The Russian Gambit that divided the chess world

One of the oldest and most visible messages from any Russian protesting the country’s invasion of Ukraine came from a man who knows intimately the ancient principles of attack, defense and territorial gain. He learned them by becoming one of the best chess players on the planet.

“History has seen many Black Thursdays,” said Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, the highest-rated Russian in the game, tweeted February 24. “But today is darker than the others.”

Nepomniachtchi struck a chord, not just because of his nationality. It was also because of his profession. No game or sport in the world is more closely tied to Russia (and its predecessor the Soviet Union) than chess, which has produced more than half of all world champions since World War II and whose leaders have direct ties to the Kremlin. As of mid-2021, Russia has more than twice as many current grandmasters as any other country, according to

So, as the world watched Russian troops enter Ukraine, the chess community was confronted with both its roots and its own position in international politics. A game that is often used as a metaphor for war suddenly had to reckon with its governing body’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Major players, past and present, have lined up on both sides of the conflict.

“When it comes to any ‘global community’ that has been affected and deeply hurt, the chess community could very well be at the top of the list,” said Danny Rensch, chess director at, the world’s largest platform. -online form of the game. .

The chess governing body is based in Russia and headed by a former deputy prime minister named Arkady Dvorkovich. One of the game’s most famous legends, Garry Kasparov, is also one of Putin’s most vocal critics. Another former Russian world champion, Anatoly Karpov, is so supportive of Putin that he was sanctioned by the European Union for voting in favor of the invasion as a member of the Duma.

The conflict even divided the modern generation of super-grandmasters. While Nepomniachtchi posted an anti-war message – later picked up by Russian tennis stars Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev – his compatriot Sergey Karjakin was personally called out by the chess governing body for his pro-war sentiment.

Few have gone further than Oleksandr Sulypa, the 49-year-old grandmaster and team captain who guided Ukraine to gold at the 2021 European Team Championship. He shared a photo of himself holding a barricade in western Ukraine wearing what appeared to be a helmet, a high-visibility vest and holding a shotgun.

“I defend my land against enemies and ‘peacekeepers,'” he wrote in a message confirmed by Chess24. “The truth will win!”

Oleksandr Sulypa guided Ukraine to gold at the 2021 European Team Championship.


Hennadi Minchenko/Zuma Press

Last Sunday, chess governing body FIDE held an extraordinary meeting to deal with the rapidly escalating situation. The team – led by Dvorkovich, who enjoyed Putin’s support when he became FIDE president in 2018 – condemned the Russian attack and took action following the International Olympic Committee, which recommended ban competition for all Russian and Belarusian athletes.

FIDE said no official competitions or events would take place in Belarus or Russia and stripped Russia of the next Chess Olympiad. It is ending its partnerships with Belarusian and Russian state-backed companies. And he promised to take the cases of Karjakin and Sergey Shipov, another Russian grandmaster, to the body’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission for their public support for the conflict.

Karjakin, nicknamed the “Minister of Defence” for his style on the board, went on the offensive as soon as the Russian attack began. In a public message to Putin, he said he was watching the “special operation” closely. He echoed Putin’s language, referring to both the “denazification” of Ukraine and allegations of “genocide” carried out by the kyiv regime.

“I express to you, our Commander-in-Chief, my full support for protecting the interests of Russia and our multinational Russian people, to eliminate the threat and establish peace,” Karjakin wrote.

Karjakin rose to prominence in 2016 when he challenged Norwegian Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship. Carlsen’s last opponent, in 2021, was also Russian – it was Nepomniachtchi, Karjakin’s teammate in the last Chess Olympiad, where the Russian men’s team finished third.

Russian chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin is nicknamed the “Minister of Defense” for his style on the chessboard.


Yuri Kochetkov/Shutterstock

Chess has been at the forefront of geopolitics before. When American Bobby Fischer successfully overthrew Russian champion Boris Spassky in 1972, the showdown in Reykjavík, Iceland was dubbed the “Match of the Century” and was widely seen as a cultural front during the Cold War.

The game has remained closely tied to Russian politics ever since. Karpov, a world champion in the 1970s and 1990s, became a representative in the Duma. The former head of FIDE from 1995 to 2018 was a Russian politician named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, whose outrageous tenure included dealings with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

Media coverage of Russian troops invading Ukraine plays out differently in Russia than in the United States. Using maps and disinformation, many television programs shape public opinion by justifying Moscow’s decision to attack its neighbor. Photo composition: Sharon Shi

In 2015, Ilyumzhinov was added to the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list for his relationship with Syria’s Assad regime, which subsequently led to financial problems for FIDE. In one instance, he beat Kasparov for re-election. And when his term finally ended, he was replaced by Dvorkovich, the Moscow-backed candidate.

Now, the long-running Russian tension in the chess world has come to the surface – and for a few stars to step up in support of the Ukrainian people. US grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura has already leveraged his extensive social media and Twitch to raise over $130,000 for a Ukrainian crisis fund with a 12-hour chess marathon.

“It has been many years since I was in Ukraine, but seeing what is happening now is heartbreaking,” he added. he tweeted. “Stay strong.”

Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected] and Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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