Life for the benefit of chess

Describing the match for the chess crown between Norwegian Magnus Carlsen and Russian Sergey Karyakin, held in New York in November 2016, one of the American magazines did not regret paints to describe the intense attention with which thousands of spectators watched the game. Besides, the magazine did not forget to mention that decent money, even by the standards of far more spectacular sports, was at stake and that the leading chess players generally earn amounts with five or six zeros.

Today, we are not surprized to see the crowds of followers of Kaissa – the goddess of chess – nor the good incomes of leading players. Even Hollywood, responsive to requests of show hungry crowd, forgot about their idols in tight skirts and flowing cloaks and in 2014 released "Pawn Sacrifice", a film about the intellectual confrontation of representatives of two superpowers: American Bobby Fischer and a chess player from the USSR Boris Spassky. 

Meanwhile, twenty years ago such a popularity of chess would seem an unrealizable idyll even to the most ardent admirers of the game. By the end of the twentieth century, there were not so many of them left. Professional chess players started to play bridge and sports poker. Some just gave up playing. The reason was simple: the International Chess Federation, FIDE stood on the verge of bankruptcy. With difficulty it could scrape together some symbolic money to hold world championships and completely gave up the idea of holding tournaments of a lower level. National federations survived owing only to their ingenuity and skills.  
In the end, when everybody was completely confused and desperate, incumbent FIDE President Florencio Campomanes, President of French Chess Federation Bashar Kouatly and Russian grandmaster, former world champion Anatoly Karpov decided on a non-standard move. They proposed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to head FIDE. He was a man not so well known in the chess world at that time, but he had political experience and was a successful businessman and a professional diplomat.
It should be noted that this proposal was not accidental. In 1994, FIDE was faced with an incredible problem: none of the countries were willing to hold the Chess Olympiad, and there were no sponsors ready to finance it. Then, Anatoly Karpov suggested that a successful young businessman and head of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, organize a tournament in Moscow. Ilyumzhinov caught fire with this idea and not only allocated the incredible hundred thousand dollars for the prize fund of the chess Olympiad but also took an active part in its organization. The three-day chess festival held in Cosmos Hotel has been remembered by audience so far.
Ilyumzhinov appeared for a reason at FIDE General Assembly in Paris in November 1995. He flew to defend his proposal to hold the 1998 Chess Olympiad in the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia Elista, which he then headed. Instead, he suddenly received a proposal to run for president of FIDE.  
As Kirsan Nikolayevich later admitted, the proposal took him by surprise and even discouraged him. But Karpov and his colleagues managed to find convincing arguments, and a telegram from Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who supported this idea, also played a role. Ilyumzhinov put forward his candidacy and, without in the least expecting it, won! Incidentally, the Russian Chess Federation voted against its compatriot in those elections, and how good it was to find out that it was outvoted!
Ilyumzhinov held a pre-election blitz campaign under the slogan "FIDE is not for champions only! FIDE is for hundreds of national federations! FIDE is for millions of chess fans around the world!" These slogans were understood correctly in the federation torn by corruption, intrigues and internal squabbles and, as time showed, they were the right ones.  
Ilyumzhinov eventually realized the dream of holding the chess Olympics in Elista. A whole ‘Chess City’ was built in the centre of Kalmykia capital especially for this event. They laughed a lot above Ilyumzhinov at the time: "look at new Bender ready to build another New Vasyuki!" But if one looks unbiased, Kalmykia got a good financial injection and Elista acquired a world-class business centre. And Kalmykia head used his own money to finance a significant part of the budget for its construction.
Other Russian regions received their share of chess glory. The Chess Olympiad 2010, for example, was held in Khanty-Mansiysk. Commenting on the level of organization of the tournament opening ceremony, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov then noted that the hosts have surpassed the world standards of holding such events. But it's not just a brilliant show: Ugra authorities are doing a great job of popularizing chess in cooperation with Ilyumzhinov's team. And no wonder that in 2016, at the FIDE congress in Baku, Yugra again won the right to host the 2020 Chess Olympiad, bypassing Argentina and Slovakia.
And we just mentioned the Olympic Games only, while the number of world-class chess tournaments that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is arranging in Russia can be listed for a very long time. So, due to Ilyumzhinov’s efforts, our country regains the glory of a leading chess power.
Some reproach Ilyumzhinov of having bought chess movement by flooding opposition with money. Indeed, when he became FIDE President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov suggested holding the 1995 World Cup with a prize fund of five million dollars. Moreover, none of the tournament participants were to be left without a prize: even a loser was entitled to get 12,000 dollars. At the same time, he proposed to introduce the so-called "knockout system", making the game more dynamic and interesting for audience. For professional chess players it was a shock, which caused a lot of controversy and protests. However, the knockout system took root, proving that this was the right decision.
Being a successful entrepreneur, Ilyumzhinov can afford to partly finance chess and he does it. According to some estimates, he spent at least $100 million for this purpose for the past twenty-odd years. But more importantly, he spends this money in same way as others invest in oil or development: his investments serve the development of chess.
Establishing unprecedented in the chess world prize-winning funds, he creates a structure that allows chess players to earn money and not be distracted from their favourite game. Otherwise, we would not have seen those seven figure fees that the American press admires so much.
But, of course, it would be naive to think that Ilyumzhinov personally sponsors all the competitions under the auspices of FIDE – this would be impossible for any rich person. Comparing with 3-4 tournaments held by FIDE in 1995, there are 10-12 thousand official championships held annually these days, while the number of unofficial ones is measured in tens of thousands.
As an experienced businessman, Ilyumzhinov invests primarily in the development of chess and its future. When he was first elected President of FIDE, it included 170 national federations and nobody could call the actual number of players. Today, FIDE unites 188 countries and, according to experts' estimate, at least 600 million people play chess. Moreover, the last number is somewhat outdated – calculations were carried out about seven years ago. But it is reliably known that the number of chess players exceeded the number of adherents of football in Turkey last year.
The increase in the army of chess fans was a direct consequence of Ilyumzhinov's proclaimed slogan "One billion chess players – one billion clever people". Numerous programmes for chess development, created and financed by Ilyumzhinov, have become a tool for its implementation. The oldest and perhaps the most important of these programmes is "Chess in Schools", which, both like-minded people and rivals of FIDE President are trying to replicate with varying degrees of success.
Now, with the help of the same Ilyumzhinov, such programmes as "Chess in villages", "Chess in families" and "Chess for disabled people" have been launched.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s grandfather taught him how to play chess at 5 years of age. The game captured him so that he beat his elders and became the champion of the street even at the preschool age. And in his school years he repeatedly defended the honour of Kalmykia at the All-Union competitions. At the age of 15 he became a captain of the adult national team of the republic. Thus, Kirsan Nikolayevich knows from his personal experience the beneficial effect that chess has on a child: it disciplines the mind and will, develops intellect and intelligence.
More and more parents, teachers and educators are convinced in it all over the world. Chess is included as a primary or optional subject in curricula of schools and universities of many countries. Kalmykia was the first region of Russia to take such a step, and thanks to Ilyumzhinov's personal communication with governors, others joined it. Now there are dozens of regions, in which chess in one way or another is included into curriculum. Last autumn, Russian Minister of Education Olga Vasilieva said that soon chess will become a recognized subject of school curriculum throughout the country.
It is Ilyumzhinov's energetic activity that underlies the revival of the former interest in chess. Being the leader of the international chess federation, he travels round the world non-stop and promotes chess. However, he finds time for his countrymen in his busy schedule: last year alone Ilyumzhinov visited 18 Russian regions. Very specific issues of opening of chess clubs, organization of chess lessons in schools, universities and even kindergartens are discussed at meetings with regional leaders. It is not enough to just announce the introduction of a new discipline – teachers, textbooks and teaching methods are needed. This is exactly what Ilyumzhinov team and the specially created Kirsan foundation provide.
Surprisingly, he has enough time and to follow the progress of young chess players in addition to all these organizational concerns. Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karyakin, whose match was described at the beginning of this article, both are, in a sense, protégées of Ilyumzhinov. Both of them, in accordance with the decision of chess federation President, once received a wild card – a special invitation to international tournaments that jumpstarted their careers. Incidentally, it was Ilyumzhinov who at one time persuaded Sergei Karyakin, a resident of Ukraine and native of Simferopol at that time, to accept Russian citizenship and play for Russia.
As Kirsan Nikolayevich said, the famous Bobby Fisher once confessed to him that he had learned the Russian language in order to be able to read the books of Russian and Soviet chess players in the original. He always advised his students to learn Russian if they wanted to understand chess theory. Now we can count on the fact that, thanks to the work of Ilyumzhinov, this advice will remain relevant in the twenty- first century.