Legendary former chess champion Garry Kasparov is to attempt today to seize the sport’s top job from a man who claims he was abducted by aliens and is accused of being a Kremlin puppet who built ties to the world’s most brutal dictators.
For the past 19 years, the presidency of the World Chess Federation has been held by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an eccentric former president of Russia’s only Buddhist region — Kalmykia.
The 52-year-old claims he was once abducted by aliens who communicated telepathically and took him to another planet in a giant spaceship. However, his greatest challenge may come today, when the most famous name in chess, former world champion Kasparov, tries to oust him from the federation presidency in a battle that carries echoes of Cold War chess confrontations.
The showdown will take place on the sidelines of the Chess Olympiad in the Norwegian city of Tromsoe, deep inside the Arctic Circle.
Kasparov, 51, is one of Russia’s most vocal dissidents, labelling the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin a “dictatorship” and decrying his country’s slide toward “fascism.”
He accuses Ilyumzhinov of being too close to Putin and that his leadership of the 181-country World Chess Federation has been marked by “abuse and favoritism.”
“Every Russian embassy in the world has been mobilized to support Mr Ilyumzhinov and to keep him in office,” he told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet this week. “It’s not about chess. This is a pure political fight.”
Ilyumzhinov has been accused of damaging the reputation of the chess federation by cultivating close ties to some of the world’s most brutal dictators, including former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, at precisely the moments when they were facing the strongest international opposition. At the height of NATO bombardments of Tripoli in June 2011, he traveled to the Libyan capital to play a highly publicized chess game with Qaddafi, granting him the title of “International Grandmaster.”
Some see the hand of the Kremlin behind Ilyumzhinov’s chess diplomacy.
“Putin, Russia, Ilyumzhinov — it’s all connected,” said Gerard Demuydt at the chess magazine Europe Echecs, adding that his poor choice of friends has impoverished the game. “If you search for Ilyumzhinov on Google, you’ll find his name associated with aliens, Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi. That scares off sponsors that could contribute to developing the game and it restricts Ilyumzhinov’s access to funding from Russian companies and unscrupulous people.”
Ilyumzhinov does not shy away from his support for the Kremlin.
“I am a patriot of Russia,” he recently told the New York Times.
“I love my country. Kasparov, who grew up in this country, received an education here, became a champion here, who was receiving money here, from my own hands — he is praised for struggling against Russia and its people. Isn’t it crazy?” he said.