Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has never been much of a rabble-rouser. During the Cold War he was a loyal Soviet subject whose chess anthologies featured pictures of him harvesting wheat with a scythe -- for fun. He flirted with elected office in the 1990s, but has confined his public activism in the Vladimir Putin era largely to ecological and children's causes. He speaks in a gentle, nasal voice. He collects stamps.
But Karpov, whose battles with Garry Kasparov in the 1980s defined the game of kings for an era, is now at the epicenter of an escalating political imbroglio spreading through the already fractious world of international chess.
With the backing of his former nemesis Kasparov and national federations from the United States and Western Europe, Karpov is bidding to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as the president of the International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE. Ilyumzhinov is also the mercurial president of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia, which he runs as his own fiefdom. His tumultuous 15-year reign over world chess has seen a precipitous decline in the prestige of the title of World Chess Champion.
More than chess is at stake. Winning re-election could be crucial for Ilyumzhinov, whose fate as the president of Kalmykia is up in the air. Ilyumzhinov has run his quasi-autonomous, mostly Buddhist republic since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but is facing increasing criticism from the local opposition over persistent poverty in the region. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will have to decide whether to nominate him for another term this fall. "Even if he's not nominated for a new term, [the FIDE presidency] would allow him to remain a flashy, notable person of status," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Karpov, meanwhile, is promising to restore some of the international attention chess enjoyed for most of the last century. "The value of the title of world champion has been degraded, and the popularity isn't there," Karpov said in an interview last week. "No one knows who the world champion is anymore." (That would be Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, for those keeping score at home.)
But a funny thing happened on Karpov's road to the FIDE presidential election: The Kremlin's point man for chess snubbed him, declaring instead that Ilyumzhinov will be Russia's candidate for the post. The decision puts the government in the peculiar position of supporting a deeply eccentric, autocratic regional leader -- Ilyumzhinov claims to have once been briefly abducted by aliens and counts Muammar al-Qaddafi and Chuck Norris among his friends -- over one of Russia's greatest, and most politically loyal, sporting icons.
Why, exactly, is unclear, but the decision has prompted a revolt in the Russian Chess Federation. When the federation's supervisory council convened Friday in the ornate main playing hall of Moscow's Central Chess Club, a majority voted to nominate Karpov. But the meeting was subsequently declared "illegitimate" by Arkady Dvorkovich, the senior Kremlin aide who oversees the federation. Should Dvorkovich's decision stand, Karpov might end up running as a nominee from a European or North American federation.
The geopolitical overtones of all this are a throwback, however faint, to chess's Cold War glory days, when the game was as inextricable from matters of national pride and identity as the Olympics. In the West, Bobby Fischer's victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship was portrayed as a triumph of American individualism and self-discipline over the collectivism and powerful state sponsorship of the Soviet chess machine. Millions of Americans followed televised analysis of the intricate on-board maneuvering between the two grandmasters, inspiring a brief national infatuation with chess. The 1984-1985 Kasparov-Karpov duels were eerily symbolic of the perestroika era, with the young, rebellious Kasparov surviving a grueling series of games to eventually trump Karpov and the fading Soviet hierarchy that supported him.