A Journey to Elista (2)

by Frederic Friedel
11/7/2020 – The Candidates 2007 took place in "City Chess" in Elista, Kalmykia. This is a neighborhood-size complex consisting of a central, four-story domed City Chess Hall surrounded by an Olympic-style village of Californian-Mediterranean Revival Style architecture, all devoted to chess competition. Just getting there – in an ancient Yakovlev Yak-40 – was an adventure, as was experiencing the city and the FIDE center located there.

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[The journey started in part 1]

In 2007 – I was invited by FIDE to attend the Candidates Matches in Elista. The event was scheduled to take place from May 26 to June 14, 2007, with a total of 16 candidates playing two rounds of six-game matches to fill four places in the forthcoming World Championship in Mexico City. You can google "Candidates Elista 2007" for full details of the event. I won't go into a course the Candidates took. Instead, I want to tell you about the adventure of travelling to Kalmykia and attending it personally.

"City Chess" (Russian: Сити-Чесс) in Elista, Kalmykia was built by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, millionaire President (at the time) of Kalmykia, who was also the president of FIDE. Ilyumzhinov was (and presumably still is) a fanatical chess enthusiast and had the complex built in time for the 33rd Chess Olympiad. Chess City hosted three other major FIDE tournaments: the 2004 Women's World Chess Championship, and the 2006 World Chess Championship, and the 2007 Candidates tournament, which I attended.

Kalmykia (Russian: Калмы́кия, officially the Republic of Kalmykia) is a federal subject of Russia, located directly north of the North Caucasus. The capital is the city of Elista. The population, Kalmyks, are of Mongol origin, and number around 300,000. 

I told you about the first leg of my journey to Elista in my previous article. In it I had safely reached Moscow. My trip from the Russian capital to Elista started on the second day with a car ride to the national airport, about an hour's drive from my hotel in the heart of the city. If you read the first part of my  travelogue carefully you will be able to read the sign: "Vnukovo airport".

The Soviet-style airport Vnukovo was, at the time, in a process of frenzied renovation.

My God, it's full of Yaks – the airfield at Vnukovo. These planes are named after the Russian aircraft designer and manufacturer Alexander Sergeevich Yakovlev. The planes are called Yaks, with a numeral added to denote the model of the aircraft.

One of the larger Yaks on the tarmac. The company has been building planes since 1934, including some famed fighter aircraft during World War II.  I swear that's a machine gun bay in the front of our Yakovlev Yak-40.

Our plane to Elista was a three engine regional aircraft which is famous for its ease of operation from small airstrips. Note that it comes with its own staircase in the rear. The Yak-40 is also famous for it high-pitched whine, which gave it its nickname "flying whistle", and for its low fuel efficiency. 

Forget your wide bodies and A380 – this is pioneer times in commercial air travel. You have to travel in this aircraft, at least once in a lifetime to experience history.

With these two pictures you have seen the entire passenger area – believe me.

The... well, emergency exit door, with ample space for carry-on luggage.

I must mention that the service on board was extremely friendly and that the meal came with genuine red beluga caviar – show me that on a $99 Ryan Air flight.

The reception committee, with chief organiser Valery Bovaev and two local beauties who draped the customary white shawls over our shoulders.

The road into the city in the background runs straight through the steppe

Approaching the capital. The name on the logo is Elista, with the E in red and in orange. The original Kalmyk name is Elst, which means sandy. This was Russified to Elista, with the stress on the second syllable.

We are greeted by a monumental golden flying rider on a pillar at the entrance to the city.

A spanking new Volga GAZ luxury car parked on the outskirts of City Chess. GAZ stands for Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, and is a company that was originally founded in 1929 as a cooperation between Ford and the Soviet Union. The first production unit was a Ford Model A, of which over 100,000 were built in the thirties.

Entering "City Chess", which lies somewhat on the outskirts of Elista. I told Kirsan that it should be "Chess City", but you think he will listen?

A mini temple (huru) which the players could use for a quick prayer before important games. Actually City Chess is used a lot for marriages, and you can see couples tying the knot every second day.

The layout of the chess city, with the roads and apartment complexes.

The center of City Chess has modern administrative and communal buildings.

One of the more interesting buildings in Chess City. They love unusual colours.

Another example of the architecture of City Chess.

The hub of the chess world (at the time) was the FIDE office in City Chess, Elista, Kalmykia.

Inside the FIDE office, the main reception room.

This is Kermen (Kema) Goryaeva, who practically ran the outfit – and did HTML pages and pictures for the FIDE web site in her spare time. What a gal!

Take a deep breath: this was the FIDE rating file records for decades.

The central building of City Chess, where players went to the restaurant three times a day.

Sergei Rublevsky (left) and Evgeny Bareev (right) sharing a table with their seconds.

Alexander Grischuk and his team.

Material for months of adversarial dinner-time debates: FIDE deputy president Georgios Makropoulos.

Blessed with a wry sense of humour: Berik Balgabaev, the personal assistant to FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Berik was our chief host in Kalmykia

My absolutely favourite dinner companion in Elista: former world champion Boris Spassky.

There is a lot more to tell about the chance week-long encounter with this chess legend, including a story about a trip to the Kalmykian steppe. Ten years later I told it to Sagar Shah in a video interview. It is the second part of this report: Knowing the Chess Greats.


Also read: Elista – the harrowing experience of getting there. It describes, blow-by-blow, how the youngest candidate was able to make it to the tournament, and what it was like for the other players to arrive in the capital of chess.


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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