Ilyumzhinov era

FIDE has a new President. A good reason to analyse Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s work for nearly a quarter of a century
Immediately after the election of the President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), held in Batumi, Georgia, on 3 October this year, headlines like “Decline of Ilyumzhinov Epoch” went viral in foreign and partly Russian media (some media sources did it in advance - almost a week before the elections).

Mostly it was caused by a certain confusion of the authors, who wrote more about the hardware intrigues of the federation officials and the prospects of the newly elected president, rather than about the “Ilyumzhinov era”. 

In our opinion, such a contradiction between the headlines and the content of the articles is due to the fact that there is not much to criticize about the yesterday’s FIDE leader’s activity, and they are afraid to praise him because of the US State Department’s sanctions. The fact that some journalists treat Washington with great reverence - some for a small penny, some from the bottom of their hearts - is no longer a secret.
Well, we are always ready to come to the aid of colleagues and remind readers of what “Ilyumzhinov era” was about.
Addressing delegates of FIDE Congress on the elections results, Kirsan Nikolaevich traditionally thanked his colleagues for their cooperation and their everlasting trust in the sixth president of FIDE. In our opinion, he had every right to end his speech with the well-known expression “I have done what I could; let those who can do better”, but unfortunately it is a registered trade mark of some company.
It is worth remembering that the offer to head FIDE came as a surprise, first of all, to Ilyumzhinov himself. Yes, a young politician and businessman, who just turned the same age as Christ, was passionately committed to chess since his grandfather introduced him to this exquisite game at the age of five. In childhood and youth, he won tournaments of different levels up to the All-Union (within the USSR); at the age of 15 he became the captain of the adult (!) chess team of Kalmykia and grew to the rank of candidate master of sports. However, since chess, among other things, teaches how to soberly evaluate oneself and your rivals, at some point Ilyumzhinov abandoned the career of a professional player and set new goals for himself. At the same time, he didn’t abandon chess neither at school nor in the army nor at the university.
After his compatriots elected Ilyumzhinov as the first president of Kalmykia in 1993, he introduced teaching of chess as a separate subject in local schools. Later, the Chess in Schools programme was successfully initiated by him but we will write about it later.

The young businessman and politician was quite famous in chess circles. They often asked him to help organize tournaments, support teams and he never refused. In 1990, when Kasparov announced his intention to sell his chess crown and to direct the proceeds to help Armenian refugees, it was Ilyumzhinov who bought it. The eight-kilogram crown with 360 black diamonds and 758 white ones is still stored in one of the Swiss banks.
It is not surprising that Anatoly Karpov turned to him for help when 1994 Chess Olympiad was in jeopardy: there were neither countries willing to accept chess players nor sponsors. Ilyumzhinov not only contributed a hundred thousand dollars to the top prize, which was too big amount for even the best chess players at the time, but he also helped with organization of the Olympiad. A three-day chess tournament was held at the Moscow Cosmos Hotel and was remembered by chess connoisseurs for a long time.
Later, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov got a new idea: why should Olympiads be held in capitals only? Let the next one be held in Elista! And he began to vigorously prepare the soil for it. A new micro district began to grow in the capital of Kalmykia. It was called the Chess City - an Olympic chess complex with a hotel and a hall for holding tournaments. Detractors giggled that he was “following in the footsteps of Ostap Bender and building New Vasyuki!” Of course, nobody paid attention to the fact that those “New Vasyuki” helped to improve the transport and communal infrastructure in Elista for the first time in nearly a hundred years. In the autumn of 1995, Ilyumzhinov flew to the chess Congress in Paris with a report on the readiness of the Chess City to accept chess players from around the world in 1998. The proposal of retired FIDE President Florencio Campomanes to take the reins of the federation fell on him like a bolt from the blue. As it turned out later, this was the idea of ​​Anatoly Karpov and the President of the French Chess Federation Bachar Kouatly.
It is worth saying that this proposal was a backbreaking burden. Ilyumzhinov understood this and thought hard: it was an interesting proposal (Kirsan Nikolayevich, although he denies it, loves to face complex challenges), but it had too many drawbacks. The telegram of support from President Boris Yeltsin became a weighty argument in favour of this decision, and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov agreed to stand as a candidate, and the Congress voted by a majority of votes in his favour (oddly enough, the Russian delegation did not vote).
The new leader of FIDE faced two top-priority problems. To begin with, the federation was a hopeless bankrupt. They hadn’t money to even rent an office in Lausanne.  The staff, had such a need arisen, had to beg their colleagues from other sports federations to lease them a car. It was with great difficulty that they managed to scrape together funds for holding three or four tournaments a year. The holding of1998 Olympics was under question because of financial problems. Prize funds were low and that’s why Ilyumzhinov’s hundred thousand dollars shocked them all. Any support for national federations was out of the question - FIDE could only invite them to share its debts.
Ilyumzhinov figured this out pretty quickly and started to invest his money and convince his wealthy friends to do the same. It is estimated that, within 23 years of his presidency, he invested in FIDE at least one hundred million dollars from his personal funds. This money was used not only to hold tournaments including administrative expenses and prize money, but also to develop the chess movement. Incidentally, the retired leading players got their pensions for the first time in the history of FIDE.
The second problem was much more difficult to handle. Recall that in early nineties of the last century, the chess world was torn to pieces by internal squabbles and intrigues. Some of grandmasters, led by Garry Kasparov, withdrew from the federation and founded their own Grandmasters Association (GMA). After it ended in a failure in 1993, Kasparov founded the Professional Chess Association and held several world championships with the support of Intel Corporation.
Admittedly, the split was not unsubstantiated; some of the claims of the leading chess players towards FIDE were proven. Ilyumzhinov decided to meet with the elders of the chess world - Bobby Fischer, Nona Gaprindashvili and Vasily Smyslov - to discuss the essence of the claims and ask for advice on how to overcome the current crisis. And it worked. Even though it took a lot of time, it is always easier to create than destroy. In September/October 2006, FIDE champion Veselin Topalov and the PCA world champion Vladimir Kramnik met at the unification match in Elista that put an end to the chess split.
There were much more serious problems: chess, displaced by simpler desktop and more spectacular computer games, was slowly dying. As Ilyumzhinov admitted in a recent interview, he was discouraged: it seemed to him that, like love, chess knows no age but it turned out that there were whole continents where this game was almost forgotten. More or less serious tournaments were held only in Germany, France and the countries of the former USSR. Chess was forgotten in Mongolia, Vietnam and almost all of Africa.
And then Kirsan Ilyumzhinov put forth the idea that FIDE should bear - a fantastic in such a situation - motto: One billion chess players - one billion smart people. One of the tools for turning this slogan into reality was the promotion of Ilyumzhinov’s Chess in Schools programme, which showed itself well in Kalmykia. Soon after chess lessons were introduced in schools, Kalmyk teachers recorded an increase in academic performance by 40%, strengthening discipline, improving memory and concentration among the students. Schoolchildren began to regularly take prizes at Olympiads in mathematics, physics and biology.
Now the list of countries where chess is included in the school curriculum as a separate subject (or as part of a math course) is expanding every year. Mexico, Cuba, Ecuador, Mongolia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Uzbekistan joined the programme. And sometimes chess is making its way to universities timetables. Thus, the programme was obviously successful. Moreover, its success is confirmed by the following incident: many Ilyumzhinov’s opponents, starting from Kasparov, have adopted this experience and are now promoting their own chess schools and opening chess academies, declaring themselves the initiators of this idea. But, of course, the real initiators are Ilyumzhinov and Russia.
Without the irrepressible energy of FIDE President such a success of Chess in School programme was impossible. As FIDE President, Ilyumzhinov visited dozens (or even hundreds) of countries annually, meeting not only with chess fans, but also with authorities including ministers and presidents. Everywhere, he urged his interlocutors to teach children to play chess, not only to bring up champions, but to ensure the next generation will consist of smart and intelligent people. As you can see, they willingly listened to him.
For the sake of fairness, I must say that not all Ilyumzhinov's initiatives were welcomed by the chess community. Initially, a knock out system for the World Championships, put forward by him and FIDE Treasurer Willy Iclicki, had brought a hostile response. But it was a requirement of time. New rules increased the competitiveness of tournaments and boosted public interest in the competitions.
So, little by little Ilyumzhinov managed to make chess attractive to the world again. Today, more than ten thousand tournaments of all levels are held annually and this is only under the auspices of FIDE! Interested sponsors have shown up, and more and more chess players can devote themselves to the game without thinking about their daily bread. It is no secret that the revenues of the Norwegian chess king Magnus Carlsen reach $ 3 million, and the Russian grandmaster Sergei Karyakin became the face of the Otkritie Bank advertising campaign. According to the calculations of American journalists (and they love and know how to count), the chess elite has become accustomed to incomes of about half a million dollars a year Representatives of much more spectacular sports like rodeo cowboys or surfers get less income.
The budget of FIDE, not counting sponsorship, reaches $ 2-3 million per year. According to Vice President Georgios Makropoulos, the federation even managed to create a reserve fund of over one and a half million euros! Today, FIDE has development fund and unites188 national federations.
The increased popularity of chess is also indicated by the fact that for the first time in many years Hollywood drew its attention to chess. The film Pawn Sacrifice, released in 2014, is a good blockbuster depicting a story not about a lone hero in the jungles of Vietnam or space wars, but about the intellectual battle in the 1972 match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer.
About five years ago, on the FIDE order, one of the world's research companies found out that there were at least 600 million people in the world who regularly played chess. Surely, this number has significantly increased since then - perhaps the billion players’ threshold, which Ilyumzhinov dreamed of 23 years ago, will be reached soon. With so many chess players one can speak of FIDE as one of the largest international sports federations, second only to FIFA.
However, the authority of FIDE is determined not only by the number of chess connoisseurs, but also by the active peace making movement that Ilyumzhinov conducts. Ilyumzhinov was constantly repeating that FIDE was out of politics. However, he turned out to be visiting places of international conflicts, calling for peace negotiations and reasonable compromise. Unfortunately, his idea of ​​holding a children's chess tournament between teams of North and South Korea on the border of the two countries has remained unrealized. Fortunately, the current situation is not so tense, and we can be sure this tournament will take place.
Another thing is that it was precisely because of this peacekeeping activity that FIDE President was not forgiven by the US State Department. The sanctions imposed on Ilyumzhinov in November 2015 served his opponents as a tool in the struggle (far from clean and fair) for the highest post in the federation. Meanwhile, the State Department still fails to justify these repressions. Its representatives try to avoid at any cost meetings with Ilyumzhinov, who demands justice and respect for the rule of law and human rights.
And yet, the facts speak for themselves. Ilyumzhinov defeated his rivals with almost double margin in all elections. In 1996, 65 percent voted for him vs 35 percent for Jaime Sunye Neto from Brazil; in 2006, 64 percent vs 36 percent for Bessel Kok from the Netherlands; in 2010, 63 percent vs 37 percent for Anatoly Karpov and in 2014 and 64 percent vs 36 percent for Garry Kasparov. But he decided not to run for president in 2018. He has ended his career a winner.
Now it would be high time to make a dramatic statement and announce in a deep baritone voice: “The era is over!” But designed to promote chess, true democracy and genuine human rights in the United States, Asia and Western Europe Kirsan Foundation still works. Following Chess in Schools programme, Chess in Family, Chess in the Village and several more programmes were launched. Knowing the character, vigorous energy and imagination of this man, there is no doubt that Ilyumzhinov era continues.
Yuri Dan