KIEV, Ukraine – Russia’s war against Ukraine has also permeated the seemingly quiet world of chess, where a Ukrainian grandmaster is bidding to unseat the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.
Representatives of 195 member states are expected to vote on Sunday at a conference in Chennai, India, for the president of the federation, the governing body of the world of chess, which regulates all international leagues, determines player rankings and decides where to go. will hold the global and continental championships. The current president, Arkady V. Dvorkovich, a former Russian deputy prime minister, faces three challengers, including Andrii Baryshpolets, a 31-year-old Ukrainian grandmaster living in California.
His offer is an illustration of the attempt by many Ukrainians to untangle their country’s deep ties with Russia, as well as to challenge Moscow’s global influence, following the invasion of Ukraine in February.
“Certainly, the war was a stimulus for me to fight for changes in FIDE,” said Baryshpolets, using the French acronym for the chess federation.
“It’s a very opaque structure and has been heavily reliant on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Baryshpolets, an economist who emigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government was still using the chess federation for Russian influence project. on the cultural front.
Baryshpolets pointed out that in 2020, the last year for which budgets are available, Russian state and private companies provided more than 90% of all donations to FIDE, contributing more than 45% to the budget of the organization.
Chess has traditionally been intertwined with the Russian state and a projection of its global power, a legacy of the Soviet domination of the sport that it financed and fueled. From the establishment of the first world championship of the International Chess Federation in 1948, to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won all but one of the championships.
Mr. Dvorkovich, 50, was elected president four years ago, replacing the eccentric Russian millionaire Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, whose scandal-filled two-decade reign ended with his suspension by the federation’s ethics commission. in 2018.
Mr. Dvorkovich said his close relations with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin have passed.
Our coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war
In an interview, Mr. Dvorkovich said he “understands the reputational risks” stemming from his previous affiliation with the Russian state. He described himself as “between the two fires”, criticized both in Russia for refusing to openly support the war, and abroad for his links with the Kremlin.
In an online debate with the organization’s other presidential candidates in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and pledged to step down if ever sanctioned by the West. That same month, the head of the Russian chess federation referred to Dvorkovich as “our candidate” and predicted that he would easily win.
Under Dvorkovich’s leadership, the federation condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and severed important sponsorship ties with Russian-controlled companies. After the invasion, Russian players could only compete in official international tournaments under the flag of another country or the neutral FIDE flag.
Mr. Dvorkovich, however, echoed the Kremlin’s false claims of fighting fascism in Ukraine.
At the same time, he is generally well regarded for his leadership of FIDE and remains popular with chess powers such as India and the dozens of small national federations that rely on grants from a special FIDE development fund to operate.
“Compared to four years ago, FIDE is completely different today,” said Milan Dinic, editor of British Chess Magazine, referring to the changes Dvorkovich said he made. “He is much more respected both inside and outside the chess world and his finances have improved and become more transparent,” he added, while acknowledging that the organization still needed further changes.
Al Lawrence, chief executive officer of the US Chess Trust, a charity that provides chess scholarships to children and veterans, said that despite systems put in place to strengthen institutional processes so that decision making does not fall back. over one leader, the president of FIDE still had considerable influence on essential matters.
“Who the president is matters a lot,” said Mr. Lawrence, a former director of the United States Chess Federation, who was speaking on a personal basis. “Frankly, the federation is closely allied to Russian influences right now.”
Such influence could almost immediately serve wider Russian interests. The day after the presidential election, the chess federation is expected to accept a proposal to lift the ban on Russian teams in major leagues. Chess, like most world sports, imposed a ban on Russian teams after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We would like our national team to return to the big stage”, Andrei Filatov, head of the Russian Chess Federation, She said in the month of July.
In Mr. Baryshpolets’ hometown of Kiev, on a recent Saturday, chess players gathered in Shevchenko Park, setting up plastic chess pieces on stone tables as they waited for partners.
Like the federation contender, almost everyone learned to play as a child.
“For us it’s not that important as chess players, but as Ukrainian citizens we would like a Ukrainian to be the head of the federation,” said Vadim Weisberger, 63, a businessman who was one of the players.
Others said they left the war behind when they sat down at the chessboard.
“This is the civilized world of chess,” said Serhiy Maiboroda, a retired police investigator. “Here we talk about chess; politics we discuss in different places ”.
Mr. Baryshpolets learned to play chess at the age of 6 and by the age of 8 he was competing in tournaments. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his electoral platform included promoting transparency in tournament positions, many of which in Russia, are rewarded.
“A big concern that the federations also see is that it is not transparent and it is not clear what happens inside this black box, because some of the decisions have been made as they are,” he said. “There are few communications and explanations to the federations and the chess world.”
Mr. Baryshpolets ran a low-key campaign, meeting with delegates in Chennai and taking a regular shuttle to the venue. Each national federation has only one secret ballot to elect the president, in an unpaid position.
One country that will not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: his federation has approved a different candidate. India, meanwhile, appears to have lined up behind Mr. Dvorkovich, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion racing on the Russian’s ticket, and in his gratitude for Mr. Dvorkovich’s help in landing at the Olympics. of chess relocated, a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates, in Chennai.
The United States Chess Federation said in a statement from its executive director, Carol Meyer, that she hadn’t decided which ticket to return and would wait to hear from her delegation after meeting all the candidates in Chennai. The American team has two Ukrainian players; one of them, Anna Zatonskikh, originally from Mariupol, said that “it is wrong to have a Russian at the head of FIDE”.
Chess analysts said that with three people challenging Mr. Dvorkovich, it was possible they would split the opposition vote, reducing the chances of defeating him. Others noted that a secret ballot gave voters room to support Mr. Dvorkovich even as their countries oppose the war in Ukraine and Russia more generally.
“Whatever is going on behind the scenes,” said Peter Tamburro Jr., senior editor of American Chess Magazine.
“I wonder, we will have an election heavily influenced by the infusion of money in various places,” he added, noting that many of the federation’s member states are smaller and less wealthy countries.
Lev Alburt, a former Ukrainian chess champion who defected to the United States in 1979 while playing for the Soviet Union, said that while the war meant the chess world was losing support from major Russian donors, he believed it could be invented by other emerging chess countries with deep pockets.
“In the Arab world, for example,” he said, “the UAE is a big sponsor of chess and the Saudis are becoming big supporters.”
Mr. Alburt said he saw the challenge to global chess as only a small part of the fallout from the war between Ukraine and Russia.
“The world in general is in danger of freezing, like a new Cold War,” he said. “And in such a situation it would be difficult to keep the chess world together.”
Jane Araf reported from Kiev, Ukraine e Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.