Lev Alburt: "I Have no Doubt of Ilyumzhinov’s Victory”

Today our guest is the grandmaster Lev Alburt. He left the Soviet Union in 1979, being a bitter opponent of communism. Since then he lives in the USA being engaged in the chess training and teaching and has written several books on chess.
Lev Osipovich, first, let me congratulate you on your jubilee. You have reached the age when you can evaluate the previous events by your vast experience. What would you have changed, if the Lord let you to go back to 70 years ago?
– Probably, I would have done some things differently. Possibly, I would not have played the Alekhin Defence with Karpov but the Sicilian Defence and then the results would have been better. As the famous proverb says: “never too much of a good thing."

However, I am quite comfortable with my life in general and have no desire to change anything. Moreover, I, like many players, am not an idealist. I am a pragmatist, and see my life as a game of chess, when all is on a board: that's my position, that's my goal, and the only question is to how would I play it?
Of course, in the analysis of the game, I can see what could have happened if I did this or that move. However, there is absolutely no reason to think that if the chess rules were changed the things might have gone differently. It is clear: there are the rules, that is my situation and I am playing it. I cannot say that everything was perfect in my life but I’m absolutely happy person. Whatever the circumstances, from my point of view a glass is half-full rather than half-empty. Moreover, it is filled with a wonderful drink.

A year ago, the elections of the FIDE president were held. Whose fan you were, and why?
Speaking of the last election, I just knew that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov would win. With all due respect to Garry Kasparov (I had been talking to him at that time and wished him success), he is, in my opinion, had not yet overcome his youthful ardour and fervour. These features would never help him to take the position of the President of FIDE.
On the contrary, Ilyumzhinov is very calm, balanced and positive person. He avoids conflicts, respects the champions, but at the same time, he is the energetic businessperson with a great experience in the governing. Therefore, I could easily predict the results of the recent elections and I had no doubt of the victory of Ilyumzhinov.
The recent elections coincided with the sanctions campaign against Russia and Russian politicians. Kasparov has used this issue. However, even in these circumstances Ilyumzhinov turned out to be the winner.
This political situation did not provide any additional benefits to Garry Kasparov. He could count on the support of the North American Chess Federation and the support of chess federations of most European countries. Perhaps the deterioration of the relations between the Western world and Russia had some insignificant influence on supporting Kasparov by some federations.
At the same time, Ilyumzhinov had a very strong position. As the current President of FIDE, he knew very well the needs and the problems of the different federations: what they pursue, what they are dissatisfied with and, generally, what they want. On the other hand, all the federations knew him as a leader.
I do not rule out that the imposition of the sanctions even played into the hands of Ilyumzhinov rather than Kasparov’s, as there were some uncertain federations, which made their final decision in his favour from the spirit of contradiction. There are countries such as Argentina or Brazil, which are more interested in their relations with Russia than with the United States: Russia does not interfere in their affairs. In addition, there are countries that have their own claims to the United States, such as Pakistan or Egypt. They unsurprisingly see Russia as their ally. Such circumstances also could work in favour of Ilyumzhinov.
The fact is that the thesis of the global isolation of Russia is far from obvious. Pay attention to the fact that on the day when Barack Obama spoke in Congress about the isolation of Russia, the President Vladimir Putin was visiting Turkey and Egypt; he was honoured more than the diplomatic etiquette requires in Cairo. The Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu at the same time signed an important agreement in India. Not all of these facts fit with the thesis of the ‘international isolation’.
Actually, I would not talk about the ‘isolation of Russia’ but rather about a rift between Russia and the Western Europe, USA, Australia and possibly Japan. This split-up is equally bad for all countries.
Unlike many other immigrants of your time, you did not become the enemy of our country. These days you have been even accused of supporting Putin and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
In 1979, I escaped not from Russia but from the Soviet Union, which I considered as a prison for its own citizens, the country with the stupid ideology and economy. Nevertheless, I'm not a politician, I do not make a career, neither aspire to teach people to learn how to live or to direct them and I do not want anybody to direct me. Therefore, when the Soviet Union collapsed I considered my mission accomplished and took the position of an independent observer.
I first heard about Kirsan Nikolayevich during the match between Kasparov and Karpov in 1990. I heard that he had presented some valuable trophy to the winner of the match. I was interested, and began to keep an eye on the information about Ilyumzhinov.
I learned that he was trying to help Fischer to return to chess, that he helped the old grandmasters by establishing the prize fund for the Russian chess tournament of 100 thousand US dollars: the incredible sum in those days. Thus, Ilyumzhinov helped the young players to stay in chess or else they would stop playing and leave Russia. I think he simply rescued the Russian chess as the government kept aloof from the chess and the private sponsors had not yet appeared.
I think that when he got involved in the chess politics, he made the right move trying to befriend Karpov and Kasparov and did many other positive things using his own money. I like very much all he has done
As for Putin, some of my friends are saying that Putin, a former member of the KGB, is bad. However, I think that people are changing, and what Putin is doing in Russia is right and justified.
I finally understood this when Putin and Sobchak, with whom he was working, opposed the August 1991 putsch despite the fact that the member of the Emergency Committee was Kryuchkov, the direct chief of Putin. Apparently, it was unsafe for him. However, when Yeltsin appointed Putin as the prime minister in 1999 and it became clear that he had chosen Putin as his successor I told my friends that this was good for Russia and America.
Let me remind you that after the 11/9 attacks, Vladimir Putin was the first to call Bush to offer him help. Initially, I hoped that the good relations between Bush and Putin would grow into good relations between America and Russia. Unfortunately, over time they began to deteriorate, and now has reached the point when we may consider the possibility of the second Cold War.
Moreover, from the viewpoint of America this was is worse than the first one. A. The level of dislike and bitterness towards Russia is much higher compared with the times when the Soviet Union existed.
Many people, including Kasparov accuse Ilyumzhinov that he proclaimed the independence of chess from the politics and at same time visited Muammar Gaddafi on the eve of the NATO ‘democratization’ operation in Libya. What do you think; could chess be out of politics?
A very good question, thank you. If we talk about Libya, everything is so complicated and ambiguous there that, perhaps, Garry Kasparov looks at it in a different way now. However, whatever Kirsan Ilyumzhinov did in the past including his trip to Gaddafi and what he is doing now, like organizing the match between the World Champion Maria Muzychuk and Chinese Hou Yifan in Lviv, is absolutely right.
As the President of FIDE, he should refrain from political bias the same way as the head of, for example, FIFA or the UN Secretary-General. Nevertheless, if you can do something to help chess to draw people's attention to the peace, to extinguish the mutual hatred, to restore the common understanding, it definitely must be done. It will be good for chess and the whole world.
Nevertheless, there are people, including chess players who do not like that Ilyumzhinov is trying to organize the match in Lviv or that he wants to arrange the match of friendship between children from the North and South Korea at the 38th parallel ...
I find it hard to understand how anyone could oppose this. I have the only one explanation: Kirsan Nikolayevich has been long enough the leader of FIDE and surely, he had to make a few difficult decisions that some would think they were wrong or somebody occasionally would feel offended by him. It is very difficult to work for a long time holing that position and not obtain at least the critics, if not the direct enemies. Of course, for such people whatever Ilyumzhinov did was bad and wrong.
Do you think that there is some contradiction? It is widespread opinion that the chess players are the most intelligent people. Kirsan Nikolayevich likes to quote Albert Einstein, who said that Chess is “the only way to exercise the muscles of the brain”. However, would a smart man to stoop so low as to a priori consider all the actions of his opponent wrong?
Chess is a great way of training one’s mind, a good way of the children development and the training of the logic and the objectivity. Unfortunately, chess is not a cure for stupidity. The phrase ‘great player’ is not identical to ‘the great mind’. Although, quite often the great players do have an outstanding intellect. At least, if we look at a galaxy of the world champions, we find among them the most intelligent and decent people in general.
However, overall the chess community it is not much different from any other human community. Therefore, there as everywhere are silly people, bad and quarrelsome. Well, maybe among the chess players the majority are a most intelligent people. Nevertheless, anyone who climbs up the social ladder inevitably faces the hostility.
At the time, a well-known grandmaster said about Mikhail Botvinnik: "He thinks he has a great statesman’s mind but he is just a Jew who can play chess well." I knew Botvinnik, he was my favourite teacher, and he never pretended to have a great statesman’s mind.
Moreover, he never considered himself an absolute genius unlike Alekhin and Fischer. In fact, he was very intelligent, and his mind was outstanding not in chess only. This is evident by his success in the science and ability to create the chess playing programmes for computers and so on.
–Do you know, being a man who understands the mentality of the politicians of both countries and lived in both Russia and America, how to get out of the current situation when the relations between Russia and the US are strained to the limit?
This issue is close and interesting to me. I recently wrote an article about it, and I'm glad that it was published on the website chess-news.ru and many people have read it. It is addressed, mainly, to the Americans. I wrote that America still has the mediocre understanding of Russia.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom I respect, wrote about the same issue in the article "What endangers America by the poor understanding of Russia” in 1980. After you reread it, it would seem that 35 years have passed without any changes, as if it was written today. The understanding is still very poor, and still it threatens America.
I think that this could be modified only by the means of dialogue. For example, why Putin would not get access to the American television or speak in Congress? Such precedents have taken place and his appearance attracted the great interest. You may recall how Kirsan Ilyumzhinov visited the United States 15 years ago. On this occasion, the American Chess Federation had organized the celebration lunch that I visited.
I can say that many of the guests were of the negative sentiment regarding Ilyumzhinov. However, their attitude changed after he made a short speech in a very good English and then talked with some guests in private. People saw that he was a normal man who says sensible things. Some liked him, some were interested and some even were forced to reason. In my view, this is the correct approach.
Now, to my knowledge, amongst the Russian leadership and the diplomatic corps prevails the idea that the US would not listen to Russia, no matter how hard the Russian politicians and diplomats try, and therefore it is pointless to make any attempts. I think it is the wrong and dangerous point of view. I would like to appeal to Russian politicians asking them not to ignore America. On the contrary, now it is necessary to communicate as much as possible, because the relations have been much deteriorated, especially on the American elite’s side.
The common people are still sceptical about how Russia is shown on TV. However, if a population survey was conducted with only one question: "What do you think about Russia and Putin?", then 60 per cent would vote negatively. However, 10 years ago, it would have been the opposite. It is very dangerous not to pay attention to what is going on because the propaganda of confrontation grows. It is necessary to communicate more with the American people, with the representatives of the American elite, least with those who are willing to listen.
For example, the presidential election campaign is running in the United States, and among the candidates is the Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He sticks to the idea that USA should not interfere in the affairs of countries throughout the world and not pressurise Russia. Now that he has a good access to the press and the people listen to him, why would not some Russian politicians meet with him and share the mutual information?
There are other politicians who are interested in the Russia, with whom the contacts could be established. On the other hand, there are many Russian politicians who have aroused great interest among Americans today: Sergei Lavrov, who has lived in the United States; chess related Arkady Dvorkovich, who studied here and speaks English without any accent and the very Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
Do not give in to the natural resentment: "Oh, so you did it against us, well; we’ll do it against you!" No need to seek conflict with the United States and if there is any reason for a claim, it must be justified. However, the main thing is to keep the positive spirit in communication, demonstrating a readiness to solve conflicts, if any, through the joint efforts.
Recently, Pope Francis urged the world to give up weapons of mass destruction. Some time ago, Mikhail Gorbachev called for this, and so did Kirsan Ilyumzhinov later. Do you think it is a good idea that would immediately free a huge amount of funds that could be used for solving the urgent problems relating to the culture, the construction business, the fight against deadly diseases?
It is hard to judge the suggestions of Pope because I am not a Catholic. However, as I said, I am a realist, and I like this idea, although it does not seem to be a realistic. If the Pope could ask God to make all people angels or change the laws of physics, so that nuclear weapons did not work it would be great. However, the laws of physics, as well as the chess rules are what they are. And people are not angels.
Therefore, the complete freedom from the nuclear weapons is a cute, but an impossible idea. America and Russia at the time did the only thing that could be done: cut their nuclear arsenals to a reasonable level. However, I am convinced; it is definitely possible to stop the flaring up a new cold war between America and Russia. This must be done today before it, so to speak, has not ‘hardened’ and turned into the permanent confrontation. Such a war would be very expensive for both America and Russia, and even for the countries not involved in the conflict.
Firstly, it will lead to a new arms race both of the mass destruction and the conventional. Secondly, it will inevitably lead to the escalation of conflicts around the world. As far as America is sending weapons to the countries in the neighbourhood of Russia today, eventually Russia will do the same to the countries that are hostile towards United States. Thirdly, it will inevitably affect the trade, which is important for America, Russia and Europe. This, in my opinion, is a complete madness, and it should be prevented.
You are the chess player. Thus, you know how to predict the moves on a chessboard. However, what about the real life? How possible, in your opinion, is a transition of such cold war into a ‘hot’ one?
My answer would be an old anecdote. Once a respected and wise rabbi was asked if there would be a nuclear war? "No”, he said, “there would be such a struggle for peace, which would leave no stone to be upturned". The cold war could bring an unacceptable damage to both countries. However, the chances of a direct clash, I think, are no more than 0.5 per cent, and if we are talking about the use of the nuclear weapons then the chances are even less.
However, the risk is still there and it threatens to develop to such dire consequences that we must do everything to avoid it even if it were a conventional war. It is necessary to reduce the intensity of hostility, to try to circumvent the conflict. Moreover, both sides should do it. After that we would be able to get back to the state, if not friendship, then at least of the ‘Cold’ peace. That, at any rate, is better than the Cold War.

Margarita Sumarokova