A strange string of events has catapulted the future leadership of world chess’s governing body into uncertainty after its Russian president apparently resigned then unresigned in a 24-hour period.
FIDE, the French acronym for the World Chess Federation, first announced the resignation of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov on Monday in two-sentence statement posted to its website, noting Ilyumzhinov informed the Presidential Board during a meeting in Athens, on Sunday. In response, the board also announced it would convene an extraordinary meeting on April 10.
The apparent resignation, however, didn’t last long. Just hours after FIDE posted the statement, a spokesman for Ilyumzhinov decried the announcement as “fake news.”
“It’s not true,” Ilymzhinov’s assistant Berik Balgabaev told Chess.com. “He only said that if it is necessary that he should step down, he will. But he hasn’t signed anything yet.”
Ilyumzhinov followed up his spokesman’s denial of his resignation with one of his own, this time in a letter sent to FIDE, which he demanded publish his missive in full. The website complied, but also posted its official response, detailing what Ilyumzhinov said and how he acted at the Athens meeting.
“I have noticed that the information about my alleged resignation published on the FIDE website is untrue. Thus, as FIDE President I urge to publish the attached letter,” Ilyumzhinov wrote to FIDE Executive Director Nigel Freeman.
In the attached letter, addressed to his “chess friends,” Ilyumzhinov states in English: “I have not submitted any official requests for my resignation and do not intend to. Neither of circulating rumors and speculations on this subject is true. Gens una sumus! We are one family!”
Except the chess world remains divided.
FIDE did not accept the embattled president wholly back into the fold. In a letter sent to Ilyumzhinov on Tuesday, as well as posted to FIDE’s website, Freeman reiterated the federation will hold its extraordinary meeting next month, as he publicly shared some previously confidential details about what happened at the Athens meeting earlier this week.
“During the Presidential Board Meeting in Athens, you several times threatened to resign and at the end of the meeting, three times you repeated “I resign” before leaving the room,” Freeman wrote.
FIDE declined to comment further, including answering a question about where Ilyumzhinov stands with the federation now.
Ilyumzhinov, meanwhile, turned to Russian media to explain what may have led to the odd back-and-forth this week.
“This intrigue has been whipped up by the U.S. Chess Federation and its allies,” Ilyumzhinov told Russian state news agency TASS this week.
He added: “I believe it all happened because of my inclusion in the U.S. sanctions list, and certain members of the (FIDE) Presidential Board decided that I should leave.”
Ilyumzhinov landed on the sanctions list in November 2015 for his alleged business dealings with the Syrian regime. Among the specific allegations cited by the U.S. Treasury Department are Ilyumzhinov’s “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, Central Bank of Syria” and two Syrian bankers.
Ilyumzhinov has denied the allegations, but according to U.S. Chess Federation President Gary Walters, they are just a part of the “stain” the Russian businessman has brought to international chess.
Ilyumzhinov, who used to govern the Russian Republic of Kalmykia in Siberia, is an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, as well as a former friend of deceased former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Ilyumzhinov was also once connected to an offshore illegal business scheme that resulted in the death of an investigative journalist in Russia. One of Ilyumzhinov’s business associates was eventually convicted of the journalist’s murder.
Ilyumzhinov has also made headlines for wackier reasons, including once having claimed he was abducted by aliens, from whom he learned that chess was “a cosmic game.”
More importantly to Walters than Ilyumzhinov’s reputation, however, are the problems he’s seen surface within FIDE under Ilyumzhinov’s reign, including last November when the federation brought the World Chess Championship to New York City for the first time since 1996, but didn’t inform the U.S. contingent.
“FIDE is not following its own protocols,” Walters said, repeating some of what he penned in an open letter in February that was republished by the Telegraph on Tuesday.
“The world’s greatest game suffers immeasurably under Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s persistent cloud,” Walters wrote. “His own statements do nothing to benefit chess, but rather exacerbate the confusion, including an absurd demand that he be granted U.S. citizenship.”
Walters remained equally as concerned about the confusion regarding Ilyumzhinov’s status with FIDE on Tuesday, noting it’s “open to question” whether Ilyumzhinov will continue his role as president.
Despite his laundry list of concerns about Ilyumzhinov, however, Walters said U.S. Chess has never “whipped up intrigue” to unseat him.
“Would we like him to resign? Yes … His time has come. He’s brought too much disrepute on the game,” Walters said, “but we never demanded it.”