Russia's Chess Feud: Checkmate, Kremlin

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Heino Kalis / Reuters

Former chess World Champions Karpov and Kasparov play at the start of their 25th anniversary match in Valencia 2009

From the 1972 Cold War battle of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, to the defection of some of the Soviet Union's greatest players to the West, chess has long been a proxy for international conflict, and a tool to project power. In Vladimir Putin's Russia, it seems, not much has changed.

This year, members of the creaky, chipped Central House of Chess in Moscow staged a mutiny against the Kremlin — one that saw two of the game's greatest legends in open conflict with the country's political elite. The coup ended in pathetic failure on Monday, but by the time it had run its course — which featured armed goons taking over the Chess House and talk of UFOs — the Kremlin showed that it cannot stomach even a marginal threat to its influence, not even when it comes to comes to the politics of chess.

The trouble started in the spring, when two former world chess champions and rivals, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, decided to join forces to run against the incumbent president of the game's international ruling body, which is known as FIDE. This irked the Russian government. Kasparov's political activism against Russian Prime Minister Putin in recent years has branded him an enemy of the state: He is banned from Russian politics, frequently arrested, and his projects tend to be harpooned by the Russian bureaucracy at every step. Aside from that, the Kremlin already has a loyal ally as FIDE president, and didn't much care to replace him.

For the past 15 years, FIDE has been ruled by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Putin loyalist who governed the poor Russian republic of Kalmykia for 17 years before agreeing to step down last month. As a consolation prize, the Kremlin is widely thought to have promised him success in the FIDE elections. But Karpov and Kasparov (who served as Karpov's campaign manager and fundraiser) embarked on a globe-trotting campaign that made this promise difficult to keep. After visiting some 30 countries, the duo managed to recruit the support of chess federations in the United States, Canada and most of western Europe, appearing to split the world of chess along Cold War lines ahead of the FIDE vote last month.

Their campaign focused on Ilyumzhinov's alleged mismanagement of chess's global circuit, but Ilyumzhinov's own erratic behavior probably helped their cause. Illyumzhinov likes to tell most journalists who travel to his remote kingdom that he was kidnapped by aliens in 1997. "Go ahead, write it! I want you to write it," Ilyumzhinov told TIME after explaining his belief that Jesus Christ was an alien, and that Earth is set to collide with the planet Nebiru, killing us all, if mankind does not cleanse its "aura" by playing more chess.

The Kremlin, for its part, remains indifferent to these theories. "Kirsan's personal views may sound strange sometimes," says Arkady Dvorkovich, the senior Kremlin official who supported Ilyumzhinov's campaign. "But as long as it does not affect negatively his professional activity, I'm fine with it."

On May 14, however, the members of the Russian Chess Federation, mostly old men with a fondness for tweed and Coke-bottle glasses, gave a rare show of resistance. In a vote that looked more like a revolutionary caucus, they chose Karpov as their official candidate to lead FIDE, and then broke into wild applause. That's when things turned ugly. Dvorkovich, an avid chess player who also serves as chairman of the supervisory board of the Russian Chess Federation, declared their vote invalid, saying that Ilyumzhinov was in fact Russia's official nominee, not Karpov.

Less than a week later, a group of armed men in black suits came to seize the Central House of Chess, where the vote for Karpov had been held. Carrying an order signed by Dvorkovich, they escorted the head of the Russian Chess Federation, Alexander Bakh, out of his office, sealed it, and placed guards at the door. Asked why he had done this, Dvorkovich tells TIME that an audit had found "serious financial misdoings" at the Russian Chess Federation right around the time of its vote for Karpov. He declined to comment on why, in that case, no charges were ever filed against the federation's leadership. "Finances are under our control now and fully transparent," he says.

Now that his coup has failed, Karpov says that his old foe Kasparov was one of his main liabilities. "Of course this hurt me," he told TIME at a cigar club patronized by Russia's chess elite. "Kasparov's political activity made things very difficult for us in Russia." In Germany, France and Switzerland, however, Karpov had no trouble getting the nomination, so he and Kasparov pushed ahead with the campaign.

The final FIDE elections took place in the Russian oil town of Khanty-Mansiysk on Sept. 29, with more than 100 chess federations attending from all over the world. In the words of one western delegate, "It was a circus." When Kasparov was refused the microphone, he stood up and shouted from the audience at Ilyumzhinov, who was sitting on the stage as both a candidate in the vote and its main arbiter. "It was a symbolic moment," Kasparov told TIME a few weeks later. "Ilyumzhinov is a blossom in the field of Putinism, and our partnership against Dvorkovich and Ilyumzhinov was about more than just chess. It had political significance."

In the end, however, the effort failed. Ilyumzhinov won with 95 votes against 55 for Karpov, mostly thanks to the support of small chess federations from places like Zimbabwe. He will now lead FIDE for another four years.

The postscript to that election took place on Monday, Oct. 11, at Moscow's Central House of Chess. Ilya Levitov, a man whom Dvorkovich calls "a good friend," was put forward to lead the Russian Chess Federation, and its members voted unanimously to support him, ousting the man who had led their mutiny in May. "We do not want any further wars, constructive work only," Dvorkovich says of the vote. (He made clear that his comments were made not in his capacity as senior Kremlin adviser but as chairman of the chess federation's supervisory board.) One of the old chess masters who attended Monday's vote, Semyon Tseitlin, describes it with wounded pride. "It was like a meeting of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Everyone raised their hands and hailed our new dear leader," Tseitlin says. In this latest showdown, then, it's checkmate Kremlin.