Fight to be king of chess turns messy

Three-way scrap hit by charges of cor­rup­tion and Rus­sian med­dling

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - An­drew Roth Moscow

Can­di­dates are feud­ing bit­terly be­fore a vote marred by ac­cu­sa­tions of vote­buy­ing, “fake news” and Rus­sian med­dling. It may sound like Brexit or a US elec­tion, but this is an ar­guably thornier is­sue: a three-way bat­tle for con­trol over in­ter­na­tional chess.

The Greek act­ing pres­i­dent of the World Chess Fed­er­a­tion (Fide), Ge­or­gios Makropou­los, has been ac­cused of cur­ry­ing favour from cash-strapped fed­er­a­tions. He in turn has ac­cused Rus­sian new­comer Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Krem­lin aide, of us­ing Moscow’s in­flu­ence across the globe to mount an up­set cam­paign.

The third can­di­date in Fide’s Oc­to­ber pres­i­den­tial vote is Nigel Short, a punchy Bri­tish grand­mas­ter run­ning on an anti-cor­rup­tion ticket, who has nev­er­the­less riled many in the sport.

The Rus­sian bid sees one of the Krem­lin’s most ca­pa­ble lieu­tenants un­leashed on a sport that, frankly, seems small fry for him. Dvorkovich was Rus­sian deputy prime min­is­ter for six years and chaired Rus­sia’s Fifa World Cup or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee, which spent an es­ti­mated £10bn ($13bn) on the foot­ball tour­na­ment. By con­trast, the Fide’s an­nual bud­get is just £2.3m.

But the bid makes sense con­sid­er­ing the im­por­tance of chess in the coun­try and Rus­sia’s tra­di­tional dom­i­nance of the fed­er­a­tion, one of just a few where Moscow has re­cently held con­trol. The Rus­sian op­er­a­tion, as de­scribed in leaked letters, me­dia re­ports and con­ver­sa­tions with chess of­fi­cials, is as­tound­ing for such a small sport.

Among the ac­cu­sa­tions: in a pri­vate meet­ing, Vladimir Putin urged Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to sway the Is­raeli chess fed­er­a­tion’s vote, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter from the Is­raeli for­eign min­istry leaked to jour­nal­ists and seen by the Guardian.

African and other chess of­fi­cials ap­peared at Rus­sia’s World Cup with com­pli­men­tary tick­ets (Dvorkovich has said they were not in ex­change for votes) and South Amer­i­can chess fed­er­a­tions have re­ceived letters from Rus­sian diplo­mats, urg­ing them to back Dvorkovich in the elec­tions.

Euro­pean chess of­fi­cials in three coun­tries also de­scribed to the Guardian in­vi­ta­tions to meet Rus­sian diplo­mats to dis­cuss the elec­tions. “It could def­i­nitely be enough” to turn the elec­tion, said Adrian Siegel, Fide’s trea­surer and a mem­ber of Makropou­los’s ticket, es­ti­mat­ing at least 30 chess fed­er­a­tions have been con­tacted by Rus­sian of­fi­cials. How­ever, with a com­plex vote sys­tem al­low­ing a three-way run-off, the race re­mains too close to call.

Four years ago it was Makropou­los, known for his iron grip over the or­gan­i­sa­tion, who was fac­ing claims that his ticket was ben­e­fit­ing from Rus­sian sup­port against chess grand­mas­ter and po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dent Garry Kas­parov.

Ob­servers of the game say the Oc­to­ber vote is a chance for change af­ter a gen­er­a­tion of the sport be­ing dom­i­nated by the ec­cen­tric Rus­sian busi­ness­man Kir­san Ilyumzhi­nov. He was forced out ear­lier this year af­ter be­ing sanc­tioned by the US for his ties to Syr­ian pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, lead­ing to Fide’s Swiss bank ac­counts be­ing frozen.

There re­main deep reser­va­tions over how chess is run to­day. As one pop­u­lar joke goes: it’s like Fifa, just lop off a few ze­ros. “The sport has been deeply lack­ing in trans­parency and pro­fes­sion­al­ism,” said Peter Dog­gers, a re­porter and di­rec­tor of con­tent for, who has cov­ered Fide’s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics and the elec­tions cam­paign closely. “It is a ques­tion: why hasn’t chess got­ten big­ger? We’ve had so many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Ilya Meren­zon, the Rus­sian pub­lic re­la­tions veteran who runs World Chess and holds an exclusive con­tract to or­gan­ise Fide com­pe­ti­tions, imag­ines the sport as arty and in­tel­lec­tual, but also seems keen to add a dash of sex. A logo for the 2018 cham­pi­onships, which re­sem­bled two bod­ies en­tan­gled over a chess board in a pose rem­i­nis­cent of the kama su­tra, went vi­ral af­ter it was de­scribed as “pawno­graphic”.

From a Stalin-era sky­scraper in Moscow, his young team of plan­ners are working on chess’s premier event: a cham­pi­onship match in Lon­don on Southamp­ton Row be­tween su­per­star Mag­nus Carlsen and Amer­i­can challenger Fabi­ano Caru­ana. He imag­ines cham­pi­onship chess as a “bil­lion­dol­lar busi­ness, based on dig­i­tal”, and says that World Chess, which held the 2016 cham­pi­onships in New York, has “made the sport cool again”.

Crit­ics have faulted World Chess’s plan­ning of other tour­na­ments and say that Meren­zon is in­flat­ing the sport’s reach and fi­nan­cial po­ten­tial. His con­tract to or­gan­ise com­pe­ti­tions, which also in­cludes me­dia and mar­ket­ing rights, is one of the con­tro­ver­sies in a sport that, when it comes to in­ter­na­tional level, punches be­low its weight.

Prize money for cham­pi­onship chess matches has de­creased in the last decade. Carlsen and Caru­ana are ex­pected to split €1m ($1.1m), the min­i­mum al­lowed by Fide.

“We’ve sold the crown jew­els,” said Short, who has promised to rip up World Chess’s con­tract if he is voted in as pres­i­dent. Short has po­si­tioned him­self as an anti-cor­rup­tion can­di­date, say­ing the sport has scared off in­ter­na­tional spon­sors be­cause of its lack of trans­parency.

While re­form is the buzz­word of this year’s elec­tions, Short re­mains a dark horse. “He’s pissed too many peo­ple off, some might not vote for him for per­sonal rea­sons,” said Ian Rogers, an Aus­tralian grand­mas­ter and chess jour­nal­ist. A com­monly cited ex­am­ple was his Sun­day Tele­graph obit­u­ary for ri­val Tony Miles, where he wrote that he had “ob­tained a mea­sure of re­venge not only by eclips­ing Tony in terms of chess per­for­mance but also by sleep­ing with his girl­friend”.

Short be­lieves his opponents are sling­ing mud. “These guys don’t have a skele­ton in their cup­boards, they’ve got en­tire grave­yards of skele­tons,” Short said. “They try to hit me with what­ever they can find.” Per­haps sens­ing it is los­ing ground, Makropou­los’s cam­paign has sought to iden­tify Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence with Short.

Chess ob­servers say that, putting the Rus­sian con­nec­tion aside, Dvorkovich has a rep­u­ta­tion as a ca­pa­ble bu­reau­crat with a cleaner rep­u­ta­tion than Makropou­los, who was closely tied to Ilyumzhi­nov.

The vote will take place in Oc­to­ber in Ba­tumi, Ge­or­gia.

As an in­di­ca­tor of who will win the world ti­tle match start­ing in Lon­don on 9 Novem­ber, the Sin­que­field Cup, won by the trio of Mag­nus Carlsen, Fabi­ano Caru­ana and Levon Aro­nian, proved in­con­clu­sive. Caru­ana’s two wins were smoother than Carlsen’s two long grinds, but grind­ing is what Mag­nus does best and he also had his challenger close to de­feat.

Carlsen is quoted at 2-5, strong odds on, which re­flects the sig­nif­i­cant chance that the 12 clas­si­cal games will end level and that his su­pe­rior speed play will then prove de­ci­sive.

Aro­nian scored in style in the fi­nal round in a game that both he and Alexan­der Grischuk needed to win. Slightly worse on the board but with the Rus­sian short of time, Aro­nian launched the spec­u­la­tive sac­ri­fice 18 Rxf7! and was re­warded when his op­po­nent missed the de­fence 21... Re8! and later 25...Kg6! al­low­ing the king to find safety at h5. Af­ter Grischuk’s fi­nal er­ror 29...Rd8? (Re8!) Aro­nian’s 30 Qe7! con­jured up a mat­ing at­tack which Black’s paral­ysed army could only watch. 3582 Who made the last move, and what was it? d4 Nf6 Nf3 d6 3 g3 Nbd7 4 Bg2 e5 c4 c6 Nc3 e4 7 Nh4 d5 8 O-O?! Bb4 cxd5 cxd5 10 f3 Bxc3 11 bxc3 O-O Ba3 Re8 13 Nf5 Nb6 14 Nd6 Nc4 Nxc4 dxc4 16 fxe4 Nxe4 17 Qc2 Qd5 18 Rxf7! Kxf7 19 Rf1+ Bf5 20 g4 g6 21 Qc1 Kg7? 22 gxf5 gxf5 23 Bxe4 fxe4 24 Qf4 h6 25 Qc7+ Kh8? 26 Bd6 Rg8+ 27 Kf2 Rg6 28 Be5+ Kg8 29 Ke3 Rd8? 30 Qe7! b5 31 h4 a5 32 h5 Rg5

33 Rf6 Rxe5 34 Rg6+ 1-0 c1. to got have could that piece only the is knight a and ,cap­tured WK The c1.N)Kx( 3582

Arkady Dvorkovich: chaired World Cup or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee Nigel Short: con­sid­ered an an­ticor­rup­tion can­di­date Ge­or­gios Makropou­los: act­ing pres­i­dent of Fide

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