Kasparov on Elista in the Wall Street Journal

by ChessBase
10/3/2006 – Garry Kasparov is the last man to hold the title of unified world chess champion. A contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal, his latest editorial comments on the world championship scandal in Elista and the events leading up to it. Was the meltdown after game four inevitable? After the article we bring you an exclusive interview.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Kasparov's Wall Street Journal editorial was obviously meant for people who haven't been following the match as closely as we have. Then there are several historical items that would have required too much explanation for a lay audience. We followed up with Kasparov and include his additional comments in a brief interview below the article.

Chess Mess

Monday, October 2, 2006

It usually takes a scandal to get the world's pre-eminent mind sport into the news these days. The latest example comes from the current world chess championship in Elista, Russia. The match between Russia's Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria was intended to unify the chess championship that has been divided since my challenger and I broke away from the international chess federation (FIDE) in 1993 in an attempt to professionalize the sport.

The first four games of Kramnik-Topalov – the match was scheduled for 12 games – received scant attention in the world press. That changed when the Bulgarians published a complaint about Mr. Kramnik's frequent trips to the restroom during the games, calling his behavior "suspicious" and threatening to abandon the match. The appeals committee governing the match agreed, and ruled to close the players' private restrooms, which would be replaced by a shared one. (How it pains me to see such distasteful events driving the coverage of a world championship.) Mr. Kramnik protested the decision by sitting out the fifth game and was forfeited. Currently the match sits suspended.

The clear implication of the original protest was that Mr. Kramnik might be cheating during his restroom visits. In recent years the chess world has been rife with such suspicions thanks to the rise of powerful microcomputers and transmitting technologies. Several amateur chessplayers have even been caught using such devices to cheat in tournaments.

I should add that Mr. Kramnik was leading 3-1 at the time of Mr. Topalov's protest, although it was mostly thanks to very shaky play by his opponent, not a display of suspiciously superhuman skill.

Adding irony to the tragedy is the fact that for the past year and a half Mr. Topalov himself has been the subject of rumors and even public accusations that he has cheated with computer assistance. Hard evidence is lacking, with some pointing to odd behavior by his assistants and other critics saying there is simply no other explanation for Mr. Topalov's sudden ascent to the top of the rating list after my retirement.

Chess has a long history of scandal and controversy at the highest level. The last world championship game to be decided by forfeit was Bobby Fischer's loss to Boris Spassky in their legendary match in Reykjavik in 1972. Mr. Fischer was well known for such protests and lived up to his reputation by complaining about the conditions in the playing hall after game one, and then not appearing to play the second game. Mr. Spassky, a gentleman – too much so, perhaps – agreed to Mr. Fischer's demands, even playing the next game in a small back room usually reserved for table tennis. (Notably, Mr. Fischer accepted the forfeit almost meekly.) Mr. Spassky's 2-0 lead didn't help him in the end. Mr. Fischer won the match convincingly and, while he was clearly the superior player, I am one of many who believe that by making concessions off the board Mr. Spassky was psychologically unable to play his best at the board.

Until last Friday, that was the last forfeit in world championship history. It's still not clear if this will be the first match cancellation since 1985. After five months of grueling play, my first world championship contest with Anatoly Karpov was abruptly cancelled by the FIDE president. Instead of having a set number of games, our match was to go to the first player to reach six victories, a goal that had proved unreachable despite Mr. Karpov's jumping out to a 5-0 lead. After I won games 47 and 48 to move to the score to 3-5, the match was abruptly cancelled. The Soviet sports authorities who had such influence in FIDE didn't want to take the chance I would win another game. Their loyal favorite, Mr. Karpov, hadn't won a game in months, and I – the outspoken youngster from Baku – was getting too close for comfort.

Mr. Fischer may have been difficult and unstable, but he was a sportsman whose complaints were based on principle and a sincere desire to improve the standards of the chess world. Tournament conditions and prize funds improved immeasurably thanks to his efforts. My battles with the power-hungry thugs who ran the Soviet and international chess world were politically driven. To me they represented a backwards and corrupt system. They saw me as a threat to their control.

The protests and conflicts seen in the current match are of a very different nature and reflect the complete loss of professionalism in the sport. The event is taking place in the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia under the auspices of its president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is also the president of FIDE. He has created a vertical column of power that would be familiar to any observer of Russia today. He runs the chess world in the same authoritarian way he runs his impoverished republic. After a decade of such mistreatment, the only place that could be found to host this match was his own capital. Serious sponsors rarely want anything to do with Mr. Ilyumzhinov and his organization.

Even his closest cronies in FIDE failed Mr. Ilyumzhinov this time. He stocked the match's appeals committee with FIDE officials, but while he was away, their decision created the crisis that now seems likely to end the match in ruin. Recognizing the failure of his stated goals and low methods, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has lately taken steps to unify the chess world and make long overdue moves to professionalize the organization of events. This terrifies the fixers who would be the first to go under a professional administration.

Combine this collapsing power structure with players and managers concerned only with self-interest and making money, and what happened in Elista was practically inevitable. In fact, most of the principal actors in Elista stand to gain from the cancellation of the match. Mr. Topalov was losing at the game and so he switched to gamesmanship. If the match is aborted he can claim he wasn't defeated and so maintain his status as FIDE champion.

Mr. Kramnik rose to the provocation and now may walk off with the same faded title he took from me in 2000. For years he avoided both a rematch and unification with FIDE. If this chaos isn't resolved he can go on to claim "champion for life" standing outside of FIDE.

Just like their brothers in spirit in the Kremlin, the chess nomenclatura hope to prolong the anarchy and corruption from which they have profited for so long. Mr. Ilyumzhinov needs this match to continue, but it is he who sowed the seeds of its downfall.

For a game associated with brainpower, chess's leaders and its leading players have displayed remarkably little in recent years. They are now paying the price by having their pettiness and incompetence splashed across front pages around the world.

Mr. Kasparov is the former world chess champion and the current chairman of the United Civil Front in Russia.

Kasparov with WSJ Op-ed editor Tunku Varadarajan in New York, 2006.

ChessBase: Of course you don't give game analysis in the Journal, but we assume you followed the games?

Garry Kasparov: I was traveling in the Russian regions on political business when this mess broke out. I was in Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia. Of course there is chess there, too, but I wasn't really in touch. By the way it's amazing, there is this kid there, #3 in the world for under-8. But there's no money for him to visit Moscow, to get training or have hope for a chess career. Russia is flooded with oil money, and there are diamonds in Yakutsk, but there's nothing for chess? Well, there's obviously some for supporting Kramnik. Alexander Zhukov has mobilized resources for this, now we see Svidler and Bareev heading to Elista. Kramnik's team is becoming as big a state priority as the old Karpov teams!

CB: From the Journal article you seem to blame just about everyone for the disaster before and around game five.

GK: It's not about blame, it's about looking at the recent history of FIDE and the top players. The facts speak for themselves. In 2003 my Yalta match with Ponomariov collapsed while Kramnik and many others expressed their sympathy for the way FIDE treated Ponomariov. I wonder if Kramnik would reconsider that support after what has happened to him in Elista. Ponomariov and Danailov, his manager don't forget, never denied they received money for the Yalta match. Playing was irrelevant to them as long as they got paid and that doesn't seem to have changed. I wonder if the players have already pocketed money from Elista.

CB: The match regulations say they don't get paid until after the match.

GK: Okay, but is there any way they won't be paid? The prize fund is split evenly, isn’t it guaranteed? Having seen what happened in Yalta it's hard to believe Danailov would threaten to walk away without any money.

CB: What about FIDE's role in all of this? Your article refers to Ilyumzhinov's failed plans.

GK: It's clear that the behavior of the players and the match officials is symptomatic of Ilyumzhinov's rule. Now he has to make sure to set things straight if he really means to correct these past disasters. When he cancelled Yalta there was no result to the match. I was left out in the cold after months of preparation and lost income. Here he must declare a winner if there are further disruptions. A referee can't lose control of a game or it will become like Netherlands-Portugal at the World Cup. The next time either player shows such behavior Ilyumzhinov should say, "Fine, the door is over there, goodbye" and the match is over. They should have thrown out the first Bulgarian protest immediately.

CB: Does that mean you think there will be more problems in the second half?

GK: It's very possible. Kramnik falling behind could cause a crisis, for example.

CB: Can we ask you for a prediction for the result?

GK: I'll only say that I hope the match and the title dispute end with the last game.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register