Nigel Short runs for FIDE President

by Conrad Schormann
5/10/2018 – Nigel Short wants to become FIDE President. In 2010 and in 2014 Short supported the campaigns of Karpov and Kasparov. It's been a while since three candidates ran for president in the FIDE elections, but now Ilyumzhinov, Makropoulos, and Short are all in the running. CONRAD SCHORMANN recounts a bit of history and shares his opinion of what is bound to be an interesting period in international chess politics. | Photo: British Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic

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FIDE President Nigel Short?

Nigel Short wants to become FIDE President as he recently revealed in Aftenposten (Evening Post), Norway's largest newspaper. The announcement of the former World Championship challenger comes just in the middle of a fierce mud-slinging contest between current office holder Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and his deputy Georgios Makropoulos. Short is the third candidate who has thrown his hat into the ring and looking to win the FIDE elections in October. "Chess deserves a better alternative," the 52-year-old former World Championship challenger declared.

Ever since the Filipino Florencio Campomanes became FIDE President in 1982 the history of the World Federation of Chess has been full of dubious characters and substantial crises. But the most recent plight is still without parallel, probably as life-threatening as the one in the middle of the 90s, as the era of Campomanes was near its end, and we witnessed a rundown FIDE, corroded by corruption and intrigues. But back then FIDE at least had a bank account. Today, it no longer has. [FIDE's account with its longtime bank UBS has been closed and Treasurer Adrian Siegel in a letter dated May 9th states that FIDE has "found a solution via a trust company which has taken the money", without providing any further details. -Ed. Update: On May 12th: Siegel specified "Kei Trading Services Ltd (Hong Kong) and Arkion SA (Switzerland)" as the funds destination.]

A puppet for politics and business

In 1995, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, previously unknown in the West, appeared on the scene. He had just been elected President of the Republic of Kalmykia, was well connected to the new Russian elite, and willing to spend large sums of money to help get chess back on track. As president, Ilyumzhinov also travelled the world in support of the interests of Russian politics and business, and he is the last guest of state both Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein ever received — which all could be easily ignored (and was) so long as the money flowed. And in the last 20 years, most non-chess related media preferred to report about Ilyumzhinov's self-confessed encounter with aliens instead of screening him seriously.

A few months before the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Ilyumzhinov paid him a visit in Libya

Ilyumzhinov might also have been one of the last guests of state of Syria's ruler Bashar al-Assad if Russia had not strongly intervened to back Assad in power. But the US Treasury Department did not believe that Ilyumzhinov had visited Syria to make chess more popular in a country ravaged by civil war and instead suspected that Ilyumzhinov's links with the Russian Financial Alliance Bank, said to have been involved in financial transactions with Syrian banks in support of the Assad government warranted his inclusion, at the end of 2015, on the Office of Foreign Assets Control's Specially Designated Nationals List.

Banks do not want money from FIDE

This caused problems for FIDE because people on the sanctions list do not have credit at international credit institutions. The Swiss bank UBS which FIDE used for its financial transactions threatened to block the accounts of the World Chess Federation should Ilyumzhinov remain in office. Several times FIDE obtained extensions but in February, 2018, UBS drew the line — FIDE's account would be closed at the end of April. FIDE had made inquiries at a number of other credit institutions but did not find any bank that wanted FIDE's money while Ilyumzhinov was even-nominally in office.

Since late 2015 Makropoulos has handled FIDE affairs, but Ilyumzhinov wants to remain president | Photo: FIDE

The rift between Ilyumzhinov and his former backers around Vice-President Makropoulos culminated in the ultimate demand of the FIDE presidential board that its president should resign from office. But Ilyumzhinov will not go quietly into the night, and though he has let Makropoulos handle FIDE affairs since the end of 2015 he continues to travel all around the world for his re-election campaign, most recently through Asia and Africa to enlist support (or "buying votes" as his critics would claim). Finally, after a number of antics, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov recently announced his team, which includes an American who uses a pseudonym, and a woman who was purported to be a princess from Thailand.

Team Kirsan: Fake candidate and fake princess

Ilyumzhinov had to hand in the résumés of his fake candidate and his fake princess for the board meeting of the Russian Chess Federation where it was decided whom Russia will support at the FIDE elections in October. For months it was speculated that Russia would nominate a candidate of their own, perhaps former world champion Anatoly Karpov, to continue to pull strings at FIDE. In February, Andrey Filatov, billionaire and President of the Russian Chess Federation, had refused to support Ilyumzhinov and rivaled him at the elections for the top of the Russian Chess Federation. That triggered rumours that Kirsan's days as a global Russian puppet were numbered.

A powerful man in Russian chess: Andrey Filatov | Photo: André Schulz

However, the Russian chess powers that be, with Filatov as president, still voted for Ilyumzhinov and his "team", unanimonously, too. A surprising decision that for the time being defies explanation. Maybe (and that is speculation) Russian politics would like to continue the narrative of an American conspiracy against Ilyumzhinov. It would fit that according to Aftenposten the Russian embassy has already tried to reach out to the Norwegian Chess Federation (and who knows to whom else?) to secure support for Ilyumzhinov.

The end of the FIDE as a functional organisation

If you look at the man and his team and considering the US sanctions list, you do not need any inside knowledge to see that Ilyumzhinov's re-election would be the final end of the FIDE as a credible organisation capable to act globally. And if you then look at the structure and culture of FIDE elections (each federation has one vote, no matter how big or small the federation is, and the votes of the small federations are naturally less accountable and susceptible to bribery) you do realize that ever since the Russian vote for Ilyumzhinov his re-election remains the most likely scenario, no matter the consequences.

Nigel Short sees the matter differently. "Now it's a three-horse and not a two-horse race, that is a completely different story," the British grandmaster told chess.com. But if he wants to have a chance he at least has to unite all European and North and South American federations behind him, while hoping to be able to catch some votes elsewhere. Here it might be helpful that Short is a globetrotter and that he is known and popular in many of the smaller FIDE countries.

And Europe? Even the president of the Norwegian federation expressed some doubts when talking to Aftenposten: "I know Nigel Short as an excellent chess player. But I am not sure whether he would be an excellent president," says Morten Madsen. Short cannot even count on the support of the English federation. The English delegate, Malcolm Pein, a friend of Short going back to their junior days, also wants change but had already decided to join the camp of Makropoulos.

"Terminate contract with Agon"

At the end of May, Short wants to present his team and further supporters, and until then he wants to lay low. But he's already made public one important concern: "I want to see end of the Agon contract. It has brought little or no benefit to FIDE and I believe has cost FIDE a huge amount of money in lost opportunities".

Ilya Merenzon

Ilya Merenzon in 2016 | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Agon is the chess marketing firm Ilyumzhinov brought to the fore in 2012 which, under the name "World Chess", holds the rights for World Championship matches, the Candidates Tournament, and the Grand Prix, and which so far has struggled to find financially strong (Western) sponsors. The online presentation of the recent Candidates tournament in Berlin was cocked up so spectacularly, that you could not even watch the games for the first round on the official site. Major features were listed as "coming soon" throughout the event's duration.

For the World Championship match, slated for November in London, Agon presumably continues to search for sponsors, and yet on the official website, you cannot even see who will be playing for the title. Instead, one can learn that the top three of the world's top ten players are 1) Magnus Carlsen, 2) Hikaru Nakamura and 3) Veselin Topalov. [This has never been so. -Ed.]

World Chess screen shot

WorldChess.com, retrieved May 10, 2018

Recently, Ilya Merenzon, the CEO of Agon, talked to the German newspaper Handelsblatt and praised Ilyumzhinov's foresight in managing to keep his organisation operational, despite those pesky sanctions. For Merenzon, the problem is rather that Ilyumzhinov hasn't properly communicated that his presidential authority now rests with Makropoulous.

At least, as far as communication is concerned, Ilyumzhinov and Makropoulos now have a powerful rival. Short is considered to be someone who is not afraid to rub someone the wrong way, never minces his words, and does not shy away from conflict. But does he play chess politics as well as he does chess itself? In this discipline, Ilyumzhinov has defeated no less than Karpov and Kasparov.

One thing's for sure, it's going to be a hot chess summer.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Update June 12: 150 days away from the match, the WorldChess website indicates the match is between Carlsen and Caruana and gives the correct top nine players in the world as of the June 2018 FIDE rating list.

World Chess top 9

Click or tap to expand image

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Conrad Schormann, skilled newspaper editor, runs an agency for editing and communication in Überlingen, at Lake Constance. But he lacks time to play chess which is partly due to the fact that he very much likes to write about it, for Chessbase, in the Reddit chess forum, or for his chess teaching blog Perlen vom Bodensee...