Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: "If I set a goal, I will achieve it"

- Kirsan Nikolayevich, the World Chess Cup is your brainchild. Are you satisfied with its development? After all, any "parent" knows better than others both the best and worst aspects of his creation.

Only time can tell. In December 1995, at the FIDE presidential council in Singapore, I suggested holding a World Championship on a knockout system, which was later transformed into the World Cup.

We proposed a matrix of the tournament, in which 128 strongest world’s chess players take part. At that time, FIDE had absolutely nothing and, most importantly, it had no money. Two years earlier, Garry Kasparov created the PCA (Professional Chess Association) and ran parallel championships.
It was necessary to restore the status of the World Cup and bring back chess players because many had left the sport. I offered a large prize fund. It was not FIDE money. I raised funds from sponsors. At that time, $5 million was a fabulous amount. Nobody could give more. And it took $2-3 million moreto organize the tournament.
- Why does the current prize fund amount to $1.6 million only?
The first time this was done in order to generate interest. And it so happened that at that time I had such money -- it did not fall from the Moon. Thus, we were able to draw attention to the tournament. The knockout system proved to be a cementing factor that allowed FIDE to unite.
The first tournament took place in Groningen in 1997. The winner was Vishy Anand, who got the right to play against Anatoly Karpov for title of the World Champion in the final. The match was held at the Lausanne Olympic Museum, which was provided by the then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. Karpov won and became the Champion in the final.
We renamed the Championship into the World Cup in 2000. But the principle remained the same -- a knockout system. It proved to be more than viable.
Magnus Carlsen defeated Vichy Anand and became the World Champion in Sochi in 2014. After that, the Norwegian made a statement that the knockout system, invented by Ilyumzhinov and introduced in FIDE, was the most democratic one. It was the most open system, on which the strongest world’s chess players were determined. The statement of a chess player like Carlsen was the highest recognition for me.
We did not return to the old system as there was no official offer. We continued to play the knockout system. At one time, Viktor Korchnoi, who took part in all tournaments, called this system "ilyumzhinovki" and he often used to say: "I went to play" ilyumzhinovki." It's been 20 years now, and the tournament is still alive and the World Cup exists. There was nothing like that in the history of FIDE.
-The current Champion participates in the Cup for the first time in its history. Is this your personal achievement? After all, Carlsen did not come to the World Cup 2015 in Baku.
Only chess players themselves decide whether to participate or not. Both sports and psychological readiness are taken into consideration. Moreover, every chess player has his own schedule. When Carlsen became the World Champion, he had already drawn up his schedule and so he did not come to Baku.
- You have been often criticized for the introduction of knockout system. How did you manage to convince detractors and prove the consistency of the idea?
First, then there was a financial crisis in FIDE. The organization was bankrupt with multimillion dollar debts. FIDE could not host a single tournament. Therefore, the $5 million that I gave were supplied to 128 of the world's strongest chess players. That’s how they continued to play chess. Secondly, when the strongest chess players gather for a tournament there is a sporting struggle. This decision was viable because the tournament aroused the interest of players. Otherwise, they would not have come. The World Cup showed that this scheme made it possible to unite chess players for 20 years.
I visit dozens of countries annually. I attend meetings with presidents and prime ministers. The number of tournaments has grown hundreds of times more if we compare chess of the early 90's versus today. The number of countries that actively cooperate with FIDE and hold chess tournaments has also increased manifold.
In the past, they practically didn’t play chess in Africa, most of the countries of the Asian continent and Latin and Central America. Chess was rarely played in Europe too, except for traditional countries: Germany, Spain and the countries of the former Soviet Union.
When I headed FIDE in 1995, I thought that the whole world was playing chess. We had such an idea because almost all the World Champions were from the USSR: Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Spassky, Petrosian, Smyslov, Karpov and Kasparov.
- What did you do in the first place when you became President of FIDE?
My first task was to meet and talk with all the world champions. I began to travel around the world. To my regret, I realized that many chess players lived poorly. Seeing all this, I used my personal fund to appointed them pensions, which were paid to many chess players: Nona Gaprindashvili, Mark Taimanov, Vasily Smyslov and Andre Lilienthal.
At the same time, I noticed that people of many countries were not familiar with chess. This situation was in Vietnam, in Mongolia and in some European countries. When I realized the depth of the problem, I started supporting professional sports, organized the World Cup and Grand Prix. And all these sports competitions were organized for my money and for the money of my friends and sponsors and never at the expense of FIDE.
My second task was the development of chess among people, especially among children. I started implementing ‘Chess in schools’ programme in many countries around the world. I signed agreements with ministers of education on the introduction of chess into the school curriculum as an optional or compulsory subject.
Today, this program works in Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Mongolia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Chess is being introduced in schools in many Russian regions.
I believe that the fact that Kasparov decided to run for the presidency of FIDE in 2014 proves that I was right to head the Federation. He left it slamming the door and saying that FIDE was a bankrupt and it wasn’t worth anything. However, when he decided to fight for the top post, it meant that we were able to create a solid organization.
You should not pay attention to all these intrigues. I work for FIDE and for development and popularization of chess. My main goal is to teach one billion people to play chess.
-Can you make unpopular decisions like a president?"
Well, sometimes I do it when the situation reaches a certain limit.
- You are a successful politician, businessman, humanitarian, philanthropist and a cleverest man. Do you have envious people?
Of course I do. It started when I graduated from school with a gold medal. They did not really want to give it to me. However, I am used to it now and try to be above it. Somewhere there is a banal sense of envy. Why Kirsan, not me? I often had to face such an attitude, for example, in the army.
By the way, I learnt a lot in the Soviet Army for two years. It made me stronger. According to horoscope, I am Aries and a Tiger -- two fire signs. And I am very quick tempered. I was sharp and impulsive when I joined the army. I liked fighting for justice, especially when older soldiers bullied young recruits. But when I became a junior sergeant (an 18-year-old boy deputy commander of 30 soldiers), I realized: "You have become a commander and you must think." That’s how it always been.
I'm a Buddhist and try to treat everything with a bit of irony, calmly and not waste time analysing and intriguing. The Lord God Most High has given us so little time to live in a physical shell. Every day is unique. Therefore, you need to use every day and every moment for ingenuity, creativity and do something for yourself and for others -- parents and relatives. That’s my philosophy. Many do not like it.
Many did not understand why I had donated $1-5 million to chess. In total, I spent about 100 million on chess for 23 years. All the tournaments I was holding were not a business but a lifestyle and philanthropy.
- You were at the age of 15 when you led the adult national chess team of Kalmykia. To what extend did chess help you in life?
I've been playing chess since I was five years old, when my grandfather taught me how to play it. Chess taught me a lot. On the one hand, it is logic – a clear calculation, and on the other hand, it is creativity and fantasy. The left hemisphere of our brain is responsible for thinking and calculating the moves. It is pure mathematics.
And it always helped me in politics, life and business. I always calculated "moves" in advance. In the Russian language there is a proverb "Take measure seven times and then cut once". So in chess: you have to calculate all possible options for the development of events. And it all is transposed to life itself.
When I became President of Kalmykia, I had to plan for several years ahead before signing any decree: how a decree or ruling will work. Will it benefit society or do harm.
When you calculate moves, you cannot move pieces on the board. Everything has to be done in the mind. You have a 3D picture in your head. And this is pure creativity, mind's eye and spatial imagination. It helps a lot when these qualities intersect.
- Did you pay great attention to chess as President of Kalmykia?
When I became President of Kalmykia in 1993, the first decree I signed was the decree on development of chess and introduction of chess into the school curriculum. Having focused on the example of children, I was convinced that chess brings good things only. Academic performance was improved by 40 per cent as well as discipline. Children became more concentrated and their memory began to get better. And the children from Kalmykia, where before there was not a single first class player, started to become champions of Russia, Europe and the world.
Sanan Sjugirov became the World Champion in his age category when he was ten. He was a guy from an ordinary rural school. Ernesto Inarkiev became the European Champion among schoolchildren at the age of 14. He became the European Champion among adults last year. The ‘Chess in schools’ programme helped to achieve professional results.
When I introduced it in schools, I said: "The task is not to educate champions, which requires talent; the main task is to bring up versatile and educated children. Chess helps it.", Children from Kalmykia regularly took prizes in the Olympiads in mathematics, physics, and biology when this programme gained strength.
-They consider possibility of introducing chess as a compulsory school subject throughout Russia. If chess is creativity while not everyone can draw, sing or dance, how can one make a child play chess?
Yes, this is my idea, which I have been trying to implement since 1993. Look, we are introducing mathematics, literature, and other subjects. But the fact of the matter is that these are subjects, not art. Mikhail Botvinnik said: "Chess is more than a sport. This is a combination of sport, culture and science."
Recently I was in Latvia and talked with Minister of Education. As a result, they will introduce chess not as a separate subject but as an integral part of mathematics next year. Yury Averbakh said, "The endgame is pure mathematics and geometry." Therefore, we give a child the basics of chess. And further, if it is interested, then it continues to study chess in specialized circles and sections.
At one time, when Pushkin wrote letters to his wife Natalia Goncharova, he always asked her if she had played chess with the children before going to bed. And further he wrote that every decent Russian family should play chess. Chess helps to develop a versatile personality.
- Is practice of introduction of chess into the school curriculum prevalent in the world?
First, chess was introduced into the school curriculum in Kalmykia. Later, they began to introduce it in other regions of the country, for which I am very grateful to the local governors -- Tomsk Region, Tatarstan Republic, Khanty Mansi Autonomous Area, Pskov Region, Belgorod and many others.
I passed on our experience and methodological tools when I began to travel around the world. Armenia introduced chess as an obligatory subject to be studied twice a week in all schools of the country. Since 2009, the state programme for the development of chess has been working in Azerbaijan. The project covers about 200 thousand schools in Mexico.
When the President of Vietnam was on a visit to Kalmykia, he saw how first graders play chess. He really liked the idea and he sent Minister of Education to learn from experience. And now chess is a compulsory subject in more than 1200 schools in Vietnam. Chess is taught in schools of many countries: Mongolia, Spain and in several US states.
Recently, I was in Zimbabwe, where I opened the African Championship among schoolchildren. Today, they are preparing a decree on the introduction of chess in all schools of the country from January 1, and there are about 10 thousand of them. Same thing happened in Singapore. 15 years ago, when I opened the chess academy, only three people visited it -- the children of Russian diplomats. More than 50 thousand people are engaged there now and demand continues to grow. I communicated with many parents and they told me that their children were becoming more competitive than others. Singapore is a developed country and they know perfectly well what to spend time and money on.
- You're a Buddhist. What did you feel when they gave you for safekeeping the relics of the founder of Buddhism Shakyamuni Buddha in Sri Lanka?
I've been to this country several times, met with Buddhist monks, lamas. The supreme spiritual council of monks decided to give me relics of Buddha Shakyamuni. I built dozens of temples, prayer houses and pagodas in Kalmykia. I built the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe in 2005. And I did it not on public money but on my own and my friends’ money. You can say I revived Buddhism in Kalmykia. Probably, the council appreciated this.
- Were you happy to receive it?
I worked and built not to get any awards. But, honestly, I did not expect to receive relics. I appreciated it since the relics were never taken abroad. Moreover, they gave them to me for good. I held them at home for about a week and then decided to put them for temporary storage to that largest Buddhist temple in Europe.
- In your opinion, who is the best chess player in history?
I'll answer without a moment's hesitation: Bobby Fisher. The court sentenced him in absentia to ten years in prison and a million fines. He tore up the American flag and said it was terrorism when they started bombing Yugoslavia and Belgrade. Fisher is like a demigod if you consider his chess achievements.
He played four games with me when I asked him. It was the ultimate happiness for me. Imagine a first-rider, candidate for the master of sports, champion of Kalmykia playing with Bobby Fisher. Ask any chess player with whom he would like to play if there was a time machine. I'm absolutely sure that all chess players would say that they would like to play with Fischer.
- What was so special about it?
He was a great man who influenced the course of development of human thought. He achieved what no one could do. The way he played was divine. He discovered deep chess roots. He had magnetism. When we met for the first time in Budapest, I was impressed by his excellent knowledge of Russian language, which he had learned when he was six years old in order to become a champion, a millionaire and to feed his family.
- How would you characterize yourself? What kind of person are you, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov?
I am lazy because I want to sleep all the time. I do not like to work. And I am purposeful because if I set a goal, I will achieve it.