Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has accomplished a lot in 20 years: he reunited the chess world, which many thought had been split irrevocably; he defeated two great world champions, Karpov and Kasparov, on the political battlefield; he made Bobby Fischer cry; and gave Spassky a new lease on life. He was the only person with whom Vasily Smyslov would share the details of his alien encounter – the same aliens that Ilyumzhinov chatted to one night. But our conversation started on a more topical note.
– What does the World Chess Federation mean to you now?
– It means everything to me. It means an indescribable love for chess. It means pride for everything that I have accomplished. I don’t have time for sleep – I never did. I live on planes. And why do I do it? I tell myself: “Listen, Kirsan, you made a promise 20 years ago to make chess the number one sport in the world. So that’s what you’ve got to do!” What was the state of affairs in the world of chess in 1995? It was a mess! Chess was popular in the former USSR, but when it collapsed, interest waned. It had a following in a few European countries, was somewhat popular in the United States, Cuba and the Philippines… and that was it! No one else was interested in chess. Now I go to Mexico, assure the President that we are the future, hold chess lessons at a few schools. One year later and chess is part of the compulsory sports education in every single one of the country’s 200,000 schools. And that’s what I do all over the world.
– How do you get kids interested in playing with those little figurines?
– We are living in the age of bright and colourful video games. But, given the right approach, kids still prefer to move knights and bishops around a chessboard than be a “hero” in Defense of the Ancients. And I am not ashamed of anything I have done over these past 20 years. I only wish that I had done more. But, unfortunately, I’ve got to sleep sometimes. If I could have dedicated all of those hours to developing chess as well, then I would have achieved more. The chess world has faith in me, otherwise I would not have defeated Karpov, and then Kasparov – two of the greatest champions ever to grace this earth. The people chose me, and I’m ready to spend the next 20 years working to popularise our sport.
– And what about you? You’ve got to think about yourself as well.
– I love what I do, and I don’t care how it affects my health or how much of my own money I have to spend on it. I’ve got no intention of taking a Rolls-Royce or Rolex to the grave with me. I want to leave a legacy behind. Right now, 600 million people across the globe understand the rules of chess. We want to make that figure one billion.
– What is the most memorable meeting you have ever had?
– For me, probably the greatest and most mysterious person to have ever played the game was the eleventh World Chess Champion, Robert James Fischer. I don’t think chess would have been the same without him. I’ve told the story of how we met on countless occasions, and I’m still amazed that I somehow had the acumen to pull the meeting off. This is how it happened…
Bobby was aggrieved with the whole world and he was demanding royalties from the Soviet magazine Fizkultura i sport [“Physical Culture and Sport] because it had published a book called Sixty Memorable Chess Games. He wanted the money owed to him under copyright law. I won’t tell you how I came up with the idea, but I decided to pay him out of my own pocket, $100,000. To be honest, I was prepared to pay one hundred times that amount. Having a real-life meeting with Bobby Fischer is like meeting God!
– He didn’t ask you to simply wire the money to him?
– He didn’t trust banks. He saw deceit and collusion everywhere. So I flew to Budapest to meet him with a plastic bag full of cash. We met in the flat of Andor Lilienthal, a well-known Grandmaster in his own right. I told the story about how I brought Fischer black caviar, Russian bread and Stolichnaya vodka a thousand times. I’ve recalled that scene a thousand times. Fischer sat there, gobbled up the caviar straight from a knife, raised his shot glass and then used the knife to open the plastic bag. There were ten smaller bags inside, each containing $10,000. He opened the bags and, just like in the movies, started to count the money meticulously, placing the banknotes right on the table. All the notes had stamps and signatures in the right place. My jaw hit the floor… I was a little embarrassed for the champion.
– He counted the whole amount? $100,000?
– After he had counted about half of the money (I thought that he was going to keep going through to morning), Andor and wife Olga managed to convince him that everything was in order. I was in complete disbelief at what happened next – Bobby emptied all the money into a simple string bag. Not even a regular bag, but a string shopping bag! It was only then that he settled down, raised his glass in my honour, and then hugged me from the bottom of his heart and said that it was the first time in his life that he hadn’t been cheated. I was so touched that I burst out crying as well. We both pretty much broke down…
Our strange encounter came to a close when Bobby took me to the airport to see me off. I hadn’t even noticed, but he took that wretched string bag with him. And then he noticed that people were looking at us. Well, of course they were – some guy was walking around with a string bag full of American money. Bobby took his coat off, wrapped it around the bag and pulled it towards his chest.
– Is it true that after you finished school you went to work in a factory, just to spite everyone? Or is that just a story that people tell about you?
– Oh yes, that’s absolutely true! I was a grade “A” student across the board at school. That’s just how it happened when I was young – no matter where I was or what I was doing, I had to be first. I took part in all kinds of academic competition. It was a matter of principle for me. I got top marks for everything – never even got a “B”. Moscow was calling. MGU, MGIMO, Bauman University. What can I say? I had my pick of university and I chose to work in a factory.
– At the time, our school was sponsored by the Zvezda factory, and they poured it on thick about how we weren’t doing enough to support our local factory. And that got to me. I thought: “Alright, Kirsan, you know you can get good grades, but can you cut it on the production floor?” My parents were against the idea, but I went to work my tail off anyway. So Ilyumzhinov, gold medallist, and Kalmykia Chess Champion became a simple mechanic and assembler. I made parts for incubator heaters. I was paid 80 roubles a month for making 15 parts per day. After a few months I was already working overtime during the night shift and my salary increased to 300 roubles per month – more than either of my parents were earning at the time.
– Did that make them respect you?
– Not at all. The other blokes in the factory pushed me up against the wall next to the toilet. They wanted to beat me up the way they do at summer camp. I could feel the fists starting to rain down, but it didn’t turn into a proper beating. It was a warning: “You think you’re the smartest person here, kid? We’re not working to the plan – we work our tails off at the end of the month to get the quota done and receive a bonus. Now your ‘feats of labour’ mean that we’ve got to make 25 parts a day instead of 15. We’ll teach you what’s what around here, quick smart.” That’s when I understood that even under socialism it’s better to work less.
I had to work at a slower pace. But I’d learned a useful lesson. I learned that you can exceed expectations through perseverance and desire.
– Why is Kasparov so aggressive towards you?
– And we used to be friends. And I have great respect for him now. He is a great champion and fighter, a bundle of energy and emotion. I used to go to his house and eat pelmeni and I loved it. His mum, Klara, made really nice pelmeni. So what happened? Kasparov doesn’t know how to be friends with someone for a long time. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t had much success in politics. That is, he probably behaves like a child in his political affairs. That’s why nobody voted for him at the last elections in Norway. Nobody wanted him to lead FIDE, even though he’s got probably the best name to be doing it.
I’ve helped Garry out on a number of occasions, from little things to million-dollar deals. I’ll never forget the time when he sold me the crown that he won after he beat Karpov in Lyon. Korloff had made a unique piece of jewellery – a crown in the form of two “Ks”. It was gold (it weighed more than 8 kilograms) with 1118 diamonds. Kasparov was supposed to sell the crown to some Sheikh or other and then use the proceeds to help Armenian refugees. The Sheikh pulled out of the deal, so, naturally, Garry turned to me. And how can you not help Garry out? We agreed that I would pay him $1 million for the crown. In the end, Kasparov thought that the French government would take a 30% cut of the deal and that I should cover that as well. That’s when I got angry. The agreement had been made, and now I was supposed to cover taxes as well?
– Did he resign himself to the fact that he would lose money?
– No. He had to smuggle the crown to Zurich, where I was waiting for him. He shoved it into a sports bag and covered it with books. The usual vigilance of the customs officers went by the wayside when Garry offered to sign some memorabilia. By the way, it was quite funny watching my assistant and Garry hunched over counting how many diamonds there were – for some reason, there were five more than when they had set off. That’s how I gave the thirteenth World Chess Champion $1 million. I’ve still got no idea why I need that crown, which is sitting in a bank safety deposit box.
I’m waiting for Garry to call. He knows how to get in touch with me. Maybe someday he’ll come to his senses, call me, come back to Russia and do his best to promote the game of chess.
– How did it come about that you became a candidate for FIDE President?
– Late November 1995. A FIDE assembly is taking place in Paris. I fly there simply to schmooze and take part in the discussion of some minor item at the bottom of the agenda. The issue of holding the chess Olympiad in Elista.
Up until that time I hardly knew anyone at FIDE, I was acquainted of course with the then president Florencio Campomanes. What happened then defies logic. The arbiter, a delegate from Kazakhstan called Bulat Asanov, kept me posted on what was happening at Novotel which had been booked up by the French lock, stock and barrel. There were two camps: those who wanted to topple Campomanes – they were Anatoly Karpov and the French vice-president of FIDE Bachar Kouatly who backed him. And of course, Campo’s team which, according to Karpov, was in cahoots with Kasparov.
– And you managed to outwit them all?
– I could write a book about how I found myself in a crossfire, how I, a patron of chess and the youngest President of a Republic, someone with no personal axe to grind and totally independent, was first offered to be the First Vice President and then President. Nobody thought the delegates would vote for an obscure young guy. Everyone wanted to enlist me on his side without taking me seriously. They flip-flopped all the time. Karpov’s main fear was that Kasparov would come to power through Campo. Campo wanted either to hold on or to install his man. And then up popped Ilyumzhinov. Everyone was playing his card for future benefit. But I ended up holding all the trumps.
– But surely you couldn’t run without the government’s approval because you were the President of Kalmykia. Whose advice did you seek?
– I had to call President Yeltsin himself to ask for his blessing. Incidentally, I also called Kasparov with whom we had been eating pelmeni just the previous day. Garik (Kasparov) told me in so many words that FIDE’s days were numbered. I’ll form my own professional association, which will be calling the shots and if you bid for FIDE Presidency I don’t want to see you again.
And Yeltsin blessed me. He said: “Come on, raise the Russian flag over Paris.”
It’s hard to imagine the reaction of the delegates who didn’t know me before and who decided that a 33 –year-old could raise FIDE from the ashes. It must have been God’s will that I went to Paris to have lunch with friends and after having a beer first with Campomanes and then with Karpov realized that I had a chance to become the head of the chess world.
– You have worked with many heads of the Russian Chess Federation: Makarov, Bakh, Zhukov, Dvorkovich. What can you say about the current RCF President, Andrey Filatov?
– Filatov is a unique man. At long last Russian chess has a leader who is a real professional. Andrey majored in chess at the Minsk Physical Culture Institute, and today he is one of the richest men in Russia. That means his head is in the right place.
– Are you two getting along well?
– It’s a long time since I felt so comfortable working with the RCF. Filatov’s backing helped me to win the election in Tromso in 2014 where I ran against Garry Kasparov himself. In recent years we’ve become good friends and reliable partners.
I seldom met people who have as much energy as Filatov. He manages to do everything, I think he hardly ever sleeps, which reminds me of myself. Andrey is crazy about art and it is due to his efforts that chess and art have become inseparable. The world title match was held at the Tretyakov Gallery. The Alekhine Tournament was held at the Louvre and the Russian Museum. Russia championships have been held at the Kazan Kremlin and at the Rukavyshnikov estate. Last October we opened together an exhibition of Soviet and Russian art in Abu-Dhabi. For the first time the Arab sheikhs and oil tycoons were able to see the works of our great artists from the Filatov Foundation without leaving their country. The exhibition was a runaway success. When you work side by side with such people you feel that you are growing wings.
– You are often seen at banquets together…
– Filatov is an interesting man not only to work with but also to have fun with. A wine-grower, he produces the best red wine in the world at his vineyard in Bordeaux, he is fond of the Russian bath and he is a good story-teller. He has enough of them to fill a whole book. Some day we’ll publish joint memoirs, believe me, it will make fantastic reading. One story he likes to tell is about how he was put on a wrong flight (like the main character in the popular movie “The Irony of Fate”) and only realized it when the plane landed in Delhi.
I hope Filatov will be the head of the RCF for a long time. It will be good not only for Russia, but also for world chess, which is my own job. I take this opportunity to congratulate Andrey on another sign of recognition. Just recently he got a UNESCO award for contribution to international cooperation in the cultural field and his efforts to preserve the historical heritage. And the other day he was awarded the title of Honorary Member of the Russian Arts Academy for his services to popularizing Russian and Soviet art.
By the way, he still plays chess. We played on a giant board in the centre of Tromso and he won…
– Why did you choose to join the army instead of going to university? Youthful idealism?
– Some say that the army is wasted years. I disagree: two years away from home taught me a great deal. After working at a factory I did another crazy thing. I wanted to test my mettle and I went to the draft station in 1980 and asked to be sent to Afghanistan. My parents thought I had gone bonkers, but I was adamant. I never got to Afghanistan, but I served in the North-Caucasus Military District. My romanticism quickly evaporated when I was confronted with bullying.
– Did they beat you hard? Only, don’t tell me that you managed to bring the “old guys” to heel.
– I still have this picture before my eyes. Four new recruits, including myself are standing, heavy army belts in our hands. Four rebels who don’t want to be humiliated by the older soldiers. The lights go out, and we come under a hail of blows, we are fighting back, but it is a losing battle. Blood, pain, limp arms. However, they didn’t touch us any more after that. I acted as the main “negotiator” with the “oldsters.” I told them that they were overdoing it. Custom is custom, but we are human after all. After that incident there was relative peace.
– Did chess help you in the army?
– I’ll never forget how I was cleaning and scrubbing the “Lenin corner.” Heavy broom, wet floor mop. Two second-year recruits sit at the table sipping tea and playing chess. At one point they get into an argument as to whether there is a mate. I ease towards them and sort out the situation. Then I win a couple of games blindfolded. Naturally it earned me instant respect. From then on instead of doing chores I sat over the chessboard. That was great. When I recall kitchen duty… greasy floors, dishes, peeling potatoes for 2,000 men. Meanwhile my friends were sending me letters about how they were passing their year-end exams and having fun with girls at the discotheque. It brought tears to my eyes, tears ran down my face. But I knew that it was my choice, my path, and I had to slog it out. The years in the army, the heavy belts, grueling mess duty, blood and bruises and constant lack of sleep made a man out of me.
– How did you catch the attention of the Pope?
– Does the Pope, one of the most influential people in the world, often invite someone to his residence? Imagine my surprise, shortly after I was appointed FIDE President, at getting an invitation from the Vatican. Pope Join Paul II wanted to meet me? What for? It was a mystery to me.
– Did you solve it?
– Yes, as soon as I entered his office. There was a chessboard on the table. Honestly, I thought that the Pontiff would offer me to play a game, but I found a position laid out on the board. My task was to mate the Black king in five moves. It was a tough puzzle. Then the Pope offered me an easier one. I solved this one (mate in two moves) and I realized that the Pope was not just a chess fan, his hobby as a young man was to compose chess problems. He was anxious to demonstrate his talent to the youngest ever FIDE President. After that we communicated a lot. It was a very important meeting for me. Could an ordinary guy from Kalmykia ever dream of being in the Pope’s office?
– You got a lot of flak for inventing the knockout system. How was the idea of a play-off system in the world chess championship conceived?
– It was a month after I was elected FIDE President. My initial task was to unite the chess world. The split threatened the very existence of chess. Kasparov, as always, wanted to have everything his own way. Karpov also stuck to his own line though he did not quit FIDE. During the first month I had to pay off all the Federation’s debts out of my own money (about $1.5 million), set up the office and buy out the office cars FIDE had pawned because of its financial problems, start negotiations about the World Chess Olympiad in Armenia which was about to be wrecked. I had to introduce into the calendar many new events because officially there were only four, I stress, four world-level events (now there are more than 30 and the number of official competitions tops 12,000). My main task though, was the Karpov-Kasparov match.
– How did you go about it?
– I managed to meet the two Ks in Elista. We got some vodka and had genuine Kalmyk mutton cooked for us. We had a hard drink and then I planked down a million dollars on the table and said, play the match. It was a deal. It seemed I had accomplished the impossible getting two irreconcilable men to make peace. But as soon as we went our own ways they were at it again, each setting impossible conditions. I ran out of patience.
– Was that how you hit on the idea of the knockout system?
– Precisely. We had a meeting of the FIDE presidential council and I put forward my proposal to use the knockout system in world championships. The best 100 (now the best 128) grand masters play knockout matches according to the Olympic system. No ties, in the event of a tie the match is decided in quick chess and blitz games. I backed up the proposal with a prize fund of $5 million.
– Did they take you at your word?
– On the contrary, there was general indignation. The Council was categorically against it. Turning a classical world championship system into some kind of knockout show? The old guard were at my throat. And the fact that a hundred people would get a chance, that the prices were huge, and that an ordinary grand master who would never make it to the elite would have a chance to win the top place and make a lot of money in the process, enough to last him several years – even those who dropped out in the first round would collect a tidy sum – the “old guard” would not listen to it.
– How did you mange to persuade them?
– After a break I made a tough statement. Either we play knockout and stop yielding to Kasparov’s and Karpov’s whims, and I provide the five million dollars or I resign. As you see, I won. At the end of the day, the knockout system helped to reunite the chess world. It discovered to the world such talents as Carlsen and Karyakin. Knockout still exists in the shape of the prestigious World Cup recognized by fans to be the most thrilling chess contest.
– Do you ever regret telling the world about your meeting with aliens from outer space in 1997?
– You know, before deciding to tell the press that I had met extraterrestrials, I took two sheets of paper. On one I wrote down all the pluses for me of telling that true story – I stress – true story. And on the other I wrote down all the minuses. I ended up with no pluses and a lot of minuses: derision, smear campaign in the press, being called mad and so on. But you know why I decided to tell about my contact with aliens? I dreamed of telling the world that man is not alone in the universe. I don’t want to go into the details of that meeting. Let me just say one thing: There are many groups that study other planets. There is plenty of evidence though it is clear anyway that we are not alone in the Universe. This is reinforced by what world champion Vassily Smyslov told me.
– He too?
– Smyslov kept it secret for many years. He shared it with me in 2000 during a knockout tournament at the Kremlin. He admitted that during his match with Hübner “it” came to him at night and showed him how to play the next day. They talked and discussed the position. The next day the figures were arranged on the board exactly as they had discussed. That helped him to win. Smyslov looked me in the eye and asked me: “Kirsan, did you actually meet them?” When I said, yes, he exchanged conspiratorial looks with his wife…
– I know that you are very fond of Boris Spassky.
– We’ve always been on good terms with Boris Spassky. Like all world champions, he is a unique individual. I always tried to help him as well as I could. I gave him a luxury cottage in Elista where he liked to visit.
Unfortunately, as you know he had a stroke in 2010. Then there was this messy story of his escape from France. The press at the time was full of allegations that after his stroke his wife had been mistreating him, while he was eager to come back to Russia because he hoped the native land would cure him.
– Did it cure him?
– After Spassky left Paris without any papers, like in a detective story (many still think Ilyumzhinov himself had a hand in his “escape” – SE) we tried to help him to recover and he is now better though he still has to move about in a wheelchair. But he attends many chess tournaments. A month ago at the last world blitz and rapid chess championship in Berlin Spassky attended the premiere of the American thriller “Pawn Sacrifice.” It is a Hollywood film about the famous Fisher-Spassky world title match in Reykjavik in 1972.
– Filatov recently said you had it in you to contest the presidency of FIFA.
– Some thought Andrey Filatov was joking when he offered me to run for FIFA President during a FIDE congress. But then I began to wonder, why not? After all, I managed to lift chess from zero, achieve results and create a new system. I created Uralan out of nothing. I fostered the national team captain Alexei Smertin and many other wonderful players: Kolodin, Yashkin, Kormiltsev and the chief coach of the national team, Leonid Slutsky. It was Slutsky who took the team widely expected to fail into the European championship.
– Whatever happened to Uralan?
– It’s very simple. I want nothing but the best. How could I compete with Gazprom, Lukoil, RZD and VTB? These monsters sponsor Zenit, Spartak, Lokomotiv and Dynamo. I paid for Uralan out of my own pocket. But I did it judiciously and rationally and I did not buy a Hulk or a Witsel for 100 million euros. But for the war of purses, Uralan would have been among the leaders of Russian football. We had built a good system.
– Are you still thinking of becoming the head of FIFA? Do you have a chance?
– I think my time will come. I’m used to following my ideas through. Perhaps the time will come very soon. I decided not to put forward my candidacy now, but who knows what lies ahead? Anyway, I have some ideas and I know how to go about implementing them. I still work in the football sphere, I am on the boards of various clubs: the Russian Anzhi, the Ukrainian Ilyichevts and the Greek PAOK. I have experience working as the president of FIDE and the President of Kalmykia. And president of a football club. In short, I have all the legal grounds for running for FIFA President. I have a vision of how to make football still more popular and cleanse the organisation of corruption, like we did it with FIDE.
Interview by Kirill ZANGALIS