Geopolitics and the Diverse Voices in Chess

The Russian incursion into Ukraine is still burning up the news cycle more than two months after the geopolitical conflict began. The constant display of the horrid images of battle and scenes of death has filled our consciousness. The reaction was swift as FIDE condemned the act and decided to bring sanctions against the Russia Chess Federation banning Sergey Karjakin for six months. Thus, he is prevented from competing in the Candidates Tournament. Russian (and Belarus) federations were suspended from FIDE competition and its players will play under the FIDE flag.

The FIDE Dilemma

FIDE decided to postpone the 2022 Chess Olympiad until a new venue was found. India stepped up in an impressive display of chess diplomacy by agreeing to host the event on such short notice. At the end of this article is a video from ChessBase India on how the event unfolded. It also affirms why we need to rely on the resources of the entire chess community and not merely the larger bodies. It has been 30 years since the last Olympiad was held outside of the European sphere (Manila, the Philippines). South Africa’s bid in 2014 was beaten by Georgia amidst some controversy. FIDE ignonimously awarded the bid to Belarus for 2022 before switching to Moscow.

Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE)

Most of those in competitive chess will agree with the importance of both Russia and Ukraine in the world of chess. Both countries have a rich history with heavily-decorated players. However, the recent discussions on the conflict raise a question on how federations should address the issue. There has been so many different perspectives on Ukraine from all corners of the globe. On a purely human level, everyone is against the tragic loss of life, destruction of property, displacement and any hardships that come from the ills of war. There has been strong opinions about Russia’s “Special Operation” worldwide.

The Aagard Principle

The Association of Chess Professionals held a roundtable discussion about the situation. The spirited discussion had as its participants: GM Emil Sutovsky, GM Jacob Aagaard, GM Peter Heine Nielsen, Yuri Garrett, GM Daniel Gormally, Theodoros Tsorbatzoglou, and the hosted by WGM Keti Tsatsalashvili.

The two-hour discussion touched on various dynamics of the geopolitics of the invasion. Such topics such as the framing of “genocide,” the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, and how the chess world should address the geopolitical conflict. However, Emil Sutovsky made a point about the lack of diversity on the panel.

Even this panel, with all due respect, you don’t see any representative of Asia, South America, or Africa. How do you know what people there think about it?

Whether or not we agree that these other regions should have been invited, we can say that Sutovsky is correct in that FIDE has traditionally been very Eurocentric in its approach toward how it manages its affairs. The organization becomes much less dominated by the west when FIDE elections are held. Then we see the politics evolve into bloc voting and old allegiances. Smaller nations have to defend their democratic voting rights every four years, making the case that they are worthy of their vote.

GM Jacob Aagard (Denmark-born, Scottish national) weighed in about global discourse making the following statement:

Emil said we’re a global organization and no one disputes this, but to some extent, these 190 members we have, a lot of them are islands with just a few chess players. Chess is still to a huge extent, a European sport. So the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t matter… we have some other big centers of chess, obviously. We have some South American countries which are big. We have North America which is entirely in line with the issue on this. And then we have Asia, frankly they’re just far away and they don’t care and I don’t blame them.

He then repeated this notion in a Facebook discussion.

I also do not believe that we have to overly estimate the moral importance of Zambia, Burma, and Paraguay and their non-caring, when seen from the chess world. Reality is that chess is a European sport, which has become big among Indians and Chinese too. We have become vastly richer for it and it is a great thing. But it is still a predominately European sport.

Moral importance? There are so many things wrong with Aagard’s view, not to mention his trivializing the spirit of FIDE. To believe that somehow chess is “predominantly European” neglects the very essence of the game’s origins. Was Aagard’s angle that Europe has a large percentage of strong chess players? More Grandmasters? More FIDE-rated members? More stakeholders? He would be correct, but to hold the view that chess is European would lead one to believe that it is entitled to a lion’s share of the resources, leadership positions, voting rights, and membership privileges.

We agree that Europe is the biggest chess center, but he missed the larger point which is the diversity of ideas. Being a strong chess nation is not a requirement in offering brilliant insight on a chess matter. To say Asians are so far away and don’t care about these matters is a statement imputable to a particular naivete (at the least) and arrogance (at worst). Aagard, a long-time trainer and prolific author, seems like a genuine person, but he is wrong from A-Z on this one.

In 2017, Aagard spent a week providing training and promoting his books in India, the world’s fastest-growing chess power. He then visited Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. I believe if he asks his friends in these countries about their views of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and chess affairs, I’m sure he would get more than a “don’t care” attitude.

Geopolitical Dynamics of Conflict

If we are speaking of the general issue of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, certainly we should ask those nations who had nationals stuck in Ukraine and faced the spectre of death as they huddled in bomb shelters. Many Asian and Africans also faced racism and exclusion in Ukraine when trying to flee. Certainly, Asian and African nations may have had something to say about this issue and why many abstained in the U.N. General Assembly. African nations of course are important actors in this discussion given Russia’s historical role in the continent. Certainly, Middle Eastern countries may have a view given the geopolitics of the oil market.

If we are speaking of the chess issue, diverse views are indeed needed. In fact, if we had such a format, perhaps FIDE sanctions would have been levied on the U.S. after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of course, this was not given serious consideration at the 2004 FIDE General Assembly. Does Aagard simply mean that chess follows the typical world order with the west in front and everyone else following? The sun is setting on that era.

2022 Olympiad… Back to the Roots

This same Eurocentrism resurfaces every FIDE election campaign when many assert that smaller federations should not have a singular vote in the General Assembly because they have fewer players/GMs and thus, their views are not as important. This is exactly why each federation should have an equal vote since their views may not be heard otherwise, unless they strike an alliance through a larger more established federation. Even Aagard’s Scotland would have much less of a say in chess matters.

When Anatoly Karpov made a bid for FIDE President, he made a suggestion of an alternative system similar to the United Nations Security Council where more influential nations have more authority. There was considerable pushback on the idea. However, reinforcing the idea that the view of Asians, Africans, Arabs, Latin Americans are not as important (or that they “don’t care”), is not only naive but wrong.

Aagard’s comments ignited a debate on an African WhatsApp group and received condemnation, but there were some who admitted to Africa’s low growth rate as far as chess development. That is true, but the answers to that question are multifaceted and complex. It is with a sense of irony that Enyonam Sewa Fumey of the West African nation of Togo, has announced his candidacy for FIDE President. The reaction to his announcement will be interesting.

If we look at chess today, the game of chess has decidedly become “less European” with huge talents from every region. Of course, not every nation started out at the same point and not all nations are fully-vested in the royal game. However, chess has grown tremendously and the rise of China and India has created a potential market reach of more than two billion people.

Perhaps it is apropos that chess will return to its Indian roots and the Olympiad will have Chennai as its world stage. The biggest ambassador in this chess revolution stretching across the Indian Diaspora is Viswanathan Anand. He has already released a statement about the importance of the Olympiad in India. The 2022 Chess Olympiad will showcase the sport’s diversity and during the General Assembly, we will even have an African running for its highest office. GENS UNA SUMUS!

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Daaim Shabazz

Dr. Daaim Shabazz is the creator and webmaster of The Chess Drum. He serves as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds an MBA in Marketing and a doctorate in International Affairs & Development. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

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