The election campaign has plot elements worthy of a John Le Carré novel: double-crosses, and accusations of stolen secret documents and self-dealing.
At stake is the presidency of an organization that presides over a small corner of the gaming world: the World Chess Federation. The body oversees international chess championships and controls tournaments and sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars and championships that are the grail of nationalistic aspirations.
The principal characters also seem drawn from fiction. There is a former world-chess champion, now a Russian opposition leader; a former president of an obscure Russian republic who believes he was abducted by extraterrestrials in yellow suits who invented chess; and an ex-fashion photographer-turned-chess official who would like the first two candidates to be disqualified.
The latest intrigue focuses on corruption accusations by the two candidates for the federation’s presidency, Garry Kasparov, the former champion and Russian opposition figure, and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the incumbent president and self-described space-alien abductee.
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Such charges would normally hardly raise an eyebrow in the world of organized chess. What has rocked even the jaded chess world this time are signed contracts posted online that each candidate contends proves dirty dealing by the other. Each candidate, while not denying his signature on the contract in question, claims his contract has been misinterpreted.
Even the Icelandic grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson, an éminence grise of the chess world and former federation president, could only shake his head.
“Things are not as they should be,” he said. “There are too many problems that have nothing to do with chess.”
Kasparov has long been a critic of Ilyumzhinov, saying his odd beliefs and his friendships with controversial world leaders — including Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi and President Bashar Assad — have hurt the credibility of the federation and scared away would-be sponsors. He and others in the chess world have long accused Ilyumzhinov of corruption.
But there was never any proof until two weeks ago, when a memo was leaked to The Sunday Times of London and various chess-news websites. In the memo, Ilyumzhinov and Andrew Paulson, the ex-fashion photographer, agreed to divvy up any profits of a new company created to stage the world’s premier chess events.
The chess federation, controlled by Ilyumzhinov, had awarded the company a no-bid contract in 2012 for the rights to organize, find sponsors and market the world chess championship, the World Cup and the Grand Prix for 11 years. The rights are potentially worth millions of dollars.
According to the memo, signed by both men, Paulson would manage the company, called Agon, and own 49 percent, and Ilyumzhinov would own 51 percent. Ilyumzhinov would also provide startup capital of up to $2 million and be repaid, with interest, out of any profits. Ilyumzhinov and Paulson acknowledge the contract published online is real but say it never took effect and Ilyumzhinov never became an owner.
Ilyumzhinov, referring to the federation by its French acronym, FIDE, added in an email: “All that I sign that relates to FIDE, has to go through the board. … I did not and will not sign anything that is not supported and approved by FIDE.”
But this contract had not been approved by the board. The federation’s deputy president, Georgios Makropoulos, said the deal was “just one of many proposals” and had been rejected.
claimed the contract had been stolen off his computer by a former employee who was hired away by the Kasparov campaign.
In the end, he said, he remained the company’s sole owner, a fact confirmed by corporate records on the Isle of Jersey, where Agon was incorporated in 2012.
he was thinking of running for president of the federation because he thinks Ilyumzhinov should be replaced, just not by Kasparov. “I would say that this screams that I am independent,” he wrote in an email.
If the accusation of a purloined contract sounds familiar to the chess world, it is because Kasparov and his campaign leveled the same accusation about another secret contract disclosed three weeks ago.
A leaked draft of that contract — between Kasparov and Ignatius Leong, the general secretary of the federation, and reported by The New York Times — shows what appears to be a vote-buying scheme for the federation’s upcoming presidential election in August. The final contract eliminated a direct payment of $500,000 to Leong but retained a donation of up to $1 million from a foundation controlled by Kasparov to a foundation owned by Leong.
The full payment was contingent on Kasparov’s election, with Leong, who is from Singapore, promising to deliver a minimum of 11 votes from his region, “with the effort to deliver 15 votes.”
The federation has a one-country, one-vote, policy, and there are about 175 voting members. The contract also said Kasparov promised to open a new federation office in Singapore, to be run by Leong, for which he would be paid an undisclosed amount.
That contract might also explain why Leong, who for years had been Ilyumzhinov’s most trusted lieutenant in Asia, jumped ship and joined Kasparov’s campaign in October.
The contract with Kasparov was signed in September.
Kasparov, through his campaign spokesman, Mig Greengard, said that someone who had administrative access to Leong’s FIDE account stole the draft contract and leaked it.
Neither Kasparov nor Leong, however, has denied the deal, and Kasparov posted the final contract on his election website last month.
Leong has refused to comment.
The key players all have strong ties to Russia, where chess is a matter of national pride and powerful political interest. While there has been no sign of Kremlin involvement in the election this year, the Russian government has stepped in before on behalf of Ilyumzhinov, who was appointed by the Kremlin as president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, and against Kasparov, a noted Kremlin political opponent.
With both candidates this year under ethical clouds, Olafsson said the federation stood to be the election’s biggest loser.
The scandals scare away potential sponsors, he said. “My impression is that companies do not want to come near chess because they feel it is corrupted.”