Lost in America

Chess Searches for Purpose



Tent Theory


Surprisingly enough, the purpose of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) has been interpreted in two basic ways. The first is often called the small tent approach and the second is referred to as the big tent approach.


The small tent approach maintains that the organization is about running for-profit chess tournaments. The goal is to grow the number of tournament players. The target market is the core of approximately 15,000-20,000 regular adult tournament players and about double that number in scholastic tournament players. The focus is internal on membership service for the tournament player. The idea is to give the tournament player the best playing experience possible and be content with the membership never getting much larger than this base tournament constituency. This limited target market is the small tent.


The big tent approach maintains that the organization is about learning and playing the game of chess is part of one's culture, just as one would teach one's kids a musical instrument or judo, for example. The goal is to extend the role of chess in American society. The focus is external to the organization on chess as an art and recreation being fun and a stimulating elective activity. The target market is the approximately 15,000,000-20,000,000 American chess players, both hard core tournament as well as the casual chess player. The idea is to encourage people to learn and play chess and to contribute to the growth and quality of chess activity with the American public. This broad target market is the big tent.


In practice the USCF has embraced the small tent approach. Based on past USCF results there may be room to improve on that approach.


What is Our Purpose?


According to the Bylaws of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) the purpose of the Federation shall be educational and instructional, to broaden and develop chess as art and recreation, as a significant element of culture in America. The Federation shall cooperate with schools, colleges, hospitals, military bases, community centers, recreation departments, and other groups and institutions, in teaching chess, conducting tournaments, and other activities. The Federation shall disseminate information through its publications and representatives, and the Federation shall select the official USA representatives in all international chess affairs. The Federation shall encourage and support chess programs for handicapped individuals and the participation of handicapped in chess activity, including, where feasible, the expansion of opportunities for meaningful participation by handicapped individuals in all chess competition.


Social Welfare Underlies Purpose


Some believe the USCF is an organization designed for the benefits of the membership. However, the USCF is  tax-exempt as a social welfare organization described in Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 501(c)(4), as an organization that must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare. To be operated exclusively to promote social welfare, an organization must operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements). An organization is not operated primarily for the promotion of social welfare if its primary activity is operating a social club for the benefit, pleasure, or recreation of its members, or is carrying on a business with the general public in a manner similar to organizations operated for profit.


Directors Adherence to Purpose is Required


Nonprofit corporations are organized to achieve specific objectives or purposes, which are generally set forth in the organization's bylaws and charters. Adherence to the purpose of the organization is critical as they form the basis for the corporation's tax exemption and, thus, its status as a nonprofit entity. Moreover, the stated purpose guides the distribution of the organization's assets at dissolution. All directors must know the corporation's purpose and the persons or interests it serves, and be prepared to serve accordingly.


Pursuant to their fiduciary duty of obedience, directors of nonprofit organizations may not deviate from their duty to fulfill the particular purposes for which the organization was created. If they do substantially deviate from the organization's stated purposes, courts or attorneys general may institute legal action on behalf of the organization to unwind transactions which are contrary to the organization's stated purposes. Nonprofit directors may be liable to the corporation for any harm it suffers as a consequence, or for any amounts expended if the transaction cannot be unwound. Thus a nonprofit board's job starts with putting into words why the organization exists and what it hopes to accomplish. Successful boards, understanding their accountability to community and membership needs, give voice to the enduring values, stories, and aspirations that shape the organization. They translate these elements into a compelling articulation of mission, vision, and core values that guides major decisions and everyday activities. To survive in a changing world, organizations must be focused and flexible. Successful boards take community and membership needs into account when making decisions. Such boards treat questions of mission, vision, and core values not as exercises to be done once, but as statements of crucial importance to be drilled down and folded into deliberations.


Mission Explains Purpose


Mission is the phrase or sentence used to explain an organization’s purpose to the public. It is written in everyday language, and should generally state the obvious. For example, the mission of a school district could be: "To educate children"; of a hospital: "To take care of the sick". Sometimes, the same words are used for purpose and mission. In other instances, the words chosen to express purpose speak to people in the organization, while those used for mission speak to outsiders.


The mission must be clear, concise and compelling that is well understood by all parties, internally and particularly externally, and have unrelenting and rigorous management to the realization and execution of that mission. While the organizations purpose stays relatively the same over time the mission evolves and adapts providing the flexibility in anticipating and meeting changing circumstances and conditions.


Successful organizations have exceptionally clear missions that, in different ways, speak to their essential purpose and character. These organizations also measure —and announce—their success in meeting their missions, typically through explicit quantitative results. Such quantitative results, which are related to measurable programmatic accomplishments, are important because they indicate the clarity, appeal, impact and value of the mission to volunteers, funders and others. Further, these organizations relentlessly manage to the realization of their missions, recognizing that all decisions, programs and activities are critical paths in moving towards achievement of their primary purpose.


The most important guideline for a board on all decision-making is the mission statement. If the mission is not central at every board meeting, it is easy to lose focus on the true purpose of the organization. Not accomplishing anything towards the mission is no longer an option. Program decisions need to be based on a strategy platform that focuses the mission on outcomes. Understanding exactly where the money comes from and where the money goes for each core program is essential to keep the mission and associated outcomes on track. Ultimately an organization must stay true to the purpose it was founded even as the mission evolves.


What Have We Accomplished Towards Our Purpose?


In its Bylaws the Federation is pledged:

  1. To operate exclusively for educational, recreational, and social welfare purposes;
  2. That no part of its contributions, dues, or net income shall inure to the benefit of any individual, except that trophies or prizes awarded in the course of its educational and promotional program shall not be so construed;
  3. That the Federation is not operated for profit and that neither principal nor income of any of its funds may be used in any attempt to influence legislation;
  4. To promote the study and knowledge of the scientific game of chess;
  5. To foster the development of players and to help those who seek to become masters;
  6. To encourage the formation of chess groups, clubs, and associations;
  7. To hold a tournament no less often than once every two years for the Chess Championship of the United States and to confer upon the winner of such tournament the title "United States Chess Champion"; and
  8. To hold an open tournament every summer in the United States.


Anyone can save money by accomplishing nothing (a common USCF tactic). However, testing everything against purpose must become the standard check of organizational direction. In this regard, has the organization been successful?


How has the USCF promoted the study and knowledge of the scientific game of chess?

How has the USCF fostered the development of players and to help those who seek to become masters?

How has the USCF encouraged the formation of chess groups, clubs, and associations?


How many additional regular members? How many additional masters? How many additional affiliates? How many additional participants in the U.S. Open? How many additional spectators or prize funds for the U.S. Chess Championship?


Addressing these questions will keep the organization focused in the proper direction.


Back to Basics


In summary, the United States Chess Federation (USCF) is a not-for-profit membership organization devoted to extending the role of chess in American society. According to the Bylaws of the US Chess Federation the purpose of the Federation shall be educational and instructional, to broaden and develop chess as art and recreation, as a significant element of culture in America. It is important to note the original object for which the USCF was formed, as elaborated in the USCF corporate charter was:


(a) To promote the study and knowledge of the scientific game of chess.

(b) To foster the development of players and to help those who seek to become masters; to encourage the formation of chess groups, clubs, and associations.

(c) To hold a tournament once every two years for the chess championship of the United States and to confer upon the winner of such tournament the title "United States Chess Champion."

(d) To hold an open tournament every summer in some major city of the United States.


The Executive Board with the guidance of a Board of Delegates is responsible for the management of the USCF. The primary role of the Board is to ensure that the USCF's mission is appropriate to its nonprofit purpose and that it accomplishes that mission efficiently. I’m sure the USCF leadership feels they have been acting efficiently consistent with the corporation mission and purpose. However, no amount of wish lists, retreats, consultants, grand plans, or intentions changes the purpose for which the USCF was formed.


In my view the purpose of the USCF is solid but seems to have become misplaced or even lost. The Board has become preoccupied with tournament activities and fallen into a system impacted by special interest. Over time the corporation emphasis appears to have shifted from chess promotion to chess promoters. In the view of many, the focus has become internal rather than external and means may have become ends. We have been told over the past twenty years that the issue of purpose and results must take a back seat to the corporation’s financial survival. The USCF is not about advancing publicity for a board member, accumulating dues money, achieving one's FIDE ambitions, bolstering another corporation, proving business opportunities to ones friends and supporters, or spending dues money to get chess in the press - it is all about tangible results towards the stated purpose of the USCF.


Recent USCF events though difficult, have created a great opportunity for positive change. If the USCF wants to truly grow, it must be refocused and be willing to adapt and take advantage of this opportunity. This means that the USCF ought to be run as a business, not a private club. The main business of the USCF must be to advance chess in American society. Its obsession for such advancement must be external. To be successful towards this end, the USCF must return to the basics of a not-for-profit membership corporation focused on its purpose. To do so its mission and actions must become refocused on that purpose and back to its stated reason to exist. Without a purpose there is no point.