Check, Mate

Drawing by Dmitry Filatov

Drawing by Dmitry Filatov

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s reinstatement as president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) gives the eccentric Kalmyk president the retirement he has been dreaming of. Former chess world champion Anatoly Karpov, defeated decisively by Ilyumzhinov at the vote in Khanty-Mansiisk, is licking his wounds and considering whether to accept his rival’s gracious offer of the position of vice president. Regardless, he has vowed to continue to fight to restore and transform the chess world.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov won a fourth consecutive term as president of the World Chess Federation last week, defeating insurgent candidate and former World Champion Anatoly Karpov by 95 votes to 65 votes at a gathering of the FIDE general Assembly in Khanty-Mansiisk, Siberia.

His triumph was as controversial as the campaign leading up to it; Karpov’s supporters cried foul, calling the proceedings a “farce” and attacking the remarkably opaque proxy voting system under which some national federations vote on behalf of others. The English Chess federation’s CJ de Mooi told the Guardian newspaper that it was “a farce of a vote.” Ilyumzhinov’s team, on the other hand, has hailed a “glorious victory.”

The scandalous saga began back in May, when the Russian Chess Federation (RCF) at a meeting in Moscow elected Karpov to be its candidate for the FIDE presidency. But Arkady Dvorkovich, the chairman of the RFC’s advisory board and in his day job an influential aide to President Dmitry Medvedev, claimed the vote lacked a quorum and declared Karpov’s candidacy illegitimate. Days later, personnel from a private security firm carrying a document signed by Dvorkovich evicted Chairman of the RCF Alexander Bach from his office and closed the group’s headquarters in Moscow.

In the end, Ilyumzhinov was confirmed as the RCF’s nomination (seconded by Mexico and Argentina, though the latter was withdrawn) and Karpov had to seek the endorsement elsewhere. He ended up running as the Swiss, French and German Federations’ nominee, with the backing of many other Western Chess associations including the British, Dutch and German – the latter has the largest number of FIDE rated players in the world.

Karpov had argued vigorously that Ilyumzhinov had allowed chess to fall off the international news agenda, failed to properly exploit the potential of modern technology and suggested that as a “hobbyist,” the Kalmyk president should “make way for the professionals.” Ilyumzhinov, his detractors argued, brought the game into disrepute with his headline grabbing eccentricities – he claims to have been abducted by aliens, and told the UK’s Independent last month that chess itself was brought to earth from outer space. The Karpov campaign and five national chess associations even went to court, lodging a lawsuit with the Court of Arbitration of Sport in Lausanne to challenge Ilyumzhinov’s candidacy (Karpov’s campaign claim was thrown out, with the court finding it did not have jurisdiction to decide who won the Russian nomination).

Russia’s marginal Yabloko opposition party had harsher things to say, calling his regime in Kalmykia “one of the ugliest phenomena in Russian political life in the past 20 years,” accusing him of involvement in the murder of journalist Larissa Yudina, and declaring his candidacy on the Russian ticket “tremendously damaging to Russia’s international reputation” and “a disgrace to the international chess movement.”

But the Kalmyk president’s boosters argued that his eccentricities are his strength. There was no one else in sight that could bring quite as much attention – or money – to a sport that has slipped from the spotlight since it ceased to be a proxy for Cold War confrontation in the 1970s and 1980s. Chess, the argument went, is not an inherently popular sport, so the more outlandish its leaders, the better for its profile. He’s experienced, and while Russia still had gubernatorial elections he was elected president of Kalmykia three times – so who is to say he’s not an effective executive? Besides, Ilyumzhinov is not only president of Europe’s only Buddhist republic, but also a millionaire, and he has been active in spending his own money on the sport. He recently offered to put up $10 million to replace the controversial proposed mosque near ground zero in New York with an international chess center. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has apparently yet to respond to Ilyumzhinov’s letter.

As Mark Glukhovsky, editor in chief of the Russian chess journal 64, pointed out, it’s difficult to work out whether Ilyumzhinov’s reputation does more harm than good, or whether Karpov would have been as effective as he promised to be. However, Karpov’s message of change and reform seemed to catch the imagination of the global chess playing community. Yet the support of grandmasters, including former nemesis Gary Kasparov, who took his crown in 1985, and the UK’s Nigel Short, who unsuccessfully challenged Kasparov for the title in 1993, chess functionaries and journalists never really had anything to do with the bottom line. “The system is: one country, one vote. That means that a country like Germany, which has a vast number of players and actively supported Karpov, has no more clout than a country without a single tournament player,” explained Glukhovsky.

The result is a controversial division of the world along often geographic lines. “The 50 or 60 delegates who voted for Karpov come from those countries that are actively interested in the game and for whom professional chess depends on the make-up of the chess association. The 100 or so who voted for Ilyumzhinov are from countries where there is no organized chess life, and if there is, it is not professional,” said Glukhovsky. In this respect, the Khanty-Mansiisk vote was virtually a re-run of the Turin election in 2006, when Ilyumzhinov faced his first serious challenger for the FIDE crown in the form of Dutch businessman Bessel Kok, who has been an active chess organizer since the 1980s.

Playing politics?

The anomalies that the one-country-one-vote system throws up are not necessarily unjust, however – often nations that apparently have few FIDE rated players also lack enough tournaments where aspiring champions could gain a rating. It’s a controversial subject, but probably no one would have raised such a fuss if it were not for other incidents surrounding the battle – not least Dvorkovich’s intervention in the Russian nomination.

Speculation is rife that the Kremlin had offered Ilyumzhinov the FIDE presidency – which is not within its gift – as a retirement present. In keeping with a policy of removing Boris Yeltsin-era regional bosses, Medvedev’s office announced earlier this year that his contract will not be renewed when he finishes his current presidential term next year. The FIDE Web site itself last month announced that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would appoint Alexei Orlov, a first deputy prime minister in Ilyumzhinov’s republican administration, in his place (Orlov, too, is well connected to the FIDE site).

That’s impossible to confirm. RCF president Alexander Bach declined to comment, and Glukhovsky said simply that “I’m not a Kremlin journalist – I just don’t know.”

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