FIDE suspends chess tournaments in Russia and expresses “great concern” about invasion of Ukraine

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“There’s still a lot of popular enthusiasm for the game when important games and tournaments are happening,” said Michael Hudson, an associate professor at the American University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, who wrote his dissertation on chess in the Soviet Union. “They still get headlines.”

But the International Chess Federation this week dealt a blow to Russia, where the game is historically rooted in the country’s national identity. In response to Ukraine’s invasion, the International Chess Federation pulled tournaments from Russia and Belarus on Sunday, a move pundits called historic.

“FIDE expresses its grave concern at the military action launched by Russia in Ukraine,” the organization said in a statement, using its French acronym. “FIDE stands united against war and condemns any use of military force to resolve political conflicts.”

In addition to hosting tournaments – including the prestigious Chess Olympiad – FIDE also said that Russian and Belarusian players will not be allowed to show their flags at tournaments and that the federation will terminate all sponsorship deals with Russian and Belarusian state companies. It also said that two Russian players who publicly expressed support for the invasion could face disciplinary action.

“We felt strongly that we had to act,” Nigel Short, FIDE Vice President and British Grandmaster, told the Washington Post.

“This is an open act of aggression against a sovereign country and… it affects two very important chess nations,” he added, referring to Russia and Ukraine. “I mean, these are two of the strongest chess nations in the world.”

In the days leading up to Sunday’s announcement, critics had questioned whether the organization would take a firm stance on Russia. Ben Finegold, an American grandmaster, was one of them.

Following FIDE’s announcement that it would withdraw the Chess Olympiad and suspend other tournaments, Finegold told The Post that the organization’s move was “unprecedented” because it has traditionally withdrawn from politics. It was also a “pleasant surprise” because FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich is Russian.

“The Olympics is a huge event, so taking it away is a real ‘sanction’ on Russia,” Finegold said.

The measures “can be taken by the Russians [grandmasters] even more upset with [President Vladimir] Putin,” he added, “and may make some reconsider which country they represent.”

FIDE, meanwhile, has stopped banning Russians from participating in tournaments. When asked if FIDE could impose further restrictions, Short said the organization had been “much commended for the actions it has already taken – even by its constant critics”.

“But whether our key decisions have gone far enough is another matter,” he said. “It’s something we’re checking.”

Sporting sanctions can pose a “moral shame” that could also shake Russian citizens’ confidence in Putin, said Steven Fish, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine “It’s getting harder and harder to get along with ordinary Russians when they see apolitical international sports organizations … locking their country out,” Fish told the Post.

Fish added that international sporting events, including the Chess Olympiad, are extremely important to Russians. Putin has been working to raise Russia’s global profile by hosting events such as the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, he said.

“Chess definitely plays a big part in the imagination of Russians and they pride themselves on having grandmasters and tending to do well in these competitions,” Fish said. “And that, like football, is a popular sport in Russia and they will take being banned from it very seriously.”

As of October 2020, according to FIDE, there were 1,722 grandmasters worldwide, and Russia was home to 239 of them. Germany, the country with the second most grandmasters, had 96, and the United States followed with 95.

While Russia’s relationship with chess can be traced back centuries, the game became widespread during the Soviet era, said Hudson, the professor in Cambodia.

“There’s this very important ideological component to chess from the start,” Hudson said. “In the Soviet Union, chess was never about chess. Chess was about politics.”

Vladimir Lenin and other Bolsheviks were avid chess players, Hudson said, and Soviet leaders believed the 1917 Russian Revolution had “come too soon”. So they were trying to prepare the proletariat for its “historic mission” to achieve a socialist society, Hudson said: “It was decided that chess would be one of the ways to do that.”

In the 1920s, “chess fever” gripped the Soviet Union as the government funded programs and established chess clubs from Moscow to the Siberian hinterland, wrote Russian FIDE master Andrey Terekhov in an essay posted on Chess24.com, a chess platform and publication , has been published . According to Hudson, the game was ubiquitous in factories, cafeterias, and schools.

Chess later became a way for the Soviets to exercise international power – to demonstrate the “superiority of the Soviet system,Hudson said, and Russia came to “dominate” FIDE.

The Soviet Union and Russia soon produced some of the most famous and successful grandmasters, including Kasparov, Karpov and Mikhail Botvinnik. In the second half of the 20th century, players from the Soviet Union and Russia won all but one World Chess Championship.

FIDE’s connection to Russia continued even after the fall of the regime, Wired reported. Since 1995, Russian businessman and politician Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has served as the organization’s president for 23 years. He was accused of being close to the Kremlin, which he denies, as FiveThirtyEight reported. In 2015, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Ilyumzhinov for providing financial assistance to the Syrian government.

“We have long been dominated by Russia, at least politically,” Short, the FIDE official, told The Post.

Dvorkovich, who previously worked for the Russian government, is now the organization’s president. But Short credited Dvorkovich with helping initiate organizational change. He said FIDE’s ability to pull tournaments out of Russia and cut sponsorship money from its state-owned companies “shows that things are changing.”

Short stressed the importance of cutting sponsorships.

“A few years ago, FIDE wouldn’t have been able to do that because they couldn’t afford it,” he said. But now “we get our money from different sources, from many different countries around the world.

Hudson agreed that FIDE’s recent actions are a sign of a shift in sentiment.

“This whole thing with FIDE withdrawing from Russia would have been unthinkable in Soviet times because FIDE was really controlled by the Soviet Union,” Hudson said.

At the last World Chess Championship, held in Dubai in late 2021, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi was defeated by Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, the defending champion.

Carlsen has publicly opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. tweeted last week: “Peace is cool. War – not so much.”

Nepomniachtchi tweeted in Russian: “I’m afraid the price for the madness of the past few days will be unimaginable and exorbitant.”

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