General Sep 9, 2014 | 11:33 AMby chess24 staff

Garry Kasparov on the FIDE election

We saw yesterday in St. Louis the thrill that winning at chess still gives the 13th World Champion, Garry Kasparov. It was an experience he's known perhaps more than any man alive, but in the recent FIDE presidential election he tasted bitter defeat — losing 110:61 to 19-year incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. In his first exclusive in-depth look back at the election Kasparov explains why he ran, what went wrong and what happens now.

FIDE versus Chess

by Garry Kasparov

Kasparov was everywhere in Tromsø | photo: Georgios Souleidis 

The FIDE election in Tromsø was one month ago and I would like to set various records straight at the moment when emotions have cooled but the memories are still fresh. My reputation is based on the truth, for my achievements and for my mistakes. As Botvinnik taught me, the player who hides from the truth fails to learn.

The following is not a chronology of my campaign for FIDE president. As during the campaign itself, I am still more interested in the future of chess than the past. There are many lessons to learn from this experience if the political situation in the chess world is to improve — although it is not clear at all that it will. Sometimes a fever cannot be combatted with the best antibiotics and it must burn itself out, with any luck without killing the patient. The disgust much of the chess world feels about Ilyumzhinov’s FIDE has not yet reached the point where it can change FIDE itself. In fact, Ilyumzhinov’s team’s main accomplishment over two decades has been to isolate and protect their power in FIDE from anything to do with the active chess world and the success of the sport.

Chess will go on without competent and transparent leadership in FIDE, of course, and I will continue to work hard be a part of the real global development of the game: Commercial sponsorship, education, social networks and technology are a promising future worth fighting for.

***

At one point I concluded that these ambitions could be realized far better were FIDE an active proponent of this agenda and not an obstacle. The private sponsors of my education foundations around the world, and of my campaign, would be able to open the corporate cupboards for commercial support for chess through FIDE, instead of only from their own pockets to my non-profits. When it became clear I would have ample financial support to travel the world and promote chess as I believed was necessary to compete in the FIDE election against the 19-year incumbent, I began to assemble my campaign team.

Ilyumzhinov's 2010 challenger Anatoly Karpov accompanied the incumbent president to the Tromsø Olympiad Opening Ceremony | photo: Georgios Souleidis 

Several of our initial assumptions in the summer of 2013 were significantly wrong, as would only become clear a year later. The first and most damaging false hypothesis was that I would have the support of the same anti-Kirsan, pro-chess, pro-reform coalition, largely based in Europe, as Bessel Kok and Anatoly Karpov had in 2006 and 2010. This would, I believed, give me a starting base of roughly 35 votes to build on — and I had the team and the money they didn’t have to build on it. I knew from my experiences in Africa that many federations there were tired of Ilyumzhinov’s broken promises and that chess there was ready to take off, and had strong public support. We weren’t sure we could win a majority in Africa, but a split was possible. Ignatius Leong had a long history of tireless work for the promotion of chess in East Asia and with him on my team we could at least split the Asian vote.

This math meant that even with just seven votes in the Americas, where most federations have been starved and dominated by FIDE and by FIDE America president of a quarter-century Jorge Vega for so long they see no way out, it was possible to reach the 89 votes needed for victory. (e.g. 35-38 of 54 in Europe, 20-22 of 40 in Africa, 23-25 of 48 in Asia, 7-9 of 34 in the Americas.)

There are countless factors at play in a year-long global campaign, with no way to know which ones were most significant. My feeling after my campaign launch in October in Tallinn was that many federations preferred to adopt a wait-and-see position, to sit on the fence without committing to see if my campaign was really as well-funded as it looked, if I would be able to fulfill my promises. This was to be expected, especially after Ilyumzhinov had looked invincible in the previous elections, but it was disappointing that this nervous posture even came from some of the large European federations that had the most to gain from FIDE reform. It was a sign of things to come.

Kasparov in the Tromsø Olympiad playing hall | photo: Anastasiya Karlovich 

I had actively supported Karpov’s campaign in 2010 and knew I had limited experience engaging with federations around the world, so I set out to change that. The only way to do the job properly was to learn first-hand, and that meant travel and a lot of it. I visited dozens of federations, from Iceland to South Africa, from Australia to El Salvador. It became very clear what a sad state the world of chess was in, politically. Federations were desperate for support and had no idea how to get it. They usually saw FIDE as an authoritarian parent that punished or rewarded instead of representing them or supporting them. Indeed, Ilyumzhinov’s campaign slogan was “FIDE First,” and my response was that this was exactly the problem. It needs to be “Federations First” by reversing the flow of authority and of money. These conversations also illustrated that it is confusing and discriminatory for FIDE to be run only in English so I added plans to have all official FIDE materials in every major language and of funding new FIDE language commissions, starting with Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, South Slavic and Mandarin.

My global journey reinforced the plans and policies I had developed in the summer of 2013 that were based on increasing chess activity as the top priority. FIDE should stabilize the federations, strengthen them and provide incentives to do what they are supposed to do: increase participation. With more players we would have new energy, new ideas, and, of course, new sponsors. It’s not enough for chess to have a positive image as a game or even as a pedagogical tool. To bring bigger sponsors we need bigger numbers. We must bring the millions of casual players and fans into the system, to stand and be counted. We must expand the base by distributing millions of sets and clocks and getting these new players on the same global rating list.

My travels showed me very clearly that chess was big and universal, but FIDE was small and isolated by its corruption and increasing dependence on Putin’s Russia. As the recent letter from Norwegian federation president Jøran Aulin-Jansson pointed out, there are many sports with far smaller player bases that are very successful at attracting corporate sponsors and event bids. Meanwhile, FIDE couldn’t even find a proper sponsor for the world championship with a rematch between a charismatic new champion in Magnus Carlsen and a veteran beloved in his native India in Vishy Anand.

Promoting greater activity became a central plank in my team’s policy platform. The steps to achieving it included: forgive all federation debts (unconditionally, not as a political chip), reduce and eliminate federation fees to FIDE, and distribute development aid so federations could increase their activities. Also, provide incentives that reward federations for more players and more events. There is no mystery as to why Ilyumzhinov’s FIDE is against such measures, despite their saying these debts are trivial and the fees are small. They provide leverage FIDE uses to bully and control the federations. (For example, the Spanish and Serbian federations had debts in the tens of thousands of Euros, making them very susceptible to Ilyumzhinov’s promises to forgive debts in exchange for votes.) The message from FIDE: “Do what we say, stay loyal, and we will help you survive for a little while.” This is a terrible way to run a federation or to promote chess — federations are actually punished with more fees for greater activity — but it is a good way to stay in control.

***

Garry Kasparov in the moments after hearing the result of the 2014 FIDE presidential election | photo: Georgios Souleidis

The result of the election, a catastrophic 61-110 defeat, says a lot but it does not say it all. We know what the 110 voters rejected, but not why they did so. We know what was on the table from me and my team, but not what Ilyumzhinov’s side offered that was so attractive. The future of chess was right there at the General Assembly and it was overwhelmingly rejected. Even Europe followed the path of the status quo, of four more years without reform or progress. Why?

The fear of the unknown is often difficult to overcome. Even if things aren’t going too well, radical change can be intimidating. To allay the fears of the federations and delegates as much as possible, I was ready to provide a ten-million-dollar guarantee by one of my ticket members, Rex Sinquefield, who has put far more than that of his own money into chess in recent years. Eliminating debts and fees, the free distribution of a million chess sets and 50,000 digital clocks, a prestigious new home for the Carlsen-Anand match with full commercial sponsorship — all ready to go into the pipeline the very next day in Tromsø! This is what was rejected, not even mentioning a competent new management ticket and team.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as he made the impromptu decision to double whatever Rex Sinquefield offered | photo: Georgios Souleidis

Instead of embracing this bright future, the delegates reached out with both hands and strangled it. They laughed and cheered when Kirsan followed my speech with ludicrous boasts about twenty million dollars, as if comparing his long history of lies and broken promises to a guarantee by Rex Sinquefield. Deputy President Makropoulos happily acknowledged later that Ilyumzhinov’s promises were lies. This is the language of FIDE now; they don’t understand the difference between real promises from real people with reputation and the routine lies they hear from Ilyumzhinov every four years. After so many years of this mentality, they can’t tell the difference between real money and funny money. They voted for four more years of the same, with no real online initiatives, nothing in education, nothing but a few more elite professional events held in the former Soviet Union with opaque financing.

The day before the election, Ilyumzhinov’s supporters Makropoulos, Azmaiparashvili, Huba, and Filatov attacked a report by Silvio Danailov at the European Chess Union assembly that was loosely based on a few events with little relevance. (And correctly so, to be honest.) But then Ilyumzhinov’s own report on FIDE was even worse, with no substance at all, and no criticism was heard. The report failed to even mention the Agon deal, a major agreement by any measure. And as usual, every FIDE mention of chess in education was fake. For example, the report mentioned some school programs in Mexico that aren’t even being contemplated. (Unlike Ilyumzhinov, I’ve had many meetings with education officials.) One program that is actually functioning is in Makropoulos’s Greece, but it was established by Kasparov Chess Foundation Europe! And it is expanding, by the way.

The winner and the loser both mobbed by the press in the aftermath of the election | photo: Georgios Souleidis

As befits a man from Norway, the home of the Nobel Peace Prize, my friend JJ’s letter is very generous in assuming that some of the 110 had the best interests of chess in mind when they cast their votes. Of course I cannot prove otherwise, although the circumstantial evidence against this being the case would be convincing enough for me to convict were I a judge! Nor do I believe that the many myths and slanders produced by Ilyumzhinov’s propaganda machine had a decisive effect, although I would like to take a moment to address a few of them since, unlike Ilyumzhinov and his team, I have a reputation to think of.

For me, this campaign was about the future of chess. Amazingly, my opponent did not even bother discussing the future at all, not even making his usual empty promises. He focused only on the past — and not his 19 years in office, but my past! It was a campaign of libel and fear-mongering based on old myths that ignore reality and my record.

The first is that I would eliminate “one country, one vote,” a story told to scare small federations. I have a religious belief in democracy and while different federations will always have varying levels of influence, the ballot is sacred and essential. My wish is for each federation to feel this responsibility and recognize the power of this vote. The vote of the smallest federation has the same weight as that of the largest, but too many casually give up or trade away this power lightly.

One of the easiest myths to refute was that I would only support professional chess as FIDE president. It is obvious that the situation is totally the opposite, that I have invested a huge amount of time and money into grassroots and education programs in recent years while Ilyumzhinov’s FIDE has done nothing at all. Nearly all FIDE investment has gone into professional events, ignoring the base that must grow if chess is to thrive. My foundations have advanced education programs around the world — from our bases in New York City, Brussels, Johannesburg, Mexico City, and Singapore — and my campaign did the same.

The most ironic slander of the campaign was that “Kasparov will politicize chess.” I am who I am and I believe Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is criminal and a danger to the world — a belief shared by many more people every day, by the way. I will not change nor hide my views. But as I made clear, and as I demonstrated on the campaign trail, my candidacy and my FIDE presidency would not be political. I answered questions when they came, but my emphasis was always chess, sponsorship, and promoting the game everywhere, regardless of political affiliations.

Garry Kasparov at the 2014 Olympiad | photo: David Llada

In sharp contrast, Ilyumzhinov tied FIDE and his candidacy firmly to Russia, appearing with Putin and relying on massive Russian embassy support around the world to pressure federations to vote against me. He moved the world championship match to Putin’s pet city of Sochi, where the Governor is under international sanctions, as is Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. It is quite clear who is in charge. FIDE now depends entirely on a rogue state that has just invaded its neighbor, a development that will further isolate chess from proper sponsors and governmental cooperation in the rest of the world.

While my opinion of the FIDE delegates is not very high at the moment, I do not think many of them are foolish enough to believe the hysterical propaganda against me. This is hardly a compliment, since it leaves even fewer possible conclusions as to why they voted for Ilyumzhinov, a question still without a respectful answer. Not even Ilyumzhinov’s supporters have attempted to make a case that their federations will be better off with four more years of him, which shows how little accountability exists in chess politics. Shouldn’t their members, or their superiors in government, or anyone, demand to know why they voted for Ilyumzhinov? Could there be any answer other than that they have put personal gain and power over the good of their federations and of chess? Until those questions come, and until these people are replaced by leaders who won’t just do the same, no real change will come to FIDE.

When will the fever break? Have they gone too far by creating a Putin-esque vertical power structure where FIDE is the boss of the federations and the only currency is loyalty? If you think I exaggerate, my defeat was only the beginning in Tromsø. Every post, elected or appointed, went to Ilyumzhinov loyalists from top to bottom, often regardless of experience or competence. The candidates supported actively by Ilyumzhinov’s team took every spot, and in every case they had supported Ilyumzhinov.

(A notable exception to this rule may not be an exception at all, and comes from Europe. Germany’s federation board voted to support me, with the only vote against belonging to President Herbert Bastian, who later went to some effort to successfully retrieve Germany’s vote from their delegate so he could cast it himself in Tromsø. He also insisted that the German decision to support me would not be made public. Bastian, a relative unknown, won a FIDE vice-presidential spot in Tromsø with full support on the floor from Makropoulos while Bastian’s VP, Michael Langer, won a Verification Commission post. It is curious to say the least that Germany received such uncharacteristic and exclusive generosity from Ilyumzhinov’s campaign machine.)

Kasparov trying to hold back the tide in Tromsø | photo: Georgios Souleidis 

Fair enough, you might say, FIDE is nominally a democracy after all. But such arrogance further alienates the federations, at least 61 of them, that do not endorse Ilyumzhinov’s path of isolation and repression. Any thoughts that Ilyumzhinov meant anything he said about unity can be thrown in the trash along with his promises about financial support. Four more years of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and his group in charge of FIDE is four more years moving chess in the wrong direction. That means away from commercial sponsorship, away from education, and away from democracy and transparency. As we are seeing now in Norway thanks to Magnus Carlsen, chess has tremendous potential for growth and sponsorship. It is a great shame that our sport’s international governing body is instead isolating itself from most of the world and increasingly relying on shady dealings with Russia and its allies.

A huge opportunity to advance chess has been lost. The big private, public, and corporate sponsors who flock to stars like Carlsen will never do business with Ilyumzhinov, and it is now clear Ilyumzhinov will never do business with them. An increasingly close relationship with the Kremlin suits the former Kalmykian president very well, as does hosting a world championship match in Sochi. It is very difficult to imagine these things suiting most of the world’s federations or players. The divergence of interests between FIDE and the chess world will continue to grow.

***

I do not give up hope, especially when it comes to promoting the game of chess. There are some promising signs of life far from FIDE politics. Last week, to mark my 5000th tweet with my 109,000 followers on Twitter, I thought it would be fun to ask people to share why they love chess. I would give a signed book to three winners for the best tweets using the hashtag WhyILoveChess. I did not suspect how far or how fast this would spread, and it was soon clear most of the participants had no idea it had started with a contest at all! The viral tag turned into a “trending topic” in over 20 cities and at least a dozen countries, from Venezuela to Moscow, from New York to London, from Manila to Barcelona.

Kasparov enjoyed defeating Magnus Carlsen (and partner) in the first blitz game of the Ultimate Moves exhibition event after the Sinquefield Cup! | screenshot: St. Louis webcast

Even more inspiring was the content of many of these 140-character contributions. There were so many interesting and passionate comments in the thousands of tweets I felt obliged to expand the contest to 13 winners and extend it a few more days. People talked about their personal connections, such as learning chess from a beloved family member, and of the universal aspects of truth and logic in the game itself. They wrote about mental development, of adrenaline rushes, of young playing old and a universal language, and of simple pleasure. It was the first time I had really smiled since the election. I announced the winners here, but they are all worth a look for anyone looking to feel good about the future of our game!

Reading these testimonials from all over the world, and there are hundreds more on my Facebook page, reaffirmed to me that this is a game worth fighting for. These people deserve support and chess deserves our support so it can reach every corner of the globe. Chess is for everyone and we must work to bring it to everyone, with FIDE or without it.


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