Defiant world chess head says ‘revolution’ to oust him has failed

FIDE President Ilyumzhinov gestures during news briefing in Moscow

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The president of world chess’s governing body said on Wednesday that an attempted “revolution” to oust him by falsely announcing his resignation had failed, and that he would serve out his full term and might even stand for re-election.

Russia’s Kirsan Ilyumzhinov — a millionaire businessman and ex-politician who once said he had been abducted by aliens — has headed FIDE, chess’s governing body, for the last 22 years, flying around the world to promote chess.

But since Monday, after a weekend meeting in Greece of FIDE’s presidential board, Ilyumzhinov has been embroiled in a surreal power struggle with his organization’s secretariat.

A statement announcing he had resigned appeared on FIDE’s website on Monday. A letter from Ilyumzhinov saying that was “untrue” appeared on the same site on Tuesday along with a separate letter from Nigel Freeman, FIDE’s executive director, contradicting him and saying he had repeatedly declared he was quitting.

Chess and politics are no strangers. Cold War rivalry gave a special edge to the 1972 world championship, in which American Bobby Fischer beat Russian Boris Spassky, and the 1978 contest between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi pitted the golden boy of Soviet chess against a dissident who defected to the West.

In the 1990s, FIDE witnessed a major rebellion when then-champion Garry Kasparov accused it of corruption and set up a breakaway body. But even by FIDE standards, the current machinations are unusual.

Ilyumzhinov, 54, who has in the past beaten chess greats such as Karpov and Kasparov to win a slew of FIDE presidential elections, told a news conference in Moscow he had defeated an attempt at political intriguing and remained in charge of world chess.

“I didn’t sign any resignation announcement or hand one over. I’m the current president,” he said, adding that the matter of his possible resignation had come up in informal discussions but that he had made clear he did not think he should go unless there was proof he was at fault in some way.

Ilyumzhinov, who has stirred controversy in the West by meeting strongmen leaders such as Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi, said that FIDE officials who had announced his resignation had been “economical with the truth” and likened what had happened to “a revolution to seize the telegraph office.”

When asked if there had been an attempted coup against him, he said: “Yes.”

Freeman, FIDE’s executive director, did not immediately respond to a request to respond to Ilyumzhinov’s comments.

In his letter on the organization’s web site he said Ilyumzhinov had definitely resigned and that an extraordinary presidential board meeting would be held on April 10 to discuss the matter.

“During the presidential board meeting in Athens, you several times threatened to resign and at the end of the meeting, three times you repeated ‘I resign’ before leaving the room,” Freeman wrote.

Ilyumzhinov was placed under U.S. sanctions in November 2015 after Washington accused him of helping the Syrian government. The chess enthusiast has met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but denies the U.S. accusations.

He said on Wednesday he intended to serve out his full term as FIDE president and would decide next year whether to run for re-election in September 2018.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)