On July 11 last year, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, flew to Moscow to meet Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. The Israeli press disagreed over whether the impromptu trip was for a high-level discussion of the security situation in Syria and Iran, as had been officially briefed, or merely an excuse to attend that evening’s football World Cup semi-final.
Regardless, when the two leaders sat down together in the Kremlin that afternoon, before Netanyahu and his entourage headed to the VIP stand of the Luzhniki stadium, another matter came up for discussion. Amid the talk of the House of Assad and Hizbollah, Putin canvassed Netanyahu for Israel’s support in an upcoming election: the presidency of the World Chess Federation ;(Fide).
“Imagine,” says Malcolm Pein, an international chess master and British chess commentator, “if right at the crucial moment of the discussions about producing a deal with the EU, Theresa May had turned to [France’s president] Macron and said, ‘Right, enough of this Brexit stuff. I want to talk to you about supporting our British candidate for chess.’ Because that is basically what that was.”
For two decades, Fide has been a peculiar lens through which to view the shifting geopolitical currents of the post-cold war order: the previous president, oligarch Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was forced out last year after he was sanctioned by the US government for abetting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the latest in a line of diplomatic dalliances for which Fide had been the smokescreen.
It is an organisation whose activities have, with faint absurdity, enfolded a world of earnest sports-hall tournaments and state-level competition for political influence; a world populated by small-time oligarchs as well as some of the most singular thinkers on the planet. It is also an organisation that has been riven by a bitter, bitchy factionalism that can only be explained by the particular frailties of game-playing men: of big minds turned to trivial things.
Russia had held dominion of sorts over this world since 1995. But Ilyumzhinov’s departure threw the presidency of Fide wide open. Putin’s preferred candidate to succeed him was Arkady Dvorkovich — then deputy prime minister of Russia, who had recently chaired the football World Cup organising committee. Moscow’s efforts to ensure he won Fide’s presidency did not begin and end with the Netanyahu meeting.
Documents seen by the Financial Times and extensive interviews with more than a dozen senior figures in the chess world show a co-ordinated global effort by the Russian state, through ambassadors and representatives of its banks and biggest companies, to win votes with promises of money and political pressure.
The Kremlin says that while senior members of the Russian government raised the candidacy of Dvorkovich in meetings with foreign officials, they did not seek to solicit votes in doing so. For a Russian state fixated on an all-encompassing political, cultural and informational struggle with the west, the need to reassert its right to rule in chess at a time when Moscow’s sporting reputation was in tatters was nevertheless a tactical opportunity that could not be passed over.
Yet this is not, as such, merely a tale of Russian meddling: the urbane, technocratic Dvorkovich stood on a credible platform of reform and openness that resonated because it promised to restore, rather than undermine, Fide’s international standing. Fide documents reveal years of unsound financial practices, raising red flags about the flow of money to and from Fide officials and third-party companies and trusts run by them.
In one of the most bizarre elections in sporting history, the two other candidates were Georgios Makropoulos, Fide’s deputy chief of 23 years, whose message of reform, however genuine, failed to offset his status as a career-long Fide insider, tainted by allegations of financial wrongdoing; and the British grandmaster Nigel Short, whose tendency to win arguments and lose friends cast him firmly in the role of outsider.
In the end, Putin’s man won. No side in the tale comes out cleanly. As the Soviet chess player Boris Spassky said with courtly weariness in Reykjavik in 1972, after receiving the latest puerile philippic from his American nemesis Bobby Fischer: “This is about everything but chess.”
Fide’s role as the sole arbiter of chess emerged from a crisis. Ever since the great Emanuel Lasker claimed pre-eminence over Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894, the garland of world champion had been passed on by a simple process of challenge: whoever beat the incumbent champion took his crown. Then, in 1946, reigning world champion — and Soviet defector — Alexander Alekhine died in mysterious circumstances in Estoril. Unbeaten at his death, it was unclear to whom Alekhine’s title should pass. The Fédération Internationale des Échecs, one of several ruling bodies at the time, stepped into the vacuum.
Fide is an organisation that has been riven by a bitter, bitchy factionalism
Today Fide is the governing body of world chess in much the same way as Fifa is for football. It organises world championships and the biennial Chess Olympiad — a huge, team-based tournament to decide which country is the global leader in chess. It also sets the rules of the game and awards the titles of grandmaster, international master and master to players worldwide, as well as calculating a global ranking for all players. Every four years, at a special congress, it elects a president.
Chess has been a lodestone of Russian political life since Soviet times. Lenin and Trotsky honed their skills in Europe’s salons during their long exiles (“Mr Bronstein from the chess room!” exclaimed the head waiter of the Café Central in Vienna when he saw coverage of Trotsky’s role in the Russian revolution in the newspaper); in 1924, Nikolai Krylenko, head of the Red Army, declared the game an exemplar for the new homo sovieticus. During the cold war, chess became the perfect proxy for Russian political muscle, reaching its apotheosis in the Fischer-Spassky showdown, dubbed the “match of the century”.
Victory for the crass Fischer, who also happened to be a player of raw and daring genius, raised the stakes for Russia’s chekists, challenging notions of natural Soviet supremacy at the board. The game became a battleground and Fide was a target for KGB penetration.
The Filipino Florencio Campomanes was the first president to become an asset of Soviet intelligence, according to the former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Popov; Campomanes repaid the Lubyanka’s help in securing his election when he controversially intervened to force abandonment of the 1984-85 match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, thus preserving the Soviet favourite’s status as world champion.
The eccentric Ilyumzhinov stepped into Campomanes’s shoes in 1995. A cirrhotic Boris Yeltsin, recuperating in the presidential solitude of the Barvikha sanatorium, gave his official seal of approval by telephone and Ilyumzhinov later recounted he had been told to “put the Russian flag on top of it”.
Initially, Ilyumzhinov had a shaky relationship with Moscow. As the president of the semi-autonomous Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia, he led an abortive attempt to break away from the motherland. But with the rise of Putinism, the room for Russia’s regional chiefs, oligarchs and officials to pursue their own interests narrowed. Ilyumzhinov’s tireless global travel for Fide began to take on a more sinister hue.
The day after US president George W Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq in March 2003, Ilyumzhinov was in Baghdad, playing chess with the dictator’s son Uday. His jet was one of the last charter aircraft out of Saddam International Airport before military operations by US and coalition forces began.
As Nato bombing began to turn the tide of the civil war against Muammer Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, Ilyumzhinov was there too, playing chess with the ailing dictator. But it was the Russian’s trips to Syria that led to his downfall. On November 25 2015, the US Treasury put him on its official sanctions list for “materially assisting” the Assad regime.
Ilyumzhinov, who declined to speak to the FT for this article, has always firmly denied the allegations against him. According to senior western diplomats, wiretaps revealed Ilyumzhinov had set up a bank in Russia to process payments on behalf of Syrian intermediaries working for the Assad family.
Given his background, those officials said, it was inconceivable that such activities were not conducted with a degree of co-ordination, if not outright direction, by Russian security services. Ilyumzhinov’s previous trips bore the same taint, they said: he had perhaps been acting as a back-channel to Gaddafi and the Husseins on behalf of Russian intelligence — to short-circuit western-led attempts at regime change by spiriting problematic dictators to retirements in secluded dachas outside Moscow.
By February 2018, with US sanctions against him, Ilyumzhinov’s position in Fide was untenable: the federation’s Swiss bankers, fearing the long arm of US financial retribution, simply closed Fide’s accounts. Its board voted to ban Ilyumzhinov from standing in the looming presidential election.
In late 2017, Fide’s deputy president Georgios Makropoulos was summoned to the Kremlin. His phone was taken from him and locked in a Faraday cage — standard security practice for most people meeting with as important a figure in the Russian presidential hierarchy as Dmitry Peskov. A diplomat and Turkologist by background, Peskov is typically referred to in the west as Putin’s press spokesperson. His role as deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration also makes him one of the most powerful wielders of executive authority in Russia.
Just as former members of the Soviet politburo were given special areas of interest to “co-ordinate”, figures in Putin’s administration wield sometimes hidden influence over areas not necessarily within their formal remit. Peskov, among his many interests, keeps a watchful eye on chess.
To count the members of the Russian Chess Federation’s trustee board, which he chairs, is to understand the cachet the game has in Russian political life. Those sitting on it include the billionaire Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s former judo partner and one of the president’s oldest and most loyal confidants; Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defence; Alexander Dyukov, chairman and chief executive of Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of the state energy giant; Konstantin Ernst, chief of Russia’s main state TV station Channel One; and, finally, Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow.
Sport, a vital part of Russia’s soft power armoury . . . It was mired in crisis amid revelations of systematic state-sponsored doping
Sport is a vital part of Russia’s soft power armoury. Yet as Makropoulos arrived in Moscow, it was mired in crisis. Following revelations of systematic state-sponsored doping, Russian athletes were banned from competing under their own flag.
The country’s place in the chess world was doing little to assuage this picture of decline. Of the 36 biennial chess Olympiads held since 1950, the USSR and Russia won 24. But the last time Moscow took the top prize was 2002. China are the reigning champions.
“In the current mode in which geopolitical competition has been shifted away from the battlefield and on to every other realm, from economics to culture to sport, then wherever there’s a competition going, particularly one in which Russia feels it might have a chance, it wants to be there and it wants to be winning,” says Mark Galeotti, a leading expert on Russian power-politics and senior associate fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think-tank.
Against this backdrop, losing control of Fide was simply not an option. But if the government had already formed a plan, Peskov did not let on to Makropoulos that day. Indeed, the Greek was already working on his own scheme. He hoped to persuade Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa al-Nahyan, a member of the UAE’s ruling royal family and president of the Asian Chess Federation, to run.
The Emirati prince would bring millions in sponsorship, steer clear of entangling Fide in shady diplomatic affairs and allow Makropoulos in effect to continue running the organisation day-to-day as its number two.
His scheme unravelled almost as quickly as it had come together. In February last year, Makropoulos and two dozen other Fide officials and federation heads met in the Gulf to announce Sheikh Sultan’s candidacy in a declaration intended to scotch the hopes of other putative candidates. But with hours to go, Sheikh Sultan told Makropoulos he would not be running after all.
A month earlier, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov had got wind of the plan and flown to Abu Dhabi to ask the UAE’s minister of sport, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, to reconsider the emirate’s candidacy. According to members of Makropoulos’s team and current Fide officials, Ilyumzhinov also lobbied via a second, more unusual channel: the Chechen Republic’s Kalashnikov-toting, kitten-stroking ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, who happens to be a hunting buddy of the UAE’s effective ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Without the al-Nahyans, Makropoulos decided the only way to maintain his own influence in Fide, a course he believed to be best for the organisation, was to run for the presidency himself.
Two months after the election, I meet Makropoulos in his office at the Greek Chess Federation, just off one of Athens’ unlovelier thoroughfares. Winding up our introductory small talk, he stubs out his second cigarette and takes a seat opposite me. Nobody has been closer to the inner workings of Fide than Makropoulos, a seven-time national chess champion of Greece, who began his career at the federation in 1986. For his supporters, he’s the man who has kept the show on the road.
Corruption had been everywhere at Fide, he admits, but he always kept his own hands clean. I ask if that is why he lost. “No. This is, of course, one of the reasons. Because if one of the candidates can spend unlimited money during elections then . . . ” he shrugs. “The second reason [is] that we decided not to use political pressure to press federations and delegates.”
In the election for the Fide presidency, each national federation gets one delegate and one vote — a system that creates a level playing field but, say critics, also leads to some strange distortions: tiny federations, some no bigger than a village club, have the same weight as those with huge memberships and budgets, such as the US and Russia. Of Fide’s 189 federations, Makropoulos says, “more than 120 federations got pressure, either direct, by Russian embassies, or through their ministers of sport, or even ministers of foreign affairs.”
The FT has been able to substantiate some of these claims. For example: a stamped letter sent from the Russian embassy in Brasília was passed, via the Brazilian foreign office, to the Brazilian Chess Federation on August 2 2018. “Russia is internationally recognised as a country with a great tradition of chess,” the note reads.
“Russia believes that the experience and professionalism of Arkady Dvorkovich, as well as his extensive network of contacts, will be a valuable contribution to the future of Fide,” it continues, holding out the prospect of a significant funding boost. Similar notes were sent by Russian embassies elsewhere in the world. The embassies were also active in directly calling chess federations and their delegates.
According to Makropoulos, “dozens” of federations were also swayed by gifts and incentives. As head of the Fifa World Cup organising committee in Russia that summer, Dvorkovich was able to arrange for potential supporters to go and watch their own national teams compete. Several Fide delegates confirmed their tickets to matches.
There were also overt offers of financial assistance. In the run-up to the election in Batumi, Georgia, some federations received a WhatsApp message from Berik Balgabaev, a former assistant to Ilyumzhinov now working for Dvorkovich. The message contained a template letter, to be sent to a specified address at Gazprombank, to obtain money.
It read: “Dear Colleagues, Chess Federation of (Insert country name) asks you for the sponsorship. They ask for (insert sum), which will be spent on (choose “chess conference” or “chess tournament” or “chess in school program” etc). Here are the requisites of the federation: (insert bank/account/number/etc). Thank you for your generous support!”
One incident came close to derailing the Dvorkovich campaign. On August 1 2018, the Russian embassy in Belgrade organised a meeting between the president of the Serbian Chess Federation and two officials from the Dvorkovich bid. The Serbian ministry of sport was also invited but did not attend.
According to a first-hand account of the meeting, the Russian embassy offered €220,000 to the federation — an unheard-of sum — to be paid by Russian banks. When the board of the Serbian Chess Federation rejected the offer over legal concerns, their president returned to them with a mysteriously similar second offer: his company, a small Serbian educational institute, would sponsor the Serbian Chess Federation for exactly the same amount, but only if he was sent to the election congress in Batumi in place of the existing selected delegate. They accepted. Scandalised, Serbia’s ousted delegate brought a dossier of evidence to Fide’s ethics commission. The panel found the Serbian president guilty of having sold his vote — but they declined to take any action against Dvorkovich since there was no evidence of his direct personal complicity.
It wasn’t just money that the Russian camp offered. A crucial clutch of votes in the election ended up coming from an unexpected source: one of the Kremlin’s most vociferous and ardent critics, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Makropoulos alleges that Kasparov lent his support to the Dvorkovich campaign — via that of Nigel Short, who he believed ran as a stalking horse — on the expectation that potentially lucrative commercial sponsorship rights for the World Chess Championship would be transferred to a new venture Kasparov planned to set up.
For Short supporting Dvorkovich was a better option than simply “losing heroically”
Makropoulos told the FT that Kasparov first made him the same offer — via his intermediary, Michael Khodarkovsky, director of the Kasparov Foundation and the US Chess Federation’s delegate to the Fide congress. Other Fide figures confirmed the approach had been made.
One European federation delegate shared an email sent by Khodarkovsky in May 2018 to Jorge Vega, president of the Continental Federation of Chess for Americas. It reads: “Makro must understand and respect our position as well. He needs to accept the whole package and we will be one team all the way.” A spokesperson for Kasparov said: “Garry Kasparov and the Kasparov Chess Foundation have no involvement with Fide politics or comment on them. Garry personally voiced his support for Nigel Short’s candidacy.”
Three months after his victory, the Dvorkovich administration amended FIDE’s long-term sponsorship arrangement with World Chess, the current organiser of the world championship cycle, to reacquire control over a portion of sponsorship and event rights.
Short, for his part, vehemently denies having struck any deal with Kasparov. “I wanted to clean up and reform chess,” says Short. “[Garry] was far more interested in some business deals which had nothing to do with me.” Indeed, for Short, the morality of the whole contest has been clear from the outset. Any candidate, he believed, would be better than Makropoulos. Supporting Dvorkovich, Short says, was a better option than simply “losing heroically”. “There was absolutely no way I was ever going to deal with Makropoulos.”
Fide’s 89th Congress opened on September 27 2018 in the Black Sea resort of Batumi. Federation delegates took rooms in the Sheraton Hotel, a faintly Stalinesque wedding cake of a tower rising amid palms and parkland on the wide, flat shore front of the Georgian city.
The celebratory air of the biennial chess Olympiad, inaugurated a few days earlier with a lavish opening ceremony attended by Georgia’s president, had given way to a tauter atmosphere of forced smiles and earnest huddles. The three candidates jockeyed and jostled with their teams — Dvorkovich surrounded by security men and Russian bankers, Makropoulos with his loyalists — in the lobbies and bars to secure last-minute allegiances. “It was like being in Rick’s Café in Casablanca — all the main characters in the same place, plotting” says Tim Wall, a British chess master there to advise the English delegation.
As soon became evident, the Russian team were pulling out all the stops. Gianni Infantino, president of Fifa, sent a video message thanking Dvorkovich for his help in organising the “best ever” World Cup that summer in Russia. The night before the vote, team Dvorkovich hired an entire beach-side venue and invited every delegate to a “crazy party”, where Russian women dressed as mermaids with sequinned emerald tails splashed in the illuminated water, before mingling over drinks.
At the hustings themselves, an unnerved Makropoulos, confident of victory only days earlier, thanks to his deep and long-standing relationships across Fide’s federations, railed against Russian corruption. Dvorkovich spoke first, aided by a slick PowerPoint presentation. Short followed — and, with a flourish, declared he was dropping out of the race and endorsing Dvorkovich instead. Makropoulos’s speech fell flat. He lost the race by 78 votes to 103.
Short’s switch had been anticipated for some time. His entire campaign was built on accusations of corruption and mismanagement in Fide, a state of affairs he wryly dubbed “Makroeconomics” in his broadsides against his Greek competitor. In early September, Short posted a snap of himself shaking hands with Dvorkovich at Simpson’s in the Strand — the 200-year-old London restaurant that has been one of the world’s chess shrines for the past century. He captioned the image: ““What’s the Greek word for checkmate?”
Few in Fide believe Short’s small clutch of votes ultimately swung the election. But his campaign certainly framed the debate. He was able to do so because much of what he accused Fide of rang true. Dozens of documents seen by the FT from three well-placed Fide sources reveal years of unsound financial practices at the organisation, which are sufficient to raise serious ethical red flags.
One document, for example, details arrears in subscription payments from Fide’s 189 member federations. Dozens are in significant debt — many owe Fide three years of payments. According to Fide’s audited accounts — signed off by EY — the amount owed stood at €839,000 at the end of 2017.
The figure arrived at by Fide’s own internal officials, however, is significantly higher. “The ones who vote the right way don’t have to worry about paying their fees any time soon,” explained a former member of Fide’s presidential board.
Documents also raise questions about payments to opaque, off-balance-sheet entities controlled by select senior Fide officials. Global Chess, a company registered in the Arab emirate of Ras Al Khaimah and run by Maltese businessman Geoffrey Borg, has received dozens of payments in consultancy fees connected to chess tournaments. Borg was previously described as Fide’s “chief executive” on its website. No such position exists in Fide statutes. Borg’s consultancy services were invaluable, said several officials from Fide’s old administration.
But the scale of some payments to Global Chess is surprising. The company collected a €384,000 fee from the organisers of the Batumi Olympiad, for example. Global Chess’s fees for other individual events in the preceding two-year period ranged from €5,000 to €40,000. Borg did not respond to requests for comment.
The Batumi Olympiad saw another sum of money paid into an opaque offshore entity. A one-off payment of €1.2m was made by Georgian authorities as a “travel fund” to Henninghall Ltd, also set up in Ras Al Khaimah. Current Fide officials said the money was not drawn down to pay for travel.
According to Nigel Freeman, a former Fide treasurer contacted by the FT, Henninghall was set up as a contingency vehicle to hold Fide assets because of sanctions against Ilyumzhinov. All of Fide’s other assets and financial affairs, however, had already been transferred to a Hong Kong-based entity by the time Henninghall was wired money from Georgia.
Russia cares about chess . . . But there is a world beyond that, which so many people involved in chess politics do not see
Another controversy raised questions about Makropoulos’s use of money while he served as deputy president under Ilyumzhinov. In 2014, he received $100,000 from Fide to cover “medical expenses”. Makropoulos, who was being treated for cancer, says any accusations of misuse are a “huge lie”. Ilyumzhinov personally donated the money, via Fide’s account, to be used for his treatment, Makropoulos claims, citing a document signed by Ilyumzhinov at the time. Ilyumzhinov disputes that.
According to Makropoulos, the accusations against him are an effort to “create smoke” by encouraging journalists to treat both sides as equally at fault. “There is nothing more dangerous and populist than everyone being presented as the same,” he wrote in an email to the FT this week.
Some unlikely allies agree that questions over Fide’s historic financial affairs are a distraction. One key federation did not endorse Short’s crusade against “Makroeconomics” — England. Malcolm Pein, the English Chess Federation’s delegate, even stood as Makropoulos’s running mate. For Pein, bigger issues were at stake.
“The way I would characterise it is that we’ve gone from Russian-led incompetence to Russian led-competence,” he says. “A lot of people are very happy with that. Russia respects chess. Russia cares about chess . . . But there is a world beyond chess which so many people involved in chess politics do not see. They do not see the mountain behind them.”
Chess is in Arkady Dvorkovich’s blood. His father was a prominent Soviet arbiter — the equivalent of a referee. In 1993, the two flew to London to watch the world championship showdown between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, which the Russian won convincingly.
Throughout his political career, Dvorkovich maintained his connection to the Russian chess world. He has also seen to it that the Russian state’s interests are forcefully represented. In 2010, he was appointed chairman of the Russian Chess Federation’s supervisory board, where he quelled an uprising by its committee members against Fide president Ilyumzhinov. Using his authority as deputy prime minister, Dvorkovich sent a private security firm to raid the RCF’s offices, citing “major financial irregularities”. The RCF’s rebel majority got the message and backed down.
Following Dvorkovich’s victory as Fide president, few could doubt his commitment to his election promises. Fide’s development fund, used to allocate money to promote chess around the world, has swollen from €500,000 to €3m. That money will now come with strings attached: no cent of Fide funds will go unaccounted for, says Dvorkovich. Where money is spent, Fide will measure how effectively it is put to work.
When I meet him in Lausanne in January, Dvorkovich has come straight from Davos, where as both Fide’s new president and chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, a Moscow tech incubator touted as Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley, he has been pressing the flesh. Several large European and Asian companies are poised to sponsor Fide as a result, he tells me.
“I’m not in a position to accuse anyone of corruption or other crimes,” Dvorkovich says of his predecessors at Fide. “But certainly it was [a case] of big financial mismanagement, big operational mismanagement. We are just starting from a ruined environment but we are quick-witted and we can improve [things] very quickly.”
He shrugs off much of the criticism of his own campaign. The idea that the Russian government was co-ordinating his candidacy is “completely wrong and [there was] lots of fake news about it”, he says. “Politics was not involved . . . it doesn’t mean that my colleagues both in the government and embassies didn’t inform partners all around the world; they did, and that’s the right thing to do with elections.”
In the marble salon of the belle époque Royal Savoy Hotel, in the Swiss city that is home to the International Olympic Committee, the Court for Arbitration in Sport and at least 25 other global sporting organisations, the signal from Dvorkovich is clear: Fide is being brought back into the mainstream of the sporting world.
“We’re talking about a huge international federation that has 189 members,” he says. “Fide was invisible for a period of time due to lack of proper management . . . [but] with my experience I can achieve those goals . . . for me, it’s a challenge.”
For the first time in decades, the interests of Fide’s new leadership, Russia and the world of chess itself may now be in close alignment.
At 47, Dvorkovich still has political heights to scale: Fifa or the IOC would not be out of the question. A Russian who cleaned up an international sport would, in turn, be a more than useful boost for the Kremlin. And Fide, after decades of squabbling and corruption, would also benefit from an ambitious leadership raising its standing in the sporting fraternity.
For Russia, this would be a pleasingly elegant victory. But who is the opponent? Putin’s conception of international power is a totalising one: every facet of politics and culture is a potential field of conflict with the west.
For Mark Galeotti, the west has a tendency to pay too much attention to the battles that Russia chooses to fight. The Russians’ great trick, he says, “has always been to move the battlefield to where they have strengths from where they have weaknesses”. If a country with an economy roughly the size of Spain’s wants to waste time and effort co-opting a board game to its cause, he concludes, the west can afford to let it. Putin does not even play chess. His instincts are tactical, not strategic — those of the judoka rather than the grandmaster. Russia seizes opportunities much more than it lays down complex webs of intrigue.
And yet, something about chess makes it more than just a game. Its cultural importance — the meaning invested in it — endures. And it has always been curiously political. A set such as the exquisite 12th-century Lewis Chessmen, carved in walrus tusk, and found in Camas Uig in the Hebrides in 1831, represented a Norse lord’s engagement with a world greater than his own remote demesne. A symbol, to his island peers and to visitors, of his international status.
Nine centuries after the craftsmen of Trondheim depicted rooks as wide-eyed berserkers biting their shields to unnerve their enemies, Soviet parapsychologists would sit, unblinking, in a hall in Reykjavik attempting to transfix Bobby Fischer with menacing stares. In Putin’s Russia, the need to find symbols of its prowess, and to signal its place in the world, is greater than ever.
“The problems [chess] poses are at the same time very deep and utterly trivial,” wrote George Steiner in 1972 for The New Yorker, musing on the huge political circus the Fischer-Spassky showdown had become. We have no philosophical rubric to quite grasp this “strange amalgam”, he noted. The same still holds today — a tension perhaps true of all the games humanity plays, politics included. Chess is, concluded Steiner, “ultimately insignificant — enormously meaningful”.
Sam Jones is an FT investigations correspondent
This article was revised on April 4 2019 to reflect that FIDE's sponsorship arrangement with World Chess was amended, not voided.
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