Ilyumzhinov turns 50, signs agreement with Azerbaijan

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov celebrated his 50th birthday today, a reminder of how young he was when he emerged from nowhere to become FIDE President 17 years ago. In recent days he was in Baku to sign an agreement which saw Azerbaijan officially confirmed as the sponsors of the upcoming Candidates Tournament in London. In many ways it was symptomatic – both for better and for worse – of his term in the FIDE hot seat.

Local boy done good

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was born on April 5th, 1962. His biography recalls, up to a point, the semi-fictional lives of the Soviet leaders. Born in remote Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, he was apparently a national chess champion at 14, but despite being a star pupil he went on to work for two years as a mechanic, before spending another two years in the Soviet Army. He then entered university to study Modern Languages and International Relations, before his biography becomes emphatically Post-Soviet.

As president of a company operating in the lawless era of early Russian privatisation he became a multi-millionaire. He then tried his hand at politics, campaigning for election in Kalmykia with the slogan: “a rich president, a rich republic”. He got the job (and kept it from 1993-2010), and only two years later in 1995 a similar campaign saw him take control of FIDE. From that point on it’s a familiar story, and the arguments over Ilyumzhinov’s influence on the chess world have dragged on for almost two decades now.     

Lenin would have approved

For his 50th birthday Ilyumzhinov was interviewed by Vladimir Barsky and Eteri Kublashvili for the Russian Chess Federation website, Yuri Vasiliev for Sport Express and Evgeny Surov for Chess-News. The interviews saw Ilyumzhinov return to many of his favourite topics, including aliens, his 69th lifetime and meeting Gaddafi. It almost seems as though the interviewers were hypnotised to respond in kind. Vasiliev opened by talking about shamans and sorcerers, Barsky asked about the world ending in 2012 according to the Mayan Calendar, while Surov, normally a fierce interviewer with an eye for controversy, found himself asking: “What’s your attitude to numbers? You were born today, the 5th April, and you’re 50 years old. Fives… Do you believe in some kind of numerical magic?” (if you were curious, he does!)

Here, however, are some of the more chess-related highlights:

Yuri Vasiliev has just asked Ilyumzhinov about meeting Bobby Fischer, before moving seamlessly (well almost!) to recent events concerning FIDE and world chess:

Vasiliev: There’s something symbolic in that fact that you recently granted a compatriot of Fischer’s, the American Andrew Paulson, the right to hold a few championship cycles…

Ilyumzhinov: I realised intuitively that Paulson is the man who’ll be able to build FIDE’s commercial component successfully. Although the idea, as you know, met with a hostile reception from some of the members of the Presidential Council.

V: Paulson reacted quickly to the request from the organisers of two major traditional tournaments to move the Candidates Tournament from autumn this year to spring next year and also met with Magnus Carlsen and took his wishes into account – all that's made a very good impression on the chess world…

I: We worked on that decision together. When there was all that talk about moving the Candidates Tournament Paulson and I sat in the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, on Casino Square, and discussed the plans for the next half year for three hours. Tomorrow I’m flying to Baku with him to sign a contract with the Azerbaijan organisers about their involvement in the London Candidates Tournament.

V: Did you tell Paulson that you’d previously promised to hold the 2017 World Championship on the Aurora cruiser? (Ilyumzhinov apparently told an interviewer back in 1995 that in 2017, the centenary of the October Revolution, they’d play on the Aurora cruiser, a ship currently moored in St. Petersburg which played a lead role at the start of the revolution - CV)

I: Yes, Paulson knows about it. In 2017 we’ll definitely play on Aurora! I don’t think the communists will have any objections, as after all Lenin loved chess.

The Aurora cruiser | Photo Vargher, posted under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

V: You spent 50 million of your own money on chess?

I: Much more than 50 million…

V: You don’t regret it?

I: My relatives call me a masochist. They tell me: “You give them millions and then they criticise you”. In a way they’re right, but I couldn’t have done things differently. And I still can’t.   

In the interview for the RCF website Ilyumzhinov expressed his doubts about making money from chess:

I’ve experienced it myself: chess is a non-commercial sport. Of course, some people earn money from it: the players themselves, coaches and arbiters. But in the bigger picture we can’t compete for advertising and we can’t make it onto TV. Chess is difficult to broadcast for 6 hours. Besides, you need a degree of preparation. When you watch football or basketball it’s immediately obvious – the ball should fly there or there, everything’s clear. But in chess you start to explain: that’s the Sicilian Defence, that’s the Ruy Lopez – it’s like trying to explain advanced mathematics or material science. It’s difficult to grasp, as you need a level of general culture. That's why I’m aiming to get a billion people playing – so a market emerges with people who’ll watch chess broadcasts. Chess itself should be shortened to blitz or rapid, and we need to attract good commentators. It’s all interconnected. I think Paulson has consciously taken this on as a businessman, and I hope he’ll earn money from chess.

Of course, the above quotes beg the (eternal) question of whether FIDE under Ilyumzhinov has ever made a serious attempt to seek commercial sponsorship – and whether in the absence of those sponsors the reduction of time controls and other innovations are justified.

Azerbaijan: oil and chess

The recent news from Azerbaijan illustrates how FIDE has managed to fund international chess in the absence of commercial sponsorship or Ilyumzhinov’s own money. It had already become clear that just as Azerbaijan continued to sponsor the 2011 Candidates Matches in Kazan (in return for Shakhriyar Mamedyarov remaining the nominee), next year’s Candidates Tournament in London is also going to be sponsored by Azerbaijan, with Teimour Radjabov getting the nomination this time round. The agreement has now been formalised, with the FIDE website reporting:

On the 3rd April the first President of Kalmykia, FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, visited Azerbaijan on an official working visit, where in Baku, a ceremony of signing of the Agreement on cooperation between FIDE and the Chess Federation of Azerbaijan took place. The Head of the World Chess Federation Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and the President of the Azerbaijan Chess Federation Elmar Rustamov signed a document on cooperation within the framework of the organization of the 2012 Candidates matches.

The Azerbaijan website Extra Time notes that it was all a bit more complicated than that (perhaps to head off any legal challenge from ECU President Silvio Danailov?):

Note that two separate contracts were signed, one between FIDE and the Azerbaijan Chess Federation on cooperation in chess development, and a sponsorship contract between SOCAR and Agon relating to the upcoming Candidates Tournament in London in March next year. 

Azerbaijan, and specifically the state-owned oil company SOCAR, has become a major sponsor of chess events in recent years. The company's director, Rovnag Abdullayev, is quoted as saying:

As you know, SOCAR is the biggest company in Azerbaijan and has always paid great attention to various sporting projects. On this occasion we’re going to sponsor the Candidates Tournament and do everything possible to return the chess crown to Azerbaijan.

The motivation seems partly to be based on a bitter rivalry with neighbours Armenia. The FIDE website quotes Azerbaijan Sports Minister Azad Ragimov:

Each year chess schools are opened in Azerbaijan. This is the only country in the world where the Head of State signed a state document on chess development.

Ilyumzhinov, always the consummate diplomat, spoke enthusiastically in similar terms – but it’s hard to imagine that 270 miles west in Yerevan he’d adopt the same tone. After all, the Armenian President is also President of the Armenian Chess Federation, and they’ve made chess compulsory in schools – so it seems likely he might have signed some documents too… The local audience was perhaps also a factor when Ilyumzhinov went on to explain how the bidding process worked, dismissing any influence from Levon Aronian’s open letter:

It’s true that last year there were two bids, from Baku and Bulgaria, then there was a third bid which was examined at the Presidential Council in the UAE. The company Agon proposed holding the Candidates Tournament in London. A few days before the Presidential Council an open letter was released by Levon Aronian. I wouldn’t even call it a letter, as it smacked of an ultimatum, where it was stated that if FIDE decided to hold the Candidates in Baku he wouldn’t take part. FIDE doesn’t accept ultimatums, and we support the Charter of the International Olympic Committee which states that sport is outside of politics and should unite nations. No personal or inter-governmental disagreements should interfere with the development of sport. In any case, I can tell you that Aronian’s letter wasn’t considered at the Presidential Council. All that was taken into account were the conditions that the bidders proposed for us. As a result the members of the Presidential Council came to an almost unanimous decision to on the one hand support Azerbaijan, and on the other London, as that city is of interest to us because its hosting the Olympics.

Perhaps this shows how busy Ilyumzhinov is - on the same day, after signing the contract in Baku, he flew to Moscow to attend a chess evening in the "Central House of Writers"

Next stop: the world  

Perhaps it’s fitting to end this birthday report by noting that at 50 Kirsan Ilyumzhinov appears to have found someone who can match his brand of diplomacy and extravagance. In the aforementioned Extra Time article Andrew Paulson talks about first focussing on Europe for the World Championship cycle and later goes on to mention holding more events in Baku, but in between he allows himself to dream a little:

Next season we’ll continue to act according to our strategic plan, and we’ll run the cycle in Africa and Arab countries. After that we’ll step-by-step hold championship tournaments on other continents, in major cities. Of course, every big city in one region or another will want to hold major chess tournaments.

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