The curious case of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is greeted by Grand Master K. Sasikiran at an interaction session in Chennai recently.-V. GANESAN

In the run-up to the elections of the World Chess Federation, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov trashes allegations of corruption against him. “I have sunk hundreds of millions of my own dollars into the sport. How can I donate from one pocket and take it back into another?” the FIDE chief counters in a chat with Raakesh Natraj.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of FIDE for the past decade and a half and the president of the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia of the Russian federation, could not have chosen a more different opponent than Anatoly Karpov in the run-up to the elections of the World Chess Federation.

Ilyumzhinov has a professional background in chess and boxing, is the patron of the local football team (to whom he hoped to attach Diego Maradona in the early 1990s), claims to have visited an alien control ship in an yellow spacesuit, was friends with Saddam Hussein and has been accused by Karpov of being involved in the murder of a journalist from an opposing political party.

Karpov, a former world champion and one-time Kremlin favourite, has an image bordering on the archetypal Grand Master and ‘the recondite sterility of his genius.'

Variously a mechanic and a sales manager at an automobile firm, Ilyumzhinov, if accounts are to be believed, became a millionaire multiple times over almost overnight, with the demise of the Soviet Republic. The source of his apparently bottomless pit of riches has caused as much alarm and discomfort to his detractors (who have, it has to be said, come out in the open a little later than the gravity of their claims would allow for) as the clamant nature of its disbursal.

With Ilyumzhinov, money is not sun-shy. Favours are not importuned for. They are lavished. And for 15 years, it seems the protests were meek. Fifteen years in which the chess world was unified, progressed towards inclusion at the Olympics and for an essentially non-spectator-friendly sport, has enjoyed a fair deal of popularity.

In Ilyumzhinov's own words, “Fifteen years ago, when I was elected, FIDE was divided with Kasparov organising a parallel championship. There was no money for salaries. We were politically and financially bankrupt. My first aim was to unite FIDE. International Olympic Committee (IOC) has supported my proposal to make chess an Olympic sport, summer or winter.

“Now FIDE is united, we have only one champion and one federation. We have political stability. Our financial problems of the past are no longer dire. We have millions of US dollars in our Swiss bank accounts. Financial stability follows political stability.”

How much of it can be attributed to the ingenuity of one man and how much of it occurs as a natural progression of a system from chaos to coherence, over 15 years, is a matter of conjuncture. The polarisation that has been wrought by claims and counter claims of pitched intensity from either side, however, ensures that whenever someone makes a statement, it is scrutinised for subtext. While there are those who would recognise the above statement as a recital of facts, there are also those who perceive it as something of a veiled threat. Chess, without its dollar-spewing patrons, is apt to struggle or lapse into a lull.

And for what is turning out to be as much a clash of personalities as progressive visions, Ilyumzhinov offers plenty of ammunition during his interactions with the press.

“I love my life and I want to use every hour of it to develop something — chess, football, tennis, boxing… In this life, one lives for probably 60 or 70 or 80 years and I want to make something of it. I am a Buddhist and I believe in reincarnations. This is my 69th life and I think I have lived in India before,” he says, describing his various interests.

“Billions of people believe in God. In Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism. Nobody has seen them (the Gods) for thousands of years. I believe superior civilisations from different cosmos exist. It is a question of belief,” Ilyumzhinov says, not shying away when the question of his close encounters invariably pops up.

Karpov has taken aim at this maverick aspect of Ilyumzhinov's personality, and the equally unstudied irreverence that he displays in his financial dealings. Karpov alleges that Ilyumzhinov's 15-year reign has robbed the world body of accountability and transparency, miring it in corruption. Mapping the cash flow is an exercise in futility, he claims, for the personal fortunes of the millionaire are so inextricably linked with the finances of FIDE that conducting an audit or trying to clean up the stables will prove impossible.

“I have sunk hundreds of millions of my own dollars into the sport. How can I donate from one pocket and take it back into another?

“My wife says ‘You are crazy. We can buy a car or a house. You have donated so much money to Kasparov and Karpov.' Yes, I have given them $5-6 million over time. I support and like them as chess players, not administrators,” Ilyumzhinov says.

His reaction has an internal logical consistency, but still leaves certain central issues unanswered. Will the alleged millions disappear as and when Ilyumzhinov leaves? While patrons are always welcome, the chess world cannot sustain itself on the largess of a single ‘benefactor' especially if such munificence comes with the absence of accountability. While those are worries that will express themselves in the long run, the immediate concern is one of regression.

Kasparov, in 1993, led a breakaway group of Grand Masters who severed the chord with FIDE, leading to a bifurcation that took 13 years to conjoin. In the ensuing years, parallel leagues and championships were organised, and the already sceptical sponsors were becoming increasingly unwilling.

The split, Kasparov later agreed, was disastrous for the sport. Still, the contours along which the current battle lines are drawn — Karpov, Kasparov and the current number one on the FIDE ratings list, Magnus Carlsen, are up against Ilyumzhinov in a contest that is pitted as ‘players versus the president' — are quite reminiscent of what happened in 1993. Ilyumzhinov proposes to address the issue in his own inimitable way.

“I don't think there will be a problem. I have spoken to them (Kasparov and Karpov) and assured them that even after the elections I will continue to support them with funds to travel, promote chess and spread the game to children everywhere. I spoke to Magnus (Carlsen) and his dad recently in Norway. It (the split) will not happen.”

The offer of plunder to thwarted rivals may not be the best way to appease smarting egos, especially when their campaign has maligned the indiscriminate splurging of money from the coffers to start with. What has increasingly served to blunt the barbs that have come his way is Ilyumzhinov's almost gleeful acceptance of such charges. Money is the oil that keeps the FIDE machinery going, money is what you need to promote the sport, money in the sport is what attracts coverage and sponsorship deals and money is what Ilyumzhinov offers.

“When I became the president, I asked my friends ‘Give me money. What are you going to do with your millions? Put them in chess.' We have attracted Russian and American oil firms, Lebanese banks have come forth as well.”

While Karpov is an undisputed great of the game, it's this capacity to bring money into the game that might tilt the scales Ilyumzhinov's way. It is often that contestants are lined up against each other on faintly moralistic and historic platforms, and it is more frequently that the actual battles are resolved by far more mundane and worldly considerations.

Several Federations have already announced their backing of the incumbent, as did India recently and the promises that were offered in return left very little to the imagination. In the same meeting that the All India Chess Federation announced its backing of Ilyumzhinov's candidature, the Russian announced that India's demand for separate zonal status was all but granted. The other regional federations — Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan — soon fell in line, in a pattern that it repeated itself quite frequently in the lead up to the elections.

Eighty plus of FIDE's 158 member nations have already pledged their support to Ilyumzhinov. The verdict at Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, this month may still lurch either way, but Ilyumzhinov remains the favourite to extend his tenure by another five years.