A Journey to Elista (4)

by Frederic Friedel
11/10/2020 – The Candidates 2007 took place in "City Chess" in Elista, Kalmykia, a large residential complex devoted to chess and chess competitions. It was built by the then President of the country, and then President of FIDE Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who invited Frederic Friedel to attend the tournament. After the event was over Ilyumzhinov showed him around the city. Pictorial impressions.

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[Previous reports by Frederic Friedel on the trip to Elista: Journey to Moscow, Journey to Elista, Concert and gala dinner]

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. I won't go into the course the tournament took – you can google "Candidates Elista 2007" for full details. Instead, I want to tell you about the adventure of travelling to Kalmykia and attending it personally. Note that you can click on most of the pictures on this page to enlarge. 

"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. He was a very controversial figure, someone people in the chess world loved to hate. I was a declared opponent, assisting in every challenge to his presidency in the FIDE elections. But never did he show animosity or displeasure over this.

During the two weeks I spent in Elista, Ilyumzhinov was not present. He was away attending to political affairs in Moscow, and returned to the venue of the Candidates for the closing ceremony.

There was a classical and very capable string quintet, ...

an energetic and flamboyant Kalmyk dancer ...

... and Kalmyk beauties in a special presentation

Boris Gelfand gets a medal and a diploma for his qualification in the Candidates 

Peter Leko and Levon Aronian as well

And the guest of honour, Boris Spassky, what did he get? A flat in City-Chess! Spassky was always the center of interest, as I have described in the second part of this article.

After the closing ceremony Iljyumzhinov spent the evening until after midnight in his office in the central building, receiving visitors, who were lined up to meet and chat with him. 

When it was my turn I saw an exhausted Ilyumzhinov and said: "You are too tired to do an interview now! Maybe later." He was grateful for this and asked if I was scheduled to leave the next day. I told him it was a day later, which he duly noted.

The next morning I was picked up in a shiny white Rolls-Royce, with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in it. "Let me show you Elista," he said. We were accompanied by a security car.

Alien abduction

During the ride I could not resist: "Kirsan, you say you were abducted by intergalactic aliens?" – "Absolutely," he replied, and went on to describe his experience: "They took me from my apartment, from my bedroom, onto an interplanetary spaceship. They were wearing yellow spacesuits, and since I had difficulty breathing they gave me a spacesuit as well. The ship was very big, absolutely enormous, with cabins the size of football fields. We travelled through space and landed on a planet around a different star. I asked them to take me back to Earth because I had to open a tournament. They brought me back, into my bedroom, and soon  everything returned to normal."

I laughed dutifully and said "You are joking, right?" But Ilyumzhinov meant everything he said. "It's known as a dream, Kirsan," I said, "I sometimes have them myself." But he looked at me straight in the eyes and said "No, it was completely real, just like you and me sitting in this car." And while saying this he reached over and pinched me hard in the arm.

In the end I said: "Okay, believe whatever you want, but I have some advice for you: stop telling the press about it. Nobody will believe you. They will just laugh." He promised to follow my advice, but a week or two later broke the promise with a vivid alien abduction interview on Russian TV.  

Our first stop on the drive around Elista was at the spectacular Buddhist temple that Ilyumzhinov had opened two years earlier. The above picture is by Vladimir Mulder and better than any I took at the time. On this Russian Travel Blog page you can read all about the temple, which is called “The Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha” and is one of the largest in Europe.

Inside we were greeted by a number of affable Buddhist monks, with whom I got into a vigorous debate on philosophy and religion. It was quite adversarial, but also full of humour. At one stage an Ilyumzhinov aide told him it was time to leave, but Kirsan, who was standing watching, said: "No, let him discuss with the monks. It is important."

Next stop was at the Buddhist "Pagoda of Seven Days," on Lenin Square in the middle of the city. In the evening I came back to see it lit up and people playing chess in front of it.

After the daytime visit of the pagoda Kirsan took me to the home of his parents, where we sat together in a gazebo for lunch and snacks.

The parents showed great hospitality and sat around patiently while Kirsan and I spent a number of hours discussing the problems (and opportunities) that the chess world faced.

One important subject was cheating. I told Kirsan this would become a major problem as computers became stronger than human players, and there were so many ways you could give them electronic help during a game. And I described a first partial solution I had to offer: delay the live Internet broadcast of important tournaments by fifteen minutes. That way it becomes more difficult for anyone to get move suggestions from external computers in real time. "But they can have someone giving the computer operator the moves by mobile phone!" he said. "That is great," I replied. "If someone is exiting the playing venue after every move to make phone calls we can easily catch him."

After a while Kirsan picked up his phone and called the FIDE office, describing my proposal in detail. "We'll have it done immediately!" he said to me. It never happened, of course – too much opposition from his colleagues and many "experts".

I should mention that this solution is no longer viable: you can cheat with a regular smartphone located at the venue. It is now stronger than any human player, and in addition has WiFi.

I have described one way it can be done, and probably was actually done, in my report "The shoe assistant." No need to delay the broadcast of moves any longer.

If you are interested you can read about some reactions to my proposal in this article from 2011: Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute broadcast delay. One influential journalist, who decidedly rejected it, wrote: "During a visit to Elista in 2007, Mr. Friedel tried to convince Mr. Ilyumzhinov of the need to adopt the 15-minute delay. At the end of a cosy afternoon with tea and snacks in the Ilyumzhinov family garden the FIDE president jumped up and enthusiastically exclaimed 'Let's do it!' That was reassuring, but of course nothing ever happened."

Before dropping me back to my cottage in City-Chess Kirsan wanted to show me one more thing: the soccer stadium he had recently built.

"Take a look at this: artificial turf, but so realistic..."

The road to Volgograd – a final tragedy

The day after the presidential tour of Elista I set out on my journey back home. A driver picked me up from my cottage at six a.m., to take me to the airport in Volgograd, where I would catch the flight to Moscow, Riga and Hamburg.

The trip from Elista to Volgograd consists of a three-hour drive on the M-6, after which you spend an hour navigating the city to get to the airport.

The first part of the drive was quite harrowing: the driver was speeding like his life depended on it. "Why are you driving so fast?" I asked, "This is not a grand prix. We have plenty of time to reach the airport."  His reply: "Road is straight, is safe."

The real reason for his hurry was that he knew there would be horrific traffic in Volgograd. Apart from that he was not sure of the exact location of the airport. In fact, he stopped a number of times to ask for directions.


The road from Elista to Volgograd traverses the southern Volga steppe. We arrived at the airport in good time, and I got back home safely.

During the Candidates Finals I often saw GM Max Sorokin (in the dark blue shirt in the above picture, taken on June 9th, 2007), mainly in the City Chess restaurant, where he took meals with his charge, Sergei Rublevsky (left). Here they share a table with the Bareev team.

A week after I had returned home I got the news: on his way from the Kalmykian capital to the airport in Volgograd, his car – the same car I had travelled in, a day earlier than him – with the same driver, on the same road, had been involved in a traffic accident. Max Sorokin was taken to hospital and diagnosed as having non-life threatening injuries. But a week later, just as he seemed on the path to recovery, he suddenly passed away.

GM Ruslan Scherbakov wrote about Max: "His erudition was almost legendary among his friends – it seemed that he knew everything, be it mathematics, medicine or foreign languages. He was a very generous person, who was ready to help any moment. And it seemed that he did not get tired. Sergey Rublevsky, whom Max seconded for many years, once told me: "I get up in the morning – Max is already analysing something. Either he always got up earlier than me – or he never went to bed!" R.I.P. Max.

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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