Edward Lozansky: Let’s Play Chess Instead of Politics

There was plenty of mixing sports and politics during the recent Rio Olympics, and now it looks that we might expect such politicization to spread to the chess.
Last month, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, since 1995 President of FIDE (la Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or the World Chess Federation), was barred from traveling to New York in preparation for a match between Russian Sergey Karjakin and Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen. As things stand now, Ilyumzhinov might be blacklisted even from attending the match itself in November.

This is politics as its worst. Chess, that most cerebral of pursuits, is the antithesis of the passions and hatreds that feed violent conflicts. FIDE in particular promotes chess as a nonpolitical international pursuit in 187 countries, including the United States. Ilyumzhinov, who freely visits 100 countries a year has made chess his life’s work. He meets with the “good guys” like Pope John-Paul II, his fellow Buddhist the Dalai Lama (Ilymzhinov is former head of state of the Russian region of predominantly Buddhist Kalmykia), International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, as well as the American statesmen like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. He also met with certified “bad guys” like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar el-Qaddafi, and leaders in North Korea but according to Kirsan only to promote chess and peace. This week Ilyumzhinov is presiding at the Chess Olympiad 2016 in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku. Men’s and women’s teams from over 180 countries, including U.S. and Russia, are taking part.
As Ilymzhinov has written on his website kirsan.today, “All of my meetings were held openly, reported by the press and on the FIDE website. They were all dedicated to one thing: the promotion and development of chess in different countries. Nobody tried to make it a secret. Our Federation is an independent public sports organization since 1924 and it serves the only purpose: to increase the number of chess players up to one billion people. We do not have any other ambitions and we do not interfere in foreign policy.”
According to U.S. chess Grandmaster Lev Alburt who won three times American chess championship: “Kirsan  is truly a unifier, not a divider. He also tries, and often successfully, to use chess for outside good. FIDE has achieved a level of harmony many other organizations can only dream of.”
Evidently some people don’t feel the same way. Ilyumzhinov insists the U.S. sanctions against him are politically motivated and result largely from rumors spread by Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who is his longtime adversary in the chess world, including a controversial challenge to Ilyumzhinov’s leadership at FIDE.
To prove that this is the case he hired a U.S. law firm which is trying to help with the legal battles but in the meantime, the question remains whether FIDE’s president will be allowed to come to New York in November to open the match for the title of the next World Chess Champion. Keeping him out would be like barring IOC President from the Olympic games. As of now, several hundred journalists have been accredited to cover the three weeks-long Karjakin-Carlsen match, to be held in the Fulton Market Building near the Brooklyn Bridge, in Manhattan’s Seaport District. It’s an open question whether it will be marked as a landmark championship showdown for the world’s 600 million chess players (FIDE’s goal is a billion!) or as a Cold War vignette.
One possible solution would be for Washington while waiting for the lawsuit to proceed to grant him a special limited permission to visit only New York and just for the Karjakin-Carlsen game.  Ilyumzhinov has a valid U.S. visa which as far as we know has not been cancelled, and such precedents did exist in the past. For example, the famous Russian singer Iosif Kobzon, known as the “Frank Sinatra of Russia,” while banned from travel to U.S. for his alleged “mafia connections” was still allowed to participate in a program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Boston. Another example dealt with the Russian senator Valentina Matvienko who received a “limited” visa to attend a Women’s Forum in New York while being subjected to U.S. sanctions. I am sure there were many other similar cases.  
No one can claim Ilyumzhinov’s presence would threaten the U.S. security, even under the most “extreme vetting,” and therefore his “restricted” admission would be a reasonable compromise for all concerned.  

Edward Lozansky

is president of the American University in Moscow