Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Hand in glove

In 1998, the journalist Larisa Yudina was murdered, in Elista, by men connected to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president since 1995 of FIDE and since 1993 of the autonomous republic of Kalmykia. A boycott of the forthcoming Olympiad, to be held in the very same city, was proposed by Sarah Hurst, at that time editing the newsletter of what was then called the British Chess Federation. It met with more sympathy than support.

Who killed Larisa Yudina?

Since then, I've taken something of a jaundiced view of complaints about Kirsan within the chess world: the killing of journalists, we could comfortably live with, but let the rules change in mid-competition for the world championhip cycle and we'll get really cross. Or so it seems.

To be honest, I didn't really expect people to pass up the opportunity of playing for their country in order to protest about the mere murder of a journalist. But I would have liked them to be a little less god-damned silent among it. I suppose it might have allayed my suspicion, that nobody who mattered really gave a damn, had any of the leading players taken the opportunity to speak out about the man who, at the time, was taking over the chess world for his own personal and political purposes. Like, for instance, the man who was at that time the FIDE World Champion. One Anatoly Karpov.

But Kirsan had the money. Kirsan had the money and nobody else had the money, so people kept their mouths shut and took his tainted money. Well, it seems to me that people who are prepared to take tainted money should not complain too much when that money dries up. It also seems to me that the chess world knows the meaning of money but not the meaning of murder. That would be a cynical view - but in truth the more I look at the chess world the more cynical I get. Even when people are running against Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

There is, of course a large temptation to say "so what?", for anybody would be better than Kirsan. I wouldn't quibble overmuch. FIDE is run by an individual whose reputation is for autocracy, corruption and worse, whose closest associates are thugs who have been chosen for that characteristic. And I, for one, haven't forgotten Larisa Yudina. Even if, until a couple of weeks ago, Anatoly Karpov apparently had.

While I was writing this piece, in time to publish it on the day of the Ray Keene Networking Evening on the Strand, the current New in Chess arrived, carrying a long interview with Karpov - not the most searching of interviews, but then again Dirk isn't really one to put his subjects on the rack - in which he is not asked what happened to his ethical concerns about the killing of journalists during the dozen years that passed between Yudina's assassination and his campaign for the FIDE Presidency. So I don't know. Maybe he feels he was scared to speak out against FIDE at the time. Or maybe he lost his memory. A lot of people who talk about Karpov as the saviour of the chess world seem to have lost their memories.

Or, if not their memories, at least their capacity to ask awkward questions, like "didn't you and Garry Kasparov use to hate each other?" and "are those terrible things you said about one another not true any more?". Or "if you've kissed and made up, is it because you both have nothing other than the good of chess on your minds, or might there be something in it for both of you?". Is it really beyond us to look at the history of these people, their public statements about each other over a period of years, and suspect they are not necessarily idealists united by a desire to do what is best for the whole world of chess?

I'll be there for you

This brings us round to the subject of Kasparov, who has been the most prominent of Karpov's supporters. Now I'll be candid and say that I don't like Kasparov much. I don't like his his ego, I don't like his Wall Street Journal opinions and I don't like his dismissive attitude to chessplayers outside the elite circle. I have not forgotten "tourists", nor "a weak player beat a tired player" and I have not forgotten how he treated the world title as his personal property nor how he broke the GMA when it no longer suited his immediate purposes.

As I say, I don't like him. But what I dislike even less is the fawning press coverage he receives, as if everything he did was in pursuit of democracy and freedom rather than in support of Garry Kasparov. This is worse, to tell the truth, in the mainstream press than it is in the chess press, though given that he's a friend, business partner and political ally of Fred Friedel, it's not as if Chessbase is an exception to the rule.

In truth, the reference to Kasparov is the one moment when New In Chess opens the door just a little to scepticism about the Karpov-Kasparov alliance. Although their previous history is glossed over ("you've been on good terms for some time now") Dirk finds himself obliged to observe:
For some countries he will be an asset, but for others he will be a liability, because he is not liked everywhere.
Indeed he isn't, Dirk, because some people do have memories and those memories sometimes oblige them to form character judgements. In this instance, they may have judged that Garry Kasparov does very little without expecting to be in charge of it and without expecting it to benefit him personally. And when he enters into an alliance, he does so expecting to manipulate it to his own advantage.

Can I really be alone in finding Kasparov's closeness to Magnus Carlsen just a touch disturbing? Carlsen emerges as a likely world champion, straightaway there's Kasparov, offering him training and next thing you know Carlsen is appearing with him at celebrity fundraising dinners. It's as well, I think, that Carlsen isn't yet world champion. It wouldn't at all surprise me to see the 1993-2000 circus repeated, with Kasparov this time as the ringmaster.

You need hands

But I digress. I was listing my dislikes where Garry Kasparov is concerned. Let me add "fundraising dinners". I do not like them either. They are there to offer influence, or the promise of influence, to wealthy people in return for large amounts of money. They are the staple of US corporate politics. They are nothing whatsoever to do with democracy and nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of you and me. That is the whole point of them. They are there to exclude the likes of you and me.

Unless, that is, you're the sort of person who has two hundred quid in your back pocket to pay for dinner. Two hundred quid is what it would cost to get into Ray Keene's dinner at Simpson's this evening. God knows what it cost to get into the New York event. It doesn't really matter, because it would be many times more than I could afford to pay. The Karpov campaign is a table at which few of us are invited to sit. So where is my interest in supporting it?

It seems to me that the Karpov campaign is about professional chess - by which I mean elite professional chess, the sort of people who receive invitations to tournaments at Linares and Dortmund, the sort of people who annotate and give interviews in New in Chess - as well as potential corporate sponsors, people who might be interested in backing elite tournaments but are perhaps less interested in the world of chess to which most of us belong. And to which, in truth, most professionals belong.

Four years ago, when he was first considering running for FIDE President - eventually Bessel Kok made an unsuccessful bid - Karpov gave an interview to Chessbase which I think may be helpful in understanding what Karpov is all about. (As I say, it can help to have a memory.) This is the interview in which he made the remarkable claim
I think everybody connected with chess understands that if we allow chess to continue for another four years in its presented terrible state, it will simply disappear from the face of the earth.

Here we are, four and a half years on, and the End Times are not yet with us. There have been plenty of opportunities, of late, to put it to Karpov that he was talking nonsense in 2006. I've not heard that anyone has done so.

To be fair, at the time, Yasser Seirawan attempted a clarification:
Recently, I think Karpov misspoke when he talked about chess disappearing in the next four years. What Tolya likely meant was, "professional chess". Viewed from this qualification he is of course right.
Wrong whichever way you slice it

Of course! And yet, here we are...and so is professional chess. I suppose there may even be more professional chessplayers in the world than there ever were before.

So let us try and clarify the clarification, by reference to what Karpov said next.
Tournaments are shrinking in size, and disappearing altogether from the calendar – this is a huge problem. Linares and Dortmund have significantly reduced the number of participants. Just consider, in the world's five biggest tournaments....there are a total of just 41 places! This only leaves open tournaments, which I, for example, would never play in. I am firmly convinced that, for a world class player, playing in open tournaments is a big mistake, because such tournaments destroy one's style.
So perhaps, when Karpov said chess, and when Seirawan said he meant professional chess, what was actually meant was - elite professional chess, at the level where you don't even play in open tournaments, certainly not if you can possibly avoid it. Not that this level of chess has disappeared either, mind, but at least that would help us understand what Karpov means - and what he is thinking of when he says "chess". He's thinking of the top one per cent. Or a smaller proportion even than that.

Top players, famous names. People who have done very well out of chess: and for that matter, people whose best playing days are behind them but who wish nevertheless to retain a prominent place in the game. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, any more than there's anything wrong with wishing to get rid of Kirsan and his chums. But these don't seem to me to be people who have too much to complain about. Few of the people going to Ray's show tonight can be too disappointed about how a life of chess has rewarded them. Not Garry Kasparov, not Nigel Short, not Mickey Adams.

Bring me the head of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

Of course one can argue that whatever their private motives may be, the top players have had many years to see what Kirsan and his sidekicks are all about - and that if they are largely motivated by self-interest, they may at least be motivated in part by genuine disgust. It is a fair point. Still, if the objections to Kirsan are that he is untrustworthy with money, that he breaks rules for his own convenience, that his motives are principally to benefit himself and that there is a lack of transparency in what he does, are they proposing to say so in conversation with their host tonight?

When the Bessel Kok campaign ended in defeat, I criticised it, in Kingpin, for concentrating on the wealthier parts of the chess world. I stand by that. Chess isn't just about the West - in which, by the way, nobody is prevented from holding an elite chess tournament if they want to. I am uneasy when people complain that Africa and Asia have too much influence, and not only because the expansion of chess in Asia seems to me to have been one of the true successes of the last twenty years. (Possibly the only one, indeed.) But if I was playing chess in China or India, and I read Karpov saying that he wanted FIDE offices in Paris and New York - would I not be justified in wondering what was in it for me?

I wouldn't overdo it. Nobody really believes that the outcome of this election has much to do with the actual policies and programmes of the competing parties. But still, if I am asked to back a campaign - and perhaps still more, if it is assumed, as it seems to be assumed, that everybody should support it - shall I not ask what it is supposed to be about and why I should support it?

Where is, indeed, the beef? Nick Faulks, of Bermuda, wrote a letter to Chess Today in July which made the point quite adequately:
It's hardly as though the Kirsan era has an impeccable record, so when are we going to hear an explanation of what they could do better than the incumbents? At the moment, we seem destined for the same stillborn campaign of four years ago, with a few vague and unsubstantiated accusations but little more.

Message to Karpov and Kasparov - if you have anything constructive to say, now would not be a bad time to say it.
Quite so. I don't think that Karpov has all that much constructive to say, at least to anybody outside the top hundred players in the rankings.

I do not see much in favour of the Karpov campaign, other than his opponents. Who, for sure, constitute a powerful argument in itself. There are a thousand reasons not to support Kirsan, beginning with Larisa Yudina and proceeding from there. That's basic. I can see every reason for disliking Kirsan. He cannot possibly be supported. What I can't see is any reason to like, or to trust, the crew who are seeking to replace him. Do I have any reason? Do I have any reason not to think of them as a bunch of people who have spent most of their professional lives attacking each other except on the rare occasions when they have felt that could make more money by sticking together?

See, I don't care very much about them, perhaps because they have never cared very much for anybody but themselves. What do I care about? I care about Olympiads, that they prosper. I care about the world championship. I care that these events are properly supported, and also that they are not undermined by intrigue. I care about the provision of rules, arbiters and a rating system. I don't think all of these are well cared for at the moment.

I also care about having presidents who are not implicated in the murder of journalists. On principle, even though it doesn't affect me. It doesn't affect me that world football is run by an enormous crook called Sepp Blatter. But I don't think it should be, even though world football is an enormous commercial success. It doesn't affect me that world chess is run by an enormous crook called Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. But I don't think it should be, regardless of whether or not world chess is a commercial failure.

"I know where you live"

What good does it ultimately do, to operate a system of memory-loss in place of a system of healthy scepticism? Didn't Karpov use to be the man everybody loved to hate? Because he was FIDE's man, because he was Soviet Man? "We have to beat the system", he says in New In Chess. Didn't he use to be the system, and its man?

Were the things that were said about him then not true? Have they changed? If so, when did they change? They might have done so and we might believe it, but not if the passage from then to now goes unacknowledged and unexamined. It is not, quite, as if the past did not exist. It is as if half the past did not exist.

As I say. The more I look at the chess world, the more cynical I get. Loud statements of outrage turn out on inspection to disguise the pursuit of personal interest, and the better one has done from chess, the more assiduous the chess press is, in listening to one's tales of how one has been treated unfairly. Which is diverting enough - especially if you believe what the top players say about each other more than you believe what they say about themselves. But chess isn't just about its top players. It's about all of us who play. I don't think Anatoly Karpov has very much in common with that view.

It's like Chelsea v Manchester United: I hope that both sides lose. It's a fine thing when you can't put together a ticket that's more appealing than Kirsan and chums, but there's something almost as unattractive about Garry Kasparov's Puppet Show. Yes, of course, I don't mean that entirely. Yes, of course, I hope Kirsan loses more than I hope that Karpov loses. Yes, of course, consorting with the Penguin is not as bad as having your henchmen whack a journalist. Yes, of course.

Kirsan deserves to lose, but that doesn't mean Karpov deserves to win. There is too much about his campaign that raises awkward questions. And there are too many awkward questions that a partisan chess press are not prepared to ask. They have their reasons, good as well as bad. But I put it to you that had we been in the habit of asking awkward questions, we might not have ended up with Kirsan.

[K&K photo: Associated Press]
[KvK photo: Hairulovchessmaniacs]
[Yasser photo: Chessbase]


Anonymous said...

Half the Australian team did boycott the Elista Olympiad because of Yudina, probably influenced by the fact that she had featured on Australian television shortly before her murder.
One of the guests at Simpsons - Korchnoi - also boycotted.

Morgan Daniels said...

Wonder if there'll be any 'impromptu' blitz simuls this evening?

Tom Chivers said...

I think the positive value Karpov would bring as President would be publicity of the good kind - he will visit somewhere, the major newspapers will report it, that kind of thing. The consequences for you & I - if any - will be trickle-down in nature.

Kevin Spraggett said...

Brilliant commentary. Witty, colourful,heartfelt, sincere. And honest.

This is the best view that I have seen published on this election campaign since it began.

Tom Chivers said...

Btw, I believe the K-K thaw in personal relations may have partly come about through Karpov's attempt to visit Kasparov in jail.

Arne said...

Thank you for the best ever article on the Yudina case. Cheers, Arne from ChessVibes.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

I agree, fantastic post!

Frits Fritschy said...

(also at chessvibes)
I remember being part of a youth training session (a waste on me) in the Amsterdam FIDE office (long time ago) when suddenly Euwe and Karpov stepped in. Euwe near 2 m tall, Karpov hardly above 1.50. They looked liked granddad and grandson. Maybe Euwe made size matter and implanted some ethics into him.
In his confrontations with Korchnoi and Kasparov, Karpov had a clean eye for his own interests and didn't mind the backup he got from the powers that were. At the same time he didn't mind to take a risk by not backing up those powers when he didn't have to (not signing the anti Korchnoi letter after the later's defection, and visiting Kasparov in jail), in a way that didn't offend too much, but had some impact.
So Karpov is a good politician. He makes use of the connections he has, but doesn't follow orders. Maybe on moral grounds, maybe on calculation, maybe on intuition. He minds his steps; he errr... looks a bit like a chess player.
Bessel Kok was a man of great virtues. He fought an honest campaign, lost it by being fooled, tried to reform the beast from the inside, was made supreme secretary of extraterrestial affairs and was never heard of again.
Now who has the better chance to get Kirsan down, Justin?

By the way, did you really try to get answers from Karpov himself, or are you counting upon it that he will read the Streatham & Brixton Chess Blog? Anyhow,
keep asking questions!