Ukrainian grandmaster takes steps to check Russia’s dominance over world chess federation

Russia and Ukraine have clashed on the battlefield in the six months since forces from Moscow crossed the border and invaded their neighbour.

Now a Ukrainian grandmaster is shifting the fight to chess as he seeks to exploit international sympathy for Kyiv and unseat his Russian opponent from the leadership of the governing federation.

Andrii Baryshpolets, 31, a grandmaster for nearly a decade, said the war prompted him to run for president of the International Chess Federation, Fide, a “Kremlin-linked” organization that is under the continuous leadership of Russia for almost 30 years.

“There hasn’t even been a decent public debate about whether we as a chess world can afford a president who is a Russian politician, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “I immediately realized that we were in big trouble as a chess world.”

Fide President Arkady Dvorkovich, who has led the federation since 2018, is a former Russian deputy prime minister.

The vote on the new president takes place on Sunday during the general assembly of Fide in Chennai, India. Representatives from nearly 200 member countries will vote by secret ballot to elect a leader for a four-year term.

Baryshpolets, born in Kyiv but based in the United States, campaigns alongside Peter Heine Nielsen, a Danish grandmaster who coaches world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.

Chess grandmaster Andrii Baryshpolets says the war pushed him to run for Fide president © Wilhelm Rosenthal

They believe that Fide’s ties to the Kremlin pose moral, practical and reputational issues for the federation and the game. “For decades, the Russian Federation has used Fide as soft power to whitewash its reputation,” reads- on in a petition they are circulating to support their grassroots campaign.

“It’s an archaic structure that’s corrupted inside,” Baryshpolets said. “It’s corrupt because that’s how the Kremlin keeps control.”

He expressed concern about how this affected the game’s ability to attract sponsors. “Anyone who wants to associate with Fide immediately sees that the organization has strong ties to the Kremlin and to Russian politics,” he said.

Chess has crossed paths with geopolitics before, most notably when American Bobby Fischer took on the Soviet chess machine to win the 1972 world championship in Reykjavik at the height of the Cold War.

Just as Russian players dominated the elite competitive echelons in the 20th century, Russian politicians have controlled its administration for decades.

From 1995 to 2018, Fide was led by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former president of the Republic of Kalmykia who claimed he was abducted by aliens and that chess was a “gift from extraterrestrial civilisations”. In 2015, he was sanctioned by the United States for his financial support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Dvorkovich defended the successes of his Fide tenure, which included the rise in popularity of online chess, the record number of teams taking part in the ongoing Chess Olympiad – although the suspended Russian team did not not be part of it – and the increase in Fide’s finances.

“The fact that I am Russian should not be a reason to stop supporting chess and Fide,” he said.

He has already questioned the invasion, one of the few high-level Russian officials to do so, and lost his post as chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, a science and technology center outside Moscow, after expressed sympathy to Ukrainian civilians caught up in the conflict. .

He recognized the difficult position in which the war had placed him. “It’s really tragic, and for me too, personally,” he said. “But the chess family should continue to be a family and hopefully a happy family. There is a lot of conflict in the world now.

The Baryshpolets-Nielsen campaign is a budget effort, consisting mostly of Zoom calls and internet pleas. “I don’t think we’re favourites, let’s put it that way,” Nielsen said. “It will be considered quite a sensational thing if we manage to do it.”

Baryshpolets took a rosier view: “I’m super optimistic,” he said. “It is clear that we have a choice between the future and the past.”

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