FIDE's Riyadh Gambit

by Macauley Peterson
12/26/2017 – The World Rapid Championship attracted significant international media attention as it began on Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but the focus was mostly centred around the absence of Women's World Rapid and Blitz Champion Anna Muzychuk, and all players from Israel, who were denied visas to travel to the country. | Photo: riyadh2017.fide.com

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Record prize fund, controversial venue

This year's rapid and blitz championships are hosted in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. The tournaments, renamed the 'King Salman World Rapid & Blitz Championship', take place from December 26th to 30th at the Apex Convention Center, and are endowed with a record $2 million prize fund. The open rapid and blitz championships each account for $750,000, and the two Women's World Championships each receive $250,000, split between 30 prizes in each tournament. First prize in the open is $250,000 , and in women's tournaments $80,000. By comparison, the total prize fund in 2016 was $400,000 for the open tournament and $80,000 for the women's tournament.

Pecunia non olet

The relatively large prize funds will provide a funding bonanza for FIDE, which receives 20% of the prize money per the event bidding guidelines. Such a lucrative offer, and a lack of other bids, made it an appealing opportunity. The record prize fund has also attracted most of the world's best players. The number of players in the open competition was limited to 250 with a minumum Elo rating of 2600, and 134 have turned up to play in the rapid portion. In the women's tournament the limit was 150 with a minum of 2300, and 100 players are currently on the list. The organizers offered a large number of top players free accommodation and travel.

But the choice is not without controversy. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is embroiled in a civil war in neighboring Yemen, and is rated poorly by human rights watchdog groups like Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

On November 4th, a missile from Yemen was reportedly intercepted en route to the Riyadh airport, the transit point for nearly all players, and just a few kilometers from the venue. Another missile was shot down headed for the capital, just last week. No one was injured in these attempts.

While chess has become increasingly popular in other countries of the Arab world in recent years and many international tournaments have been organized in the region, Saudi Arabia has been noteably absent until now. On the FIDE list of countries, averaging the ten best players, Saudi Arabia ranked 134th among men, with a total of 55 players counted. The highest rated is Ahmed Al Ghamdi (2159).

FIDE countries list

The numbers at right show the average rating, number of GMs, number of IMs, and total titled players | Source: FIDE

A women's ranking does not exist for Saudi Arabia, as no woman in the KSA has ever participated in a rated international chess tournament.

In recent months, the leadership of the country now seems intent on some sort of liberalisation, led by the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as "M.B.S."), and the implementation of an international chess tournament is one small example. The KSA has undertaken an "anticorruption drive" which has impressed foreign leaders and commentators from President Trump to Thomas Friedman. In November, the government detained around 200 prominant members of the royal family and business leaders at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh on corruptions charges, of which 23 were recently released.

In September it was announced that the ban on women driving cars would be lifted in June 2018. Women were first allowed to vote in the country in 2015.

Women's World Champion in rapid and blitz, Anna Muzychuk, cited safety concerns as well as the treatment of women in the country when she announced her decision to skip the event, just two days after FIDE disclosed the chosen venue on November 9th. She followed that up with an empassioned lament on Facebook, yesterday:

Muzychuk's concerns were partially addressed when FIDE reached an agreement with the organisers on a dress code for women which called for "dark blue or black formal trouser suits, with high necked white blouses". Outside of the playing hall and the hotel, women would still need to observe local dress code laws, including wearing an abaya. That is, arguably, an improvement over the situation at the 2017 Women's World Championship in Tehran, where players were requred to wear a hijab while competing.

(Quasi) gens una sumus

Another issue which proved insurmountable was the procurement of visas for players from Israel, which has no diplomatic ties with the KSA. FIDE mounted a successful effort to secure visas for a few players from Qatar, as confirmed by GM Mohamed Al-Medaihki, one of the organisers of the previous World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Doha:

Al-Medaihki had previously tweeted that Qatari players had been denied visas, so the situation must have been resolved at the last moment. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have had tense diplomatic relations since June, when the KSA along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties to Qatar, and the KSA closed the only land border to the peninsular nation.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, and citing the FIDE motto gens una sumus, FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos said, "we are one family and we believe that our sport should develop peace and friendship among the people." Bridging national and sectarian differences is a noble aspiration. But Israelis entering Saudi Arabia to play under a flag of blue stripes and a Star of David proved to be a bridge to far.

Georgios Makropoulos

Georgios Makropoulos at the opening ceremony | Photo: riyadh2017.fide.com

Prominent Israeli GM Emil Sutovsky, expressed skepticism over the decision to host the events in Riyadh and its adherance to FIDE Statutes right from the outset. He argued in a Facebook post on November 10th, that the competition in the KSA was likely to clash with the "status, principles and aims of FIDE", specifically point 1.2a:

FIDE events (competitions, congresses, meetings) may be hosted only by Federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all Federations.

The Association of Chess Professionals, which Sutovsky heads, moved swiftly to condemn the choice of host nation, and also charged that "FIDE hides the fact that the agreement to stage the Championships in Saudi Arabia is for the span of three years — and this makes the things even worse."

Indeed, the process for awarding the championships has been far from transparent. The players list for the rapid tournament was released only on Tuesday morning, just a few hours before the start of the first rapid round. If FIDE were desperate for a sponsor / host for the tournament, that would explain awarding this year's tournaments on short notice, but not inking a three-year deal.

FIDE officials had privately expressed optimism over the past month that visas would be forthcoming for five to seven Israeli players who affirmatively requested to participate in Riyadh, based on discussions with the organisers and Saudi officials.

But as the competition approached it became clear that this was not going to happen. The Israeli Chess Federation set a deadline of December 16th for the matter to be clarified, but the day came and went with no action on visas. Even afterwards, some within Israel held out hope that a solution would be found. But in the end, Sutovsky's skepticism was fully justified. The spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy to the US in Washington DC put out this statement on Sunday:

From Iran, only IM Sarasadat Khademalsharieh qualified, but she decided not to travel to Saudi Arabia, without attempting to obtain a visa. Presumably she would have encountered a similar difficulty, though we can't know for certain.

The Israeli Chess Federation distributed a harshly worded letter, signed by its chariman, Zvika Barkai, and sent to FIDE on Tuesday, making several demands, including the cancellation of the three-year agreement, and compensation for affected Israeli grandmasters.

FIDE Vice President Israel Gelfer, who normally toes the party line when it comes to FIDE's official positions, has been surprisingly strident in denouncing the agreement, noting that he "never believed [the Saudis] would go so far and give visas", and adding, "The contract should never have been signed so early." This has the potential to turn into a point of contention at next year's General Assembly in Batumi.

Not surprisingly, the issue has, rather unfortunately, come to dominate the international press attention from the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, and scores of other outlets.

Players indifferent

None of the above dissuaded the bulk of the world's elite from attending, with the notable exception of Hikaru Nakamura, who immediately reacted to FIDE's November 9th announcement.

But 20 out of the top 30 players are there, and aside from Nakamura, none of those absent (Lenier Dominguez, Vladimir Kramnik, Anish Giri, Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana, Dmitry Jakovenko, David Navara, Michael Adams and Gata Kamsky) have publically taken any sort of stand in protest. Nakamura's fellow American top-tenners, So and Caruana, have simply pointed to scheduling conflicts. The short window between the annoucement and the tournaments taking place is obviously problematic, but that would be true regardless of the location.

The USA is a key ally of the KSA, so obtaining a visa would be no issue, though the US State Department does currently warn Americans to "carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing threats from terrorist groups and the threat of ballistic missile attacks on civilian targets by rebel forces in Yemen." Only GM Irina Krush (in the Women's tournament) and GM Varuzhan Akobian have travelled to Riyadh from the USA. (IM Anna Zatonskih plays for the USA, but lives in Germany.)

Magnus Carlsen's manager, FM Espen Agdestein, was quoted saying:

"[Magnus] will play the championship, and [is as] apolitical as he is a chess player. Norway has no sanctions against Saudi-Arabia and Norwegian politicians and corporate business are dealing with the country".

Carlsen has even brought two of his sisters with him to Riyadh.

Sergei Karjakin, the World Blitz Champion, expressed no reservations when I asked him about it in November at the Kings Tournament in Romania:

"For me it's not a big problem because I'm a man and I can go anywhere and I don't have big problems, but for women of course it's a bit unpleasant, but basically I don't see anything so complicated for them to play because it's not a [long] tournament like the World Cup — it's just four days and you can come and play and forget about this — and the prizes are huge for chess. Of course it's maybe not the best place which it could have been, but it's not a big problem."

One participant privately even sought to draw an equivalence between Saudi Arabia and the United States when it comes to human rights and travel restrictions — exhibiting a jarring ignorance of historical context and a perverse application of moral relativism.

On the bright side

The playing hall itself looks impressive, and several players on the live webcast, including co-leader Baadur Jobava and Viswanathan Anand, were effusive in their praise of the tournament's organisation.

Playing hall

Players during the first day of the rapid | Photo: riyadh2017.fide.com

Another plus: roughly $400,000 FIDE contribution will go a long way toward funding FIDE's operations, irrespective of what happens with the still-opaque Agon / World Chess contract for the World Championship cycle.

The tournament is running high-profile advertisements on television, and no one has taken issue with the official logo.

Trophies

...and the trophies are rather alluring | Photo: riyadh2017.fide.com

After five rounds, Vladimir Fedoseev is in first place, but with ten more rounds to go, anything can happen. Among the women, Chinese GM Ju Wenjun leads with a perfect score. Play resumes on Wednesday at 12:00 Noon CET (6:00 AM EST). Follow it live.

Standings after round five (top 20)

Rk. Name Pts.  TB1 
1 Fedoseev Vladimir 4,5 0,0
2 Jobava Baadur 4,5 0,0
3 Grischuk Alexander 4,0 0,0
4 Ponkratov Pavel 4,0 0,0
5 Svidler Peter 4,0 0,0
6 Kravtsiv Martyn 4,0 0,0
7 Kuzubov Yuriy 4,0 0,0
8 Fressinet Laurent 4,0 0,0
9 Anand Viswanathan 4,0 0,0
10 Rapport Richard 4,0 0,0
11 Cheparinov Ivan 4,0 0,0
12 Bu Xiangzhi 3,5 0,0
13 Bosiocic Marin 3,5 0,0
14 Carlsen Magnus 3,5 0,0
15 Ni Hua 3,5 0,0
16 Wang Hao 3,5 0,0
17 Quparadze Giga 3,5 0,0
18 Van Foreest Jorden 3,5 0,0
19 Leko Peter 3,5 0,0
20 Wang Yue 3,5 0,0

...134 players

Correction, December 27th: An earlier reference to Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh issuing a 'fatwa' (an Islamic legal opinion) was based on obsolete reporting. The video refrerenced in linked articles circulated widely in 2016, including in international mainstream media, however it showed older comments from Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh which had resurfaced and were incorrect. See for instance The Guardian.

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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.