The politics of chess


Chess since the Cold war had been an important sphere for the East-West conflict to be played out.

The chess world is at present very divided between East and West, a division which goes back to the days of the Cold War when the USSR reigned supreme over its bloc and the chess world. Its governing body FIDE is now more in the headlines than ever before. It is split between the Russian + the Third World bloc versus the EU, N. America, Australia etc.

For many years FIDE was ruled by its President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of an oil-rich Russian province, Kalmykia. He did so very much in the same style as FIFA – also until recently. Ilyumzhinov is a multi-millionaire with however some eccentric beliefs; he acquired fame for his well-attested statements that he had been kidnapped by extra-terrestrials.[i]Until December 2015 as a close ally of President Putin, Ilyumzhinov had been the unpredictable President of FIDE for 20 yrs using his oil wealth to salve consciences.

However, in December 2015 the USA accused him concerning his financial dealings with President Assad. [ii] In 2012 he and Assad were pictured playing chess. As a result Ilyumzhinov stepped down, and one his circle (or clique) in FIDE replaced him. He has strongly denied the allegations and has threatened to counter-sue the USA for many billions of dollars.

Rebranding St Louis thru chess

In recent years a right-wing – but certainly non-racist – American billionaire Rex Sinquefield has been investing millions in chess. By doing so he is rebranding his home town St Louis (Missouri) as an intellectual powerhouse, one of the world’s chess capitals;  the USA has re-emerged as one of the world’s strongest chess nations.

BBC World service (12th May) focused on this narrative, and used as its hookline <banter chess> which is very popular there especially amongst the chess hustlers in a local park, mostly men of colour. (There is an article[iii] and a radio feature [iv]).

Garry Kasparov: the west’s candidate in chess politics

The leader of the opposition to the Russian chess bloc has been Garry Kasparov the former world chess champion and arguably the strongest player ever. He is a multi-millionaire who gave up playing chess to devote himself to opposing the Russian government and developing chess. He stood against Ilyumzhinov to take over the leadership of FIDE;[v] he failed in this attempt in 2015 despite his hugely energetic jet setting campaign especially through the Third world to garner support.

And for his pains FIDE have banned him from any chess activities for two years because of an alleged bribe he made to a delegate to FIDE.[vi]  That is a great loss to the world of chess because he is undoubtedly a great worker for it, a board game which research has shown to be good for the brain, and helpful for children.[vii]

Kasparov has followed the motto ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and got close to the US ruling elite; one reason perhaps for him to have a $3.5million penthouse suite in N York. However, one should also acknowledge that he was a courageous member of the opposition to Pres. Putin in Russia, and was even beaten up when arrested at a demo.

Chess in Cold War

Chess since the Cold war had been an important sphere for the East-West conflict to be played out. Just as the USA used Abstract Art, the magazine Encounter – to name just some of the best known examples, and generally tried to neutralise Left trends in the Arts. On the other hand, the ex-USSR refunctionalised chess to demonstrate their own supposed superiority. Some of you may recall the 1972 World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and the Soviet star Boris Spassky. Fischer would have refused to take part had it not been for a personal appeal to him by Dr Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State.

Chess is still growing

Despite all the shenanigans chess is continuing to expand, and there are thought to be some 600 million people who play it. The Internet has helped its growth significantly e.g. with video coverage of big events.

Now chess has a young dynamic world champion, the Norwegian  Magnus Carlsen (26), who is trendy enough to do clothing ads; in India his female fans screamed on his arrival at an airport there. The chess problem I have set you is from one of his early games.

Chess challenge for readers: Here’s a collection of puzzles. Try the first one, which was played in 2003 by the current world champion Magnus Carlson, when he was a wunderkind aged 13. It’s white to play and checkmate in three moves »


[i] For more detail on Ilyumzhinov and extra-terrestrials see chess historian Edward Winter’s detailed text »
[ii] Chess world plunged into crisis as FIDE president ‘withdraws’ to fight Syria »
[iii] Article at »
[iv] Listen to Checkmate Me in St Louis »
[v] FIDE has two jewels in its crown: the Chess Olympiads (nearly 200 nations) plus world chess championships for men and separately for women.
[vi] Putin’s Press Relishes Chess Icon Garry Kasparov’s Bribery Scandal »
[vii] For the educational benefits of chess see here» and here»

Next Article: In his next article, PRR’s chess correspondent Tim Gluckman will write about chess as a subject in recent movies.


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