In the imagination of the public and in the corridors of power, chess is a Russian pursuit. In the post-war era, the World Championship has been held by Soviet or Russian grandmasters for almost 75 per cent of the time, and after the USSR’s dissolution, its has managed to retain its political sway, holding the office of President of Fide since 1995.
But when Arkady Dvorkovich, the former Russian deputy prime minister and the country’s 2018 World Cup tsar, announced that he was planning to run for a second term in 2022 despite the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, one Ukrainian decided it was time to stand up.
“When I saw Dvorkovich was trying to get re-elected despite everything that has happened, I couldn’t believe it,” Andrii Baryshpolets, a challenger at this Sunday’s Fide presidential election, told in over the phone from Chennai, India, where he is campaigning on the sidelines of the Chess Olympiad.
“But there was no good and viable alternative, so I decided to offer a choice.”
The 31-year-old from Kyiv who works for PWC in Los Angeles is a grandmaster himself, but he was not a prominent figure in the contentious world of chess politics before he broke ranks to challenge Russia’s dominance.
“It was disappointing that Dvorkovich was elected in 2018, but after the full scale Russian aggression, it’s not possible to think he is suitable.” Mr Baryshpolets said.
Chess has dealt with the war in an idiosyncratic way. Dvorkovich himself faced blowback within Russia for saying his “thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians”, and Sergei Karjakin, a former world championship challenger, was handed a six month ban for expressing very pro-war sentiments (The ban is about to elapse, which ” doesn’t make sense”, Baryshpolets says, because “nothing has changed”.)
Other Russians were allowed to continue competing under a neutral flag, including Ian Nepomniachtchi, the 2021 challenger who will compete again in 2023 for the title. Some players have fled, some have stayed silent and some have voiced criticism of the war in whatever terms they can manage.
One major fear for many members of the chess world outside Russia is that Dvorkovich could be sanctioned, given his close ties to the Kremlin, or at a minimum that big companies outside Russia will be wary of partnering with a global organization led by a former member of Putin’s administration.
Chess is experiencing the tail end of a pandemic boom kicked off by a generation with more free time taking up the game, and . But it’s Russian companies such as nuclear provider Rosatom, fertilizer maker PhosAgro and airline Aeroflot – all with strong Kremlin links – whose logos have become familiar at major tournaments.
It was a standing start, but Mr Baryshpolets had a surprise secret weapon. His running mate is Peter Heine Nielsen, the prominent Danish Fide critic who is also the most successful chess coach of all time. His current employer is the only man more powerful than the Fide president in the chess world: five-time champion Magnus Carlsen.
On the brink of missing a nomination deadline, the quasi-superhuman Norwegian pawn-pusher leveraged his 669,000 Twitter followers (compared to Baryshpolets’ hundreds) two ashes: “Chess federations of the Americas! Can one of you please pledge your support to the Baryshpolets/Nielsen ticket so [Nielsen] can focus on prep instead?”
It worked, although Carlsen, who has withdrawn from his next title defense but remains an active player, has not otherwise joined the campaign, Mr Baryshpolets said.
In fact, the Ukrainian’s battle has largely been a lonely one. Dvorkovich marshals the might of the global Fide organization and in a previous election, the Kremlin was even revealed to have applied diplomatic pressure on Israel’s government to shore up support.
But Mr Baryshpolets didn’t even gain the support of the president of Ukraine’s chess federation when he asked. Nor is he well connected with Volodymyr Zelensky or other prominent figures in his home country. “I’ve had no direct contact with the government or people in political power,” he said, “although of course I give a lot of interviews in Ukraine.”
He’s “not a chess politician”, by his own admission – he is just a member of the chess world who couldn’t see a candidate that shared his disappointment with Dvorkovich’s continued leadership and his desire to bring a new openness to the game.
“Chess had an image of being an exclusively Soviet sport, but chess is booming in many countries: China, India, Iran, the US, many European countries,” he said. “It has already become a global game, but Fide is still stuck under Russian influence.”
“It’s a vicious cycle. if we have Russian politicians in charge, then it will be more difficult to change Fide to make it more open. I want to win to open up positions to people from Africa and South America, wherever the best people are.”
The odds are against Baryshpolets and his fellow challengers Inalbek Cheripov and Bachar Kouatly. Arkady Dvorkovich is popular in some quarters, especially outside chess’s alternative metropolises in Europe and the US, and his running mate, former world champion Viswanathan Anand, gives him added draw in countries that look to India’s huge and burgeoning chess scene.
But Baryshpolets, who has launched a website with a full range of proposed advisers and policies, will try. “People have started to disbelieve that it’s possible to win the election” against Russian hegemony, he said. “The chess world is stuck in a bad habit.”
That has to change, sooner or later.