Chess Is An Important Part Of Russian Soft Power

Image by Harry Pot
Interzonal Chess Tournament (FIDE), May 1964, The Netherlands. From left to right: Stein, Taimanov, Ivkov, Lilienthal, Smyslov

London just hosted what may have been the greatest chess championship ever. This past November saw the 2018 FIDE championship contested by Magnsus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruna of the United States — but, Russia was the real winner.

Carlsen and Caruna were the two highest ranked players to ever faceoff for the world title. After a historic 12 consecutive draws – Carlsen won a special playoff to earn his fourth title.

But, Russia is the ultimate victor as Chess is an important part of Russian soft power.

The previous chess championship in 2016 championship in New York earned 1.5 billion media impressions according to FIDE as well as $700,000 live gate — not bad for a sport which for those not playing can be as engaging as paint drying.

Chess was the Soviet Union’s most popular sport and remains popular in much of the Commonwealth of Independent States and former Communist countries. Members of the Russian diaspora around the world often are important boosters of the sport in their host countries. No American has won the chess championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972.

Chess is a game of political intrigue played out in an abstract form. What eventually became the Queen piece in European chess was initially the Grand Vizer when the game developed somewhere in what is today South Asia or Iran.

The current president is former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Kremlin insider Arkady Dvorkovich who took over from FIDE Presidency from another Russian politician Kirsan Ilyumzhinov earlier this year.

Ilyumzhinov ruled the world of chess from 1995 until this past summer. His roughly 23-year presidency is the second longest in FIDE history. During most of that time he was also the first President of the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation from 1993 to 2010. As president of that republic he made made chess instruction mandatory. A practicing Buddhist, he built a number of churches, temples and mosques to promote interfaith tolerance.

His most important exploits may have been achieved on another planet. He claims in September 1997 he was abducted from his apartment by aliens and taken to visit another world. Aliens, he told the New York times in 2010, could have invented Chess as well.

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In 2011, he played a chess match with Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddaffi, However, it would be the U.S government which dealt him a checkmate. In 2014, he won re-election seeing off Gary Kasparov, who was Russian chess champion and occasional anti-Putin politician. With Russia lobbying heavility for his re-election yet again.

Not long after, the United States Department of the Treasury named him a Specially Designated National, placing him under sanction for “for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, Central Bank of Syria, Adib Mayaleh, and Batoul Rida” in 2015. Ilyumzhinov attempted to distance from FIDE, but in February, the freezing of FIDE bank accounts by UBS soon after led to his eventual downfall.

Dvorkovich has dutifully towed the Russian line and acted as an important goodwill ambassador to the sport. Dvorkovich denied any Russian involvement in the Salisbury poisonings in September a month before his election to FIDE presidency.

The hosting of the championship in London has allowed him to serve as a Russian goodwill ambassador at a time of heightened Russo-British tensions after the United Kingdom accused Russia of being involved in the Salisbury attack. Dvorkovich’s comments on the Salisbury appears to have been forgotten amongst British chess fans.

He became the first president of the World Chess Federation to visit Scotland where he was warmly greeted and made other visits as well.

The shift from Ilyumzhinov to Dvorkovich has allowed FIDE to shed a problematic brand while allowing Russia to remain an important force in the world’s most popular board game.

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The strategy appears to be working – in November, with the chess world focusing on the looming Caruna-Carlsen match, UBS announced it would reopen FIDE access to accounts closed in May.

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