Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is the President of the Republic of Kalmykia, and the President of the International chess federation FIDE. He was born on the April 5th 1962. "Kirsan" is a Tibetan name meaning prosperity, and was suggested by an uncle. His friends called him ’Badma’, which means lotus.
Young Kirsan learnt chess from his grandfather at the age of four, one year later he became "street champion" amongst much older children. At seven he became the Kalmykian children’s champions, and at the age of 14 the national champion of the entire Republic. He was also a boxing champion at the same age. At school he received a gold medal for his academic achievements.
After finishing school Kirsan worked for two years in a factory, and at 18 he joined the Soviet Army, finishing service as a Senior Sergeant (and of course army chess champion). He joined the Moscow International Relations Institute, where he met the grandsons of Brezhnev and Gromyko, the nephew of Fidel Castro, and the children of many party bosses. Need we mention that he became chess champion of the Institute? After graduating he was appointed General Manager for a Soviet-Japan Trading Company selling cars, and soon became a millionaire.
In 1993, at 30, Ilyumzhinov won the first elections in Kalmykia with 65% of the votes. In 1995 the Constitutional Assembly voted to keep him in office for seven more years. Ilyumzhinov initiated preterm elections and won them with 85% of the votes.
Ilyumzhinov has invested a great deal of his personal money not just into chess but also in the religious sector. He built 30 Buddhist temples, 22 Christian Orthodox churches, 1 Jewish synagogue and 1 Muslim mosque. In 1993 he met the pope who told him to help the Catholic church in his country. When Ilyumzhinov returned he discovered there was exactly one Catholic person in Kalmykia. Nevertheless he built a Catholic Cathedral to honour his pledge to the pope.
On his becoming FIDE President
I had no plans of becoming President of FIDE since I had so much going on at that time. Campomanes was under a lot of pressure and he approached me to become President. I told him I would consider it but that I had to speak to the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. I phoned him and advised him about the situation and he said I could carry on both Presidential roles … as long as I did the FIDE one in my free time!
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov talking to Geoffrey Borg
On the burdens involved
I can honestly assure you that I did not become President of FIDE to gain any political advantages, since I had already been President of Kalmykia at the time. My passion for chess is genuine, and I love the game just as much as any other chess player. I have invested over $40 million of my personal money into chess. I work 25 hours a day. No. Joking apart, I finish working each day at 3.00 am and I sleep for four hours. I am up again at 7.00 am and I have observed this practice for the last 15 years. I have worked every day of these 15 years, Monday to Sunday without any holidays. I also work on the 1st of January. My home is my office but sometimes I miss not having enough time to spend with my family. At dinner or when I am playing chess with my son, I try to avoid any interruptions. This time is sacred.
On chess in Kalmykia
When I was elected President of Kalmykia, I passed a decree stating that chess should be taught in all schools as part of the curriculum. The level of results on all academic levels has increased in Kalmykia by over 40% and we have higher education level than most Russian regions. Today 100% of Kalmykian children know how to play chess. I extended the program not only to chess but also boxing. We have had some very good results, and one person I can mention is Raimkul Malakhbekov who has been 7 times Russian Champion, 4 times European Champion, 2 times World Champion and he has also a bronze medal and silver medal at Atlanta and Sydney Olympic games.
reform of the world championship
FIDE is an organisation representing millions of chess players all over the world. We have over one hundred and sixty Federations. I decided to democratize FIDE. When I met Samaranch, the former President of the International Olympic Committee, he said that we had a unique approach to our world championship – it was completely undemocratic. He could not recall any sport where the world champion started with a 50 metre advantage in a 100 metre sprint! So I decided that we had to push for an open championship. Existing champions had to start on an equal footing. I saw it as a real chance for talented chess players to play for the crown. We have given over $5 million in the championships we have organised so far and many chess players have earned sums of money which apart from giving them a reasonable standard of living, were also the highest prizes they had ever earned in their lives. We have some ideas of restructuring the World Chess Championships to include more Federations by increasing the number to 256 players, one player from each Federation and the balance from Continental championships or zonals. The publicity factor of this will be huge and global, and at the same time the additional 128 players will signify a very minor expense for the organisers given the huge investment made at the outset.
On the driving force of his life
In this life we live for a very short time, between 60 to 80 years. I want to use this time which has been given to us by God or from space to achieve great things. I am a Buddhist and according to our belief, we have 108 lives. This is my 69th life. I visited Tibet and the Dalai Lama has identified all my previous lives. Some in Africa, some as a woman, maybe one time in Malta. Maybe in future life I will be a chess player!
First and foremost, we must get the chess world unified. We had to make some compromises all round, in the long-term interest of everyone, to get to a stage today where we will have the Kramnik-Leko match in two months and Kasparov-Kasimdzhanov a few months after. We already have some interesting proposals on the table for the latter, and also for the final match which we are planning for May 2005.
His vision for chess in the next five years
We must aim to popularize chess much more, however, if we want to attract sponsors. We have big opportunities with the Internet and mobile technology developing at such a rapid pace today. We must get closer to each Federation, we have to strengthen our school activities, improve our technical and financial programs for less developed countries, draft marketing and advertising programs to attract sponsors. We must also look at training more trainers so that chess is made more accessible and available in all parts of the world. I am very confident that if we all work together in true ’Gens una sumus’ spirit we will achieve our objectives.
The Adventures of Kirsan in comic-book form (Russian)