Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

For 19 years, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has been ruled by the eccentric former president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Ilyumzhinov’s reign has been filled with controversy and scandal: announcing (and then cancelling) major tournaments in cities such as Baghdad and Grozny; changing the rules of the game on a whim; and allegations — most persuasively by Dutch political correspondent Martin van den Heuvel in his book Schaakmat in Kalmukkie — that during the period from 1996-1999, Ilyumzhinov may have ordered four murders of opponents in Kalmykia.

Nonetheless, the charismatic Ilyumzhinov, 52, was and is a winner as a politician. His 17-year tenure as Kalmyk president survived a number of interventions from Moscow before his ultimate masters tired of the unpredictable millionaire from Elista in 2010. By then, Ilyumzhinov was advertising his experiences of alien abduction (and being challenged in Russian Parliament about whether he gave up state secrets to the aliens).

One would have thought Ilyumzhinov’s CV would be enough to disqualify him from heading any world sporting body, but when FIDE recruited him in 1995 he was a fresh slate replacing tarnished former president Florencio Campomanes. Ilyumzhinov soon decided he liked the job — if not chess.

In his early years as FIDE president, Ilyumzhinov poured millions of Kalmykia’s money into chess. However, in more recent times, Ilyumzhinov has preferred spending FIDE money, and he has more than once attempted to sell the rights to the World Championship to mysterious companies to which he had links.

Ilyumzhinov follows the Joh Bjelke-Petersen recipe of feeding the chooks: distracting the press through bizarre announcements — such as the alien abduction episode and the building of 64 chess piece-shaped high-rise buildings in Dubai — which divert attention from governance issues. The strategy is strikingly successful; mainstream media coverage of Ilyumzhinov will provide 50 stories about his alien abduction for every mention of, for example, murdered Kalmykia journalist Larisa Yudina. (ABC Foreign Correspondent‘s Eric Campbell dealt with the murder of the opposition journalist in his book Absurdistan and expressed the fear that a frank interview she gave to him may have hastened her death.)

“Chess in Russia carries a much higher profile than elsewhere … so having FIDE run by an anti-Putin activist would provide a platform for Kasparov that would be hard for the Russian media to ignore.”

FIDE elections have come and gone every four years, with Ilyumzhinov sometimes buying off the opposition before the vote, but winning convincingly in 2006 and 2010. Dissatisfaction with Ilyumzhinov might have been rife among both chess masters and the rank and file, but Ilyumzhinov understands he only has to win over a majority of delegates of FIDE’s 180+ member countries to retain power.

As the international soccer body FIFA — one of the few sporting bodies with more member countries than FIDE — shows every time there is a World Cup venue to be chosen, it is often not impossible to induce a delegate to vote against his or her instructions, given the right incentives. Without billion-dollar television deals, however, the stakes are far lower for FIDE than FIFA — but that also makes it comparatively easier to win over the part-time delegates. Under former FIDE president Campomanes, offers of chess sets and books were often enough to garner votes from developing countries, but in the Ilyumzhinov era the offers have become more blatant and generous — allegedly up to $25,000 for a delegate’s vote at the 2010 election.

However, when one of the greatest players of all time, Garry Kasparov, decided to challenge for the presidency in 2014, it soon became clear that Ilyumzhinov had a real battle on his hands. Kasparov, with the backing of American businessman Rex Sinquefield, decided to match or beat Ilyumzhinov at his own game, travelling the world with handouts, e.g. $50,000 per year for four years to small federations like Fiji to conduct chess in schools programs.

FIDE reacted by organising junkets for even minor officials, but this clearly was not going to be enough. With Kasparov criss-crossing the globe, Asia, Africa and Europe seemed to be receptive to his “It’s Time” message. And it was not only Ilyumzhinov who was nervous; a possible Kasparov victory was going to be unfortunate for the Russian government. Following his retirement from tournament chess in 2005 at 42, Kasparov had been a prominent opposition figure standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since starting a self-imposed exile from Russia due to fear of arrest, had become even more outspoken in his criticism of the Russian leader.

Chess in Russia carries a much higher profile than elsewhere — the USSR and then Russia have been the dominant force in world chess since World War II, so having FIDE run by an anti-Putin activist would provide a platform for Kasparov that would be hard for the Russian media to ignore. To avoid such an unfortunate occurrence, the Russian government began to offer Ilyumzhinov a helping hand, using Russia’s embassies around the world to apply pressure to countries that were considering voting for Kasparov. The targets were not only places where Russia had economic or diplomatic power; three Nordic countries also reported that their governments had received calls from the local Russian embassy asking them (unsuccessfully) to intervene in the chess election.

FIDE also employed a new strategy: small countries who announced early for Kasparov discovered that their federation had been delisted by FIDE and a new federation recognised. Since the newly recognised federations barely existed, this meant that some countries were unable to send a team to the Tromso Chess Olympiad (which concluded yesterday).

Just before the election, Kasparov tried one late gambit, announcing that his backer Sinquefield would inject US$10 million into the FIDE coffers the following day if Kasparov was elected. Ilyumzhinov immediately responded by saying he would contribute $20 million that very day.

But by the time the FIDE election was held last Monday in Tromso, Norway, Russia and Ilyumzhinov knew they done enough to have Kasparov on the ropes. When the 174 votes were counted, the margin in Ilyumzhinov’s favour — 110 to 61 — came as a blow for the former world champion. The margin more or less replicated the results from Ilyumzhinov’s two previous contested elections in 2006 and 2010 and was too great for Kasparov to consider a legal challenge on behalf of the disenfranchised federations.

Five minutes after the elections, Ilyumzhinov gave an interview with Norwegian television in which he explained that the $20 million had already been given by him to FIDE and his poor English was to blame if people believed that this would be new money. Within the day, the FIDE administration had walked away from many of their other promises as well — but with four more years in power, the mission was accomplished.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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