. The situation will not improve until editors display a greater sense of responsibility and accountability. Is chess really so dull that it must be gingered up with hearsay and slurs?

It is acceptable, and indeed desirable, that all writing should be constantly monitored, judged and, when necessary, condemned. But this is essentially a task for individual readers and not for the FIDE General Assembly. In our view, subscribers to magazines and purchasers of books should be far more active in denouncing bad writing. The battle is a hard one (we know from experience that many editors are not remotely interested in readers’ factual corrections, let alone their opinions), but the effort has to be made.

In passing it may be mentioned that the Calvo case is not comparable to our complaint due to be presented to the 1985 and 1986 General Assemblies (C.N. 1332). Ours was a documented submission to FIDE giving incontrovertible proof of falsehoods by the officer it had put in charge of chess information, publication and statistics.

The present item provides an opportunity to explain the editorial policy of C.N. To avoid too theoretical a discussion, we shall take a concrete example, the most obvious one. Occasionally – perhaps two or three times a year – we receive letters from readers disagreeing with the amount of space devoted to Raymond Keene. A few go on to ask why we don’t criticize Campomanes as much.

The letters are invariably faithful to the following pattern: A) Nobody ever disputes any of the precise matters on which we have, always on the basis of documentation, criticized Mr Keene. B) Nobody ever sends us equivalent (i.e. documented) criticisms of the FIDE President. In the past few months we have invited several of Campomanes’s most strident critics to explain their views in this magazine, our only condition being that accusations should be based on documentary evidence and not gossip. To date, nobody has accepted. (Incidentally, C.N. has published no adverse reaction to the items on the BCM Editor (C.N.s 1281 and 1387) or on Kasparov (C.N.s 1491 and 1514) for the straightforward reason that we have received none.)

Nor are we interested in publishing gossip about Mr Keene; in some recent magazines he has been the subject of criticism over matters on which we have no firm facts. Not a word has appeared in C.N. If only those who publish unsubstantiated commérages about Campomanes would exercise similar restraint. We endeavour to apply the same criteria to everybody, and if Mr Keene is criticized more than others it is because he falls short of these criteria more often, and by a greater margin, than anyone else does. As it is, we make only a small selection from his misrepresentations and inaccuracies. One reader asked if we would defend Mr Keene if he was unjustly criticized; our answer was ‘yes’, but it is a hypothetical question. Do readers, for instance, have evidence of any factually inaccurate comments by Campomanes about Raymond Keene? If so, we guarantee to publish them in our next issue, together with ten times as many examples of Raymond Keene being factually inaccurate about Campomanes. And we are not bluffing.


From Arnold Denker (Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA):

‘Thank you for the copy of Chess Notes, which I found to be both interesting and entertaining. Let me also commend you on your report on the Calvo matter, which I found to be the fairest and most objective I have seen so far. I say this in spite of the fact that some of your conclusions differ from mine.

For the record let me point out that without exception sports organizations have fined and barred members from participation in games for unbecoming conduct for as long as I can remember. So much for precedent. In addition, as you so incisively point out, the membership voted 72-1-2 for censure. So the issue was no longer one of whether he deserved punishment but rather what that punishment should be. In the opinion of many, including the former Chess Life Editor, Larry Parr, declaring him “persona non grata” was a severer punishment than the original proposal. It leaves him with a lasting stigma, whereas the Commission’s proposal was merely a suspension from playing in FIDE-rated tournaments. It also should be stressed that we offered him a hearing which might have led to a greater leniency if warranted by his explanation. His failure to accept this olive branch can be interpreted in many ways, but I consider it a further insult.

P.S. You left off that Mr Tudela also sat on our commission.’

At our request, Mr Denker subsequently clarified two factual matters. The first concerned the composition of his Commission, the details of which we took, as stated, from Annex 36 of the Minutes of the Seville Congress. This has no mention of Mr Tudela. Mr Denker informed us:

‘Mr Tudela played a very active role on our committee. It was to him that I dictated the Committee Report, and to him that I complained when I found that it was not as dictated. After being corrected twice, the final draft required, as you will have seen, the word “election” to be filled in at the last moment.’

Mr Denker has also explained that it was in a telephone call with him that Mr Parr described ‘persona non grata’ as carrying a much stronger stigma than a five-year ban from FIDE tournaments (the logic of which argument is lost on us). We asked about this because on page 13 of the March 1988 Chess Life Mr Parr called the resolution actually passed ‘a lesser indictment’ than the one originally proposed by Mr Denker’s Commission.


On page 43 of the Spectator, 9 April 1988 Raymond Keene asserted regarding the Calvo case that at the Seville Congress ‘FIDE sought to crush the freedom of the chess press’. The affair gave rise to the unusual spectacle of a public disagreement between Raymond Keene and David Anderton. The former wrote, à sa façon, about the affair and a proposed FIDE Code of Ethics on page 44 of the 18 June 1988 Spectator. In a letter on pages 21-22 of the 2 July 1988 issue David Anderton disputed the ‘partisan account’. In his column on 20 August 1988 (page 43) Raymond Keene maintained that through the proposed Code Anderton was ‘trying to gag journalists’; ‘an attempt to gag the chess press’ was his term in the 10 September 1988 issue of the Spectator, page 44.

On a different issue (FIDE rules on pairing players from the same country) Raymond Keene’s Spectator column of 18 August 1990 (page 52) criticized ‘two jokers from the British Chess Federation, David Anderton and William Hartston’.

There was also a clash between Keene and Anderton on pages 32-34 of the November 1988 CHESS. For example, on page 34 Anderton wrote:

‘Raymond Keene’s version of the Calvo affair is partial and his own interest undisclosed.’

Addition on 2 January 2021:

In a letter to us dated 29 January 1988 G.H. Diggle commented as follows on the New in Chess article:

‘I have studied Dr Calvo’s article. He frankly says, “I have no pretention of objectivity”. Nor is he always very informative – with the Chilean Chess President we are informed he had “a long and disgusting discussion” and “about Colombia I would prefer not to talk”. He frequently alludes to “pro-Campomanes men” as though they were an unpleasant species of the human race. Speaking as an ignorant layman, my impression of Campo is that of a man of great energy who gets things done and occasionally pulls fast ones, but scarcely a sinister figure supported by a sort of mafia. In Ecuador Dr C. learned “with horror that the man in charge had spent in Guayaquil three days and three nights with Campomanes the year before”. Again, in Venezuela “a pro-Campomanes man” beats up his rival President, “a delightful old woman” – it may indeed have happened, but Campo cannot help all that goes on in Latin America.

Dr Calvo’s last two paragraphs are by far the best ones. They ring true and give a striking picture of chess organization struggling in Third World Countries where delegates will do anything and vote for anyone who will get them away, even temporarily, “from their unhappy surroundings”. No doubt in the late election there must have been some actual (or at any rate indirect) bribery on both sides. Dr C. himself makes no bones about the offer of Kasparov “simuls”.’

Latest update: 3 January 2021.

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Copyright: Edward Winter. All rights reserved.