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Chess Has A Russia Problem

BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 10: Sergei Karjakin is seen playing the first round at the First Move Ceremony during the World Chess Tournament on March 10, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for World Chess)
Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images

Several major sporting bodies have responded to Russia's invasion of Ukraine with condemnations of the aggression, bans for Russian-affiliated teams, and support for Ukrainian teams and athletes. Doing so is not necessarily a straightforward affair for every organization out there—for example, FIFA just let Russia buy a World Cup—but perhaps no sport is as intimately tied up with Russian politics as chess.

Six Russian players are in rated in the top 25, including recent World Championship challenger Ian Nepomniatchi. Russia has more than twice as many grandmasters (240) as the second country on that list (USA, 96), and they comfortably have the most world champions. Russia's rich history as a chess powerhouse has earned the country much sway within FIDE, chess's governing body, and has also earned former chess stars places in the Russian government. One of those former world champions, Anatoly Karpov, is a member of the Russian Duma and is therefore under sanction by the European Union. FIDE is led by Arkady Dvorkovich, who ascended to his position after leaving the Russian government, where he was deputy prime minister for six years under Dmitry Medvedev.

That close alignment puts FIDE and Russia's current chess stars in a tough spot, which was only exacerbated by FIDE's soft condemnation of the invasion, referring to it as a "rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation" and then, after that made everyone mad, a "military action started by Russia in Ukraine."

After a self-proclaimed "extraordinary meeting," FIDE released a statement announcing, among other measures, that Russia will no longer play host to the upcoming Chess Olympiad. The Chess Olympiad is the biggest open tournament in the world, and the 2022 edition was supposed to be held in Moscow in July. Word choice quibbles aside, FIDE backed their condemnation up by also announcing that they'll no longer do business with any "Belarusian and Russian sanctioned and/or state-controlled companies." That's a particularly serious step for FIDE, as Gazprom is the organization's biggest single sponsor.

PhosAgro and Nornickel are not explicitly state-owned, though both are owned by people extremely close to Vladimir Putin's government. A former Putin advisor owns 20 percent of PhosAgro, and the government handed the company what the New York Times called an "important mine" in 2012 after they seized it from one of Putin's political foes. “PhosAgro and the Kremlin, through Mr. Litvinenko, are very close. It’s like one family,” a former exec told the Times. Nornickel is owned by Vladimir Potanin, officially the richest man in Russia and a close friend of Putin. As of writing, both are still listed as partners on the FIDE website; Gazprom has already been removed.

As for Russian chess players, most of the country's stars have spoken out against the war, including Nepomniatchi, Andrey Esipenko, and Nikita Vitiugov (also Garry Kasparov, though he's been a vocal anti-Putin guy forever.) However, one player who has gone in the opposite direction is Sergey Karjakin, who has tweeted his way into a FIDE ethics investigation. Karjakin has spent the past week pugnaciously fighting other players online, voicing his support for the invasion, and generally being a real asshole. Fellow GM Sergey Shipov is also under investigation for yelling a bunch about how Ukraine more or less deserved it. FIDE was unspecific about what exactly it's doing, though it said, "FIDE Council condemns any public statement from any member of the chess community which supports unjustified military action and brings the case of chess grandmasters Sergey Karjakin and Sergey Shipov to the Ethics and Disciplinary Commission."

Since the start of the invasion, several Ukrainian grandmasters have called on the international chess community for support, including national team coach Oleksandr Sulypa, who is fighting in Lviv.

FIDE's actions come right as the Belgrade Grand Prix kicks off in Serbia. The tournament features five Russian GMs, though in line with FIDE's announcement, all five are playing under the FIDE flag. When Karjakin took a break from screaming about Ukraine, he wondered whether FIDE could survive an actual break with the Russian state. He was asking that question in service of a point about how it should shut up and keep talking that Gazprom money, though it's a valid question. Given Russia's outsized power in chess affairs, I don't know how much authority a chess body would have if it were to lose all of its Russian players and money, but I also don't know how much authority it would have if it were to side with Russia. It feels like a crossroads moment.

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