Ali Nihat Yazici: “You can't have it all!”

Text and photos: Evgeny Atarov

Turkish Chess Federation President Ali Nihat Yazici is one of the most often referred to figures on the internet. He did this, he declared that, he was guest of honour at the inauguration of this chess tournament or school, he indignantly attacked him, he awarded a prize to her… 

Referred to, but not discussed! And what’s to discuss? The whole chess community is essentially divided into two camps: those who are crazy about Ali and consider him just about the most progressive manager, and those who can’t stand him, recalling human rights violations and applying the term “dictator”.  

He can be both those things, and more... In Ali you observe strong will-power and a readiness, for the sake of proving his case, to put everything at stake. He’s capable of seeing ahead and getting down to work in areas that had seemed unrealistic. He’s tough, demanding and, as Yulian Semyonov would write, “merciless towards enemies of the Reich”.

Yazici sees his Reich within FIDE, and he’s striving to make it as good as possible – strong and professional. In his manner, of course… And for the sake of that he’s prepared to punish and reward, and to promote ideas that strike many as crazy. When you observe his perseverance on individual issues you begin to think: but maybe he’s right? 

At the very least, he built the Turkish Chess Federation “from the ground up”. Ali’s plan for the next 10-15 years is to transform this previously backward chess country into one of the leading powers. With that goal in mind the best coaches and players have been travelling to Turkey for years now, numerous tournaments have been held, and talent is being sought out across the country itself… 

When I set out to interview Yazici I firmly decided that I wouldn’t take either side: I’d neither praise nor denounce. After all, there were quite a large number of specific questions where it wouldn’t be bad to hear a response from Ali’s own lips.

It has to be said that the FIDE Vice President didn’t try to gloss over the reality and show off. He gave straight answers, not particularly thinking about the impression his responses should produce on the person he was talking to. It’s his opinion, and Ali Nihat doesn’t consider it necessary to hide it. Whether someone likes it or not is the last thing on his mind…

First of all, how do you evaluate the Olympiad in terms of organisation and preparation? 

We started working on preparations for the Olympiad almost 6 months ago. We’ve done a lot of homework and worked very hard to do it in a very good way, but I can’t say it’s possible to organise an Olympiad of this quality in 6 months. This is the result of my team’s 12 years of experience. We know which people you have to deal with, from accommodation to the playing hall, coverage, the press office and everything else. We’d never organised any Olympiads as I was elected one week after the 2000 Istanbul Olympiad, but the Turkish Chess Federation has a lot of experience. 

So I’m happy, satisfied. There were some problems in the first round, but we solved them. I believe by the 5th or 6th rounds there were no longer complaints but compliments. 

Today I read Garry Kasparov’s criticism of the Olympiad, but the only thing I want to say about it – of course we respect all constructive criticism – is that even before visiting the playing hall and congress Garry had started to criticise the Olympiad, and not so much changed from his first criticism to his second. I think it’s deliberate as we’re in opposing camps.

Is there anything you’d like to have done better? Are you satisfied?

(Stops to think.) Yes! In the first round there was a queue outside before the round started. It was a mistake with security. I don’t count that for the second and subsequent rounds. So what could have been better? We could have had better opening and closing ceremonies, if we’d had the budget. 

We had plans, but in the last few months before the Olympiad the government decreased our budget. We decided not to compromise on anything connected with the hotels, accommodation, food, transport and the quality of the playing venue. Therefore we cut the budget for the opening and closing ceremonies and other facilities. We’d also been planning to bus 5-10,000 children here each day. They’d enter through one door of the Olympiad venue, watch the top-level players and then leave through the other. We’d give them each a chess set and book, using the Olympiad to draw children into chess. 

We couldn’t do those things, but in terms of the traditional organisation of Olympiads I don’t think anything was missing. I’m very satisfied with the organisation. 

I’m not angry, but the only thing I’m not so happy about is the result of our Turkish men’s team.  I was expecting better from them, but two players were very sick with the flu. They weren’t up to it, but that happens in sport. Next time at the European or World Team Championships we’ll show what we’re capable of.

Did the organising committee make any special efforts to involve such a remarkable number of participants?

Of course. It’s was very important for us. Above all there was the quality of what we were providing and our advertising. We started to promote the Olympiad almost six months ago in every chess media outlet we could. So we created a good image. 

We never compromised on quality.
I think that resulted in our breaking the record for the number of participating countries, although that’s also partly because FIDE now has 177 members. However, I’m sorry many federations couldn’t come. Around ten federations cancelled their trips at the last minute because of flight costs and everything else. FIDE was unable to support those guys.

Speaking now as a FIDE Vice President that’s the reason I’m so angry with those court cases. 1.2 million euro was taken out of chess when it could have been used to support those federations. 

It’s a very important issue. After the IOC and the International Basketball Federation FIDE is one of the organisations with the highest number of member countries. If you want to become an Olympic sport you need to show you’re getting global participation. We had that, but if instead of 161 countries there were 177 it would have been a very good message for the IOC, showing that we’re doing a fantastic job.

How did you choose where to hold this Olympiad – the hotels and the playing hall? What were the guiding principles?

First of all, there were the conditions we promised, but we improved on them. We’d promised three 4-star hotels and public transportation (not shuttle services), but we decided ok, we have to make it better than 2000 in Istanbul.

Therefore we needed to accommodate 2,500 people in 90% 5-star and 4-star hotels. When you look at Istanbul there are maybe a hundred 5-star hotels, but they’re not close to each other. You automatically come to this area where high quality hotels are accumulated around the airport. 

The prices at which we booked were very expensive, of course. Even during the event we recorded the prices of the hotels every day at booking.com, which is a global booking site. At the end of the first week the prices went up something like 600 euro to 1500 euro for the official hotels we provided to the players.

Secondly, we needed a venue not only for the Olympiad but also for parallel activities – to make it a huge show and attract young children, spectators, amateurs and everyone else. That’s the reason we organised the Istanbul International Open and the World U16 Olympiad here as well. Three events made a huge number of people and meant you needed a venue which was more than 15-16,000 square metres. What we used here was around 24,000 square metres – a huge area. 

All those constraints made us choose the venue and hotels in this area. Another important reason – one all Russians who’ve visited Moscow will understand – is traffic. Istanbul is a metropolitan city with a population of 15 million people, so we couldn’t have held the event in somewhere like Taksim Square without traffic problems. This area is calmer and more contemporary, and it’s also one of the centres of Istanbul. 

That’s how I’d respond to criticism that it’s 14.5 km to the centre. There’s no real centre in Istanbul. Ok, Taksim Square is called the centre, but Kadikoy on the Asian side is also a centre. Fatih is another, Bebek, Ortaköy…  Istanbul is a huge metropolis, so there’s nowhere you can really call the centre. For all those reasons we decided the best venue was the CNR Expo Centre next to the airport. 

I’d add that around 150 people came on a morning flight, visited the Olympiad and then returned on a night flight. That wouldn’t have been possible if we’d held it anywhere else.

The majority of teams and players had three complaints about the organisation: the extra fee for single rooms, having nowhere to walk around and poor and monotonous food. How would you respond?

Let’s start with the first – upgrading to single rooms. We followed the Olympiad regulations exactly. Everything’s covered by the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sport and we had a contract with FIDE that says three double rooms for each team. And what did we do? We offered an additional two singles, for the head of delegation and FIDE delegate. That’s not part of the regulations and cost us around one million euro alone, or 12% of the total. 

On the other hand, when you talk about upgrade prices I’d ask everyone to check the prices on the internet. Our offer for upgrading the rooms from double to single was 60 euro for a 3-star hotel, so for the 5-star hotel here it was 100 euro. If you look at the prices for bed and breakfast you’ll understand that what we offered was a very good price. Normally the concept is bed and breakfast for five star hotels, because people want to eat outside, not in the hotel, but of course we had to provide food in the hotel and it’s more expensive. 

The other problem was that we preferred to offer more double rooms than single rooms, so fewer hotels were needed and it was easier to organise. We knew, however, that many delegates – especially from strong federations with top grandmasters – would never stay in double rooms. They’d want single rooms. That was another pressure on us, but the Turkish government gave us a budget and we held a public tender to select the companies with the best price. We decided the prices for guests in advance and couldn’t negotiate those, so in the end the price for a single room, for example, meant we paid 2-3 euro more than we sold it for, but ok, it’s our responsibility. 

On the food… Come on, that’s a very harsh criticism! Some people complained, but out of maybe 2,500 people I got 5 or 6 complaints. Maybe some people didn’t tell me, so let’s count it as 25-50 critics, or even 100, but it’s still a very small percentage. We actually did something very unique with the food. We reached an agreement with all the hotels for what they had to provide their guests. Although we didn’t publish it during the event I can give you the menu. You’ll remember what you ate and you can compare if we did a good job or not. Every meal should always have three main courses – chicken, fish and meat – and not meatballs, but pure meat. We did that for lunch and dinner. If the company missed that for one meal they’ll be in trouble with us and we won’t pay.

Now about walking around the hotels. Ok, I agree with that, but the sea was 700-800 metres from some hotels, while from the venue it was around 2 km, and taxis are very cheap in Istanbul. So you could get to the sea for 2-3 euro. I’d prefer if you could walk, but it’s physically impossible in Istanbul. 

I’m sorry and I understand the criticism, but we could either choose a good quality playing hall and hotels, or sacrifice that to go somewhere like Taksim Square. That would be a good place for entertainment, but in the 2000 Olympiad I remember the best hotels were 4-star, and for us the comfort of the players was the first priority. We preferred to have good hotels, good food, a good playing hall and easy transportation because of zero tolerance. It wasn’t a question of the budget but simply that we’re in a metropolis, a fantastic city, but one where you need to understand that you can't have it all! 

To be continued...