Like pawns on the chessboard

Those who lived through the decades-long Cold War between the old Soviet Union and the United States will remember that everyone seemed to take everything from the Olympics to international chess tournaments as part of the struggle.

Chess is once again emerging as a point of controversy as we move toward what some fear could degenerate into yet another Cold War. In fact, anti-Russian Cold Warriors in the United States have already nailed the scalp of a chess-playing “desperado” to their trophy wall. His arsenal reportedly features such deadly devices as the Yugoslav Attack, the Queen’s Gambit, and the dreaded Sicilian Defense, Dragon Variation – all weapons of “chess distraction.”

Last month Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Russian and president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), was barred from boarding a plane from Moscow to New York because he had been put on the sanctions list by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for allegedly “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria” and related entities. Mr. Ilyumzhinov had hoped to take part in preparations for a match between Russian Sergey Karjakin and Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Mr. Ilyumzhinov had written to OFAC offering to come to Washington to hand-deliver documentation refuting the claims against him, but the office rejected his offer to deliver such evidence, suggesting instead that he mail them as part of his request for reconsideration of the decision to sanction him. Friends of Mr. Ilyumzhinov in Russia, Europe and even the United States suspect the decision to sanction him in the first place was based on politics rather than evidence.

The 1972 “Match of the Century,” pitting American Bobby Fischer against the USSR’s Boris Spassky and abortive attempts to pit Fischer against Soviet Anatoly Karpov in 1975 assumed the air of proxy duels between the two countries and their ideologies. The defections of top-level Soviet Grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi in 1976 and Lev Alburt in 1979 were big news. The 1984-85 showdown between Mr. Karpov and fellow Soviet Garry Kasparov was widely hailed as a clash between communist conformity and the rising forces of reform.

Mr. Kasparov has since clashed often with FIDE. In 1986, he started a group to challenge FIDE’s dominance and four years later cofounded another group to organize alternative matches to those of FIDE. It disbanded in 1996 and Mr. Kasparov later called his break with FIDE “the worst mistake of my career,” Mr. Kasparov ran for FIDE’s presidency in 2014, but lost to Mr. Ilyumzhinov following an acrimonious campaign of the sort not usually associated with the staid and dignified game.

Mr. Kasparov and Mr. Ilyumzhinov remain are at odds politically. Mr. Kasparov condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin as a dictator, is especially critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia’s support for him, and regards the sanctions against Mr. Ilyumzhinov, whom he calls a Putin agent, fully justified, though the EU has neither sanctioned him nor prevented him from traveling freely within Europe.

Mr. Ilyumzhinov is a strong believer that chess should ignore political differences.”Everybody who supports chess is my friend,” Mr. Ilyumzhinov has said, proudly displaying pictures of himself with the Dalai Lama, the pope, and Syrian president Bashar Assad, whom he visited in May 2012. As onetime defector Grandmaster Alburt, now a U.S. citizen, has written in support of Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s efforts to use chess as a bridge between foes: “FIDE has achieved a level of harmony many other organizations can only dream of. Kirsan brought together, at least for chess purposes, the heads of Armenia and Azerbaijan. With Israelis in top FIDE positions, Kirsan organized World Championship tournaments in Lviv, [Ukraine], and in Iran, and tried to help heal relations between Ukraine and Russia and brought the Women’s World Championship to Lviv.”

The upcoming New York match between Russia’s Sergey Karjakin and Norway’s Magnus Carlsen itself has a bit of the old Cold War thriller aspect. Both are former child prodigies who achieved Grandmaster status at an early age. Mr. Karjakin is from Crimea and an outspoken Putin supporter. He supported the Russian annexation of Crimea and says, “I ally myself entirely with Russia.”

Mr. Carlsen’s countryman, Jens Stoltenberg, currently secretary-general of NATO and former Norwegian prime minister, is a fierce critic of what he calls Mr. Putin’s “aggression,” in Mr. Karjakin’s native Crimea. The differences between the two gives politicians as well as chess enthusiasts reasons to have favorites.

There is precedent for suspecting that politics played a role in sanctioning Mr. Ilyumzhinov, particularly if one recalls the fate of Bobby Fischer, for whom Mr. Kasparov has expressed admiration. Fischer fled the United States to escape a criminal indictment, finishing his life an exile from his own country. What was the politically motivated “crime” for which this undoubted genius, the American “Mozart of chess” faced 10 years in prison? In 1992, he had dared play a match in Belgrade, Serbia, then under sanctions.

 Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. Jim Jatras is a former U.S. diplomat and former foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership