Ukrainian grandmaster offers to overthrow Russian head of world chess body

KYIV, Ukraine – Russia’s war on Ukraine has permeated even the seemingly calm world of chess, where a Ukrainian grandmaster tries to overthrow the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.

Representatives of 195 member states are due to vote at a conference in Chennai, India, on Sunday for the president of the federation, the world governing body for chess, which regulates all international championships, determines player ratings and decides where the world and continental championships will take place. 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 candidacy is an illustration of the attempt by many Ukrainians to untangle their country’s deep ties to Russia, as well as to challenge Moscow’s global influence, following the invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Certainly, the war pushed me to fight for changes at FIDE,” said Baryshpolets, using the French acronym by which the chess federation is commonly known.

“It’s a very non-transparent structure, and it’s been heavily dependent on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Baryshpolets, an economist who emigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government always used the chess federation to project Russia. cultural influence.

Baryshpolets pointed out that in 2020, the last year for which financial statements are available, Russian public and private companies provided more than 90% of all donations to FIDE, contributing more than 45% of the FIDE’s budget. organization.

Chess has traditionally been closely tied to the Russian state and a projection of its global power – a legacy of Soviet domination over the sport it funded and nurtured. From the establishment of the first International Chess Federation World Championship in 1948 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won all but one championship.

Dvorkovich, 50, was elected president four years ago, replacing eccentric Russian millionaire Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, whose scandalous two-decade reign ended with him being suspended by the federation’s ethics commission in 2018.

Dvorkovich said his close relationship with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin was a thing of the past.

In an interview, 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 his refusal to openly support the war and abroad for his ties to the Kremlin.

In an online debate with other candidates for the organization’s presidency in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and pledged to resign if ever placed under sanctions by the ‘West. That same month, the head of the Russian Chess Federation called Dvorkovich “our candidate” and predicted that he would win easily.

Under Dvorkovich’s leadership, the federation condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and cut sponsorship ties with Russian-controlled businesses. After the invasion, Russian players were only able to participate in official international tournaments under the flag of another country or under the neutral FIDE flag.

Dvorkovich, however, echoed the Kremlin’s false claims that he is fighting fascism in Ukraine.

At the same time, he is generally well regarded for his leadership of FIDE, and he remains popular among chess powerhouses like India and the dozens of smaller national federations that depend on grants from a special development fund of the FIDE to work.

“Compared to four years ago, today’s FIDE is completely different,” said British Chess Magazine editor Milan Dinic, referring to the changes he said Dvorkovich had 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 had still need more changes.

Baryshpolets learned to play chess when he was 6 years old, and he was playing tournaments when he was 8 years old. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his campaign platform included promoting transparency in the way tournament venues, including many in Russia, are held. , are rewarded.

“A big concern that the federations also see is that what is happening inside this black box is not transparent and clear, why certain decisions have been made as they are,” he said. .

Baryshpolets campaigned low-key, meeting delegates in Chennai and taking a regular shuttle bus to the scene. Each national federation has a single vote by secret ballot to elect the president, an unpaid post.

One country that will not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: its federation has backed another candidate. India appear to have lined up behind Dvorkovich, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion running on the Russian’s ticket, and in their gratitude for Dvorkovich’s help in securing the Moved Chess Olympiad, a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates, to Chennai.

The United States Chess Federation said in a statement from Executive Director Carol Meyer that it has not decided which ticket to support and will wait to hear from its delegation after meeting with all of the candidates for Chennai.

Lev Alburt, a former Ukrainian chess champion who defected to the United States in 1979 while playing for the Soviet Union, said that if war meant the chess world lost support from major Russian donors , he thought this could be offset by other emerging chess nations 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.”

Alburt said he views the challenge of world chess as only a small part of the fallout from the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“The world at large 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.”

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