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FIDE Criticized For Hosting World Rapid, Blitz In Saudi Arabia
The World Rapid & Blitz will be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. | Map: Google.

FIDE Criticized For Hosting World Rapid, Blitz In Saudi Arabia

The World Chess Federation (FIDE) has received strong criticism for its decision to host this year's World Rapid & Blitz Championships in Saudi Arabia. 

"The fact that certain people will not be able to [participate] means it really shouldn't be called a world championship frankly," said Hikaru Nakamura.


Update 13 November: IM Lela Javakhishvili's comment has been added below.


Update 11 November: "Double world champion" Anna Muzychuk has announced that she will not participate in the tournament. On Facebook she writes:

"FIDE has announced World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships to be organized in the end of this year in Saudi Arabia. First Iran, then Saudi Arabia.. wondering where the next Women's World Championships will be organized. Despite of the record prize fund, I am not going to play in Riyadh what means losing two world champion titles. To risk your life, to wear abaya all the time?? Everything has its limits and headscarves in Iran was more than enough."

Meanwhile Emil Sutovsky has pointed out that FIDE's decision could well be against its own Statutes:

1.2 FIDE is concerned exclusively with chess activities. FIDE is democratically established and bases itself on the principles of equal rights of its members. FIDE is a non-profit making organisation. It rejects discriminatory treatment for national, political, racial, social or religious reasons or on account of gender. It observes strict neutrality in the internal affairs of the national chess federations.

a. FIDE events (competitions, congresses, meetings) may be hosted only by Federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all Federations.
b. The General Assembly may take exceptions for reasons of state of war or severe violence between countries, only on a three quarter majority vote.


Later than ever, FIDE has announced the dates and location for this year's World Rapid and Blitz Championships. The dates are similar to last year: December 26-30. The location came as a shock to many fans and players: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Aside from not being the safest country (in 2016 alone there were 34 terrorist attacks), Saudi Arabia is well known for its very questionable human rights situation. For instance, homosexuality is illegal and punishments range from fines and whipping to imprisonment and even execution. Earlier this year, a man was reportedly sentenced to death for atheism.

Women's rights is another issue. There is strict segregation of the sexes and limitations on freedom of movement for women. In many situations they need to be accompanied by either family or a male companion. Until next summer, driving will remain illegal for women. In the Global Gender Gap Index 2016, Saudi Arabia is number 141 of 144 countries. 

On top of all this, and most relevant for chess, is that traveling to Saudi Arabia is impossible for people from Iran, Israel and Qatar, and it's highly problematic for the Lebanese as well.

Hikaru Nakamura is so far the only top grandmaster who spoke out against FIDE's decision. In a tweet he called it "horrible" and noted that "[c]hess is a game where all different sorts of people can come together, not a game in which people are divided because of their religion or country of origin."

Nakamura also provided comments to FM Mike Klein from St. Louis last night.

"Any event that's called a world championship should be open," said Nakamura. "In an open field like that anyone should be able to participate. The fact that certain people will not be able to, I think it means it really shouldn't be called a world championship frankly."

Emil Sutovsky, president of the Association of Chess Professionals, also criticized FIDE for its decision. He wrote on Facebook

"FIDE awards Rapid and Blitz World Championships to Saudi Arabia. Record budget will surely help FIDE leaders to neglect the fact that Israeli, Iranian and Qatari players are not allowed to enter. Getting used to that. And we should welcome the new rich sponsors of course. They may be even kind enough not to demand the female players to wear burka. Probably only a headscarf. They ARE changing, you see! And chess helps building bridges. First they came for the Israelis..."

Chess.com asked a number of top female chess players for their reaction to the news (having in mind that in February of this year the Women's World Championship was held in Iran, where participants were forced to wear a hijab). We received mixed reactions.

Alexandra Kosteniuk (world number four, Russia) said she already made other plans till the end of the year, but might consider playing anyway. About the location, she said: "I believe that every country has its own way and pace of evolution in terms of human rights. Of course for most of the players would be more agreeable to play in European countries, for some reasons, especially for women's chess, it doesn't happen often."

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Kosteniuk: "I believe that every country has its own way and pace of evolution in terms of human rights." | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.

Kosteniuk's teammate Valentina Gunina (world number 13, Russia) also made other plans so she cannot participate. However, despite being an expert in speed chess, said she is "not sure" if she would have played.

Nino Batsiashvili (world number 14, Georgia): "I think I will participate in the tournament in Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure about the security yet; I will ask for consultation [from] the ministry for foreign affairs of Georgia and of course waiting for guaranties from FIDE.

"But my point is more about the women['s] rights in the country. I know that the situation for women is not acceptable for [a] democratic society. But it is already a step forward that women can play chess in that country. Playing chess makes women stronger and more respected and if some Saudi Arabian women will have the possibility to play chess and will become famous of it I’m quite sure it will positively affect human rights in the country.

"That was a reason of my participation in the tournaments in Iran where I was forced to wear a hijab, but we see that chess becomes more popular in Iran and Iranian women players show their power. So If my participation in the tournament will make chess more popular for Saudi Arabian woman I think it is not so huge problem play with hijab while playing, however I don’t feel myself comfortable in it at all.

"I'm not sure why FIDE chose Saudi Arabia as a host country and I don’t think they care about the human rights, it’s probably more about the prize fund. But my plan is to play if security of players will be provided."

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Nino Batsiashvili: "Playing chess makes women stronger and more respected." | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Alina Kashlinskaya, (world number 28, Russia, wife of Radek Wojtaszek) also made other plans. She told Chess.com: "I wouldn't go anyway because I had many doubts going to Iran and from what I know the situation in Saudi Arabia is even worse."

Jovanka Houska (world number 57, England, author for Chess.com): "I definitely wouldn’t play in Saudi Arabia. I imagine the event will probably be very well run, so safety probably wouldn’t be an issue. Costs aside I really don’t feel comfortable visiting a country where I would need to be accompanied by a male guardian. It goes against my principles and I am sure my rebellious side would get me into trouble! FIDE need to be transparent about how they choose their venues." After noticing that the organizers provide free travel and accommodation, she added: "It's still a no!"

Tania Sachdev (world number 58, India, chess commentator) also has other plans due to prior commitments. She commented: "I was surprised with the announcement of FIDE hosting the World Rapid and Blitz in Saudi Arabia. It’s a conservative country, going through political transition and instability. Some countries might not be able to send their players due to political reasons. A world championship (any sporting event for that matter) should be held in a conducive environment. I do hope that Saudi Arabia assists FIDE in providing logistic support to all participants regardless of their nationality, with great playing conditions and this proves to be a good choice!"

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Tania Sachdev: "A world championship should be held in a conducive environment." | Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.


Update: IM Lela Javkhishvili has now provided a comment as well:

"Yes, it's problematic to go to such countries, yes we all prefer to play in some European countries and yes, prize money is very important.

I didn't see some of those players protesting against ridiculous and somehow insulting prizes in the recent ACP Women’s Rapid and Blitz European Championship, where almost nobody got conditions and where for example 5th place wouldn't even cover travel expenses. For me it's not less insulting than to wear a hijab for four days.

No one argues that the situation with human rights (and especially women's rights) is unacceptable in Saudi Arabia, as much as no one argues that FIDE should be more sensible in choosing countries where to organize tournaments.

But there are a lot of tournaments in some other countries where human rights are also ignored, in сountries that occupy foreign territories. We all know that, but still, why do we play there? And where in those cases are the voices of "principled" chess players and "human rights defenders"? I would like to hear from them the reason why is it worse to go and play in Saudi Arabia?"


ACP's Emil Sutovsky disputed Javkhishvili's comment about conditions at the ACP Women’s Rapid and Blitz European Championship, saying "[w]e have had about 15 players covered with accommodation (and that is in a 5-star hotel in Monaco!) and thanks to the ACP contribution the prizes were pretty decent. And we had a record turnout of 91 female players."

However, according to the regulations only the top 5 participants got conditions, and 5-6 more players were eligible if they were ACP members. Javkhishvili is not.


FIDE refrained from providing comments by phone, and hasn't replied to email questions yet. Geoffrey Borg, who has been strongly involved in the organization so far, noted that regulations will soon be published. So, for the moment some key questions remain unanswered: 

  • What about the playing conditions for female participants? Do they have to wear hijabs during play, or an abeyya?
  • What about chess players from Iran, Israel, Qatar and Lebanon?
  • What about the safety of the participants?
  • What about FIDE's position towards human rights in Saudi Arabia?

The tournament, officially named King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships, will have a similar format as in previous years. On the first three days the rapid tournament will be played, after which the blitz follows on the last two days.

The prize fund is a record U.S. $2 million with the Open events having an individual prize fund of U.S. $750,000 for the rapid and blitz each, and the women's events U.S. $250,000 each. A total of 30 prizes will be offered in each event. A strong incentive for the World Chess Federation agreeing with Saudi Arabia must have been the typical 20 percent from the total prize fund that will be transferred to the FIDE bank account.

The Open will have a maximum of 250 participants; the women's tournament no more than 150 players. The press release included a list of 177 players who are eligible for free accommodation in Riyadh as well as travel expenses. The country of choice might be controversial, but it cannot be denied that the tournament is offering more than excellent conditions for the players.

In 2004 FIDE also received strong criticism for hosting their knockout world championship in Tripoli, Libya. Besides claims of human rights abuses and state-sponsored terrorism, there was a similar problem for Israeli players, who couldn't participate. Boris Gulko, who had both an American and an Israeli passport, eventually withdrew from the tournament and American grandmasters Alexander Shabalov and Alexander Onischuk also decided not to play.

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