An online “round-table” discussion organized by the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) on Thursday saw three FIDE presidential candidates, the incumbent president Arkady Dvorkovich, GM Andrii Baryshpolets, and GM Bachar Kouatly, debating over a variety of topics in what was a remarkably friendly affair.
The discussion was never the tough debate that one might have expected with a Russian and a Ukrainian involved, alongside a veteran chess politician. Throughout the broadcast, which was marred by technical difficulties, the participants remained friendly and composed, an atmosphere that was possible due to the absence of critical follow-up questions by both the hosts and the participants themselves.
Sadly, one of the four presidential candidates was also absent: Inalbek Cheripov, the 50-year-old Chechnya-born Belgian who had a career as a filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter. There was no mention of him or the reason for his non-participation.
To kick off the debate, each participant was given seven minutes to present himself and his plans. 64-year-old Kouatly started, and it was good to see him participate. Like Cheripov, the Syrian-born French grandmaster, who is part of the current FIDE leadership as Deputy President, seems to be running a campaign mostly behind the scenes. Instead of making public statements, being active on social media, and launching a website, he must be talking to FIDE delegates directly instead. That made his claims to be striving for more transparency somewhat questionable, but at least he joined the debate.
Kouatly described himself as a child of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match as he started playing chess in 1973. Born in Syria, he graduated in France and studied political science and economics, while becoming a grandmaster in 1989. He emphasized that he always pursued a career alongside chess and was therefore always financially independent. Business and chess came together when he bought Europe-Echecs, one of the biggest chess magazines in the world, in 1997.
Throughout the debate, Kouatly emphasized that FIDE’s main goal is “to increase the participation of people who play chess in the world, with all ages, genders, playing habits, over-the-board, online, classical, rapid, and inclusion of physical disabilities.” However, his vision never became really clear, partly because of frequent interruptions due to problems with his internet connection. While repeatedly having to shut off his camera, the former president of the French Chess Federation used language such as “we need flexibility and innovation in governance” and “we have to think out of the box” while stressing the importance of education which can create national champions who can serve as role models.
Unlike the other two participants, Kouatly made one very concrete promise: he wants to distribute one million chess sets over the next four years.
Another important topic for Kouatly was GM Magnus Carlsen leaving the world championship cycle (a day before this debate took place), which he called “a clear failure for FIDE,” adding: “It means we have to question ourselves.” Kouatly proposed to convey a “platform” with players, broadcasters, sponsors, and streamers, in order to find a championship format that can suit the modern trend. He feels that FIDE hasn’t kept up with the modern times enough and missed out on opportunities provided by the recent boom in chess, saying: “We must end this inner circle of governance that gives little results and goes nowhere as a business model.”
Kouatly seemed about to finish when he mentioned, casually: “We have to be not under potential sanctions in the future.” He was referring to Dvorkovich’s presence on a Ukrainian pre-sanctions list and reminded everyone of the fact that the previous FIDE President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was indeed sanctioned internationally. The topic, which was close to Baryshpolets’ heart, would be discussed more later.
Next was Dvorkovich, who started his seven minutes saying he was “really proud” to be FIDE President, calling it “a big honor.” The 50-year-old former Russian politician, whose father was a famous international chess arbiter, agreed that the main target and indicator for FIDE’s success is “the number of people playing chess, watching chess, enjoying chess around the world in all its formats” and noted that he continues pursuing that. He said that FIDE is also responsible for professional chess and has a duty to run, e.g. world championships, and then also mentioned education as an important pillar for developing chess further in society.
Anticipating the upcoming remarks from Baryshpolets about too much Russian influence, Dvorkovich emphasized that he was working with a team diversified throughout countries and continents and that the FIDE management and Council have people with various backgrounds.
Dvorkovich started listing the main accomplishments of his administration in 2018-2022. For starters, the organization took back the rights for the world championship cycle, increased sponsorship partnerships, and brought additional financing as well as media rights, while ending all Russian sponsor agreements. He also mentioned the start of social programs such as chess for refugees, chess in slums, chess for disabled people, and chess in prisons. He estimates the number of kids playing chess around the world at 25 million, and wants to double that in the next four years.
Dvorkovich also mentioned that FIDE’s financing has improved, becoming more sustainable with a budget increase from two million U.S. dollars a year to over six million, and a cash balance of over 10 million, adding that this was “because we successfully worked with partners all around the world. It would be a huge mistake that these are all Russian or from the former Soviet Union. The tournaments we brought to the chess map are in Poland, Hungary, Germany, UAE, India, and many other countries throughout all continents.” This was once again anticipating what Baryshpolets was going to put on the table, about the many recent top events in Russia.
As goals for the next four years, Dvorkovich mentioned that he wants to bring top tournaments to countries in different continents, continue the current FIDE support for open tournaments, setting up a fixed calendar of top events “for the next term at least,” and having all women’s teams participating in the Olympiad in four years from now. (Currently, many smaller federations still only send a team for the open section.)
Then it was Baryshpolets’s turn, who very briefly summarized his CV: a Ph.D. in applied economics, currently working at Price Waterhouse Coopers, and a grandmaster. “I’m from the chess world.”
The 31-year-old Ukrainian noted that the debate was “very much needed” in the chess world because “we have quite a few problems that we have to address.” He used the strongest language of the three candidates as he started talking about the image of FIDE: “We all got used to seeing FIDE in a permanent crisis. For many years, FIDE has produced a lot of scandals and the current administration is simply not an exception.”
Baryshpolets also mentioned Carlsen’s decision not to defend his title. “Why did it happen? Obviously FIDE failed to keep the benefits of defending the title higher than the costs.” Aligning with Kouatly, he said: “Generally speaking, FIDE just cannot keep up with the times.”
Baryshpolets then brought up the topic that Kouatly had only very briefly mentioned: “The Kirsan administration left FIDE in a deep crisis and now we are on the edge of an even bigger disaster because Arkady Dvorkovich is not only president of FIDE, he’s also the long-time Kremlin politician and he is under the threat of being sanctioned.”
Interestingly, Baryshpolets did not use the term “Russian influence” in this debate but spoke in more general terms: “What should be done and should have been done many years ago: FIDE finally needs to become apolitical. FIDE has to be about chess, not about politics, corruption, or any opaque interests or anything else. It should be run by people who really love chess.”
Like Kouatly, he talked about improving FIDE’s governance but Baryshpolets was more concrete and more critical, claiming that FIDE is “highly dependent on one person” and noting that many FIDE officials are appointed by the president himself. “In general, the organization resembles some kind of autocracy. This has to be changed right away.” Baryshpolets wants to make FIDE “a truly democratic organization with a broader involvement and visibility of member federations.”
Other points from Baryshpolets were also mentioned in the Chess.com interview from last week: full transparency with jobs in FIDE having an open application process, a better reputability and professionalism, and fulfillment of FIDE’s financial potential, not relying on what he called “dubious sponsors” (where he means: from Russia). Baryshpolets also noted that he had gathered a professional team: “My advisory board manages billions of dollars altogether in various industries.”
All three participants were then asked what in their opinion was the biggest achievement and the biggest failure of FIDE in the last four years. Dvorkovich started, and sadly did not get very concrete. As the biggest achievement, he said: “That we fulfilled our promises. By delivering on promises we made people believe that the change is possible.” Dvorkovich’s biggest failure? “I could do more by maybe working not 16 but 20 hours a day and being more productive each hour and achieve even more despite the pandemic, despite all the difficulties, we could do even more on each track, especially for poor countries, countries that deserve a better development of chess.”
Baryshpolets acknowledged that FIDE became “more transparent and more open to relationships with federations.” As its biggest failure, he sees the ties to politics: “We’ve been seeing tons of Russian sponsors that Arkady brought.” He noted that the Olympiad, which starts soon in Chennai, India, was supposed to take place in Moscow. “The political dependence did not go away after the Kirsan era but even became deeper.”
Kouatly agreed with Baryshpolets here. He mentioned that “the best thing was to end with the Kirsan era,” but then things didn’t change enough: “We thought it would be a bit more open, but we can see that the Russian influence continued.” The biggest failure, according to Kouatly, was losing Carlsen, but then he spoke again about the need to reform FIDE’s governance.
Kouatly seemed genuinely annoyed there: “We have a person who is controlling FIDE through the management board although he can say that there is a council and there is something, but it is [only] a registering chamber. The FIDE management board is deciding almost everything and then bringing it to the Council and sometimes they are giving us time to decide, and sometimes it needs to be done urgently for some reason. It’s totally controlled in an autocratic manner even if it wants to show that it’s open, democratic, and having a flavor from all continents.”
Unfortunately, the hosts did not turn to Dvorkovich here for a reaction. Instead, the FIDE President replied to one of Baryshpolets’s claims, saying that it is “factually not true and completely wrong to say that most of the events were in Russia during this period of time.” Baryshpolets said that “everyone can google” that 11 of the last 20 major events were held in Russia. Dvorkovich then pointed out that two of them, the World Cup and Olympiad, were supposed to be held in Belarus. “Belarus canceled and we had a very short period of time to find a substitute and at that moment Russia appeared to be the only choice.”
This topic has also been discussed many times in the ongoing Twitter debate between Baryshpolets’s intended Deputy President GM Peter Heine Nielsen and FIDE Director-General Emil Sutovsky, who recently claimed Nielsen was “lying” while focusing on the last 2.5 years, while Baryshpolets speaks of the last four years.
Why to keep lying, @PHChess ?
Russia hosted TWO major events in last 2.5 years. The rest: Madrid, Berlin, Belgrade, Berlin – 2022.
2021: Warsaw, Dubai, Sitges, Riga, Gibraltar.
2020: Lausanne. Let alone Youth or Seniors (Panama, Italy). All signed before the war – NOT shifted. pic.twitter.com/anFxrMA4gU
— Emilchess (@EmilSutovsky) July 19, 2022
“Women in chess” was a topic of discussion in the debate as well. Dvorkovich noted that the gap between open and women’s tournaments was “huge” when he started. “It’s still big, but not as big as in 2018.” He mentioned the increased prize funds in the women’s world championship cycle and that he wants to have more special women’s prizes for open tournaments as well as more training camps, coaching, and career opportunities for women, such as becoming an arbiter or organizer.
Baryshpolets noted that, several years before Carlsen, GM Hou Yifan had left the (women’s) world championship cycle, and also for that he blamed FIDE, which “failed to bring the interest for the world champion.” The Ukrainian GM said that it should be a requirement for certain open tournaments to have increased prizes for women. He also noted a personal idea that he wants to push: that FIDE will be sponsoring scholarships for U.S. youth champions.
Kouatly had a different point of view on this topic: “The main problem is not money but sexism in chess.” He said we need better access to chess for girls and better education, with more female coaches for beginners.
ACP Deputy President and co-host Yuri Garrett noted that the ACP has a concept for including open tournaments in the world championship cycle. The idea is that tournaments can apply for becoming eligible, and players can earn points in those tournaments. In the end, the top 20 would qualify, with 15 spots to the Grand Swiss and five to the World Cup. This way, even amateurs would have a shot at becoming world champion. The three candidates were asked if they would support this concept.
Kouatly wasn’t against the idea but emphasized that he didn’t want to be “the guy deciding that,” and instead there should be a platform with all stakeholders to discuss this. Both Dvorkovich and Baryshpolets agreed on the general idea, with the details to be discussed. Baryshpolets took the opportunity to come up with some more points of criticism. One is that FIDE should not make changes in an ongoing world championship cycle. And, although he acknowledged the quality of the tournament series, he didn’t like that FIDE had suddenly announced to incorporate the Grand Chess Tour in the cycle, as a given fact.
Dvorkovich countered by pointing out that a contract with the Grand Chess Tour hasn’t been signed yet and that the new FIDE Council will discuss it. He then said he is “far from the Kremlin,” working independently politically, and only with his team.
The end of the debate was the most interesting part, with the candidates getting the chance to ask two questions to their opponents directly. Kouatly was the first, and he asked Dvorkovich: “Arkady, will you resign if you are sanctioned?” Dvorkovich answered without hesitation: “Yes, I will.”
Kouatly then started talking about the fact that many chess federations depend on grants and subsidies of their countries thanks to FIDE being recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and that resigning would mean a “big reputational problem.” Because Kouatly failed to ask a question in the allotted time, Garrett decided to cut him off. Dvorkovich then reacted anyway, noting that, as the IOC prescribes, the FIDE President doesn’t represent countries, let alone Russia, but all chess federations. “Also, I believe there is no real reason to sanction me. If it happens, the people who support me, and therefore did not run themselves, will get their chance to run for president.”
Dvorkovich had two questions for Baryshpolets: “First, you say FIDE should be apolitical, but you want Russian and Belarus players not participating. Also, you have selected a good team, but didn’t you want to select people in FIDE on a competitive basis? Aren’t these two contradictory?”
Baryshpolets then claimed that people can still play under the Belarusian or Russian flag, and got interrupted by Dvorkovich: “No, only under the FIDE flag.” Baryshpolets did not agree, and unfortunately this issue wasn’t further explained or resolved in the debate. Baryshpolets probably was referring to situations where players did not request a federation change from Belarus or Russia to FIDE and then play under the FIDE flag anyway, such as GM Ian Nepomniachtchi at the recent Candidates tournament.
Baryshpolets also denied a contradiction regarding his team, pointing out that besides the President and Deputy President, the FIDE Charter requires the nomination of three vice presidents, a treasurer, and a secretary. “But on the FIDE management board, the positions will be on an open bid.”
The debate ended with arguably the most fundamental issue at stake in these presidential elections: whether FIDE can continue having a president who was a high politician in the government of Russia, the country that invaded Ukraine on February 24, which led to a terrible war that has now been ongoing for 150 days.
Baryshpolets mentioned that on July 20, International Chess Day, the 13-year-old son of the Ukrainian chess player WIM Viktoria Kubata was killed in Kharkiv during the morning shelling. “Here were are not talking about politics. It’s far beyond politics, it’s about life, and killing people.” He then mentioned Dvorkovich having had ties with the Skolkovo Foundation, which according to Baryshpolets was “highly involved with a military project.”
His question to Dvorkovich: “Aren’t you ashamed of what you do to the chess world? Aren’t you ashamed of presenting yourself and saying that you care about chess, and also, do you feel any responsibility to what the Kremlin does and what you’ve been attached to?”
In his reply, Dvorkovich used the word war, while the Russian government itself still speaks of a “special military operation.” The FIDE President’s answer: “First of all, my deepest condolences to the family of a young boy who has been killed. It’s a big tragedy when any life is taken. Any war is terrible. I made my position very clear against the war, and any wars. The most important value in our lives is peace. That’s clear, and that’s how I have been raised since my childhood. I am not ashamed of what I have been doing throughout many years serving people, people around me, in Russia, and people in the whole world, by making the whole world better. I did my best as an economist, as a professional, as a civil servant and now as a public international servant. I am not ashamed of that. I did a lot. I didn’t do enough. I’m responsible for not doing enough to make the world better than it is. It’s a shame that all of us could not do it better than it is. I feel a responsibility about that. We all have to do better.”
The FIDE presidential elections take place on August 7 in Chennai, India alongside the Olympiad. The delegations of the close to 200 chess federations will be choosing the new FIDE President and his team, which will govern the International Chess Federation for the next four years. As he announced in 2018, it would be Dvorkovich’s second and final term if he wins. Without the many Russian sponsors and Carlsen leaving the world championship cycle, there are plenty of challenges to tackle.