The VIP area at the World Chess Championship at South Street Seaport in New York.

World Chess Has a Big Problem

While grandmasters earn millions, the sport still can’t shake ties to tyrants and a leader under U.S. sanctions.

On a grim New York Monday in November, a small crowd clustered in a dark room with a thick pane of glass at one end. Defending world chess champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin sat on the other side of the soundproof window. Carlsen shifted in his seat, furrowed his brow, shrugged off his jacket. Karjakin was nearly motionless but for the occasional sip of water. Flash photography was strictly prohibited. 

Then Carlsen made his move. The crowd exploded in whispers. “What was it?” “King to f3.” “King to f3?” “King to f3!” The screens of smartphones and tablets glowed, apps registering the latest move and the probabilities of the next one.

The world’s best players were only part of the attraction at the World Chess Championship. Beyond the inner sanctum, adults played casual games at tables. Kids played speed matches on the floor. The Carlsen-Karjakin game board was projected on big screens, and people kept one eye on the action while they debated the champions’ relative strength. Add chicken wings and beer, and it could have passed for the world’s smartest sports bar.

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen testing different chairs before the match.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

The championship, which runs from Nov. 11 until Nov. 30, is back in the U.S. for the first time since 1999.  Staging the 12-game showdown in New York is part of the latest push to make chess lucrative for its players and promoters. Bolstered by internet fame, the world’s dozen or so top players now can make upwards of $500,000 annually, more than the world’s best rodeo cowboys and surfers and way more than elite bowlers. Carlsen, who models for the luxury denim company G-Star Raw, reportedly makes more than $1 million. The prize for the World Chess Championship—‎€1 million euros ($1.06 million), split 60-40—was staked by the event’s promoter and sponsors, a departure from tournaments of yore whose pots came from wealthy patrons and sovereign governments. 

Fans are ponying up, too. Tickets to the championship matches ranged from $75 to $300, but the real action has been online. U.S.-based Chess.com says it has millions of subscribers, many of whom pay up to $99 a year to subscribe. For the championships, Agon Ltd., organizer of the New York tournament, offered fans a $15 pay-per-view live stream. More than 1 million people have followed the game play each day, according to Agon, although the company won’t say how many have paid for live viewing.  

Modern chess has much going for it: millions of fans and players around the world, charismatic young stars, and a game uniquely suited for the internet age. It also has a substantial problem. The World Chess Federation, the game’s official governing body and awarder of “grandmaster” status, keeps doing business with some of the world’s worst regimes. Known by its French acronym FIDE (“fee-day”), the organization is in the firm grip of its eccentric president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a 54-year-old Russian businessman and ex-politician. He has flaunted his relationships with Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, having played chess under a tent with the Libyan leader a few weeks before Qaddafi's death. His ties to Vladimir Putin have raised suspicion that he secretly works for the Kremlin—an idea he dismisses as ludicrous. Ilyumzhinov also claims to have been abducted by aliens in 1997 and says extraterrestrials introduced chess to humans more than 2,000 years ago.

Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson made the first move of Game 1.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

The United States sanctioned Ilyumzhinov a year ago for allegedly doing business deals to aid the Assad regime in Syria. Ilyumzhinov denies this, but sanctions mean he can’t visit the U.S. or do business with American citizens or corporations. In an attempt to limit the damage to chess, Deputy President Georgios Makropolous took over routine operations. Organization of the world championship was left to Agon.

It didn’t help. The New York tournament, which hoped to attract luxury retailers and financial firms as sponsors, wound up with an odd quartet: a Russian fertilizer company, a Moscow-based asset-management firm, a Norwegian bottled-water company that sponsors Carlsen, and S.T. Dupont, whose stylish pens are being used by the two players to make notes. “People are afraid,” Makropoulos said.

When Anatoly Karpov, the former world champion, campaigned unsuccessfully to lead FIDE in 2010, he famously summed up Ilyumzhinov’s track record in seven words: “Any dickhead could do a better job.” Last month, Karpov said his opinion hasn’t changed. “The situation is very, very worrying.”

As of October, Ilyumzhinov was still optimistic that the sanctions would be lifted. In a hotel suite in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, he said he had contacted the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department and offered to take a lie detector test, to no avail. Ilyumzhinov sees himself as more than an ambassador for chess—he is an agent of world peace. “I decided to change the world through chess,” he said. “In my travels, I see there are conflicts in many countries. Why? Because of the lack of clever people who think first, and then make a move.”

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov
Photographer: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

Ilyumzhinov’s FIDE travels dovetail with his other business. So while he was in Thessaloniki for a youth chess tournament, he also planned to attend a dinner hosted by Ivan Savvidis, a Greek-Russian billionaire who owns the local soccer club and the five-star hotel in which Ilyumzhinov stayed as Savvidis’s guest. The week before, he met with government ministers in the United Arab Emirates, had an audience with the Dalai Lama in Latvia, and stopped in Slovakia to receive an award for his contribution to “the cause of peace and development.” Next stop: Iran, his second visit there in fewer than 90 days. 

Ilyumzhinov comes from Kalmykia, an impoverished, predominantly Buddhist region in southern Russia. Inspired, he says, by Bobby Fischer's 1972 victory over Boris Spassky, he became the Kalmyk chess champion as a teenager. After graduating from university in Moscow in 1989, he went to work for an automobile-import venture and, he says, earned a million dollars within a year. By 1993, he claimed to control 50 companies with $500 million in annual turnover. He was elected president of Kalmykia in April 1993, using the slogan: "Rich President, Incorruptible Power." He said he would pay every Kalmyk resident $100 if elected.

That promise was never kept, nor did he build a new international airport or a Caspian Sea resort as pledged. Ilyumzhinov did build a vast Chess City complex in the Kalmyk capital, Elista, that hosted a FIDE chess Olympiad in 1998. The undertaking was funded in part by a program Ilyumzhinov created, that encouraged Russian companies to move their legal headquarters to Kalmykia, exempting them from local taxes if they made payments into an investment fund controlled by the president. 

Moscow shut down the program in the early 2000s. Kalmykia now ranks 80th among Russia's 83 regions on a United Nations index of poverty and other social indicators. In early 1998, an opposition journalist who had been investigating alleged corruption in Ilyumzhinov's administration was found stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Three men were convicted of the murder, including a former Ilyumzhinov adviser. Ilyumzhinov, who stepped down as Kalmykia's president in 2010, says he had no knowledge of or involvement in the murder.

Dmitry Peskov
Dmitry Peskov, deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration of Russia, in the VIP area.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

Ilyumzhinov was president of Kalmykia in 1995 when, he says, FIDE's leaders begged him to run for president. The organization was in crisis. Two years earlier, then-world champion Garry Kasparov and and British Grandmaster Nigel Short, had broken away to form their own group. Since then Short and Kasparov have grudgingly come back into the fold, and Ilyumzhinov has been repeatedly re-elected. His opponents accuse Ilyumzhinov of dirty tactics that exploit FIDE’s one-country, one-vote policy for its 188 member federations. It’s essentially the same tactic U.S. prosecutors have accused world soccer organization FIFA's leaders of embracing: bribing smaller, poorer nations to win their support.

Sergey Karjakin
Sergey Karjakin testing the overhead lights before the match.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

Githinji Hinga, who headed Kenya's national chess federation during the 2014 FIDE election, said that Ilyumzhinov's representatives hinted in phone calls that Hinga might get money to buy a house if Kenya pledged to support the incumbent. The Russian embassy in Nairobi also lobbied for Ilyumzhinov, he says. Kenya voted no; after the election, FIDE stripped the Kenyan federation of its official recognition, installing new leadership over the objections of Kenya's sports ministry. "It was an illegal coup," Hinga said. "There is a lot of injustice in FIDE. The impunity is unmatched." Ilyumzhinov says that FIDE is “a democratic organization” and that all its member federations are treated fairly.

Ilyumzhinov's defenders cut him slack, in part because he has a reputation for using his own money to subsidize chess. Ilyumzhinov estimates he's spent close to $100 million to support the game. That claim seems far-fetched, considering that FIDE's annual budget is about only $2 million, and most national chess organizations and tournaments are bare-bones operations. Still, Theodoros Tsorbatzoglou, secretary general of the European Chess Federation, said Ilyumzhinov has improved life for chess pros. "Before Kirsan, maybe 10 players in the world could live well. Now there are more than 100."

Russian corporate records suggest that Ilyumzhinov’s current business holdings are modest. He holds stakes in about a dozen companies, most of which appear to be small. A major holding in recent years has been a stake in Russian Financial Alliance Bank, a Moscow-based bank with about $9.6 million in assets that's been accused by the U.S. Treasury of providing assistance to the Assad regime. Ilyumzhinov said the bank has never done business in Syria and complains that U.S. authorities have refused to provide evidence of their claims. (A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment.)

Rather than subsidizing FIDE, Ilyumzhinov now appears to be living on its largesse. In a report last June, an internal FIDE commission said the federation had more than €308,500 in debt on its books, most of it "relating to commitments due by our president." The report faulted "egregious" overspending on Ilyumzhinov's travel, which has cost FIDE nearly €200,000 annually for the past few years, in contrast to earlier years when Ilyumzhinov "was funding the majority of its expenses." In 2012, a leaked memo showed Ilyumzhinov had considered taking a controlling stake in Agon, the company that has exclusive commercial rights to the New York tournament and other FIDE events. Ilyumzhinov said the idea was dropped, and Agon was sold to Ilya Merenzon, a Russian American public relations man.

Neil deGrasse-Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson plays chess with his son, Travis, in the VIP area.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

Chess has been on the verge of popular success before. Bobby Fischer was already a global superstar during his 1972 World Championship match with Spassky, which was broadcast in American prime time. After Fischer won, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on a Bob Hope special. U.S. Chess Federation membership doubled that year and kept rising until 1974.

The "Fischer Boom" didn’t last. Fischer fought with FIDE, refused to defend his title and retreated into isolation for 20 years. Membership in the U.S. Chess Federation—an imperfect proxy for chess fans—hovers around 85,000. The audience is much bigger abroad, but America is where the sponsorship and media money are. As long as the head of FIDE is barred from doing business in the U.S. or with U.S. companies, the upside is limited. Complaints about FIDE mismanagement and vote-rigging—not to mention the space-alien story—make things even worse, said Gary Walters, president of the U.S. Chess Federation. “Rather than having leadership that will attract major corporate sponsors, we have the world looking askance at us.” FIDE under Ilyumzhinov , he said, has been “terrible for chess.”

Chess boosters are looking for ways to circumvent the FIDE problem. St. Louis millionaire Rex Sinquefield has teamed up with Kasparov and British grandmaster Short to create the Grand Chess Tour, a series of annual tournaments in the U.S., Britain, France, and Belgium. It has a total prize fund of just over $1 million and has picked up sponsors that include Paris-based media-and-gaming giant Vivendi and real estate group Colliers International. "We're offering an alternative, a cycle of tournaments with stability, where everyone knows when they will happen, where, and what they will be paid," said Malcolm Pein, a British international master who organizes the tour's London Chess Classic.

VIP viewing area
VIP viewing area.
Photographer: Misha Friedman

Promoters also see the digital world as a natural venue. Chess.com recently aired a series of high-speed “blitz” matches between top-rated players, including Carlsen and two young Americans, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana. The matches drew more than 250,000 unique viewers, said Daniel Rensch, the site’s vice president. The future of chess could look more like tennis or golf, with a professional circuit that attracts the best players. “Entrepreneurs will be able to organize tournaments and make them commercially interesting,” said Espen Adgestein, Carlsen’s manager. “It doesn’t need to be organized by FIDE.”

Maybe not, but most sports do have one governing body that can channel fans’ attention, broker media rights deals, and attract sponsors. FIDE, for all its problems, ranks players globally and hosts the only World Chess Championship. Without that kind of central organization, you get the problems of boxing: three competing groups compile three rankings systems and award three championship belts. For fighters and fans, it is widely considered a disaster.

Ilyumzhinov insists he is the right man to lead chess to new heights. “I have contacts in many countries, important people who ask my opinion, and I ask them to support chess,” he said. He has also offered to help broker peace in Syria. “My vision and my principle is to maintain peace, to play chess against each other, rather than fighting with weapons.” He plans to run for reelection in 2018.

—With Alexander Sazonov

Corrected to reflect Malcolm Pein’s status as international master.