Chess was to erstwhile Soviet Union — and is now to Russia — what cricket is to India. For more than a century, the country has dominated the sport, which has been described as a ‘gymnasium for the mind’, and produced the most number of world champions than any other country.
However, after drawing sharp criticism from chess grandmasters all over the world for its recent invasion of Ukraine, FIDE, the world governing body for chess, last week stripped Russia of the honour to host the prestigious 44th Chess Olympiad. Now, the world’s biggest open chess tournament will no longer take place in Moscow this July.
The decision to cancel the tournament could not have been an easy one for FIDE. After all, the body has been heavily funded by Russian sponsors and corporates for as long as one can remember. Arkady Dvorkovich, the president of FIDE, is a former deputy prime minister of Russia. But despite heavy backing from Russian organisations and millions of dollars being poured into the sport over the years by Russian donors, it seems like FIDE’s recent decision could change the role Russia plays in the global chess world.
On February 24, FIDE issued a statement regarding the official FIDE chess competitions and events in Russia. The statement was diplomatically worded and did not condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the FIDE Council initially did not even make a passing reference to the invasion. Instead, it said in a statement: “FIDE Council expresses its grave concern regarding the currently rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation.”
The council further said that it would shortly hold an “extraordinary meeting” during which it would “review holding of all the planned FIDE official chess competitions and events in Russia.” FIDE concluded that “member federations and the responsible FIDE Commissions will be consulted in order to take the most appropriate decision.”
FIDE, also referred to as the International Chess Federation, issued another statement on February 25, in which it announced that the 44th Chess Olympiad and FIDE Congress will not be taking place in Russia. “FIDE Council has decided that the 44th Chess Olympiad, including the competition for players with disabilities, as well as the FIDE Congress, will not take place in Russia,” said the statement on FIDE’s website. “We will do our utmost to find another organiser for the Olympiad and, in due time, provide information on the location and dates of FIDE Congress 2022.”
Once again, FIDE didn’t make any reference to what was going on in Ukraine.
English grandmaster Nigel Short, who is also FIDE’s vice-president, said on Twitter: “Two days ago, I proposed to Council that FIDE should review the decision to hold the chess Olympiad in Moscow. I received ZERO support. Today, I am glad to say that the right decision has been taken.”
Two days ago, I proposed to Council that FIDE should review the decision to hold the chess Olympiad in Moscow. I received ZERO support. Today, I am glad to say that the right decision has been taken https://t.co/55jja5rw6k
— Nigel Short (@nigelshortchess) February 25, 2022
Members of the Ukrainian Chess Federation appealed to the global chess community as well. “The Russian Federation carried out an unprovoked treacherous military attack on Ukraine…we call on the European Chess Union and all national federations to immediately assess these developments. FIDE is not ready to recognise a war as a war and a crime as a crime, and has finally gone bankrupt, literally and figuratively.”
Over the next few days, FIDE drew heavy criticism from current as well previous grandmasters of the sport, for its carefully worded and diplomatic statements. After being put under immense pressure, the FIDE Council held an “extraordinary meeting” on February 27 regarding the “current situation and the urgent measures to be taken after the military action launched by Russia in Ukraine”.
FIDE stated that it had adopted a slew of “important emergency measures”. The council decided that no Russian and Belarusian national flag would be displayed, neither will their anthem(s) be played in all FIDE-rated international chess events. Instead, the national chess federation’s flag or the official symbol/logo would be used. “A simplified procedure for performing under the FIDE flag would be followed where it is crucial for the players or any other chess officials under the current geopolitical situation,” said the statement.
FIDE’s statement took matters a step further: “In order to safeguard FIDE from reputational, financial, and any other possible risks, FIDE terminates all existing sponsorship agreements with any Belarusian and Russian sanctioned and/or state-controlled companies and will not enter into new sponsorship agreements with any such companies.”
The statement added: “FIDE Council condemns any public statement from any member of the chess community which supports unjustified military action and brings the case of chess grandmasters Sergey Karjakin and Sergey Shipov to the Ethics and Disciplinary Commission.”
Both Karjakin and Shipov, known Putin loyalists, have landed themselves in front of an Ethics Committee after tweeting heavily in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Scores of Russian chess players themselves, including the country’s number one player, Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, had voiced their concern over their country’s military action in Ukraine. Others like Andrey Esipenko, one of Russia’s brightest and youngest talents at 19, as well as eight-time Russian champion Peter Svidler and current reigning champion Nikita Vitiugov, took to Twitter to express their discontent. Chess legend Gary Kasparov, a long-time Putin critic, also took a stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to Chess24.com, former Indian national rapid chess champion Anwesh Upadhyaya, who has lived in Ukraine since 2017, told PTI: “Did not expect this intensification. It is a full scale invasion. Never imagined this. My parents over in India are a worried lot and that’s why I had planned to leave in the first week of March. They have been calling me constantly, as have some of my school teachers. I am here in my apartment alone. And I don’t know what’s in store. The attack happened all of a sudden. So, couldn’t have done anything.”
Amid all the chaos and boycotting, India, on February 26, put in a bid to host the 44th Chess Olympiad which was originally supposed to take place in Moscow from July 26 to August 8. “It is confirmed,” said All India Chess Federation secretary Bhagat Singh Chauhan. “We have bid for the 44th Chess Olympiad to be played in India. It was supposed to take place in Russia which got canceled due to the war. So, we have made an offer to FIDE to host it in India.”
On March 2, Chauhan told PTI that India had submitted a $10 million guarantee to FIDE “as a part of our bid to host the Chess Olympiad”.
If India does manage to secure permission to play host to the tournament, it will be the second major chess tournament to be held in the country after the World Championship match that took place in 2013 between Vishwanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen in Chennai.