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Pawn stars get dirty

All moves are legal when it comes to chess politics. Just ask the delegates’ security guards.

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / September 17, 2010

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Yes, there are more important elections to write about. But none quite as interesting. Ilyumzhinov v. Karpov is like Bush v. Gore, with guns.

This month the world’s chess nabobs will travel to the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region in deepest Siberia to vote for a new president of FIDE, the governing body for one of the world’s most popular sports. (Yes, chess is a sport. Don’t ask.) FIDE is a lot like FIFA, which runs soccer, or the International Olympic Committee: a transnational, self-perpetuating group of cronies who in this case have zero television revenues and sponsorship dollars to play with.

The incumbent president is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a skilled chess player and the outgoing president of the tiny Buddhist republic of Kalmykia. Ilyumzhinov is a colorful character, if held at arm’s length. He won his first election in the tiny desert state on a platform of “a cellphone for every shepherd,’’ and immediately abolished Parliament after taking office. He takes advice from a Bulgarian astrologer named Vanga, and speaks far too often about his conversations with visitors from other planets.

A few years ago, two of his aides were convicted of killing Kalmykia’s only opposition journalist, who distributed her handmade “newspaper’’ from the trunk of her car. “Between the journalist killing and Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s penchant for talking to aliens, FIDE has had some problems attracting sponsorship,’’ says Bill Hall, the executive director of the US Chess Federation, which is supporting Ilyumzhinov’s opponent.

The opponent is Anatoly Karpov, the hapless Soviet era star who had the misfortune of being dictator Leonid Brezhnev’s favorite chess champion. As the golden boy of the royally corrupt Soviet chess establishment, Karpov lost a series of titanic chess smackdowns — and the world championship — to the upstart Garry Kasparov, who went on to break with FIDE and create a rival world chess organization. Richard Conn, a Scarsdale High School chess enthusiast and corporate litigator who is Karpov’s running mate, defends the charisma-challenged champion at the top of his slate. “Anatoly will make a superb president of FIDE,’’ says Conn, who has assembled a moneybags team of investors and hedge-fund types to back his ticket. “He is running on a platform of transparency, anti-corruption, and getting chess back on the map of world sports.’’

Karpov, like Ilyumzhinov, is hard to love. But insiders say Karpov is merely a politically acceptable stalking horse for the fiery Kasparov, who has been actively campaigning for his longtime rival. Kasparov, who founded an opposition political party in Russia and ran for president in 2008, is generally admired in the chess world, but could never attract support from many of the national federations that have benefited from Ilyumzhinov’s patronage. The strange-bedfellows Karpov-Kasparov act has not gone unnoticed. Former US champion Larry Christiansen, who lives in Cambridge, calls the election a “comic opera’’: “I’m sure Karpov and Kasparov will go back to hating each other after this is all over.’’

The election has already witnessed plenty of shenanigans. The all-powerful Russian chess federation has endorsed . . . both candidates. (Again, don’t ask.) Conn is spending this week in Lausanne, Switzerland, challenging the Ilyumzhinov ticket in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Then it’s back to the hustings, which consists of candidates visiting the crazy-quilt assemblage of FIDE members (the Faeroe Islands, Jersey, and Guernsey each has a separate membership), promising promotion and sponsorship money if their side is elected.

One hears stories of death threats and payoffs, although such incidents rarely surface in published press reports. Some delegates do plan to hire security guards for the trip to Khanty-Mansiysk for the Sept. 29 vote. “We are not going to be intimidated,’’ Conn insists. “We will prove to the chess world that there is life after Kirsan. We have people who have risked their lives and their economic interests to support us.’’

FIDE’s top American official is vice president William Kelleher, a chess master who lives in Watertown. Kelleher sees Ilyumzhinov four times a year at FIDE meetings and maintains cordial relations with the boss. He supports Karpov in the current election, “but I doubt he will be much of an improvement. It’s easy and cheap to buy votes from some of these small countries, and I don’t think either side is above that.’’

Who’s going to win? “Almost certainly Ilyumzhinov,’’ says Kelleher, sighing resignedly. We’ll find out on Sept. 29.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.