The man who bought chess
October 29, 2006
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the remote Russian republic of Kalmykia, and friend of the Kremlin, last month achieved what no one had been able to do for more than a decade: he reunified world chess when he hosted the most thrilling match since the days of Fischer and Spassky. A devout Buddhist and mystic, he claims to have been abducted by aliens, rules with an iron fist and wants to turn his homeland into the world’s chess capital. Interview and report by Ed Vulliamy
Sunday October 29, 2006
Observer Sport Monthly
A breeze, rare in this land of gales, rustles a canopy under which a Buddha sits. A woman puts down her shopping bag to place a flower and speak her devotions. Across the main square there is a statue of Lenin. And between the Buddha and Lenin, in the centre of the square, is a huge chess board with outsized pieces, around which a crowd watches a game between two rugged men.This is Elista, capital of the faraway Russian republic of Kalmykia, one of the federation’s poorest and most remote. Beyond the dilapidated, low-rise blocks that encircle the city centre are nothing but windswept steppe and boundless distance, where flat earth meets the sky. The nearest functioning airport is several hours’ drive away, in Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – in Russia proper, past nothing but a few sheep, the odd lonely shepherd or bareback rider and thick and swooping murders of crows.Very few people had heard of this southern republic before the world chess championship was held here in October. It was won by Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik, who beat Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. Staged here by the world chess federation, the Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), the match made Elista the undisputed world capital of the ancient game, and it became so because FIDE’s president – the man who was driven from the championship venue to a dancing display and then to a banquet in a white Rolls-Royce – also happens to be the President of Kalmykia: the multi-millionaire chess fanatic Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov.
Ilyumzhinov is eccentric to say the least. For a start, he believes in – and, indeed, claims to have travelled with – space aliens. He combines a political ruthlessness that tolerates little opposition with a deep spiritual devotion and a belief that bringing chess to his country is divinely ordained. He can be charming, yet his narcissism and ambition are shameless. He has had discourses with Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin, while fighting his own election campaigns on promises of a free mobile phone for every shepherd and that Diego Maradona will play for the local football team.
And now he has crowned himself the king of world chess through hosting the reunification into a single championship of a game played by millions but riven by 13 years of acrimony and intrigue. With Kramnik’s victory, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov completes his purchase of the world’s most venerable and esoteric game. Writing in the Wall Street Journal during the championship, Garry Kasparov described Ilyumzhinov as having established ‘a vertical column of power that would be familiar to any observer of Russia today. He runs the chess world in the same authoritarian way he runs his republic.’
The final enthralling match of the championship took place on 13 October. After the match finished level at 6-6, the championship was decided on a tense afternoon of tie-breaks – equivalent to a penalty shoot-out in football – to give chess its first undisputed world champion since Kasparov split from FIDE in 1993 to found the Professional Chess Association (PCA), a title he once defended against Britain’s Nigel Short in London. Since then, the PCA and FIDE have held separate championships, so that chess has been like the two American baseball leagues, but without an equivalent to the World Series. Attempts to organise a merging ‘final’ between the two parallel columns had proved unsuccessful … until now, when Kramnik, the PCA champion, agreed to take on Topalov, FIDE champion, after Ilyumzhinov put up $1m prize money, to be shared between the two players.
This is how world chess established itself in the back of beyond: in 1995, FIDE – the second-largest sports organisation in the world after Fifa, with 154 national members – was in crisis, its president Florencio Campomanes besieged by allegations of financial irregularity. At the FIDE conference in Paris that year, Campomanes stood down, on condition that his successor would be Ilyumzhinov. Two years previously, Ilyumzhinov had been elected as President of Kalmykia after campaigning across the steppe in a Lincoln stretch limousine, promising to transform the wretchedly poor republic into the ‘Kalmykia Corporation’, a ‘new Kuwait’. He was re-elected, unopposed, in 1995, and celebrated by staging a Boney M concert in Elista’s Lenin Square. In 2002, he was reappointed by Vladimir Putin after elections for heads of republics were abolished by Moscow.
By taking over FIDE as well as Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov cast himself and his country into a leading role on the world stage that would combine fantasy and reality, delusion and realpolitik, chess and money. Ilyumzhinov has funded prizes all over the world; he has spent $100m on a complex called City Chess on the edge of his capital – including a hotel and chess museum – with an even more extravagant development to come. For the present championship, Kalmykia’s parliament building – the only suitable arena – had to be completely refurbished at huge cost. Once, Ilyumzhinov approached Kasparov in Budapest and gave him $100,000 in cash, to compensate for the loss of Soviet royalties on a book he had written. Quite where Ilyumzhinov’s spending ends and where Kalmykia’s begins is a matter of bitter debate.
Ilyumzhinov belongs to a people descended from Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, who wandered west to the Caspian to establish the only Buddhist nation in Europe. The word ‘Kalmyk’ is Turkish for ‘remnant’. A people of nomads and shepherds, their religion and ways were generally tolerated by Imperial Moscow and St Petersburg, so long as their warriors protected Russia’s southern edges. But Stalin was convinced the Kalmyks were sympathetic to the Nazi invasion of 1941 and, from 28 December 1943, ordered the deportation of the entire people to Siberia, a third of whom died in cattle trucks en route. When they were allowed to return in 1957, during Nikita Krushchev’s ‘thaw’, there were 70,000 Kalymks left. Now, there are 320,000, and their national sport is their President’s obsession, the game he made compulsory in school soon after taking office: chess.
No match since the days of Spassky and Fischer, or Kasparov and Karpov, attracted such wide attention among the non-initiated as that between Kramnik and Topalov, thanks to what became known as ‘the great toilet scandal’. After four games, with Kramnik winning 3-1, Topalov’s team complained that Kramnik was visiting the toilet on average 50 times a game – with each game lasting between three-and-a-half and seven hours. The implication was that he was cheating with a computer. An appeals committee ruled out ‘external help’ and said that Kramnik was visiting the toilet only 18 times a game. But the committee partially upheld the complaint, having been advised by Ilyumzhinov that Kramnik’s toilet should be sealed and a common lavatory used, with videotapes of Kramnik’s rest breaks (though not in the toilet itself, which is not surveyed) passed on to Topalov’s team for analysis. Incensed, Kramnik refused to play game five, which he forfeited to Topalov. The chess world rallied behind Kramnik and, after a direct intervention by Ilyumzhinov, the rest of the match was played under the shadow of a threat that Kramnik would not recognise – indeed, would legally contest – a Topalov victory.
The audience for the final tie-breaks was divided into two: those watching live, in the hush of the arena, and those following on a screen in the lobby, under a sign reading: ‘Keep Silence’. Fat chance. Leather-skinned old men wearing Soviet military medals debated each move, while various hypotheses were played out on a second screen by the commentator from Moscow, Grandmaster Vladimir Belov. ‘It’d be crazy for black to go g4!’ someone shouted. ‘No! He has to open the queen!’ ‘It’s great having the match here,’ says Belov. ‘In Moscow, chess gets lost in everything else. Here, it is everything else.’
Tambayev Samdjevich, who is 83, was wounded at Stalingrad and was then ‘retired to Siberia because of my nationality’. After working as an accountant, he returned to Kalmykia to become a full-time Communist Party official. He is a Topalov fan, ‘because of his offensive game. Maybe I learned to respect that approach in the Red Army.’ Dmitri Akuma and Stanislav Nastashouk, both 14, have attended every game and love chess, because, Dmitri says, ‘it helps us develop ourselves and our minds, to keep us away from alcohol and drugs’. Another enthusiastic onlooker is Oksana Sitnik, with her blond tresses, micro-skirt, sheer stockings and sharp-heeled boots. ‘Staging the championship here is the achievement of our President,’ she says. ‘Kalmykia is a chess nation, and the President reflects that.’
With the championship won by Kramnik, it is Ilyumzhinov – rather than the dazed champion – who once more takes centre stage: first at a performance of traditional Kalmyk dancing, during which Kramnik is crowned with a huge wreath and presented with a gold cup. Ilyumzhinov gives the champion a further prize – a thoroughbred horse. ‘I know you will both be back in Kalmykia,’ he tells the two chess champions. ‘In fact, Mr Kramnik was saying just now how beautiful our Kalmyk women are, and I would point out that both these players are bachelors.’
The banquet that follows features rounds of ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘Strangers in the Night’ on full orchestra. ‘Millions and millions of lovers of chess all over the world have looked to this moment to unite the game in Kalmykia,’ Ilyumzhinov says. ‘Both outstanding players came here with much to lose, but did so in the name of chess, to create a single champion, and to do so here in Kalmykia.’ Oddly, and unlike Western politicians who flaunt their happy family lives at every opportunity, Ilyumzhinov airbrushes his wife and children from the scene and his life story – there is no visible First Lady of Kalmykia.
Ilyumzhinov’s reputation goes before him. It does so in ubiquitous billboards and photographs of him with the Dalai Lama, who came to Elista in 2004 to consecrate land for the $50 million Buddhist temple. Or with Pope John Paul II, whom Ilyumzhinov met in 1994, after which he built a church for Elista’s reputed sole Catholic. Or with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came in 2002, for whom he also built a church.
The City Chess complex was built for $100m for the 1998 Chess Olympiad. It comprises a hotel with huge chess boards in the lobby, a chess museum of trophies and memorabilia, chess tables, a swimming pool and luxury flats for Elista’s nomenklatura. In the event, the championship could not be held there because there was no public arena large enough.
On arriving in Elista, the visitor receives a copy of Ilyumzhinov’s autobiography, translated into English. It is called The President’s Crown of Thorns, and can be read as a text book on the cult of personality, locating Ilyumzhinov and Kalmykia at the centre of Russian, global and, indeed, cosmic events.
The narrative recounts how Ilyumzhinov was born in 1962, the grandson of a Russian Civil War hero. Growing up under the influence of his grandfather, who played chess, the young Ilyumzhinov reflected on how ‘the 32 white and 32 black checks on the board seemed to me to encompass the duality of the whole world’. At night, he played chess with a ‘black-masked ghost’, and learned the art of leadership through captaining a youth chess team. He experienced spiritual enlightenment while sleeping out on the steppe – ‘I am the merest speck of dust in the boundless, living world’. Ilyumzhinov drew inspiration from Buddha’s promise that one of those born in the Year of the Tiger (which he was) will be ‘summoned to govern’ the people in their hour of need ‘and bring nobility’. And so it goes on until Ilyumzhinov is admitted to the Foreign Relations Institute in Moscow, to study Japanese, where he encounters Western reports on UFO sightings, ‘clairvoyance, bio-energy and enigmatic phenomena’. During the period of Glasnost, Ilyumzhinov was appointed Russian director of a Soviet-Japanese firm, Liko-Raduga, importing Audi and Volkswagen cars. As the USSR collapsed and was looted, Ilyumzhinov took ‘bigger risks’ and founded his own Sun Corporation, now with 50 subsidiaries and an annual turnover of $500m, as we arrive at Chapter 7: ‘Without Me The People Are Incomplete’.
So begins Ilyumzhinov’s political career, at the urging of others, craving deliverance, and a sense of duty towards the poor. First, he becomes Kalmyk deputy to Moscow, then President of the republic, as predicted by Vanga, the Bulgarian clairvoyant he consults. The Sun Corporation, meanwhile, is ‘earning huge profits’, so great that ‘we could no longer keep track of the money’ – but always ‘honest’, ‘no shady dealing’. ‘When I left the world of business, many cried,’ Ilyumzhinov writes, his ‘Kalmykia Corporation’ having now ‘entered the international economic arena as an equal partner’. Then he moved into politics, becoming President of Kalmykia.
On the final afternoon of the championship Ilyumzhinov was in an excited mood. ‘Consider,’ he said, ‘the championship will be decided on Friday 13th, 13 years after the 13th champion, Kasparov, left FIDE. This is more than just numbers – this is a sign. I believe that chess comes either from God or from beings flying a UFO. I should know! They took me aboard their airship while I was on a business trip to Moscow, in 1997, to a distant star. It’s perfectly normal – last year, I visited America and learned from official statistics that there are 4,000 annual reports of contact.’
We continue for some time discussing the divinity of chess. ‘Each year, archaeologists find evidence of chess in America, India, Japan or China, played under the same rules, from a time without planes or the internet. Look, the chessboard has 64 squares, and our cells are made of 64 pieces. All this shows that chess comes either from God or from UFOs.’
There is divinity, too, in Kalmykia’s anointment as capital of chess: ‘God intended Kalmykia to be known for chess. Through chess, I have opened the world to Kalmykia and Kalmykia to the world. Every year, I visit 50 or 60 countries, meeting heads of state.’ Chess, he says, is also ‘a sign of law’, a way of governing ‘to achieve order and peace’ and the key to his success in business. ‘As in chess, I have to think, in politics and in business, not only about the next move, but to be 10 moves ahead. A ruler and a businessman must be 10 moves ahead of his people or competitors. And as in chess, there are no compromises.’
The people he most admires for combining order, morality and wisdom are the Dalai Lama, Genghis Khan, Lenin and Jesus Christ.
He enthuses about foreign investment pouring into Kalmykia, for which last year, he says, the republic came sixth out of the 89 republics in the Russian Federation. There will be a joint venture with a German company to process wool and with an Italian firm to manufacture plastic windows. A deal was agreed in Amsterdam to develop wind power and another for a port on the Caspian and oil extraction. ‘I also made an offer of $10m to bring Lenin’s body from its mausoleum in Moscow. I thought: if the Russians don’t want him, we do. His grandmother was Kalmyk, and it would be good for tourism.’
The most revolutionary forthcoming venture, he says, results from ‘investment I made into research in Kalmykia and Moscow for a new automobile gear system that will make cars cheaper and safer. I invested this money 10 years ago and people said, “You’re crazy – why haven’t Ford thought of this?” But they hadn’t, and we spotted the people who had. In that way, I am crazy, and my friends are crazy – but wait and see.’
Ilyumzhinov planned to stage the 1996 FIDE championships, between Anatoly Karpov and Gata Kamsky, in Baghdad, after a meeting with Saddam Hussein (it was eventually played in Elista, after widespread protests). ‘I wanted to organise a big tournament in Iraq because Saddam Hussein is an intelligent and cultured man,’ he assures me, ‘and he supports chess, he understands its value.’ Ilyumzhinov discusses his vision for the next stage. ‘I want to establish a global chess corporation, based in Amsterdam, to concern itself with securing major sponsorship from companies like Microsoft, Intel and Google. And, of course, Coca-Cola – in fact, as I sit here talking, I’ve come up with the slogan: “First think, then drink!” How about that? Why don’t you come with me to Atlanta and we’ll propose it?’ Ilyumzhinov returns to it again and again: ‘Have you got that? – “First think, then drink!”‘
The tie-breaks are about to begin. We conclude, and during a quick debriefing session, the keeper to Ilyumzhinov’s gateway, Buichna Galzamov, advises: ‘Call it quantum psychology.’
‘How can the law-abiding nature of social development co-exist with the cult of personality?’ Ilyumzhinov asks in his book – an observation worth heeding as one prepares to explore his fiefdom.
Yashkul, Kalmykia’s so-called second city, has grass growing between the flagstones of its main square, and another statue of Lenin waving from one end at a mural commemorating the Red Army on a crumbling wall opposite. Devastated by the agricultural crisis that followed the closure and looting of state farms during the Nineties, the town is a sprawl of buildings at various stages of completion or abandonment. But in the First Gymnasium School, there is a little miracle at work, fruit of Ilyumzhinov’s Directive 129: ‘On government support for the development of a chess movement’. Tseren Bukhayev is taking a chess class for 10- and 11-year-olds whose confidence is as disarming as it is enchanting. ‘I like chess because it is an intelligent game and helps me to speculate,’ says Aysa Valentova, who is 10. ‘It’s a kind of entertainment,’ says 11-year-old Kema Tsandikova – in English – ‘but it helps me to concentrate and helps me in other subjects, of which my favourite is biology.’
After school, some of these children walk across a scrappy yard to the comfortless Palace of Culture, where the chess club opens at four in the afternoon. There, they play one another, or against old men and women, among volumes on chess history and beneath a hall of fame, featuring portraits of champions back to Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine and giving equal prominence to Nona Gaprindashvili and the famous Georgian Empresses of the women’s game. ‘More and more people are coming to play,’ says Oleg Murgayev, preparing for the evening’s competition. ‘Sometimes they will stay all night.’ It all seems to bear out what Ilyumzhinov’s assistant Berik Balbagayev says when he talks about chess as ‘the young generation’s best protection against drugs’, and ‘a way to consider and take responsibility for one’s moves, to learn defeat wisely so that next time you won’t make the same mistake’. Or the Elista chess school teacher Mikhail Golosya’s dictum: ‘Chess helps to create a rational, conscious sense of citizenship and self.’ But unfortunately Kalmykia cannot live on chess alone.
Soon after being elected President in 1993, Ilyumzhinov effectively abolished parliament, re-appointing his own, smaller version and packing ministries with his inner circle. There’s even a joke in his own cartoon book: ‘If you want to succeed, ask a wizard to make you one of Ilyumzhinov’s classmates!’ Any cogent opposition was effectively driven underground, and that is where its leaders remain, cowering like hunted foxes in a shabby office at the Hotel Elista.
There, a former construction engineer, Valery Baldaev, and a lawyer, Boris Andzhayev, label Ilyumzhinov ‘a master of illusion’. Baldaev posits that: ‘The economy has stagnated, there is no development or investment.’ Unemployment runs at 43 per cent. ‘If all this investment exists, where is it? Where are the factories? Where are the companies that went bankrupt and the farms that closed? Where are the 40 planes that flew from the airport, now closed, in Soviet times?’
Ilyumzhinov’s insistence that Kalmykia ranks sixth in foreign investment raises a hollow laugh – ‘That’s his fantasy’ – and Baldaev produces a report from the auditing committee for the Southern Russian Republics that, he says, places Kalmykia in 81st place in the federation. Another report shows Kalmykia as having well below average income, at 1,978 roubles (£39) per month (the federal average is 2,376).
Meanwhile, says Andzhayev, City Chess was built in part from the public budget, as was the towering Buddhist temple. It was the same with the refurbishment of parliament for the present championships. ‘He is lying if he says that all his own money was used,’ says Baldaev. ‘It is, in effect, almost a kind of personality tax,’ says Valery Ulyadurov, editor of the opposition paper, Sovietskaya Kalmykia. ‘The chess championships are all surface and when they’re over they do nothing for the people of Kalmykia, except for the bill we have to pay.’
In 1994, Sovietskaya Kalmykia’s offices were raided by police and equipment was confiscated. The paper instead printed in Volgograd and was distributed from the back of a car. And, in 1998, it began investigating one of Ilyumzhinov’s schemes: the creation of an ‘offshore’ haven for Russian companies, which, by paying a registration fee to an agency alleged by opposition groups to be connected to Ilyumzhinov, could avoid paying republic taxes, though they were still liable for federal tax – making Kalmykia in effect a Cayman Island on the steppe.
The journalist Larisa Yudina was about to publish her findings on the eve of the 1998 Chess Olympiad, an event that the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a human-rights group based in Moscow, had pleaded players to boycott because, ‘you will eat and drink on money received by a racket – President Ilyumzhinov’s private fund, which is financed by an unlawful tribute by all the companies registered in Kalmykia’s offshore zone’.
In 1996, Yudina had described Ilyumzhinov to a Western newspaper as ‘a Khan, charming abroad but vengeful at home. If you are against him, that’s it.’ On the eve of the Chess Olympiad, her investigation into the tax haven still in progress, Yudina was stabbed to death, her body dumped near a pond.
Federal authorities took over the murder investigation and, in autumn 1999, convicted two men, on the basis of their own confessions. They were sentenced to 21 years. One, Sergei Vaskin, was an adviser to Ilyumzhinov; the second, Shanukov, is described by Ulyadurov, as ‘a criminal gangster’. A third man, an accomplice, turned state’s evidence against his companions in return for acquittal on a conspiracy charge.
Kalmykia’s offshore system was closed by federal authorities after a prosecutor’s report of 29 August 2002 concluded that few taxes had arrived in federal coffers from the Kalmyk-registered companies, and that: ‘As a result, 4.238bn roubles have not been received by the federal bank during the year 2000 … and 6.295bn in 2001.’ Moreover, ‘Criminals are using this system to commit their illegalities of a regional, inter-regional and international character, doing grave harm to Russian state interests.’ Kalmykia is now liable to Moscow for the missing taxes, which the opposition estimates at some 20bn roubles.
A portrait of the murdered Yudina is the only decoration on the dank wall of the opposition office, where Baldaev says: ‘We still can’t distribute the paper in the shops or post it, and any advertiser would have to be sanctioned by Ilyumzhinov.’
The paper’s aim, he says, is simply ‘to present an alternative point of view to that of the Ilyumzhinov government – socially, economically and politically’. For instance, says Andzhayev, a fraction of the amount spent on the chess championships could have gone to refurbish and provide hygienic equipment for a hospital treating victims of tuberculosis – rife, he says, in Kalmykia – which is instead due for closure.
‘What I say to these critics,’ says Ilyumzhinov during our interview, ‘is this: “Come to Kalmykia! Come to Elista and see! You will find simple people here, living in order and in peace while all around there is war and terrorism, explosions in every republic.” In Moscow, I am afraid, I am told: “You’re not a Russian, go back to the Caucasus!” – while here, everyone can play, everyone is safe, everyone is welcome. That is democracy.’
On the death of Larisa Yudina, Ilyumzhinov says: ‘That newspaper wrote something, but I have nothing to do with this. In a country of 300,000 people, we have 50 or 60 newspapers, more than any other republic in the federation – that is a free press.’ On the funding of City Chess, the temple and the present championship, Ilyumzhinov is adamant that ‘not a rouble came from the people. It was all paid for by the sponsors, me and my friends.’ On the offshore tax scam: ‘Anything wrong had nothing to do with me whatsoever. What I want here is an offshore zone for all the religions of the world, in the interests of peace. And this we will have.’
In a place of whispers, echoes and caution, it is hard to gauge Ilyumzhinov’s esteem. He seems popular among the young: on Saturday night at the Overdrive Club, girls dance with each other on Russia’s regulation stiletto boots, while their boyfriends drink. Brig, drummer in the band playing, called Noizz, says: ‘Ilyumzhinov’s my neighbour, one of us, a regular type.’ Konstantin, from behind sunglasses, calls Ilyumzhinov, in English: ‘A cool guy – hey, he got rich.’ Sasha, a thoughtful language student, considers Ilyumzhinov ‘a very good model for our nation’.
But not everybody agrees. ‘He’s a very young leader,’ says Stalingrad veteran Samdjevich, when we meet again after the championship, ‘always promising things he can’t deliver. Like that port on the Caspian, like this airport that never opens. Things are so much worse now – people can’t get jobs, and the pension value goes down and down.’
Vladimir Kusko, a PE tutor thinks: ‘It seems wrong to spend all this money on chess while poor people are short of food and housing is bad. But then, ask yourself: is Tony Blair paying for your Olympics, or will you?’
The low-rise flats in Ulan-Egre have been demolished and where the social club stood there is now a football pitch. On an outlying road, what was once the collectivised farm is practically lifeless. Beside it, old Nina Mikhailovna tends her three goats on a patch of scrub. ‘It’s all gone downhill over the last eight to 10 years. It was lovely here when we had water,’ she recalls. ‘There were strawberries and trees. But the pipes broke, and no one came to mend them. The farm had tractors and a truck, but they all disappeared. My pension is worth less and less since the Brezhnev times, but I can live off the goats: these two to eat, and this one for milk. Ilyumzhinov? Well, it’s a bit like Putin, isn’t it? I’ll make up my mind when I see what they do. Yes, Ilyumzhinov has made Elista bloom, all those flowers and the chess. But what about the rest? Will he re-open the farm? Let’s make that the judgement, shall we, now that the chess is over.’
· Ed Vulliamy is an Observer journalist and was named Foreign Reporter of the Year in 1993 and 1997 at the British Press Awards