Nobody could doubt Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s devotion to chess. As president of the impoverished Russian republic of Kalmykia, he spent £60m building a Chess City where visitors could play in comfort. He made the game compulsory in schools and had a giant chess board with outsized pieces placed in the main square of his capital.
His flamboyant style as head of the world chess federation since 1995 has attracted frequent criticism, however; and the impression of eccentricity was compounded recently when he told Russian state television that aliens in yellow spacesuits had given him a tour of their craft.
Now two of the world’s greatest chess champions, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, once rivals across the board, are making common cause in an effort to get rid of Ilyumzhinov.
In his opening attack Karpov is said to have secured the backing of several national chess federations. But in a counter move the incumbent has secured the Kremlin’s support to stay on.
“We’ve had enough of Ilyumzhinov. He’s no longer fit to head the federation. He must go,” said Karpov, whose campaign to head the game’s governing body is also supported by Vladimir Kramnik, another former world champion.
“So much could have been done in the last 15 years. Instead, Ilyumzhinov has simply placed his people in power, made a lot of unfulfilled promises and all but ended chances of attracting major sponsors because of his reputation.”
Kasparov has accused Ilyumzhinov of running the world chess federation in the same authoritarian way that he rules his tiny country. “He not only believes he can disregard rules, he makes up his own,” said Kasparov.
Ilyumzhinov denies any wrongdoing and says he has led the federation successfully.
The clash is being closely watched by chess enthusiasts across the world. Last week Karpov and Kasparov held a fundraiser in New York attended by more than 100 Wall Street bankers who bid at an auction for the chance to play against Kasparov.
Ilyumzhinov is unlikely to need such fundraisers. One of the former Soviet Union’s first multi-millionaires, he once boasted a fleet of Rolls-Royces.
In 1993, aged 31, he became president of Kalmykia after promising to turn Europe’s only Buddhist nation into a “second Kuwait” where “every shepherd would have a cellphone”. This has yet to become a reality.
He claims that as a young boy he played chess at night with a “black masked ghost” and despite protests from his impoverished people built Chess City on the outskirts of the capital, Elista, because “God intended Kalmykia to be known for chess”.
His tales of extraterrestrial encounters, first recounted years ago, proved the last straw for the chess champions. He said he was falling asleep in his Moscow apartment when he heard someone calling him from the balcony and saw a “semi-transparent half-tube” that he entered to meet the human-like creatures.
"I felt very comfortable with them,” said Ilyumzhinov. “I am often asked which language I used to talk to them. Perhaps it was on a level of the exchange of ideas. I asked them why they had not gone on television to reveal themselves to us humans. They replied that they are not yet ready.”