Friday, May 01, 2009

Szuveges: I don't love CV

In the first part of our email interview, new Melbourne Chess Club boss Grant Szuveges revealed some interesting info about personal matters. There he had an important tidbit about his departure from the chess scene: to reclaim a life. After nine years of absence, Mr Szuveges makes a comeback, not to over the board battles, but to a contest of a different kind. This time his aim can be summarised pretty simply. To reclaim his beloved Melbourne Chess Club.


Let's just turn now to serious matters. We know about why you decided to be the MCC boss. In your words you were "angry". But I am interested to know if you have some idea of what led to the MCC's let us just say "near" demise in the first place.

I think that the main problem at the MCC was just general neglect. A lot of people involved had been there for a very long time and probably hadnt realised how bad it had got. When someone is around something for so long, they simply get used to it and don't recognise that it may be a problem. Often someone who hasn't been involved for a while (like me in this case) can come in and notice things which aren't going well because they don't see them every day. Although most of the people did (and still do) care about the club, they probably weren't able to (1) identify something as a problem and (2) do anything about the problem. An example of the sort of conversations I was having with people in very early February would go something like this:

Grant Szuveges: When did the floors last get vacuumed?
MCC member X: 10 months ago.
GS: 10 months ago??? Why havnt they been done since?
X: We dont have a vacuum cleaner - it broke.
GS: Why didn't you buy a new one?
X: So and so said they would buy a new one.
GS: When?
X: 8 months ago.
GS: Why haven't the committee held so and so to their word?

Another example might go:

GS: Why is the kitchen a mess?
X: What do you mean?
GS: Well there is a broken kettle on the shelf.
X: Yeah, its broken.
GS: Why didnt it get thrown out?
X: It wouldn't fit in the bin.
GS: Why not take it and all the other rubbish to the tip?
X: We may be able to fix it.
GS: Why do you need to fix it when you also have one the works?

And this sums up part of the problem - people were too worried about spending money, maybe because others would've criticised them for doing so. Whenever someone wants to spend money, someone will say "No, wait, don't do it - my great uncle's best friend's brother may do it for $20 less" so something. A trip to the tip costs $30 but a clean kitchen may attract a new member paying $150. You need things done quickly and professionally. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys. The club had developed a culture of penny pinching and a real poverty mentality. Since we cleaned it up, we have gained more members - thus proving my point. It really needed to be reinvigorated and looked at objectively by people who hadn't been involved for a while and who have exposure to the real world and normal business practices. Hard decisions had to be made and the situation had to be looked at honestly - with problems being acknowledged and solved. Too many issues were being shirked or ignored.

In your business plan for the MCC, the so-called "Szuveges' Plan", you spoke of greater transparency and accountability. Tell me how you'll achieve those.

We have already achieved these. Financially, we have a new, simple, easy to use and easy to understand system of book-keeping. Every cent that goes in and out of the club is accounted for and signed for. Members can look at this if they wish to. We have also taken the time to explain (and even rave on about) the things we are doing at the club. We are being upfront with our members about how much things cost and what we are spending money on. We have also publicly stated that if any of our members have grievances, then we will answer them and listen to them. We achieve transparency by keeping people informed and accountability by doing what we say we will do. An example is the Saturday Allegro. We stated that it will be on every Saturday - and it has been, even when it has clashed with other events. We promised it, and it is on EVERY week. It is geneally successful but sometimes it makes a loss. However, it has gained us so many new members (particularly juniors and new players) that we are more than happy to absorb small short-term losses for a huge big-picture long-term gain. We must continue to follow through with things we promise, for example we will get the toilets renovated because we said that we would...

Your plan also includes an aspect of revenue-raising, specifically by renting out space. Is there no risk that the MCC could lose sight of its core business - the chess bit?

No chance - the MCC is first and foremost a chess club, and our committee never ever loses sight of this. At the MCC, chess comes first with all forms of the game (long games, allegro, blitz, analysing, etc) being given time. We would only rent out space at non-chess times such as Tuesday morning from 7am to 10am for a yoga class for example. We won’t be taking anything away from chess time. We need to use our building to raise revenue, but not at times when members use it for chess. When you have an asset like our building (or my FM title - from your earlier question) then you should use it. It is like in chess - play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. We wont really be looking much at renting space out until the renovations are done anyway.

You say your long-term aim is to increase membership numbers. Where are you going to get these people from?

What do you mean "where WILL we get them from"? We have already got 98 or them now!!! We have 98 members - it’s a huge mark-up on last year’s numbers. Where did they come from? A lot are former members who were sick of the club for whatever reason, many are people from other clubs who heard about what we were doing, many are juniors who get coaching at the club and play allegro. Actually allegro has given us lots of new members. If you hold more events, you will attract more people - and of course, some of these people will become members... We just did a huge publicity drive through libraries, neighbourhood houses and community centres - just last week. So hopefully we get some through there. Kids are the important one though as they tell their friends and you often get bigger numbers of them at once. We need a core group of kids who not only join, but also take ownership and start viewing themselves as 'MCC players' rather than just 'chess players' to create a culture of being proud of the club. Last year, we only had 3 members under 18, this year we have 9 already (with more expected to sign next week) - and they are playing at MCC regularly. I know that its only small compared to some other clubs, but it will grow. The adults are great with them too - they don’t talk down to them or get annoyed if they make a bit much noise - I think that they like their enthusiasm as it gives the atmosphere at the club much more of a buzz. Its also great to see so many of their parents around too - this creates an even better vibe - a family vibe. When new kids or adults join the MCC, we want them to feel like the club is saying to them "welcome to the family". Successful clubs (in all sports) make new people feel like this. We also need to concentrate on attracting more members who are in the 1000-1350 rating strength bracket. We are doing this gradually but we would love more of them. A core group of these players is crucial to a club, as new players come in, give them a game and actually put up a fight. If new players play against people who are too strong (1800 for example), they lose game after game and then lose interest. If they are able to win a few or at least be competitive, they realise that they can succeed and will stay. A core group of 15-20 players under 1350 is vital for our club to survive and prosper (together with a core group of juniors). If you are a player in that category and want to be part of this exciting time in our club, please come in or contact me.

My question’s underlying motive was to explore potential run-ins with other clubs. So, for example, if we see a migration of players from Box Hill or Croydon or whatever, will these other clubs not be too impressed?

We have good relations with the other Melbourne clubs and have no interest in poaching their players. If our club is good enough, players from other clubs will come along and play anyway. We have a great relationship with Box Hill chess club and we try not to schedule things which clash with them, as they are the closest club to us. Of course some of our events clash with those of other clubs, but that happens when a club is open 7 days per week. Players are allowed to belong to more than one club, and many of our members belong to other clubs too. There are no issues there - not that we know about anyway. We advertise other clubs events and they advertise ours too. Instead of poaching players, its more important to build the club from the ground up - ie with juniors and weaker adults - this way we create our own players rather than take players who already have loyalties to other clubs. We know that if our club is good enough, and provides enough for its members, we will get more of them - and that is exactly what is happening now.

Mr Szuveges, I’m sure you know that the MCC has been around for well over 140 years. What's the future like for the club?

Who knows - the sky is the limit! I think that the future is looking very, very bright. It’s so bright that we will have to wear shades! Seriously though, it is very bright. BUT, it will only stay bright if we keep working hard, and the club itself (ie. the members) keep working hard. At some point in the future, we will hand over the reigns to someone else and we need to be constantly on the lookout for people who will be good for the place and get them involved and train them up - its all part of the 'good culture' thing I talk about a lot. When the culture is good, and things are being done, everyone seems to jump on board and contribute too - this has been exactly what has happened since February. We are way ahead of where we thought we would be at this stage of the year! What does it all mean in concrete terms though? Well I don’t know - historians are all very good at predicting the past - the future is anyone’s guess, but it is not unrealistic that in 20 years time the MCC could be making millions and paying their executives $100,000 per year and their players’ big wages too. I know it sounds odd, but think back to 20 years ago - who would’ve thought that there would’ve been numerous coaching companies making a fortune coaching in schools - Cordover was in primary school, Speck was in high school and Johansen was working in a snooker parlour making coffee! Who would’ve thought that chess would be encouraged in schools? Did anyone think that we would have 3 GMs in Australia with another one on the way? Did anyone think that we would have international GMs regularly playing in Australia? Did anyone predict the internet or digital chess clocks or an age without adjourned games? 20 years ago to this day, the Cold War was still alive and the iron curtain was still up across Europe - no historians predicted what would happen in a few months times - nobody would’ve thought that you could walk across from Germany or Austria to what was then Czechoslovakia or to Hungary without even having to show a passport. If you predicted this, people would’ve said you were crazy. Even historians couldn’t predict this - I know this stuff as I am studying it at the moment. But back to the future of the MCC, I’m not saying that huge will definitely will happen, but they could happen. The sky really is the limit - unless we play chess in space one day. Having said this though, any ongoing improvement would still be great. The MCC has been around for over 140 years, and I want it to be around for another 140 years - I want it to be around a lot longer than any of us...

Beyond the MCC - I wonder if Grant Szuveges has any higher political ambitions. Chess Victoria, the ACF?

No - not really. I don’t love Chess Victoria or the ACF. I love the MCC, it is special to me. If I had higher political ambitions, I’d aim to be the PM, not the ACF president! I’m doing what I’m doing because it means a lot to me - a job with Chess Victoria or the ACF wouldn’t be the same - it would be like barracking for a different football team – I’m an MCC person. I may change my mind if they offered me $500,000 per year though (you never know the future), but even if this ridiculous suggestion did occur one day, I would finish the job I started at the MCC, because that is what is important to me. (on that sort of money, Id finance all of the renovations myself). After I finish all of this (whenever that may be) I'd prefer to go to Africa and do some safaris and do some volunteer work with wild animals there, keeping them alive and safe - that is something that is also important to me. I think that I may be fed up with chess by then.


Anonymous said...

Are you sure that Grant does not love CV?

Anonymous said...

I notice someone over at Ozchess has pasted copious sections of this interview.

Did they get permission from you to do that, TCG?

Usually if permission is granted it is on the condition that such an interview is published in its entirety.

They could just as easily paste a link to this interview at your site.

I don't think it is for Grant to grant them permission either if he has.

You are technically the copyright holder of the interview and as such you have the right to decide who reproduces it.

cathyc said...

I think this post deserves a positive comment. Sounds like good things are happening at the MCC for the first time since I've moved to Melbourne, at any rate. Let's hope the moment keeps up!