September 29, 2023

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s war against Ukraine has permeated even the seemingly calm world of chess, where a Ukrainian grandmaster is vying to unseat the powerful Russian president of the International Chess Federation.

Representatives of 195 Member States are scheduled to vote on Sunday at a convention in Chennai, India, for the president of the federation, the governing body of the chess world, which regulates all international championships, determines the ranking of players and decides where the world and continental championships will be held . The current president, Arkady V. Dvorkovich, former deputy prime minister of Russia, he faces three challengersincluding Andrii Baryshpolets, a 31-year-old Ukrainian grandmaster living in California.

His effort is an example of many Ukrainians trying to untangle their country’s deep ties to Russia, as well as challenge Moscow’s global influence, after the February invasion of Ukraine.

“For sure, the war was an impetus for me to fight for changes in FIDE,” said Mr. Baryshpolets, using the French acronym by which the chess federation is commonly known.

“It’s a very opaque structure and depends heavily on Russian money and Russian sponsors,” said Mr. Baryshpolets, an economist who immigrated to the United States in 2016. He said the Russian government still uses the chess federation to promote the Russian influence on the cultural front.

Mr. Baryshpolets pointed out that in 2020, the last year for which financial statements are available, Russian state and private companies provided more than 90 percent of all donations to FIDE, contributing more than 45 percent of the organization’s budget.

Chess is traditionally intertwined with the Russian state and a projection of its global power – a legacy of the Soviet dominance of the sport that it funded and fostered. From the establishment of the first International Chess Federation world championship in 1948, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet players won every championship except one.

Mr. Dvorkovich, 50, was elected president four years ago, replacing eccentric Russian millionaire Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, whose scandal-ridden two-decade reign ended when he was suspended by the federation’s ethics committee in 2018.

Mr. Dvorkovich has said that his close relationship with the Kremlin and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is a thing of the past.

In an interview, Mr. Dvorkovich said he “understands the reputational risks” of his past relationship with the Russian state. He has described himself as “between two fires”, drawing criticism both in Russia for his refusal to openly support the war and abroad for his ties to the Kremlin.

In an online debate with other candidates for the organization’s presidency in July, he described himself as “far from the Kremlin” and pledged to resign if ever sanctioned by the West. That same month, the head of the Russian chess federation referred to Mr Dvorkovich as “our candidate” and predicted he would win easily.

Under Mr Dvorkovic’s leadership, the federation condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and severed major sponsorship ties with Russian-controlled companies. After the invasion, Russian players could only compete in official international tournaments under the flag of another country or the neutral FIDE flag.

Mr Dvorkovich, however, has repeated the Kremlin’s false claims that he is fighting fascism in Ukraine.

At the same time, he is generally valued for his leadership of FIDE and remains popular among chess powerhouses such as India and the dozens of small national federations that rely on grants from a special FIDE development fund to operate.

“Compared to four years ago, FIDE today is completely different,” said Milan Dinic, the editor of British Chess Magazine, referring to the changes he said Mr. Dvorkovich had made. “It is well respected both inside and outside the chess world and its finances have improved and become more transparent,” he added, while acknowledging that the organization still needs more changes.

Al Lawrence, chief executive of the US Chess Trust, a charity that provides chess scholarships to children and veterans, said that despite systems in place to strengthen institutional processes so that decision-making does not rest with one leader, the FIDE president significant influence on essential issues.

“Who is president matters a lot,” said Mr. Lawrence, a former director of the United States Chess Federation, who was speaking in a personal capacity. “Frankly, right now the federation is very closely allied with Russian influence.”

That influence could serve broader Russian interests almost immediately. A day after the presidential election, the chess federation is expected to receive a proposal to lift the ban on Russian teams in major leagues. Chess, like most of the world’s sports, imposed a ban on Russian teams after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We would like our national team to return to the big stage,” said Andrei Filatov, head of the Russian Chess Federation. he said on July.

In Mr. Baryshpolets’ hometown of Kyiv on a recent Saturday, chess players gathered in Shevchenko Park, spreading plastic chess pieces on stone tables as they waited for partners.

Like the federation candidate, almost all of them learned to play from a young age.

“For us it is not so important as chess players, but as citizens of Ukraine we would like a Ukrainian to be the head of the federation,” said Vadim Weisberger, 63, a businessman who was one of the players.

Others said they left the war behind when they sat down at the chessboard.

“This is the civilized world of chess,” said Serhiy Maiboroda, a retired police investigator. “We are talking about chess here. we discuss policies in different places.”

Mr. Baryshpolets learned to play chess when he was 6 and participated in tournaments at 8. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he said his campaign platform included pushing for transparency in how tournament sites, many of them in Russia, are awarded.

“A big concern that the federations also see is that it’s not transparent and it’s not clear what’s going on inside that black box, because some of the decisions were made as they are,” he said. “There is little communication and explanation to the federations and the chess world.”

Mr Baryshpolets ran a low-key campaign, meeting representatives in Chennai and taking a regular bus to the venue. Each national federation has a single vote in the secret ballot to elect the president, an unpaid position.

One country that will not support him, it seems, is Ukraine: its federation has backed a different candidate. India, meanwhile, appears to have rallied behind Mr Dvorkovich, both in the person of Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion running on the Russian’s ticket, and in its gratitude for Mr Dvorkovich’s help in landing of the relocated Chess Olympiad, a major event with 3,000 players and hundreds of delegates, in Chennai.

The United States Chess Federation said in a statement from its executive director, Carol Meyer, that it had not decided which ticket to support and would wait to hear from its delegation after meeting all the candidates in Chennai. The American team has two players from Ukraine. one of them, Anna Zatonskih, who is from Mariupol, said that “it is wrong to have a Russian head of FIDE”.

Chess analysts said that with three people challenging Mr Dvorkovic, they were likely to split the opposition vote, reducing the chances of defeating him. Others noted that a secret ballot gave voters room to support Mr Dvorkovich even if their countries oppose the war in Ukraine and Russia more generally.

“Everything that happens happens behind the scenes,” said Peter Tamburro Jr., senior editor of American Chess Magazine.

“I wonder, we will have an election that will be heavily influenced by the flow of money to different places,” he added, noting that many of the federation’s member states are smaller and less wealthy countries.

Lev Alburt, a former Ukrainian chess champion who defected to the United States in 1979 while playing for the Soviet Union, said that while the war meant the chess world lost the support of major Russian sponsors, he believed it could be made up by other emerging chess nations with deep pockets.

“In the Arab world, for example,” he said, “the United Arab Emirates is a big sponsor of chess, and the Saudis are becoming big supporters.”

Mr Alburt said he saw the challenge to world chess as only a small part of the fallout from the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“The world in general is likely to freeze, like a new Cold War,” he said. “And in such a situation it would be difficult to keep the chess world together.”

Jane Araff reported from Kyiv, Ukraine and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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