Chess is King and People are Pawns

6/20/2004 – Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans people might have thought it was a mirage – a huge glass dome, rising from the parched brown steppe. The Chess City of Elista is a "shimmering vision is a monument to the power of ego over nature." Read about it in this extensive New York Times article.

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This two-page New York Times article entitled "Where Chess Is King and the People Are the Pawns" requires registration, which is a painless process, free of charge. You can read the same article without registration in the International Herald Tribune.

The author, Seth Mydans, describes a "shimmering vision has been brought to life in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City." It is like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars. But meanwhile, "for miles around – in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia – 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter."

The article is highly critical of the Republic's "whimsical strongman" Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is also the respected leader of the World Chess Federation. "Sweet-faced and only 42 years old, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has found the tens of millions of dollars not only to build his dream dome but to play host in this land of sheep and camels to a series of major tournaments." In his pursuit of chess, Mydans writes, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has consorted with unlikely allies, including Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya (and formerly including Saddam Hussein), in addition to a well-dressed network of regional operators and money men.

The president's political opponents say he has beggared the country to pay for his playthings, which include a soccer team that hires expensive players from abroad. Among other things, several opposition leaders said in interviews, he has taken food from the mouths of Kalmykia's children by suspending family subsidies. Chess officials have estimated that Ilyumzhinov has spent between $30 million and $50 million on these activities.

Arguing against these critics are people like Florencio Campomanes of the Philippines, a past president of the chess federation, who calls them "yappers." "Blah blah blah, blah blah blah," he said. How could Mr. Ilyumzhinov have squeezed the cost of Chess City out of this little crumb of land populated by hungry and thirsty people? "There isn't that much money in the national budget." The real source of the money? "He's a businessman!" Mr. Campomanes cried, and that seemed to put an end to that.


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