The Russian Game

Why is the Kremlin meddling in international chess elections?


Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has never been much of a rabble-rouser. During the Cold War he was a loyal Soviet subject whose chess anthologies featured pictures of him harvesting wheat with a scythe — for fun. He flirted with elected office in the 1990s, but has confined his public activism in the Vladimir Putin era largely to ecological and children’s causes. He speaks in a gentle, nasal voice. He collects stamps.

But Karpov, whose battles with Garry Kasparov in the 1980s defined the game of kings for an era, is now at the epicenter of an escalating political imbroglio spreading through the already fractious world of international chess.

With the backing of his former nemesis Kasparov and national federations from the United States and Western Europe, Karpov is bidding to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as the president of the International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE. Ilyumzhinov is also the mercurial president of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia, which he runs as his own fiefdom. His tumultuous 15-year reign over world chess has seen a precipitous decline in the prestige of the title of World Chess Champion.

More than chess is at stake. Winning re-election could be crucial for Ilyumzhinov, whose fate as the president of Kalmykia is up in the air. Ilyumzhinov has run his quasi-autonomous, mostly Buddhist republic since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but is facing increasing criticism from the local opposition over persistent poverty in the region. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will have to decide whether to nominate him for another term this fall. "Even if he’s not nominated for a new term, [the FIDE presidency] would allow him to remain a flashy, notable person of status," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Karpov, meanwhile, is promising to restore some of the international attention chess enjoyed for most of the last century. "The value of the title of world champion has been degraded, and the popularity isn’t there," Karpov said in an interview last week. "No one knows who the world champion is anymore." (That would be Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, for those keeping score at home.)

But a funny thing happened on Karpov’s road to the FIDE presidential election: The Kremlin’s point man for chess snubbed him, declaring instead that Ilyumzhinov will be Russia’s candidate for the post. The decision puts the government in the peculiar position of supporting a deeply eccentric, autocratic regional leader — Ilyumzhinov claims to have once been briefly abducted by aliens and counts Muammar al-Qaddafi and Chuck Norris among his friends — over one of Russia’s greatest, and most politically loyal, sporting icons.

Why, exactly, is unclear, but the decision has prompted a revolt in the Russian Chess Federation. When the federation’s supervisory council convened Friday in the ornate main playing hall of Moscow’s Central Chess Club, a majority voted to nominate Karpov. But the meeting was subsequently declared "illegitimate" by Arkady Dvorkovich, the senior Kremlin aide who oversees the federation. Should Dvorkovich’s decision stand, Karpov might end up running as a nominee from a European or North American federation.

The geopolitical overtones of all this are a throwback, however faint, to chess’s Cold War glory days, when the game was as inextricable from matters of national pride and identity as the Olympics. In the West, Bobby Fischer’s victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship was portrayed as a triumph of American individualism and self-discipline over the collectivism and powerful state sponsorship of the Soviet chess machine. Millions of Americans followed televised analysis of the intricate on-board maneuvering between the two grandmasters, inspiring a brief national infatuation with chess. The 1984-1985 Kasparov-Karpov duels were eerily symbolic of the perestroika era, with the young, rebellious Kasparov surviving a grueling series of games to eventually trump Karpov and the fading Soviet hierarchy that supported him.

But the system that produced universally recognized world champions collapsed in 1993, when Kasparov and English grandmaster Nigel Short broke from FIDE to organize their own world championship and rival chess association after a falling out over money and bureaucratic matters. FIDE continued to organize its own world championships, while Kasparov, after defeating Short, arranged his own. Professional chess has never fully recovered from the schism. FIDE never relinquished its role as the world’s dominant chess body, but it could not maintain a credible claim on the world championship title with the game’s brightest star competing elsewhere. Kasparov eventually lost his own title and quit competitive chess in 2005 to take up politics and battle Putin, a fight that has yielded markedly fewer successes than his chess career.

Enter Ilyumzhinov, a chess fanatic who was elected president of Kalmykia in 1993 and of FIDE in 1995. Ilyumzhinov, a wealthy businessman, has kept FIDE afloat; he says financing for many of the organization’s tournaments has come from his own pockets, though detractors allege that the money has been siphoned off the Kalmyk government. (In honor of the 1998 Chess Olympiad, Ilyumzhinov built a $50 million glorified theme park called Chess City in the republic’s capital, Elista.) But he has largely failed in his promises to restore the prestige of the title of world champion and secure stable outside sponsorship for major chess events.

Karpov has unleashed heavy artillery to discredit Ilyumzhinov in the run-up to the election later this year, playing up the Kalmyk leader’s claim of an interplanetary sojourn on an alien spaceship in 1997 as damaging to the reputation of chess, FIDE, and Russia. (A Russian parliamentarian with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party this month asked Medvedev to look into whether Ilyumzhinov might have divulged sensitive state secrets to the extraterrestrials.) Karpov kicked off his campaign with a fund-raising event in New York on Monday, with Kasparov and 19-year-old Norwegian phenom Magnus Carlsen — currently the world’s top-rated player — in attendance.

Ilyumzhinov, meanwhile, issued a statement over the weekend calling Karpov’s nomination a clear violation of the federation’s statutes and "reminiscent of the behavior which Karpov and his team, were so content to exploit, during Soviet times." (Karpov — a Brezhnev favorite — and his entourage were repeatedly accused by opponents of dirty tricks during his 10-year reign as world champion.)

Dvorkovich, a Western-educated economic advisor to Medvedev who is regarded as a liberal among Russia’s ruling elite, says Karpov was acting in an "unethical manner" and that the former champion’s prowess at the board does not qualify him to run FIDE. "Being a chess fighter and great chess player is not the same thing as being a good manager," he says. "Being the head of FIDE is about managerial skills." In the end, it will be the delegates from the 158 FIDE member federations that determine the outcome, and Ilyumzhinov might have already secured the votes of an overwhelming block of countries. "In many cases these votes may be swayed," says Mark Crowther, editor of the online chess magazine The Week in Chess. "Karpov may have to be prepared to play as dirty as his opponent to secure them. It is also possible that if Karpov is perceived as the likely winner, many delegates may switch horses. There is a degree of reluctance to oppose Ilyumzhinov for fear of repercussions."

Before the disputed Russian Chess Federation meeting was called to order Friday, Kasparov held court for several minutes at the Central Chess Club, where the lingering smell of lacquer, body odor, and cigarette smoke has never been adequately purged. It was a crusty crowd made up mainly of pensioners, the type of audience for whom Kasparov’s liberal politics are largely anathema. But they applauded his short speech arguing for Karpov’s nomination. Pro-Kremlin youth activists who harass him at other public appearances stayed away. "There are still plenty of differences between us, especially on the political front, but this isn’t about politics," Kasparov said later. "It’s about chess. It’s about the success of the game that we played our entire lives, that we devoted our lives to."

Carl Schreck is a journalist based in Moscow.