Chess Ban Holds Russia in Check

Banned by the International Chess Federation due to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has lost face in a realm of which it was once the undisputed world leader

Chess Ban Holds Russia in Check
A volunteer sets chessboards at the playing area ahead of the start of the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP via Getty Images)

The Chess Olympiad, which concluded in August in India, saw a record participation of 350 teams from 186 nations. But one nation was missing: chess superpower Russia. Although the International Chess Federation (known by its French abbreviation FIDE) has a Russian president, Arkady Dvorkovich, it banned Russia along with Belarus after the invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. (Individuals from these countries continue to play internationally, but cannot use their national flags.)

In any other era, it would have been impossible to ban Russia, given the grip it held on chess and its international federation. For seven decades, the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia, churned out great players on an endless assembly line. These mental athletes were held up as embodiments of a superior Soviet system. Chess victories were considered validations of communism. In the middle of the 20th century, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin would send congratulatory messages to chess champions, who were given sinecures in prestigious Soviet institutes. Grandmasters were mobbed by autograph seekers while walking down the street. Chess was taught extensively in schools, and the talented were singled out for more intensive coaching.

Between 1948 and 2008, every chess world champion was a Soviet or Russian citizen, with just one brief exception (the American Bobby Fischer, who held the title from 1972 to 1975). The USSR, and later Russia, won every Olympiad, almost by right. The country often had four or five world champions turning out for its teams. During the Soviet era, the state poured great sums of money and resources into the game. After the USSR collapsed, the new business oligarchs did the same.

Success was so highly valued by the ideologues that even an emigre Russian nobleman, Alexander Alekhine, who was tainted by Nazi sympathies, was claimed as one of their own. Alekhine had fled the USSR in 1921. He became world champion in 1927 and died in Portugal in 1946 still in possession of the title. He spent World War II playing tournaments in German-occupied Europe and wrote several essays echoing Nazi ideology. Despite that, his memory was revered in the USSR, and his games studied in detail.

Now, however, the scales appear to have tilted. The current world champion is a Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, who wrested the title from Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. A stream of young, talented players has emerged from all over the world, while the organizational power and the money have started to move out of Russia. A very young Uzbek team won the team gold last month at the Olympiad in Chennai, and an equally youthful Indian team took the bronze medal. Those results, and the fact that several of the winners were not yet legally adults, underscored how much things have changed.

In July 1992, only three players on the world top 10 list were not from the former Soviet Union. In July 2022, there was only one Russian. Russia has not won gold in an Olympiad since 2002. By contrast, in that same period, countries like Uzbekistan, Armenia, China, Iran, Ukraine and India have put up a challenge for medals. Armenia has won gold three times; Ukraine twice; China twice and the U.S. once.

The almost overnight shift of the Olympiad to India is another sign of movement on the geopolitical chessboard. The Olympiad — a biennial event — was scheduled to be held in Russia in July. Instead, following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was banned and the tournament venue had to be shifted.

India made an unofficial bid to host within a couple of days of the ban and a formal one within a week.

Yet an Olympiad involves challenging logistics. It features about 2,500 players, coaches and associated others from more than 180 countries, in addition to spectators, delegates and the media. It is streamed live in multiple languages in real time. The 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19. In the aftermath of the pandemic, putting an Olympiad together was an even more daunting task.

The All India Chess Federation needed to persuade the Indian government to agree to host the jamboree. It also needed to convince the state government in Tamil Nadu (of which Chennai is the capital). It had to find a venue with requisite accommodation and high-speed internet as well as easy road and air connections. Organizers found a suitable site in the heritage coastal haven of Mamallapuram, about 30 miles from Chennai.

Above all, the Indian federation had to convince FIDE as well as other member nations that it could put everything together quickly and seamlessly. This required a lot of back-channel negotiations, but it all got done.

The FIDE elections at the Chennai Olympiad confirmed the rise of a new bunch of power players. Dvorkovich was easily reelected as president, despite loudly-stated misgivings from many people regarding his background as a former deputy prime minister of Russia. There is the very real possibility that the former Kremlin insider could face sanctions one day. The popular former world champion and Chennai resident Anand was elected as vice president (he would take over as president if Dvorkovich were indeed sanctioned). The elected panel also includes a diverse membership, with representatives from China, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa, the UAE and Guatemala. After Dvorkovich took charge, there were two key changes made to FIDE’s constitution. The president’s tenure was restricted to two terms, and the board had to include at least one representative from each continent.

This is a far cry from the era of Dvorkovich’s predecessor, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. President of the Autonomous Kalmyk Republic, a Buddhist enclave that is part of the Russian Federation, he spearheaded many of FIDE’s initiatives from 1995 to 2018. He found enough money to build a massive chess city in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, and mysterious ways to fund FIDE events, apparently through gas trading.

In 1998, a local journalist, Larisa Yudina, was murdered in Elista after she accused Ilyumzhinov of corruption. Among the accusations were that the chess city had been built using state funds and overbilled by the contractors who built the Elista complex, in addition to kickbacks. Two bureaucrats serving in the government of the Kalmyk Republic were later convicted of crimes associated with the corruption.

The opacity of FIDE’s accounts and the oligarchic connections meant the funding and organization of chess events occurred without transparency. In consequence, it was hard to find sponsors. Moreover, to be a part of the board one had to be a friend of Ilyumzhinov, who also took care of funding and sponsorships.

Since 1886, the title of world champion has traditionally been decided in head-to-head matches between the defending champion and a challenger. There had to be a number of qualifying events to pick the challenger, which involved millions in prize money and organizational costs. In theory, an unknown player from anywhere in the world could climb that qualifying ladder to become champion, as happened with America’s grandmaster Bobby Fischer in the 1970s and later with Anand and Carlsen.

The qualifying events filter potential challengers down to an elite list of eight “candidates,” who play a candidates’ event to find a challenger. The challenger then plays the champion in a head-to-head title match.

Traditionally, in the candidates’ tournament, each of the eight participants plays two games against each of the other seven; the winner is whoever does best in all 14 games played. One needs months to prepare strategies for each opponent.

A knockout tournament, by contrast, features a series of short matches against a randomly-drawn opponent. If you lose, you’re out. You only learn who your opponent is a couple of hours before the game, giving players little time to prepare. If one has just one bad day, one is eliminated. There are multiple statistical studies on different sports that demonstrate results are more random in knockouts.

There was a long period during Ilyumzhinov’s tenure from 1998 to 2005 when knockout rules became the norm, because of a lack of funds and the unwillingness of many federations to host events. Since that process often involved a lot of luck, it led to a loss of legitimacy.

Major chess events were hosted only in a few places where the federation president had friends or business connections, such as Elista itself, or other parts of Russia, or even such cities as Tehran (where Anand won his first world title in 2000).

Apart from his friendly relationships with various oligarchs, Ilyumzhinov was also on notably warm terms with the Libyan and Syrian dictators Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, publishing photographs with them on social media. FIDE’s bank accounts were frozen and ultimately shut down after Ilyumzhinov was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for bank dealings in Syria in 2015. As a result, transnational corporations that were listed on stock exchanges and publish audited accounts were wary of being associated with chess during his long tenure.

Dvorkovich’s entry in 2018 changed that. Chess found many more sponsors, including companies that did not have Russian connections. FIDE now has a long list of associated corporations, partners and sponsors spread across many regions. With nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia, state funding has also been generous, and India could never have been a site for hosting the Olympiad without support from the government.

Aspiring organizers around the world have also found many willing hosts and local sponsors for events outside the traditional title cycle – the Interzonal, Candidates and World Championships. These are also sanctioned and official events organized by commercial sponsors or national federations and count towards ratings and rankings.

In addition to traditional annual events in Wijk aan Zee (in the Netherlands), St. Louis, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Delhi, Chennai, Moscow, Riga, Reykjavik, Oslo and Biel, there was a major annual event in Dubai. Saudi Arabia hosted the World Blitz and Rapid championships in 2017, which both severely constricted the time limits for making moves. All these events have strong local support and sponsors.

The federation’s budget in 2022 is about $12.8 million, which is considerably more than the $3.4 million that was budgeted in 2018, when Dvorkovich took over from Ilyumzhinov. There is enough cash now to subsidize travel expenses to the tune of $1.5 million for the Olympiad and ensure participation from nations that previously lacked funds to play.

That the Soviets dominated the scene for decades was true for several reasons. Teaching the game in schools created a large base for the Russian chess pyramid and identified potential talent early. There was fierce competition that honed Soviet players. There were coaches, trainers and analysts across the country who, for example, put together index cards and paper databases with deep analysis.

In 1945, when the American grandmaster Sammy Reshevsky played the future world champion Vassily Smyslov, they reached a very complicated position. Reshevsky had found the best moves. Competitive chess is always played with clocks. Players had 150 minutes for the first 40 moves and had to make at least 16 moves every subsequent hour. But while playing his first 20 moves, Reshevsky had already spent over two hours on the clock. Smyslov took only four minutes. Not surprisingly, Reshevsky ran short of time and started making mistakes when he had to hurry.

It was not uncommon for Soviet players to go into games with that sort of advantage, given their deep knowledge. Only incandescently-talented outsiders like the world champions Fischer and Anand could beat the products of that regimented system. The Soviet Union also called the shots in many ways when it came to organization. Anand (born 1969), for example, honed his skills early at the Tal Chess Club (named after the Soviet Latvian world champion Mikhail Tal), a club promoted and hosted by the Soviet consulate in Chennai in the late 1970s.

Chess talent started popping up in unexpected places in the 1990s and early 2000s as the Soviet/Russian hegemony on training methods and data-based analysis broke apart due to technological advances. The internet made it possible for practically anyone to play against good competition. Electronic chess databases became widely available. By the late 1990s, chess computer programs — “engines” as they are known — were playing at world championship levels. By 2010 or so, smartphones could beat world champions. As for catching ’em young, a whole bunch of young gamers found they preferred playing chess over Grand Theft Auto and the like. The current teenage crop of world-beating talent includes Indians, Uzbeks, Iranians, Germans, Dutch, Americans and Chinese, among others.

A host of youngsters in India have taken up chess because of Anand’s achievements. The same goes for Norway thanks to Carlsen. Local corporations have also boarded the bandwagon by supporting chess training programs and sponsoring tournaments. Iran and Uzbekistan have seen local versions of this as well.

The pandemic, and what it did to formalize the online versions of the game, further contributed to its popularity in the last three years. Over-the-board play halted perforce during the pandemic, but chess events with substantial prize money started being held online. An online Olympiad (won jointly by India and Russia) and dozens of big prize money events have been streamed live by chess platforms since 2020. Platforms like Chess.com, Lichess.com and Play.Chessbase.com, among others, host around six million games a day. At any given second, there are over 120,000 games being played online.

As the game went online and its social media presence soared, new revenue streams opened up. There are now at least half a dozen chess players who are popular streamers on various platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, with followings in the millions. They make a reasonable living monetizing their social media presence. The streamers range in strength from superstars like Magnus Carlsen and the American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who is a top 10 player, to the Botez sisters from Canada, who thrive online but are much less likely to qualify for the latter stages of the world championship cycle. Carlsen owns a stake of around 9.5% in a listed company, Play Magnus Group, which offers chess training and matches against chess engines which have been tweaked to play in a style that mimics grandmasters such as himself or Judit Polgar. The company recently received a buyout offer from the platform Chess.com, valuing it at $82.5 million.

If we go crystal-gazing, the trends suggest serious chess will continue to shift online. Once the metaverse gets going, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality will make online play even more immersive and therefore more fun. It is likely that world title matches circa 2035-2040 will be played entirely in VR mode.

The current shift in geopolitics suggests champions will keep emerging from unexpected places. Carlsen, who declared he would not defend the title after four successful defenses, has also said that, by 2050, India will have produced many world champions. It seems very likely there will also be title holders from Uzbekistan, Iran and elsewhere. All in all, there are exciting prospects for a game that is now played by 650 million people around the world.

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