CHENNAI: Inside one of Chennai's biggest hotels on August 7, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) will go to polls. It has many subplots but it's hard to miss the identity of the incumbent, especially given the identity of one of the other three challengers.
The former is Arkady Dvorkovich, a 50-year-old Russian who has had direct links with the Kremlin. A Muscovite, he was deputy Prime Minister of the country and was the chairman of the Local Organising Committee of the 2018 World Cup. As head of FIDE since 2018, Dvorkovich played a key role in keeping the calendar going during the pandemic. Even as other international federations shuttered, FIDE showed enterprise in taking the Olympiad online. There will also be significant Indian interest in this election as Dvorkovich has one of the most respected names in world chess, Viswanathan Anand, as part of the ticket.
Then, there is Andrii Bolshyarets, one of the three contenders. More than a month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Bolshyarets, who lives in the US but is Ukrainian, started a petition. It called for the removal of Dvorkovich from FIDE.
"FIDE keeps its accounts in Russian banks that are already under sanctions," the petition noted. "Namely, Sberbank, Otkrytie bank and Gazprombank. We demand the resignation of Arkady Dvorkovich and cutting all FIDE financial and political ties with the aggressor country..."
To be fair to Dvorkovich (he has actively condemned the war) and the current regime, they have taken a few decisions that's largely been in line apropos Russian athletes. FIDE's ethics and disciplinary commission banned Sergey Karjakin for six months after he came out in support of Russia. This meant that Karjakin, born in Crimea before switching nationalities, had to miss the Candidates. Apart from stripping Moscow as the hosts of the 2022 Olympiad, they also banned Russia from fielding a team for the event, even under a neutral flag. They also cut existing sponsorship agreements with Russian companies. But Bolshyarets, after taking his time, decided to run in May. The general idea behind the Ukrainian's decision was multi-fold including desiring a FIDE that doesn't have close ties with Russia.
That his running mate is Peter Heine Nielsen, a primary support staff for a majority of the World Championships Anand has taken part in, adds another layer of intrigue. You listen to Nielsen, now Magnus Carlsen's coach, and it becomes very clear that their problem isn't against Dvorkovich. It's broader. It's against the Russian government's strategic use of chess and FIDE to whitewash their image.
"(Using FIDE and chess) to whitewash their image? Very much so," the Norwegian says. "Not just chess, they are using various other means. You mentioned Gazprom which is huge in international football (they used to sponsor the UEFA Champions League). What sportswashing is really about is to blend in Russian state companies with companies from other countries so that we feel they are more acceptable... the World Cup had the Gazprom Brilliancy prize. Basically you are trying to take the companies that you find controversial and try to put them in a normal context. That's very much the idea of sportswashing."
While Bolshyarets and his camp wanted Dvorkovich to step down, Nielsen isn't surprised that he was allowed to run again. In a lengthy answer, he explains their position. "I'm not surprised (that he was allowed to run). There is nothing that legally prevents... the IOC were very strict with Russian and Belorussian athletes... one has to understand that all sports in the world have Russian and Belorussian athletes. The problem of having Russian leadership at the top is limited to few. It's much more a chess problem with so close ties to Kremlin. We have a former deputy prime minister, people in the Russian Chess Federation board who have close ties with (Dmitry) Peskov," Nielsen continues.
Bolshyarets and Nielsen have several plans they would like to implement if and when they are elected. The most radical among those being changing the constitution. They want a weaker president and a stronger board. "Right now, there is an election for president and vice-president but they get to nominate five others for the council which means the president, in practical terms, is nominating seven out of 15 for the council. I understand that's not a majority but it's extremely close to. We think it should be different. We want to have a stronger board and a weaker president. We see it as transparency and democracy but others may see it differently."
While he refused to make a promise, he is also hopeful of capitalising on the boom chess has enjoyed during the pandemic. Apart from the ease of online gaming, Netflix's 'The Queen's Gambit', a story based around a chess wunderkind, meant chess became 'cool'. "Would love to do it (partner Netflix) but it would be unreasonable for me to make such promises," he laughs. He also adds that 'we are targeting sponsors who want to actually sell their products, who think that chess is cool'.
"There is an unexplored potential and we think that this is being kept out for a long time because of the reputation of FIDE. (...) We think that having a much cleaner team that's disconnected from Russia will actually have a huge potential there", he added.