In Russia, a Checkerboard Field of Dreams
Regional President Built a Chess Kingdom and Then Watched Them Come

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 9, 2006

ELISTA, Russia -- The obsessive energy of one man -- Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former car dealer, present-day multimillionaire, Buddhist impresario and president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia -- has turned this remote corner of southern Russia into the Caesars Palace of chess. Now he is hosting his dream event, a $1 million bout to determine the undisputed chess champion of the world.

The contest, which is being followed online by chess fans worldwide, has proved as controversial as its sponsor. Replete with trash-talking grandmasters, it was almost aborted by a slugfest over bathroom breaks and allegations of cheating.

But for Ilyumzhinov, who has also been president of the World Chess Federation for 11 years, the uproar has had the side benefit of attracting yet more publicity for his chess kingdom, a desolate expanse of steppe and desert that runs to the Caspian Sea. "It's a great moment for the chess world," he said in a recent late-night interview that bounced from Buddhism to the $50 million Chess City the 44-year-old president has built here in the capital, Elista, to encounters he claims he has had with UFOs and aliens. ("They wore yellow suits," he said.)

Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region of Europe, the faith having come here with Mongolian migrants. It has the continent's tallest Buddhist temple -- built, like so much here, by its president, who glides around town in a white Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit.

"Rolls-Royce is a good car," Ilyumzhinov said, calling the Silver Spirit and the five other Rollses he owns his only personal indulgence -- apart from chess, which in one of his first decrees as president he made a school subject. "It helps children study well in other subjects -- math, physics," said Ilyumzhinov, who was a regional chess champion in his teens.

Ilyumzhinov, who said he made his first millions as a car dealer after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, came to power here two years later. He immediately abolished the local parliament and rewrote the constitution, calling both Soviet artifacts.

Critics say he assumed almost dictatorial power in Kalmykia, a republic more than twice as big as Maryland but with only about 300,000 people. In the 1990s, Ilyumzhinov talked about breaking away from Moscow and turning Kalmykia into an independent tax haven along the lines of Monaco.

More recently, he has pledged fealty to the Kremlin, after President Vladimir Putin abolished the election of regional leaders and assumed the right to appoint them.

"It's an authoritarian regime with no space for any alternative political forces," said Oksana Goncharenko, a specialist on the region at the Center for Current Politics in Moscow. "Ilyumzhinov is also the dominant actor in the economic sphere."

"What is democracy?" Ilyumzhinov asked, brushing aside questions about his rule and pointing instead to the stability he says he has fostered, the roads he has built and his personal philanthropy, underwritten by his extensive holdings in energy, real estate and other businesses.

"One hundred percent -- 99 percent -- of this is my money. It's a gift," he said. Apart from Chess City, he has built 33 Buddhist temples, including the magnificent $25 million Golden Temple, which opened last December on a site blessed earlier by the Dalai Lama.

"The deeply ingrained profound and receptive morality of the Orient and the technological progress of the West are the two wings that can guide Kalmykia to prosperity," Ilyumzhinov wrote in his memoir, "The President's Crown of Thorns."

Ilyumzhinov has also built 20 Orthodox Christian churches, a mosque and, after a meeting with Pope John Paul II, a Catholic church -- for Kalmykia's one known Catholic. His largess has even extended to the American former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, to whom he gave $100,000 to compensate for unpaid Soviet royalties on Fischer's book.

Alexander Ledzhinov, who ran against Ilyumzhinov for the presidency in 2002, questions the propriety of the president's projects in one of Russia's poorest regions, as well as the source of his generous gifts.

"For a long time, public and private money have been completely mixed up in Kalmykia," Ledzhinov said. "Ilyumzhinov likes organizing fancy events and building fancy buildings, but what really needs organizing is the economy."

Ledzhinov also noted that a local journalist who was investigating Ilyumzhinov's finances was murdered in 1998 and two of the president's former aides were found guilty of the crime. Ilyumzhinov denied any connection with the killing.

In the 1996 world chess championship, Anatoly Karpov played Gata Kamsky in Elista after Ilyumzhinov was forced to cancel plans to hold the match in Baghdad when his negotiations with Saddam Hussein caused an international uproar.

After that, Ilyumzhinov had the Chess Palace built inside an Olympic-style village in Elista to host the 1998 Chess Olympiad. "Kalmykia got to know the world, and the world got to know Kalmykia," he said.

The president titillated Russia in 2000 when he announced on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that he had been briefly seized by aliens who took him from an apartment in Moscow and showed him around their spaceship while communicating with him telepathically. "I accepted it as a normal thing," he said. "They exist, and we should accept that."

At the moment, he is dealing with a more earthly affair. Squaring off at the chessboard are Veselin Topalov, a Bulgarian ranked No. 1 in the game by the World Chess Federation, and Vladimir Kramnik, a Russian who held the top ranking of the Professional Chess Association, a now-defunct rival organization.

The contenders are staying at the glass Chess Palace, which is surrounded by American-style townhouses. The contest itself is playing out in an auditorium downtown where the parliament normally meets, the lawmakers having been temporarily evicted. Ilyumzhinov put up the purse for the 12-game match, which ends Friday.

In the first four games, Kramnik raced to a 3-1 lead.

Then the toilet came into play. Topalov's manager, Silvio Danailov, complained that Kramnik, 31, was making a suspiciously high number of visits to his private bathroom. Kramnik "actually takes his most significant decisions in a toilet," Danailov said. He filed a protest, using a log compiled from videotapes to assert that the opponent took a bathroom break more than 50 times in one game.

Danailov did not say but clearly implied that Kramnik was using a hidden computer to map out moves.

Many chess observers dismissed the insinuation, noting that Kramnik blundered badly at one point in Game 2 and won it only because Topalov failed to exploit the mistake. Moreover, they noted, the percentage of Kramnik's moves that mirrored the selections made by a powerful computer program was not particularly high.

The Topalov camp demanded that the bathrooms be closed and the players be accompanied by an assistant referee when they felt the call of nature. Kramnik shot back: "The other team is using the dirtiest methods ever. I have never encountered such non-ethical behavior in my career."

An appeals committee decided both players would use the same toilet. Kramnik objected and refused to start Game 5, which was then awarded to Topalov, also 31.

Ilyumzhinov was in the Russian resort city of Sochi, meeting with Putin at an investment conference, when the dispute erupted. He flew back and -- in the manner that he rules Kalmykia -- dictated a solution. He fired the appeals committee and appointed a new one, with himself temporarily at its head. He reopened Kramnik's bathroom but allowed Topalov's team to inspect it for several hours before play resumed. He also appointed a Greek member of the chess federation as a bathroom monitor.

Play resumed. The match is now tied 5-5, but the scandal lingers.

"This whole episode is one of the most shameful in the history of championships," the longtime Russian chess commentator Yakov Damsky said in an interview here. "I fear we will always remember this as the 'bathroom match.' "

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