Kovalyov case moves to Ethics Commission

by Macauley Peterson
10/7/2017 – It's tempting to make light of this affair by, for instance, referring to it as "the short(s) report". But when a tournament as prestigious as the FIDE World Cup is making international headlines for what amounts to dress code enforcement, it should be no laughing matter. We take a comprehensive look at the facts in evidence and Kovalyov's response to the previously published report. | Photo: Chess.com / Maria Emelianova (used with permission)

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Anton Kovalyov: The status quo

Last Sunday we published "The Kovalyov Report", a collection of interview fragments assembled by Georgian freelance journalist Ioseb Qipshidze at the behest of World Cup organiser Zurab Azmaiparashvili. The report reached no conclusions, but is a reflection of the views of its interview subjects. No effort was made to present Kovalyov's side of the dispute.

The story does not end there. The Chess Federation of Canada is actively pursuing a complaint about the matter with the FIDE Ethics Commission which convenes in Antalya on Monday at the 88th FIDE Congress. We spoke to Canadian representative to FIDE, Hal Bond, who will attend the meeting, and will present "the Canadian case" tomorrow.

The reader response to this ongoing story has been overwhelming. The "report" and our original post on the subject — "The shorts episode" — have been two of the three most commented stories in 2017! For this reason we'll return to it once more in a follow-up post, and present some of your discussion points, both from the public comments and those submitted via our feedback form.

But first, let's look at what we know, and try to break down the issues that the Ethics Commission will have to grapple with as they endeavor to ascertain the facts, then deliberate and come to a decision.

What we know

When seeking to establish facts, to some degree of confidence, it helps when the accounts provided by various witnesses agree. Part of the problem in this story, and why the situation is rife for speculation and interpretation, is there simply weren't very many witnesses. Perhaps the only person who was within earshot of the conversation between Kovalyov and Azmaiparashvili was photo journalist Maria Emelianova. Her photos of the incident have been widely shared and reproduced via social media and (with her permission) we include them here, chronologically. Since so much of this case revolves around the interior state of mind of the two protagonists, it's an important window into these crucial minutes of subjective experience.

Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Anton Kovalyov, photo by Chess.com / Maria Emelianova

Capturing the fateful discussion between Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Anton Kovalyov, minutes before the start of Round 3 | Photo: chess.com / Maria Emelianova, used with permission

Azmaiparashvili and the Chief Arbiter Tomasz Delega were both interviewed contemporaneously by ChessBase reporter IM Sagar Shah. These interviews are quite significant, as they occurred both very close in time to the actual events in question, and they represent first hand unedited testimony. They were also given in a very different context than the follow-up interiews provided to Qipshidze, which occurred roughly a week after the incident. By that point the full severity of Kovalyov's departure had become clear — it was making global headlines. For these reasons, the video interviews on the day ought to be regarded as more credible by the Ethics Commission.

1. The time and place

The conversation (which Kovalyov characterises rather as a confrontation or altercation) occurred in the playing hall between five and ten minutes prior to the start of the first game of the third round on September 9th. All those present agree on this basic fact.

2. The arbiter's warning

Chief Arbiter Delega is quoted in the Qipshidze report as saying, "this was the first time when I realized that he was wearing shorts, so I politely asked him to change his outfit before the game." He also gave a contemporaneous account to IM Sagar Shah:

Tomasz Delega interviewed in the lobby of the Hualing Hotel, outside the playing hall

Azmaiparashvili was aware that Delega had issued a warning about the dress code, because he briefly spoke to the Chief Arbiter after Delega's conversation with Kovalyov. The result of that exchange with Delega prompted Zurab to take matters into his own hands. He described the circumstances contemporaneously, again to Sagar Shah:

When I see the situation that the chief arbiter cannot solve it himself, I went to the player because — I'm not only here, not only Appeals Committee Chairman in this tournament, but also as the organiser of the tournament — I have a responsibility.

3. Kovalyov's previous attire

There were conflicting statements among the interviewees in Qipshidze's report regarding whether Kovalyov had worn shorts during the previous World Cup in Baku, as he contends:

Mr. Kovalyov claims, he was wearing shorts while playing The World Cup 2015 in Baku, but the Chief arbiter of that tournament Mr. Faiq Hasanov ensures us that it is not true.

This is then immediately contradicted by Azmaiparashivili, who's quoted saying "Mr. Kovalyov is correct. I have seen the proof of him playing The World Cup 2015 in Baku wearing shorts."

Indeed, this is simple to determine and one wonders why the question is left even remotely ambiguous. Kovalyov did wear shorts during the 2015 World Cup in Baku:

More significantly, it's clear that he wore shorts during the first two rounds in Tbilisi — in fact the identical pair he was criticised for in round three. There are multiple witnesses and photos establishing this. It is significant mainly insofar as it permits a reasonable expectation on Kovalyov's part that his attire was acceptable, in accordance with the regulations. If it were not, it would be reasonable for him to assume that he should have been notified during one of the first four days he competed in the tournament (two games in each of the first two rounds).

4. The dress code is imprecise

The World Cup regulations as well as the FIDE Handbook offer limited guidence:

Players are requested to note the requirements of FIDE Regulations C.01 (Article 8.1) in respect of their dignified appearance at all times during the World Cup.

Article 8.1, advises:

The image of the chess player should be a dignified one, and dressing properly would not only show respect for the game, but also to sponsors, potential or otherwise, to make it worth their while to spend their money.

The ambiguity is duly noted in the Qipshidze interviews. All three arbiters quoted acknowledge the potential benefit of clearer regulations. Deputy Chief Arbiter, Ashot Vardapetyan, questions whether it should be the responsibility of arbiters to enforce a dress code at all.

I believe that regulations must be changed and become more precise. I also want to say that the dress code is not connected to the arbiters, it’s not our responsibility. With the new regulations, it has to be clear who is responsible and how.

However, the dress code itself, its importance, and the interpretation of what is "dignified" is relevant primarily as it pertains to the state of mind of each of the participants. For example, it's clear from Azmaiparashili's subsequent interiew that he regarded Kovalyov's casual dress as a sign of disrespect, reflecting the wording of the FIDE Handbook.

The dress code is not particularly relevant, however, in and of itself, as Kovalyov was not forfeited for a dress code violation, and therefore there is nothing directly connected to the dress code for him to appeal. He did not leave the tournament in protest of the dress code.

5. Azmaiparashvili told Kovalyov that he resembles a "Gypsy"

The meaning, intention or implication of the term "gypsy" is disputed, but the basic fact that Azmaiparashvili told Kovalyov that he "looks like a Gypsy" is not. Kovalyov first made this claim in a lengthy statement on his Facebook profile:

Clearly he regarded it as both an insult and a racial slur. Whether one agrees with that judgement or not, it establishes Kovalyov's frame of mind which is relevant to the question of his motivation for leaving the tournament. In a follow-up post two days later, after he was back in the United States, he clarified a number of points, one of which is regarding his characterisation of Azmaiparashvili's intention.

Zurab used the word "gypsy" when referring to me multiple times. First he said that I look like one. Later on, when I inquired why he was so rude to me he did indeed respond "BECAUSE YOU'RE A GYPSY" [sic] and I believe he repeated this again when I was standing there in shock thinking what action to take. This was all done in a very condescending tone.

There is no corroboration that Azmaiparashili actually said "you're a Gypsy", but he himself acknowledged referring to Kovalyov looking like a Gypsy, in an interview with ChessBase India on September 10th:

I used the word "Gypsy" but not calling him "Gypsy". I used the word "you are dressed like Gypsy".

He went on to say that the word to him was synonymous with a "homeless person", and what he really meant was that Kovalyov "dressed like a clown — and only one thing missing for Anton is that, with this short pants, he have to also make a red nose."

He further denies any implication that the term signified racial or national prejudice:

Georgian people don't have a tradition to criticise or to insult some nation. There is not in our soul — and what is not in our soul, actually I cannot — if I grow up like this, I never grow up as some kind of racist. If somebody try today [to say] that I am a racist, this is a wrong approach and they will not succeed in this. But I apologize because this word for some people or some nations maybe it's very insulting. The meaning of the word they interpret differently, and that's why I have to make a clarificaiton of this word, why I used this. And I don't use "you are a Gypsy" again, because then maybe they could consider that I am insulting a nation. I use "you are dressed like a Gypsy" and that's why you have to change your clothes. And it was actually after this that he provoked me, he asked me "what is wrong with my dress."

Zurab Azmaiparashvili and Anton Kovalyov, photo by Chess.com / Maria Emelianova

The third frame sequentially of the heated discussion | Photo: Chess.com / Maria Emelianova (used with permission)

Emelianova could not be sure of what was said precisely, but did get the impression that Azmaiparashvili used "Gypsy" as a short-hand for describing Kovalyov's dress, and nothing more serious. Be that as it may, one can assume a generous interpretation of Azmaiparashvili's intent, and nevertheless safely conclude that his comment is a put down, meant to convey in no uncertain terms that Kovalyov was unwelcome in the playing hall dressed as he was. But beyond being unwelcome...

6. Kovalyov was threatened

In his September 11th Facebook post, Kovalyov outlines how he perceived the situation:

When Zurab approached me he didn't give me any warning. He assured me that I will be punished by FIDE. At that point I was shocked since I was not given any warning before. This was a huge shock for me before the game, since I don't know what "punished by FIDE" means. Will I be banned from playing chess? Will I get kicked out from the tournament? Will I be stripped away from my monetary prize? All of [these] questions crossed my mind. I knew that Zurab is the organizer of the tournament and an influential figure in FIDE, and in a prepotent way he yelled that he could do whatever he wants. So even after this threat I wasn't sure if there was point in playing my game. It was clear to me that I wasn't wanted there and Zurab wanted to destabilize me before my game.

One may doubt the characterisation used by Kovalyov as subjective ("he yelled", "he wanted to destabilize me"), but Azmaiparashvili himself acknowledges that he was issuing a de facto threat:

I asked Mr. Kovalyov to follow the dress code rule, and he said that previously he was also playing like this — at [the] previous World Cups and so on — and I said really I don't care how he played previously, but the Chief Arbiter asked him, and I am asking him also, to take a normal [pair of] pant[s] and [observe] the dress code in the playing hall. Otherwise, I told him that — the Chief Arbiter will make a report — I will make a report — and you will be punished by FIDE financially. Of course there is a financial punishment. Grandmaster Kovalyov [didn't] like this, and he left. But really I was thinking that finally he understood me, so he went to his room to change to the pants. But later we understand that he just became angry and he left the room and he didn't come back, which is really sad for me, because I don't like it when some players are getting a point like this [referring to Maxim Rodshtein -Ed.], and it is not good generally for the tournament. But if it's a sacrifice for the dress code, I'm in favor that we follow the dress code...

Excerpt from the full interview on September 9th with Zurab Azmaiparashvili | Source: ChessBase India

7. Kovalyov had no prior intention of leaving

In the immediate aftermath of the incident and Kovalyov's departure, Azmaiparashvili sought to portray Kovalyov's decision to leave as premeditated, in a statement on the World Cup web site:

It is not appropriate for a chess player to declare a day before that he intentionally came with only one shorts and that he is ready to leave, because he has other more important obligations. Indeed, he left the tournament as he stated that he wished to do so only one day before!

Azmaiparashvili cited an interview (in Russian) with Evgeny Surov's Chess-News.ru, and concluded from it, that it was Kovalyov's intention to leave the tournament.

UTD logoAlthough Kovalyov did express that his primary activity was being a full-time student, he clearly intended to remain as long as he was advancing in the World Cup. There was speculation that he was under pressure not to miss too many days of classes, but that is dubious for two reasons:

  1. The semester had just started.
  2. Kovalyov studies at the University of Texas Dallas under a chess scholarship. It's not plausible that he could face serious academic repercussions as a result of excelling at his sport at the highest level.

Flight itinerary

Moreover, already on September 7th, after defeating Anand, he had rebooked his flight for September 12th. This itinerary [click or tap to expand] is from the email confirmation of his travel agency, and is among several similar emails which Kovalyov shared with ChessBase, to detail his travel timeline.

As is common among underdog participants in the World Cup, Kovalyov initially booked a return flight on September 6th, to use in the event he was eliminated in the first round.

After getting past Varuzhan Akobian on September 4th, he rebooked a flight out on the 10th departing Tbilisi at 10:55 AM. Once he advanced to the third round, he changed his plans for a third time as noted, and finally — after the incident with Azmaiparashvili — Kovalyov purchased a new one-way ticket at a cost of 516 Euro (around USD $605) with which he eventually left the country, on Qatar Airways' 2:35 AM departure on Sunday the 10th, after forfeiting his third round game.

So, this was actually his fourth itinerary change, with the total flight expense of at least USD $1,825. Only the last change is unusual — the pattern of rebooking round-by-round is not atypical, especially when he could anticipate facing Anand in round two!

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Now that we have laid out the relevant facts that we know with confidence, the situation becomes more challenging to analyse. No new witnesses have come forward to help corroborate the pair's disparate accounts of the substance and tone of the encounter. I contacted two players on a tip that they might have witnessed the exchange — Alexandr Lenderman and David Navara — but unfortunately neither of them was nearby. Navara did however provide some relevant perspective:

In fact, I was not the eye witness. On the contrary, I was perhaps the last person who learned about the scandal. Well, there is this photo of me communicating with Anton 10 minutes before the game. I just asked him what was his native language. I paid no attention to his clothes at all. Instead, I realized I forgot my tie in the room and went back for it...I played the longest game of the round, still not knowing anything. When a friend told me what had happened, I thought he was joking. It sounded absurd to me.

Kovalyov and Navara

To be honest, I think that coming to the World Cup just with shorts is not completely appropriate, but shouting at a player before the start of his game is certainly even less so. There were many better ways to deal with the problem. I hope Anton gets his money, even though he does not want it. Well, perhaps with some small deduction, but he has deserved his prize by winning his first two matches and he should therefore get the money. Anton is an honest man and I understand and appreciate that principles are more important for him than money, but those two values are not always mutually exclusive, even though in some cases they might be. Many employees dislike their bosses and still rightfully take money for their work.

It is not clear whether it's fair to say that Azmaiparashvili "yelled". Kovalov certainly experienced it that way:

Zurab was yelling at me at all times during our "conversation", if you can call it that way. He "talked" to me in a very prepotent and condescending tone. I remained respectful till I couldn't take it anymore, and before doing anything impulsive I thought about the consequences and decided to leave. It was clear that Zurab was provoking me, it was obvious that I was upset and he kept repeating the same threats and insults. There were some people in the playing hall at that time, if you heard something, please speak up.

Azmaiparashvili explains this away as the general character of his voice:

When he using word that I 'shout' this is not correct again, because my voice unfortunately is very loud. Even sometimes people aske me to speak [quietly but] it's not for me. Any kind of word I say, in fifteen minutes people will hear about this, so it's not my style. And probably he wants to interpret in Facebook that I really shouted. This was not like this.

Emelianova, was standing fairly close to the conversation, and characterised Azmaiparashvili as having "exploded" to Qipshidze:

Of course he shouldn’t have exploded next to the player, especially before the game, but I also understand that Mr. Azmaiparashvili is under a lot of pressure organizing this event. In my opinion Mr. Kovalyov also overreacted.

However, others in the room do not claim to have heard the exchange at all.

Kovalyov's response

In response to our request for comment on the published report by Qipshidze, Kovalyov sent us the following via email:

It seems like a pretty one sided article, which is not surprising having in mind the people involved in it. I wasn't wearing beach shorts, so exaggerating in order to sound more convincing is basically defamation. I really don't know what else to say other than repeat myself. Maybe if you work for the organizers of the tournament or FIDE in general, being insulted, threatened and yelled at multiple times is not a big deal. I don't work for these scumbags and I don't plan to, so I will not tolerate such treatment. I am still not sure what will be my next step regarding this situation, but this cannot be left unpunished.

He then followed up, unsolicited, on October 2nd:

I would like to propose the following idea: if dressing classy is so important in chess why not to include it as a an extra attribute in the chessbase database? This could also be used as an extra tie-break system in tournaments called "Player's disrespect level" or just PDL. A PDL close to 0% means that the player was dressed extremely classy for the whole tournament. Also when having such a field in chessbase, player's can have a more complete preparation for their opponents, and it can be a consolation prize for those that can't beat their opponents over the board, beating them at least in something...

What comes next?

Attendees to the 88th FIDE Congress are arriving in Antalya today, and the Congress officially gets underway tomorrow. The Ethics Commission convenes on Monday, at 9:00 AM local time, according to the schedule.

Tomorrow we'll look into the argument that may be presented to the panel by the representative of the Chess Federation of Canada.

Update October 8: "The Canadian Case"

FIDE congress banner

Correction: The initial version of this story gave the wrong University of Texas as the location of Kovalyov's current graduate studies. It is UT Dallas, not UT Rio Grand Valley, where he previously studied. Both have chess teams / scholarships.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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