Thursday, April 20, 2006

The New Yorker's "Planet Kirsan"

If you have not had a chance to read anything about the way FIDE president and "king of Kalmykia" Kirsan Ilyumzhinov runs his country, then Michael Specter's article "Planet Kirsan: Inside a Chess Master's Fiefdom" (The New Yorker, April 24, 2006) makes an excellent starting point. Though Specter does not discuss at any length Ilyumzhinov's work as FIDE president or his ongoing battle with Bessel Kok in the upcoming election (as covered at ChessBase News), one has to wonder why this rich and crazy ideologue should be the international face of chess, predicted by some to easily win reelection. My only answer is that where the electorate is disengaged from politics (how many of us--myself included--have any idea or any interest in how FIDE elections actually work?), and the current president is doing everything possible to keep us disengaged (with a sudden flurry of work at reorganizing the championship and reunifying the crown), then it is easy to stay in power. Ilyumzhinov's focus in his country on building Buddhist temples and other religious institutions and giving chess training to all his citizen seems all part of the same design: to keep Kalmykians quiet and mollified so that they are not so interested in politics.

Though the game as we have it in the West depicts two warring feudal families, chess takes us outside of the political realm and, in fact, offers most players a refuge from conflict. As Alexander Cockburn writes in his book Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, reflecting on the parallel investment in chess by the former Soviet state:

"One great advantage of the game, though it may not have occurred to the policy makers initially, is that it is nonpolitical--in fact it is profoundly quietist. Chess, after all, is played at remote control, in correspondence chess, or one to one. It is silent. It is nonfigurative, in the sense that it is conducted purely in its own terms, not in generally current concepts or political or cultural ideas. Therefore...there was no possibility of bringing people collectively together in the expression of revolutionary ideas which might be subversive or discommoding to the political leadership" (Cockburn 149).

By building a nation of chessplayers, Kirsan is, at least in part, working to discourage opposition. And "with as much as seventy per cent of the labor force unemployed" and a "a man-made desert" landscape that makes traditional farming and sheep herding more and more difficult (Specter 113), the super-rich Ilyumzhinov has practically built a feudal state where nearly everyone owes him peonage. His grip on power seems absolute.

I first read about Ilyumzhinov and Kalmykia in J.C. Hallman's rather rambling but interesting book The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game (in the chapter "Illuminating Ilyumzhinov"). In Hallman's account, many citizens are not simply disengaged but openly fearful of speaking their minds. And with a man in office who is an open admirer of Saddam Hussein's ability to "hold it all together" in Iraq with the "Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds" (Specter 114), it's easy to see why. He is seeking to build a kingdom not much different from one of the Arab states with oil as his source of wealth and the citizenry dependent upon him for their livelihoods. Chess is both a symbol of and a tool for maintaining his king-like stature in an increasingly feudal order.

That chessplayers, who have always followed the money (even to Libya and other unsavory locales), should willingly allow themselves to become pawns in his game troubles me. Yet, surveying the current landscape of funding for the game, I can see why so many are willing to follow him....


Blogger Chessbuff said...

The article in the New Yorker also reported on Ilyumzhinov's belief or fascination with extra-terrestial beings. As I recall, Ilyunzhinov declared that he was given a space suit and then toured around an alien spaceship by extra-terrestial beings. The when and where of this alien abduction and open house wasn't specified, but Kirsan could entertain the media at the Kramnik-Topalov Match with such particulars when that match turns out to be disastrous for his pet, Veselin. The writer also fished out an old tire from the swamps and that is the murder of a journalist who was critical of Ilyumzhinov's--let's call it--- management style. Although two men were arrested and convicted for that crime, one wonders if Ilyumzhinov had a hand in it. He might have been in outer space at that time, you see?

Sat Apr 22, 02:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Patrick said...

This idea of governments to use religion's promise of afterlife salvation to deaden sensitivity to oppressive conditions prompted Nietzsche famously to label religion as the "opiate of the masses". It strikes me as odd to consider that label as regarding chess, but that is a fault i ascribe to the impatient and nonintellectual masses, not to chess. But i suppose promoting chess-as-an-anesthetic would be easier in a country with scarcer supply of digital morphines such as MTV , Tivo, and XBox. One could make the case that we are not much different (in the USA), except that we work in cubicles instead of dusty fields and our opiate is more refined & potent.

Sun Apr 23, 06:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

I think it was Marx who said it first, but, yes, the idea is that religion and chess have the same pacifying effects as opiates. I don't think that's to say they are not intellectual pursuits -- in fact, it's that they are rich enough to distract us from what sometimes is more materially and immediately important in our world....

Sun Apr 23, 06:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Patrick said...

True enough. In my vain (double meaning) effort to sound like a smartypants i misattributed the quote.

Sun Apr 23, 07:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

I had a further thought the other day and thought I'd add it here. Basically, it strikes me that the way Kirsan runs his country is exactly parallel to the way he is running FIDE. By not working to create other sources of wealth in his country besides his own, he is making his citizens completely dependent upon him. His money finances everything. There are no other revenue streams for his people. Even the expected oil revenue will flow through his purse. That's how kings gain their power. Similarly with FIDE, he has done nothing to create alternative sources of funding for chess. He may appear generous in personally sponsoring the World Championship match, but he does it so that everyone depends upon him. There is no real opportunity for growth and the highest ranking professional players become his peons.... Pretty sinister when you think about it.

Fri May 05, 12:52:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right now, nobody on St Kiits and Nevis can even play in the 2006 World Chess Championship becasue Kirsan was too lazy to inculde us on the agenda. FIDE has become so corrupt, so pompus, that HAVE JUST PAID A SWISS LAW FIRM 7,000 dollars to FORCE FIDE TO LET US PLAY.

Kirsan is a murder and a dictator. He cares only of himself.

We intend to NOT work with the FIDE President and obstruct his efforts to unite world chess. We intend to overthrow Kirsan's chess government if he continues his racists policies to keep a black nation out of chess.

I have millions of dollars backing my position. We will win in cout. Kirsan has gone POWER MAD in trying to ban a soverign nation from the Olympics.

Marcus Roberts
Charleston Chess Association, LLC
St Kitts and Nevis
The West Indies

Fri Jun 02, 07:19:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a bit strange that they wouldnt let St Kitts and Nevis play if you could afford to attend the olympiad. Plenty of countries that financially struggle in chess terms were allowed to compete.

Sun Jun 04, 02:21:00 AM EDT  

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