The sports world is replete with notably wacky commissioners and leaders, and for all the wild shit that the Sepp Blatters and Oleg Tinkovs of the world get up to, the World Chess Federation’s president probably has them all beat. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been the top dog at FIDE since 1995, and for most of that time he was also president of Kalmykia, a majority-Buddhist, semi-autonomous Russian republic in the Caucasus Mountains near Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Dagestan.
Ilyumzhinov is also a world-class kook who believes that chess was invented by aliens, and has repeatedly claimed that he was abducted by aliens in 1997 and taken to visit a distant star. The way he sees it, aliens will inevitably come back to Earth and “take us away” as punishment for “bad behavior.”
That he’s remained atop FIDE for as long as he has despite unnervingly detailed accounts of his supposed alien abduction is one thing, but the fact that he’s held onto power despite some shady associations is more surprising. In 2006, Ilyumzhinov boasted about his friendship with Saddam Hussein and has claimed that history will exonerate him. A few months before Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was tortured and killed by rebel forces 2011, Ilyumzhinov flew to Tripoli to play a game of chess with Gaddafi and his son. When leaders condemned Ilyumzhinov for smiling for photo ops and hanging out with a repressive dictator, he insisted that chess could play a role in the peace process.
Two years ago, the United States announced sanctions against Ilyumzhinov for “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria.” Ilyumzhinov, who visited Bashar al-Assad in 2012, claims that the only involvement he had in Syria was when he delivered chess sets in 2012 and tried to lobby Assad to incorporate chess into the country’s primary school curriculum. (Chess lessons are compulsory in Kalmykia.)
Ilyumzhinov is a longtime friend and ally of Vladimir Putin, although the Russian state replaced him as president of Kalmykia in 2010. When Ilyumzhinov was re-elected FIDE president in 2014, Putin personally congratulated him. The longtime chess leader is a businessman who made his millions in the wave of privatization following the collapse of the USSR, though like so many others who became fabulously wealthy during this period, it’s unclear exactly how he got so rich.
Grandmasters and chess federation officials have accused Ilyumzhinov of using his role as FIDE president to promote Russian foreign policy, and Ilyumzhinov has been a vocal supporter of Putin’s military annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and advances into Ukraine. The Panama Papers revealed that Ilyumzhinov controlled a network of secret shell business centered in the British Virgin Islands that controlled TV rights and commercial rights of official FIDE events.
FIDE has been trying to get Ilyumzhinov out of the paint for a long time. Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov tried to oust him in 2014 with the support of several Western chess federations, but Ilyumzhinov prevailed, perhaps thanks to him paying off a bloc of minor chess federations. After the sanctions were announced in 2015, Ilyumzhinov announced that he’d be stepping away from all legal, financial, and business operations at FIDE, although he remained president.
This week, it appeared that Ilyumzhinov would finally be resigning from his post. FIDE released a statement on Monday announcing that Ilyumzhinov had resigned at a board meeting in Greece over the weekend after getting into an argument over the U.S. sanctions. However, Ilyumzhinov quickly denied that he would be leaving and decried the announcement as fake. FIDE executive director Nigel Freeman pointed out that Ilyumzhinov ended the meeting by repeating “I resign” three times then storming out. What follows is a “Who’s On First?” exchange of letters between the two:
Ilyumzhinov has since claimed that he offered to step down during an “emotional” conversation with board members, but that it was not a formal offer of resignation. He says that FIDE put out their initial statement in an attempt to push him out and chalks up his confusing remarks to his shaky English skills. The Kremlin voiced its support for Ilyumzhinov to stay in office, and it appears that Ilyumzhinov will hold onto some form of power for the time being, no matter how many aliens and dictators he cozies up to.