A political drama continued to swirl around Norway’s international chess star, Magnus Carlsen, as he tried to concentrate at a tournament in Missouri. Some say the conflict over whether he’ll play at a new world championship match in Russia this fall threatens to once again split the international world of chess into eastern and western camps, just as Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine also threatens to throw the world back into a Cold War.
Carlsen has continued to resist pressure from the Russian leadership of the international chess federation (FIDE) to defend his world championship title in Sochi in November. He had still not signed a contract to play in Sochi as of Friday afternoon, prompting the federation (FIDE) to threaten to strip him of his world championship title if he doesn’t sign by their deadline and show up.
The match could then be played between the man Carlsen defeated in Chennai last year, Vishy Anand, and Russian reserve player, Sergei Karyakin, who’s portrayed himself as a big supporter of controversial Russian President Vladimir Putin. FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, re-elected at a noisy meeting at the Chess Olympiad in Norway earlier this month, also is said to have close ties to Putin.
‘Squeezing out the champ’
The head of Norway’s chess federation, Jøran Aulin-Jansson, suspects the top chess officials have their own agenda and are trying to squeeze Carlsen out of the world championship in favour of the Russian reserve. “For me it almost seems that they don’t want Magnus to show up,” Aulin-Jansson told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It’s quite extraordinary that they’re pushing such a rigid time frame now, while they’ve been quite weak in respecting deadlines in other situations.”
The Russian women’s team, for example, failed to register for the recent Chess Olympiad in Tromsø by the deadline, risking disqualification. The Russians and FIDE objected strenuously to a disqualification and even threatened to cancel the Chess Olympiad unless the Russian women and several other teams were excused for their late registration. Olympiad organizers ultimately relented, allowing the late sign-ups to appease the Russians and FIDE, yet now the FIDE is pushing deadlines hard against Carlsen for a rematch championship tournament that’s been packed into an already hectic autumn season and is to be held in a country that’s been stirring up great tension with much of the democratic western world.
Carlsen attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a spectator, but that was before Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in an annexation described as illegal by the EU and NATO, and before Russia started being accused of supporting Ukrainian separatists. This week Russia was accused of invading Ukraine.
Carlsen’s team ultimately seemed to accept that the next Chess World Championship would be played in Sochi, but his manager Espen Agdestein at least wanted to postpone it until after New Year. The reasons haven’t been made clear, but commentators in Norway suggest that Carlsen is concerned about security at a time of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has also slapped import bans against Norwegian seafood and Norway has joined the EU and US sanctions against Russia, so there’s diplomatic conflict as well. Some fear the security situation in Sochi can change quickly.
There also may be fears that Carlsen risks becoming a pawn himself in Russian propaganda. While the young Russian reserve player has been photographed in a thumbs-up pose while wearing a Putin T-shirt, Carlsen may be reluctant to have to pose for photos with Putin. There also are conflicts and a lack of clarity over TV rights to a new chess world championship in Russia, uncertainty over logistics and preparations for the event, and even the prize money is less than it was in India last year.
FIDE: ‘Can’t accept his demands’
Aulin-Jansson of the Norwegian federation thinks it’s all “highly unfortunate,” and wishes the chess world championship “and all sports” could proceed without politics playing a role. “I think this is sad and unnecessary,” he told NRK. “I hope FIDE realizes that they must have Magnus in a world championship match in order for it to be legitimate.”
Israel Gelfer, vice president of the FIDE, claims Carlsen is “very important for us,” calling him “a phenomenon in the world of chess.” He told NRK that “we are very glad that you have such a genius in Norway, but having said that, we can’t accept his demands (for a postponement). We have been criticized before for failing to observe deadlines. So we’re trying to uphold the deadlines now.”
NRK reported early Friday that Carlsen now had until Monday to sign the contract to play in Sochi in November. In the meantime he played remis in the major tournament in St Lousis on Thursday. Agdestein was tightlipped when asked whether he thinks FIDE will go through with its threat to effectively strip Carlsen of his title, but conceded to NRK that he “didn’t have the impression” that the Russian-led FIDE felt the new tournament depended on Carlsen’s presence.