Published on April 24, 2020

Kirsan Iljoemzjinov


Here he is still laughing, and that’s what he did for 23 years – former FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. He was a tabula rasa when he was elected president of FIDE in 1995. When during that year’s FIDE congress the incumbent president Campomanes was given the boot, he pushed forward the completely unknown Ilyumzhinov as his successor. As it turned out, this was the only way to get rid of Campomanes, and so a great majority of the assembly agreed. KNSB delegate Gunther Loewenthal was even mildly positive. One year later, things were very different. A sizeable number of western chess federations, led by the KNSB, felt compelled to organize an anti-Ilyumzhinov congress in Utrecht. Loewenthal: ‘When we elected Ilyumzhinov, everybody knew that it could go down either well or badly. (…) It looks like it’s gone down badly.’

What had happened? Ilyumzhinov had been the president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia since 1993, and in that function he had quickly developed into a dictator. He had abolished the constitution. ‘I love dictatorship, an economic and enlightened dictatorship’, he said to Inside Chess. Women should be having babies, he thought (hence the ‘Queen Sacrifice’?), men should work, and children should play chess. In the chess world, he took some rigorous steps without consulting anyone. He introduced a knock-out tournament for the world title, increased the playing speed, and argued that rapid games were a perfectly good way to decide a World Championship tournament. This was unheard of at the time. Also, he tried to accommodate the World Championship match Kamsky-Karpov in Baghdad. That was the last straw. The West went to battle!

Baghdad didn’t come off, but otherwise the western chess world turned out to be powerless. Ilyumzhinov remained FIDE President until 2018, and in consecutive elections he beat, among others, his opposing candidates Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Bessel Kok. He spent tremendous amounts of money on chess, and on the occasion of the 1998 Chess Olympiad he had an entire chess city built in the Kalmykian capital Elista. Where did all that money come from? Corruption, many sources claimed, and out of the Kalmykian treasury.

From 2015 onwards, Ilyumzhinov really started to get into trouble. He was blacklisted by the American Treasury Department due to his ties with Syria. At an earlier stage, by the way, he had angled for relations with the Libyan leader Khadaffi. Later, the Swiss bank account of FIDE was blocked. FIDE’s ethical commission gave him the final push, and in 2018, muttering, he refrained from offering himself for re-election.

How does the chess world look back on Ilyumzhinov’s regime? He was certainly a colourful man. For example, one time he claimed to have stepped into a ‘flying saucer’, and in 2018 he put a fictitious persona with the name ‘Glen Stark’ on his election ticket. But in spite of all that, despite the corruption, and the suspicion that he had had a critical female journalist murdered in his own country, there were still mixed feelings. During his regime, many reforms were implemented, chess saw a tremendous growth worldwide, and he invested millions in the game. And as we all know, money makes up for a lot of things. (MbdW)