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The obsession for chess: A Soviet atavism in the Putin era

The obsession for chess: A Soviet atavism in the Putin era
©EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER  |   Defending Champion Magnus Carlsen (R) of Norway plays against Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia during the 9th round of FIDE World Chess Championship at the EXPO 2020 Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 07 December 2021.

The game for the world chess title  has a special stake for Moscow. Like the USSR before it, Putin's Russia is obsessed with success at all costs in the chess arena - both on the board itself and within the International Chess Federation.

A Federation president in Anatoli Karpov’s team

"But, Anatoly, all I did was say what you’d told me earlier!" With this line, the existence of a tacit but fruitful collaboration between the International Chess Federation, known as FIDE, and the representatives of the Soviet chess - whether they were players or party activists - became involuntarily public. That happened on February 15, 1985, in Moscow, and the characters were the then president of FIDE, the Filipino Florencio Campomanes, and none other than Anatoli Karpov, the world chess champion and member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The head of FIDE had just announced at a press conference his decision to suspend the match for the supreme title between the new star of Soviet chess, the Azerbaijani Garry Kasparov, and the Kremlin's favorite, the Russian Anatoly Karpov.

In the past weeks, the confrontation had become a long line of draws, interrupted now and then by Kasparov’s wins. From 5-0 for Karpov, the score had become 5-3, and the Russian champion, after months of uninterrupted play, had started to show signs of exhaustion.  After Campomanes made the announcement, Karpov entered the hall, sat down at the table and paraphrased Mark Twain, saying "the reports of my chess exhaustion are slightly exaggerated." That was his way of protesting the outcome, which was actually meant to save him, because the match would have been resumed after a few months of rest which Karpov in particular, being older, needed the most. Hence the astonished reaction of Campomanes, whispered to Karpov, but caught by a camera, a reaction that made the tour of the world press at the time.

If we consider the accounts of Viktor Korcinoi, one of the most famous chess players of the twentieth century, the rapprochement between the Soviets and Campomanes had begun earlier, in 1978, in Baguio City (Philippines), where the game for the world title was played between Korcinoi, who had fled the USSR two years before, and the same Karpov. Campomanes was the host of the event and "fought like a tiger" during the match to defend the interests of the Soviets, as Korcinoi recalls in his memoirs.

Winning Campomanes’ alleged favors was just part of the Soviets' arsenal displayed at the time, but also three years later, when Karpov and Korcinoi played again for the world title. So, the Soviets brought to Baguio City a parapsychologist who allegedly tried to hypnotize Korcinoi during the game. And in 1981, in Merano, Italy, Karpov's delegation of "70 people" reportedly unloaded at the villa they had been accommodated in "three trucks" of various equipment intended to derail Korcinoi's performance, according to his suspicions. Moreover, Korcinoi was under a very direct personal pressure. After the Leningrad player fled the country, the Soviets arrested and sent his son, Igor, to Siberia on the grounds that he’d refused to join the army. The extreme pressure had Korcinoi burst twice in Merano.

First when he called Karpov a "little rat" because he was fidgeting on his chair during the game, and then when he addressed him by "citizen", which was how Gulag detainees would call their guardians, as they were not worthy to utter the word “comrade”.  An inmate could not be a comrade to “the comrades.” So, by calling his opponent that, Korcinoi made an explicit hint at Igor’s ordeal.  FIDE fined Korcinoi for his language. 

The Soviets are passing the baton

But what was so appealing about the FIDE leadership to arouse Moscow’s interest like that? After all, the USSR had the strongest chess school in the world; it had most of the world’s champions; it could engage the so called “pinwheel” that Bobby Fischer complained about, which meant that the Soviet chess players would arrange the matches between them so that a dangerous foreigner could be taken out of the race for the first place in international tournaments. But there was more to it than that.  

It had been proven by the American Fischer himself, who had made it through the Soviet dam and even had the audacity to try and impose rules on the world championship. Because yes, FIDE was not only the forum that awarded the titles of grand master and published the ratings, but also the organizer of the tournaments and matches that would give the world champion. And that was not to be left to chance or to the pressure of an American or any stranger, the Soviets probably thought.

Until Campomanes, FIDE had been run by Westerners with well-defined professions or successful careers in chess. Alexander Rueb, the first president, was a Dutch lawyer, as was his successor, the Swede Folke Rogard. Former world champion Max Euwe, also from the Netherlands, was next, and after eight years he handed over the baton to another professional chess player, the Icelandic Friðrik Ólafsson. Campomanes too had studied in the West, but what really helped his rise was probably his friendship with the autocratic leader of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. His “greatest” achievement at the helm of FIDE was the big increase in the number of member states.

About fifty countries were added to the list of FIDE members and with them a new effect: a dilution of the votes of the states with a tradition in chess. Burkina Faso and France, Bhutan and the United States, Mozambique and the USSR all have one vote to cast in the election for the FIDE presidency. And thus, the door towards influencing the more modest national federations was turned wide open. And it was one of the favorable circumstances in which a Russian, Kirsan Nikolaievich Ilyumzhinov, finally became the head of FIDE, succeeding Florencio Campomanes in 1995. And so, the fruits of the seeds sowed by the Soviets were reaped by the Russians - because in the meantime the USSR had succumbed. "Russia needed something like that, up with the Russian flag!" Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Federation, reportedly said when Ilyumzhinov's victory was announced. Influence in the world of chess, whatever its nature, was a matter of pride and national identity in Russia.

Ilyumzhinov stayed at the helm of FIDE for more than twenty years, during which time numberless accusations of corruption were launched against the organization’s leadership. During this period, the control over the "small federations" was strengthened and that was enough for Ylyumzhinov to defeat in the internal elections both Karpov and Kasparov, who had both tried to oust him. But at one point, Ilyumzhinov's act became embarrassing even for Moscow. And it was not the mindboggling statements he made about him being abducted by aliens from his apartment, or that the republic he ruled (because he was also the president of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation) was sometimes completely covered by a protective energy shield. Towards the end of his last term, Ilyumzhinov went as far as to invent a partner for the forthcoming elections; and FIDE's banking transactions were severely affected because the Calmuk President had been blacklisted by the US Treasury for his alleged dealings with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Ilyumzhinov had led the Federation to a dead end.

Russia’s Deputy Prime-Minister turned head of FIDE

That was the moment when Moscow intervened firmly and brought in a strong candidate in the 2018 FIDE elections: Arcadi Dvorkovich, who had just completed a six-year term as deputy prime minister in the cabinets led by Dmitry Medvedev. An elegant man who speaks several foreign languages, and was educated at the Duke University, Dvorkovich was the opposite of Ilyumzhinov. Running in the elections were now a candidate from Ilyumzhinov's time, the Greek Georgios Makropulos, Moscow's favorite, Arkady Dvorkovich, and the great English master Nigel Short. The latter withdrew from the race at the last minute. "Rather a properly led Russian chess government than a successor of Ilyumzhinov” Short said, announcing his support for Dvorkovich. What Short did not know, however, was that he was firing in the same direction as the Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Here, the Kremlin's involvement is worth recounting briefly.

After a Putin-Natanyahu meeting in the fall of 2018, the contents of a letter from the Israeli Foreign Ministry to the Israeli chess federation were leaked to the press. The letter stated that Putin had asked Netanyahu to make sure that the Israeli federation would vote for Dvorkovich in the election for the FIDE president. "Putin has more important things to do than get involved in chess," Short had said at one point, confidently. Or not? journalists who discovered the correspondence wondered. And this is just the tip of the iceberg; Who knows how many such hints and suggestions have been made, perhaps not from Putin’s level, but coming from other Russian ministers or dignitaries, proportional to the prestige or profile of the country whose chess federation had to be "properly guided"?

However, since Ilyumzhinov, the Russians have been more successful in chess politics than in chess itself. For almost fifteen years, since Vladimir Kramnik in 2007, they have not had one single world champion. The stage has been dominated by an Indian, Viswanathan Anand, and a Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen. Chess today is more of a "democracy" and not an "autocracy," as it was during the Cold War; These days, Russians, Americans, Chinese, Indians, Ukrainians, French, Iranians etc. all compete together, almost shoulder to shoulder.

In this sport, the Internet has facilitated an almost universal access to knowledge and analysis resources and implicitly to sports performance. The obsession with controlling FIDE is rather anachronistic. It probably corresponds to the old self-image of Homo Sovieticus, who has survived in Russia to this day: a character who seeks to intellectually dominate the "materialist capitalist" and who wants to prove, including on the chessboard, a supposed superiority of the communist order and the Slavic race. After all, in Putin's Russia, too, official propaganda speaks of the moral superiority of the Orthodox world, as opposed to the decadent West.

 

Propaganda de Razboi - Razboi in UCRAINA
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Updated at: 07 Dec 2021 17:25:37
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  • If we consider the accounts of Viktor Korcinoi, one of the most famous chess players of the twentieth century, the rapprochement between the Soviets and Campomanes had begun earlier, in 1978, in Baguio City (Philippines), where the game for the world title was played between Korcinoi, who had fled the USSR two years before, and the same Karpov. Campomanes was the host of the event and "fought like a tiger" during the match to defend the interests of the Soviets, as Korcinoi recalls in his memoirs.
  • Until Campomanes, FIDE had been run by Westerners with well-defined professions or successful careers in chess. Alexander Rueb, the first president, was a Dutch lawyer, as was his successor, the Swede Folke Rogard. Former world champion Max Euwe, also from the Netherlands, was next, and after eight years he handed over the baton to another professional chess player, the Icelandic Friðrik Ólafsson. Campomanes too had studied in the West, but what really helped his rise was probably his friendship with the autocratic leader of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. His “greatest” achievement at the helm of FIDE was the big increase in the number of member states.
  • However, since Ilyumzhinov, the Russians have been more successful in chess politics than in chess itself. For almost fifteen years, since Vladimir Kramnik in 2007, they have not had one single world champion. The stage has been dominated by an Indian, Viswanathan Anand, and a Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen. Chess today is more of a "democracy" and not an "autocracy," as it was during the Cold War; These days, Russians, Americans, Chinese, Indians, Ukrainians, French, Iranians etc. all compete together, almost shoulder to shoulder.
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