The genteel and cerebral game of chess is being rocked by a battle for control of the World Chess Federation that’s become rougher than a wrestling cage match and features allegations of vote buying by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The organization, known by its French acronym FIDE, is hardly a household name but it’s one of the largest sports bodies in the world with 188 member federations. It’s been under a cloud in recent years because of the erratic leadership of Russian businessman Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who served as FIDE president for 23 years before being forced out this summer. Mr. Ilyumzhinov was best known for telling reporters that chess was invented by extraterrestrials and that he’d twice been abducted by aliens (he even toured their spaceship in a yellow spacesuit). His downfall came after he was put on a U.S. sanctions list because of his close association with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
His departure has cleared the way for new leadership at FIDE and sparked a war between two contenders: Arkady Dvorkovich, 46, a former Russian deputy prime minister who recently headed the country’s organizing committee for soccer’s 2018 World Cup; and Georgios Makropoulos, a 64-year old grandmaster from Greece who has been on FIDE’s executive committee for more than 30 years and spent the past 22 years as deputy president. Delegates from the member federations will vote for a new president and executive on Oct. 3 and the campaigning has been fierce.
Mr. Makropoulos’s side accuses Mr. Dvorkovich of being a puppet of Mr. Putin and the Greek has demanded that FIDE’s ethics commission kick the Russian out of the race because of vote buying. They allege Russian embassies have been lobbying chess federations around the world to back Mr. Dvorkovich in return for “sponsorship packages.” And they claim Mr. Putin recently pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get Israel’s chess federation to switch its vote to Mr. Dvorkovich. In return, Mr. Putin allegedly promised Russia’s support for Israel to host the next world chess championships.
“It’s a simple contest between the Soviet state, which wishes to control chess, and the long-time officials … who wish to retain the sport’s independence and take it forward and rebuild its reputation, which has been trashed over the last 23 years,” said Malcolm Pein, a British chess journalist and accomplished player who’s running for deputy president on Mr. Makropoulos’s slate. Pointing to Russia’s recent history of doping in other sports, he added: “Russia has been humiliated in world sport and Putin really wants to be able to say; ‘Well at least we still have one of the most important sports, chess, under our control.’ ”
Mr. Dvorkovich denies the allegations and claims they are a desperate attempt by Mr. Makropoulos to salvage his failing campaign. He has also filed a complaint to the FIDE ethics commission alleging the Greek has doled out FIDE money to chess federations in return for their support. “I love chess – and I have done a lot throughout the years to promote it – in Russia and internationally,” he said in an e-mail. While he has acknowledged that Mr. Putin supports his campaign, he added: “There is no political pressure – and honestly I don’t think Russia is in the position to press 100 plus countries to support me. However, I do have such a broad support. And of course, I am supported by my country, but nobody instructs me what to do and how to proceed.”
The race comes at a pivotal time for FIDE. Chess has been growing in popularity globally and the current world champion, 27-year old Magnus Carlsen, is among a wave of young players who are transforming the game’s image. Many in the sport say FIDE has been unable to capitalize on the resurgence because of Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s eccentric leadership and his trouble with the U.S. government, which has crippled the organization’s finances and made it difficult for FIDE to even open a bank account. Mr. Putin has also been keen to maintain Russia’s prominent role in FIDE. The game is immensely popular in Russia and the country still produces most of the world’s top players, boasting 249 grandmasters, more than twice as many as any other nation.
Both Mr. Makropoulos and Mr. Dvorkovich have big plans for FIDE. Mr. Makropoulos wants to expand the game online, attract corporate sponsors and get chess into the Olympics. Mr. Dvorkovich is also promising to partner with global corporations in addition to developing an online platform and aligning FIDE with FIFA, the world governing body for soccer.
While the race remains too close to call, Mr. Dvorkovich is picking up support. He recently won the endorsement of the Association of Chess Professionals, which represents more than 1,200 players, officials and arbiters, who are akin to referees. And he has the backing of Nigel Short, a British grandmaster who is also running for president but announced last week that he is supporting Mr. Dvorkovich.
Canada’s chess federation is supporting Mr. Makropoulos, but Canadian president Vladimir Drkulec said he’d be happy to see Mr. Dvorkovich win. “Either one of them will be a better president than what we’ve had recently,” Mr. Drkulec said from his home in Windsor, Ont. “I think that chess is entering on an adventure here.”