The Main Thing I Learned From Running the U.S. Chess League

In just a few days, the 11th season of the United States Chess League will begin. This season is going to be our biggest one yet, as we have expanded to a whopping 20 teams from around the nation, with over 30 Grandmasters amongst them. I highly recommend that all of you watch the games live every week on the Internet Chess Club. However today I don’t want to talk about chess, instead I want to focus on how the U.S.C.L led me to make some big changes to my life and to how I deal with other people. What was the key change?

I have lost any interest whatsoever in dealing with BS and engaging with angry people

For each of the first six or seven seasons of the league’s existence we had an email list, in which the manager of every team would be included, along with myself and my partner Arun.

I’d say that at least three quarters of the teams were extremely appreciative of the fact that we ran a league in which we made zero dollars and spent over 20 hours per week of our free time to run. However the other quarter….maybe they appreciated it, but it didn’t stop them from complaining about every little detail that bothered them in an overly aggressive and hostile manner.

Throughout the first six years of the league I was called a “dictator” multiple times by different team representatives. There would be emails back and forth about some ruling we made that maybe 2 teams vocally disagreed with. Paragraphs and paragraphs of how horrible it was would follow (always by at most 2-3 out of 16 teams), and how we couldn’t be trusted etc. In fact to ensure that I wasn’t misremembering, I just went to my email and entered “dictator” in the search engine. Hundreds of emails came up, all of them involving back and forth arguing between managers of USCL teams and myself. Here’s a good example:

“While you are the commissioner and the weasel words are in the rules to allow you carte blanche to do whatever you so choose in dictatorial fashion, you hurt the league by your action and decision here more than help move it along.”

After which this manager accused me of being biased towards a specific team. If I had a dollar for every time we were accused of actively favoring or being opposed to one specific team, I would be very very rich.

What did I generally do in response to these messages? I replied with reasons why I thought these managers were wrong. We would go back and forth for days sometimes. I remember going to have lunch one day, and coming home to 50 emails about some ruling that maybe two or three very vocal teams didn’t like, after which I’d immediately start crafting my brilliant reply.

I was sure that after reading my reply they would step back, see the wisdom in my words, and say to me “Oh wise Gregory, you are right, I don’t know what I was thinking. Please allow me to take back everything I said in the past and profusely apologize to you. Your points were so logical, so well organized and articulately stated that I have learned the errors of my ways and I consider myself a new man after reading your email”.

Instead I would get a four paragraph reply that could be roughly translated into “FUCK YOU”.

Eventually I wised up, and I learned a very important lesson:

“Don’t get into arguing matches on the Internet EVER!”

What do you do instead when someone acts aggressive and starts arguing with you online? You just ignore them or respond with something simple like “Your tone is inappropriate and unless it changes, I won’t engage in a discussion with you on this matter”.

I spent years stressing myself out, being compared to the worst human beings in history, because maybe I wanted to allow a team to have a roster exemption when it was somewhat unclear if the rules specifically allowed it.

At some point I realized that I no longer had any interest at all in engaging with people who behaved this way. I was on the verge of stepping away from the U.S.C.L. when I decided the only way for the league to continue without driving me insane, was to finally start paying myself for running the league and even more importantly to insulate myself from all of the loud complainers.

The solution we came up with was to create a committee in which each team would have one voting representative within this group. This committee was comprised of one representative from each team, and they voted on a leader. They would discuss issues with each other, each team would get one vote on these issues, and then the leader of this committee would come to me with a summary of their thoughts.

There were two keys to this arrangement. Yes we had some aggressive, hostile managers and team representatives in the past, however they were definitely in the minority. On the other hand, when it came to sending long, nasty and accusatory emails, they were very very active and represented well above 50% of emails I’d receive from the managers. Once you made it into a true democracy, and gave every team one vote on the issues, these hyper aggressive people could talk and talk all they wanted, but in the end they get one vote out of sixteen and therefore the cooler heads would prevail.

The second key to this was that I instructed that I was not to be included on any of these emails under any circumstance. Maybe I was being compared to Stalin, but at least I didn’t have to spend my time reading these things. In the end, instead of enduring hundreds of emails of insults, I’d get a neat little summary of what the committee had decided, what the final vote was, and it was free from any references to notorious mass murderers.

Because of this new system, in the last 4-5 years there has been a lot less U.S.C.L related drama taking over my life, and realizing what a difference this made has also helped me in many other aspects of life.

If someone sends me a crazy or angry email, I ignore it. If someone is really upset that I didn’t invite their obviously gifted child to one of my chess camps, and writes in an aggressive and accusatory tone, I ignore it. I don’t care what you think happened to your team, if you start yelling and getting aggressive, I am not going to pay you any attention to you.

Even if I’ve done something wrong, there is a way to address it that doesn’t involve name-calling and anger. Dealing with such aggressive people sucked so much energy out of my life, and so when someone behaves in that way today, they always get ignored, or brushed off with very short and curt replies.

My recommendations:

1 – Don’t engage with unreasonably angry, crazy or aggressive/passive-aggressive people. Just immediately ignore them or inform them to change their tone or you won’t talk with them.

2 – You will never under any circumstances change an angry person’s mind about something. Don’t try, you’d have better luck yelling at your wall and telling it to make you dinner (still working on this one). Just let them sit there wondering “wow are they really not even going to reply to my 4 paragraph long ranting email?”

3 – Minimize contact with anyone who brings too much unpleasant drama into your life. My threshold for being accused of random things in an aggressive way is extremely low. You can try if you want, but if I have the choice of responding to your crazy message or playing video games, I’m gonna be loading up Hearthstone every time.

One thought on “The Main Thing I Learned From Running the U.S. Chess League

  1. I’ve followed the USCL since day one and probably came to know you shortly before that from I wanted to thank you for the effort you have put forth in keeping the USCL running. While there are bumps in the road and there surely will be some upset customers that is the nature of running any enterprise. I get it in my business just as you do in yours. The point is you are doing it, they’re not. Keep a stiff upper lip and carry on!


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