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The election campaign has plot elements worthy of a Le Carré novel: double-crosses and allegations of stolen secret documents and self-dealing.
At stake is not the leadership of some powerful country but the presidency of a fairly obscure organization that presides over a small corner of the gaming world, the World Chess Federation. The body oversees international chess championships and controls tournaments and sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars and championships that are the grail of nationalistic aspirations.
The principal characters also seem drawn from fiction. There is a former world chess champion, now a Russian opposition leader; a former president of an obscure Russian republic who believes that he was abducted by extraterrestrials in yellow suits who invented the game of chess; and an ex-fashion photographer turned chess official who would like the first two candidates to be disqualified so that he can take over the federation.
The latest intrigue revolves around corruption allegations by the two candidates for the federationâs presidency, Garry Kasparov, the former champion and Russian opposition figure, and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the incumbent president and self-described space-alien abductee.
Koen Van Weel/European Pressphoto Agency
Such charges would normally hardly raise an eyebrow in the world of organized chess, which has been rife with rumors of corruption for decades. What has rocked even the jaded chess world this time are signed contracts posted online that each candidate contends proves dirty dealing by the other. And each candidate, while not denying his signature on the contract in question, claims his contract has been maliciously misinterpreted.
Even the Icelandic grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson, an éminence grise of the chess world and former federation president, could only shake his head.
âThings are not as they should be,â he said. âThere are too many problems that have nothing to do with chess.â
Mr. Kasparov has long been a critic of Mr. Ilyumzhinov, saying that his odd beliefs and his friendships with controversial world leaders â including Saddam Hussein, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and President Bashar al-Assad â have hurt the credibility of the federation and scared away would-be sponsors. He, and others in the chess world, have long accused Mr. Ilyumzhinov of corruption.
But there was never anything that resembled proof until two weeks ago, when a memo was leaked to The Sunday Times of London and various chess news websites. In the memo, Mr. Ilyumzhinov and Andrew Paulson, the ex-fashion photographer, agreed to divvy up any profits of a new company created to stage the worldâs premier chess events.
The chess federation, controlled by Mr. Ilyumzhinov, had awarded the company a no-bid contract in 2012 for the rights to organize, find sponsors and market the world chess championship, the World Cup and the Grand Prix for 11 years. The rights are potentially worth millions of dollars.
According to the memo, signed by both men, Mr. Paulson would manage the company, called Agon, and own 49 percent and Mr. Ilyumzhinov would own 51 percent. Mr. Ilyumzhinov would also provide start-up capital of up to $ 2 million and be repaid, with interest, out of any profits.
Mr. Ilyumzhinov and Mr. Paulson acknowledge the contract published online is real, but say it never took effect and that Mr. Ilyumzhinov never became an owner.
Mr. Ilyumzhinov, referring to the federation by its French acronym, FIDE, added in an email: âAll that I sign that relates to FIDE, has to go through the board. FIDE is more than a president, itâs a huge organization. I did not and will not sign anything that is not supported and approved by FIDE.â
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
But this contract had not been approved by the board. The federationâs deputy president, Georgios Makropoulos, said in a statement that the deal was âjust one of many proposalsâ and that it had been rejected. He dismissed the contract as a red herring because âit never took effect,â adding, in case anyone was wondering, âI have never received even 1 cent from Agon.â
Mr. Paulson said he wanted Mr. Ilyumzhinov to own a stake in the company to assure that the federation would try to work with Agon. âOne manâs conflict of interest is another manâs alignment of interest,â he wrote in an email. âIf I was going to put a lot of my money into such a speculative venture I wanted to be reassured I wasnât going to get sheared.â
He charged that the contract had been stolen off his computer by a former employee who was hired away by the Kasparov campaign.
In the end, he said, he remained the companyâs sole owner, a fact confirmed by corporate records on the Isle of Jersey, where Agon was incorporated in 2012.
Mr. Paulson said that he was never in cahoots with Mr. Ilyumzhinov to rob FIDE. By way of proving his point, he said that he was still thinking of running for president of the federation as he thinks Mr. Ilyumzhinov should be replaced, just not by Mr. Kasparov. âI would say that this screams that I am independent,â he wrote in an email.
Nonetheless, Mr. Kasparov calls the deal âan abuse of powerâ and a conflict of interest. âThose signatures speak more effectively than their thousands of words of denials and attacks,â he said in a statement.
If the accusation of a purloined contract sounds familiar to denizens of the chess world, it is because Mr. Kasparov and his campaign leveled the same accusation about another secret contract disclosed three weeks ago.
A leaked draft of that contract, between Mr. Kasparov and Ignatius Leong, the general secretary of the federation, reported by The New York Times, shows what appears to be a vote-buying scheme for the federationâs presidential election this August. The final contract eliminated a direct payment of $ 500,000 to Mr. Leong, but retained a donation of up to $ 1 million from a foundation controlled by Mr. Kasparov to a foundation owned by Mr. Leong.
The full payment was contingent on Mr. Kasparovâs election, with Mr. Leong, who is from Singapore, promising to deliver a minimum of 11 votes from his region, âwith the effort to deliver 15 votes.â
The federation has a one-country, one-vote policy and there are about 175 voting members. The contract also said Mr. Kasparov promised to open a new federation office in Singapore, to be run by Mr. Leong, for which he would be paid an undisclosed amount.
That contract might also explain why Mr. Leong, who for years had been Mr. Ilyumzhinovâs most trusted lieutenant in Asia, jumped ship and joined Mr. Kasparovâs campaign in October.
The contract with Mr. Kasparov was signed in September.
Mr. Kasparov, through his campaign spokesman, Mig Greengard, said that someone who had administrative access to Mr. Leongâs FIDE account stole the draft contract and then leaked it.
Neither Mr. Kasparov nor Mr. Leong, however, has denied the deal, and Mr. Kasparov posted the final contract on his election website last month, saying that âthe Kasparov Team welcomes such transparency and are looking forward to seeing our opponents act in the same manner.â
Mr. Ilyumzhinov called it âa serious ethical issueâ and demanded that Mr. Leong resign as general secretary of the federation. So far, Mr. Leong has refused.
The chess federation is no stranger to intrigue or to machinations by former players with towering egos and a thirst for strategic conquest. The key players all have strong ties to Russia, where chess is a matter of national pride and powerful political interest.
While there has been no sign of Kremlin involvement in the election this year, the Russian government has stepped in before on behalf of Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who was appointed by the Kremlin as president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, and against Mr. Kasparov, a noted Kremlin political opponent.
In 2010, the former world champion Anatoly Karpov ran for the presidency of FIDE with the endorsement of the Russian Chess Federation and Mr. Kasparovâs backing. But after a top adviser to then-president Dmitri A. Medvedev sent armed guards to seize control of the Russian Federationâs offices, the federation switched its endorsement to Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who went on to win re-election.
With both candidates this year under clouds of corruption allegations, Mr. Olafsson said that the federation stood to be the electionâs biggest loser.
The scandals scare away potential sponsors, he said. âMy impression is that companies do not want to come near chess because they feel it is corrupted. It should be possible to straighten it out, but the corruption is so strong.â
As to the candidates, he added, âWhat is normal for us is not normal for them.â
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