Is Racism in Chess Overlooked?
In a world where gender discrimination and racism often rear their ugly heads, sexism in chess is trending, but is racism in chess overlooked? The Chess Drum has featured articles discussing the issue, but there has never been a serious discussion. When the racial tirade of Baadur Jobava recently came to light at a qualifier for the Airthings Masters, many were taken by surprise. The controversy unfolded when the Georgian Grandmaster accused Chinese Grandmaster Xiangyu Xu of cheating and went on an emotional tirade.
WARNING: EXTREME PROFANITY
Jobava during the Airthings qualifiers: “Ban all these Chinese m/fers”
by u/DrunkLad in chess
Jobava, who has been known to lose his temper in the past, targeted Chinese players and accused them of colluding to cheat. There is no question that China has a very strong chess tradition, so this makes Jobava’s comments seem to be disingenuous. His comments were considered to be defaming, and he was promptly sanctioned by chess.com and banned for the rest of 2023.
February 6, 2023
Diversity and inclusion are said to be the chess community’s main strengths. However, the sport has recently been beset with a rash of gender harassment, racial bias, and the emergence of “cancel culture.” The admission of several female players having unfortunate encounters has come to light in the past years. After the fallout of the Alejandro Ramirez case, Anna Cramling has been the latest to complain about sexual harassment.
The other “ism”
In the last decade, a spotlight has been put on gender equity in chess through commissions and marketing initiatives. However, sexism cases are still emerging, both in-person and online. Racism is also another issue that has been mentioned. The discussion has more muted and usually taken as a one-off occurrence. It’s not.
One famous American Grandmaster (now even more famous) opined to me years ago that racism in America was not that bad. He didn’t say it with a lot of conviction, but it was clear that he had not been personally exposed to the modern incidences of racial conflict. Racism is a phenomenon that brings about a range of emotions, especially those targeted. While it is something talked about frequently, is it often overlooked? Do we know what racism means in order to recognize it? There is a standard definition.
- prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.
Most of us understand that there are various levels of racism. Some were violent lynchings of the American 19th and 20th centuries where spectators ate popcorn as a person was brutalized (even castrated) and postcards and charred parts of a dismembered victim were sold as souvenirs. At the other end of the spectrum are subtle actions and offhanded comments tinged with racial overtones. The definition above speaks of “marginalized” groups. In a socioeconomic sense, this could be devastating.
The recurring question is whether racism is a big problem in chess. Then there is a matter of knowing when race is a factor, whether it is a class issue, or whether the offender is simply a horrible person. Sometimes it is all of the above. Unfortunately, such incidences are merely taken as bad behavior. If it has never happened to you, you are likely to dismiss it as a mere offensive gesture. However, ignoring any racist act sets a dangerous precedent.
During the George Floyd protests in 2020, FIDE put out a statement on racism that read:
FIDE condemns racism in the strongest terms, and we stand for non-discrimination as one of the founding pillars of the Olympic Movement, to which FIDE belongs. This is reflected in the Olympic Charter, Fundamental Principle 6: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”~FIDE Statement dated 13 June 2020
Although Jobava was banned by chess.com, FIDE did not bring sanctions. Some question whether his comments were racist. Regardless of how one sees it, his expletive-laced tirade was in poor taste (at the least) and callously prejudicial (at the worst). We all know that false allegations of cheating can not only be unsettling and defamatory but also ruin one’s career.
There should be punishment for all players falsely accusing another of cheating whether it is racist, sexist, or classist. There have been sanctions for false allegations (i.e., Natalia Zhukova’s punishment), and the most serious cases can end in $100 million lawsuits (i.e., Hans Niemann’s case). Neither of these dealt with racism but were cases dealing with a particular prejudice.
What Racism is Not
During the 2020 George Floyd protests against the continued pattern of police brutality, chess.com ran a series of articles featuring three Black players talking about racism in chess. However, the series was heavily criticized as only tangentially pointing out racism in chess. While the articles primarily dealt with racism in general, the topic of racism in chess has mostly been trivialized. In this piece, I will focus primarily on how it has affected the African Diaspora.
When “racism” is mentioned there are so many different contexts used. Most recently, during a 2023 chess.com “Black History” commemoration by IM Kassa Korley, some commenters pushed back and said, “everything should not be about race,” or “why is racism on chess.com.” Some showed their own racial insensitivity in their protests. This is despite that the interviews did not focus as much on race/racism as much as they did on chess. The series highlighted the accomplishments of four African-American chess personalities.
Why is it that a chess site can do articles on every other demographic, but when there is an emphasis on a person who happens to be of African descent, there is such a sharp reaction? Several times these same arguments were pushed at The Chess Drum for focusing on players of African descent. Just after launching the site, one British person even offered that the site is prejudiced, but “in a good way.” In 2007, a Latin American trainer brutally attacked The Chess Drum and later wrote me to say he was embarrassed by the website because it “segregates people.”
I find your site very offensive and racist, and I think a lot of other people do also.“~IM Javier Gil in 2007
This is an International Master with dubious thinking. The failure to see The Chess Drum as a positive addition (as opposed to a negative diversion) is one reason why we have not made progress in fighting racism. There are tournaments for women, young, old, disabled, blind, the incarcerated, and for particular nationalities. Having organizations or events that cater to a specific demographic is not new and adds another enriching perspective on chess. Otherwise, how would we know? Fortunately, The Chess Drum still beats worldwide after 22 years.
What Racism Is
There is this widespread notion that chess is a color-blind community. It is not. The truth is, most have not heard of any major cases of racism in chess. However, they do happen more frequently than imagined. Just as you have in sexism, victims complain among friends but do not report the incidents. When they are reported, they are not taken seriously enough to warrant any disciplinary action. Perpetrators usually don’t admit to being racist. Even worse, some hearing the cases will claim to be colorblind or not see race. That’s exactly the problem.
We should not be colorblind. Being colorblind means one doesn’t distinguish one group from another, thus is hard to know when race is actually a factor in these conflicts. Sometimes is not only individuals being exposed for racial insensitivities as in the Jobava case, but organizations. Jerald Times had spent nearly a year pushing forward a case against Success Chess Academy alleging racism.
In Times’ case, he points out several employment practices that were both discriminatory and racial in nature. Times sent The Chess Drum a comprehensive list that contained objectionable offenses and was verified by the New York Division of Human Rights (NYDHR).
If we can look at racism, we have to break it down into various levels of analysis. Some of it is systemic. Other times racism is implied and other times it comes as a direct personal attack. Following are a few examples:
The Case of South Africa
Sometimes racism can occur when one group is provided with inherent advantages in a way where other groups operate at a tangible disadvantage. In chess, we can refer to the current case of South Africa where such a conflict exists. In fact, there is a historical precedent in the country. In 1974, FIDE President Max Euwe visited South Africa to investigate such racist accusations against the apartheid government.Olimpbase.org further tells us how the story unfolds:
At the FIDE congress meeting in Helsinki, 1973, the decision had been made to investigate whether or not the treatment of coloured chess players in Rhodesia and South Africa was in violation of the principles of FIDE. Dr. Euwe went to both countries and prepared a report which was circulated at Nice (France). Nowhere in his report does he offer any evidence of discrimination against coloured players in either country, neither does he even suggest that he feels either country should be excluded from FIDE.
Dr. Max Euwe’s giving a simul on his 1974 trip to South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Keith Rust
On the agenda of the Congress meetings at Nice was a proposal introduced by Moroccan Chess Federation to exclude both countries. Their proposal was signed by the representatives of Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, USSR, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Argentina and Cuba. From reading Dr. Euwe’s report one might have expected him to be completely opposed to this proposal and he is a powerful enough figure for his views to carry much weight with Congress. But there was another issue at stake. The office of president was open to re-election and opposing Dr. Euwe was vice-president R. Mendez from Puerto Rico. At the start of the Olympiad it was thought that Euwe was likely to lose the election as Mendez had the support of many of the smaller countries. But the Soviet Federation saw a way to use the situation to their advantage – they offered Euwe a deal whereby he would get the votes of the Eastern Bloc countries if he supported the exclusion of Rhodesia and South Africa. Euwe agreed. As soon as the exclusion was announced South Africa withdrew from the Olympiad. Source: https://www.olimpbase.org/1974/1974in.html
Almost 20 years later, the situation has reared its ugly head once again. Two competing bodies claim to be the rightful leaders of CHESSA. Rebecca Selkirk gave her impressions in an August 2021 post on chess.com:
The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) has been briefed by both parties in a blame game with racial undertones, and I have heard (unofficial sources) that Chessa has lost substantial Lotto funding as a result of the maladministration and leadership struggle. (link)~Rebecca Selkirk, former South African Olympiad player
Ian Wilkinson, who sat on the FIDE Ethics Commission had to step in to serve as the mediator and later served as the “Reverse Delegate” for South Africa. When The Chess Drum asked Wilkinson, he responded,
“This matter involved allegations of election fraud, racism and classic “black-white” confrontation between two administrations claiming to be the right one for Chess South Africa- Hendrik du Toit’s (white) and Joe Mahomole’s. A series of court cases over several years culminated in a Court of Appeal decision (February, 2022) in du Toit’s favour and settled the (legal) matter to some extent as Mahomole decided not to challenge it.”~Ian Wilkinson, FIDE Council (Reverse Delegate of South Africa)
Does FIDE have an African Problem or Does Africa have a FIDE Problem?
Sometimes racism takes on a more subtle tone meaning offenses are much harder to see unless you are observant. They are often written off as coincidences or mistakes. Some of these situations can be seen on the largest stage and in various international arenas, including FIDE, the world’s chess body.
At the 2004 FIDE General Assembly in Calvia, Spain,
seats and placards for the African federations were not arranged!
A flustered Nizar Elhaj (middle) trying to resolve the issue.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum
At the 2004 Olympiad in Calvia, Spain, African federations were not even presented with seats in the General Assembly. The room was small, but the African delegates were left out. President of the African Chess Confederation Nizar El-Haj (Libya) was livid and running around trying to get the proper seating. In the end, the African federations were haphazardly crowded in the back of the hall in the area for the journalists and spectators. Some of the African delegates were standing. It was shameful.
The arena of FIDE has not always been the most hospitable to African concerns. In “FIDE’s African Problem,” I wrote,
Issues in the past such as expulsion due to arrears, repeated visa imbroglios, sponsorship shortages for travel, and unfair adjudication of “zero tolerance” policies (which disproportionately affected African countries who lived as much as one hour away from the venue). The 2008 Olympiad in Dresden was a disastrous laboratory experiment for the zero-tolerance rule. One nation was forfeited despite the tram breaking down. When this was confirmed the forfeit was still upheld.
There are also the years of the FIDE elections where tensions are high and again. When each vote counts, Africa is always at the center of discussion, but not in a positive tone. The discussion of changing the democratic voting system to take the singular vote from smaller federations is often posed. African federations are often compared to Russia, the U.S., Germany, and other more powerful nations as a point of showing why the continent is not deserving of equality.
Also, the way in which some of the FIDE officials refer to African nations often causes one to take notice. The 2014 Olympiad in Tromso, Norway was a despicable example of how African delegates are spoken to in condescending tones. This is more evident in election campaigns. Even if it is no racist intention, these ham-handed ways of communicating show a lack of regard for African sensibilities.
Georgios Makropoulos in a shouting match with the Ivory Coast’s Dr. Essoh Essis during a coffee break of the 2014 FIDE Congress in Tromso, Norway. Here’s part of the exchange. 4:13 minutes
Githinji Hinga of Kenya expressing himself after Israel Gelfer called African federations “lazy” because of the rift created in the 2014 African Assembly in Tromso, Norway. Gelfer apologized. Here’s part of the exchange. 6:22 minutes Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum
International Master Watu Kobese of South Africa was interviewed as part of the chess.com segment on racism and had a very poignant, yet sad admission.
“It seems like FIDE thinks the same way as some Africans, which is that Africans have this tendency of thinking that anything that is African is inferior, and anything that is out of Africa is superior. This is actually anti-African, but this way of thinking exists in the chess world too. So, you have this situation where FIDE delegates from Africa are not necessarily fighting for Africa, for their region, for their players, their trainers.“ (link)~IM Watu Kobese on African, FIDE and racism
The Case of Pontus Carlsson
There have been many cases of overt racism in chess, but most are trivialized and not taken seriously. Granted, some of them are not handled properly by those making the claim. Vaughn Bennett filed a $150 million suit against the U.S. Chess Federation and 24 others for racism. It was thrown out. Even when cases are pointed out, it is disregarded as an anomaly. Many cannot see how someone can be so callous, but of course, these offenses often go unaddressed.
Pontus Carlsson, born as an Afro-Colombian and raised in Sweden, has had his share of incidents. He has even been a target on white supremacist sites decrying the fact that he is representing a Nordic country. During the heat of the George Floyd protests, he shared some of these impressions in a Newsweek magazine story.
In the article, Carlsson gave a recollection of racism at tournaments both as a youth and as an adult. He has been pelted with the “monkey” epithet several times despite his Grandmaster status. If that wasn’t enough, he had a situation in Sweden where the manager of the club team sent as a source of motivation the book, Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie.
Carlsson terminated his membership in the club and reported the incident to the Swedish Chess Federation. Although the federation stated that it was racist and unacceptable behavior, Carlsson said that the team manager was not penalized. (link)
Grandmaster Pontus Carlsson
Photo by Daaim Shabazz
Instead of showing solidarity, there were those who trivialized Carlsson’s experiences as practical jokes and rationalized the criticism by saying that it was just a few people poking fun. People who have never suffered the brunt of racism may believe this type of behavior is harmless, but it actually normalizes the behavior. Carlsson has lived in the Czech Republic and received a response to his Newsweek interview.
~Pavel Matocha on Pontus Carlsson being tossed bananas and enduring monkey chants at tournaments
“If this is the worst of racism Pontus has experienced in thirty years of his chess career, then it is something for which the chess world should be praised and not disparaged.”
Carlsson was actually attacked by Czech Republic media executive Pavel Matocha who made light of the issue and showed his own level of prejudicial thinking. Below is an English translation of the 2020 Czech article:
This article was meant to trivialize and make a mockery of racism, a very serious issue. There are numerous mistakes in the article, both factual and conceptual. Notice the last sentence. There were certainly more than three Black Grandmasters even at the time this article was written. Even if there were 100, it will still have the same racial gaslighting suggesting that Blacks need some type of quota to earn more Grandmaster (GM) titles.
It is important to note this comment because right-wing white supremacists have posted on The Chess Drum using this as a rationale to show that people of African ancestry are less intelligent. Some (even fellow GMs) actually believe that some of the Black Grandmasters have earned the title without meeting the FIDE standards.
How do you deal with Racism?
In 2002, a Russian-born Grandmaster was paired against an African IM. The game was a tense affair with the tide shifting in favor of the African veteran. The Russian was brutally crushed. When asked about the result of the game, the Russian player remarked, “Oh, I lost to that monkey.” A fellow African, who witnessed the remark, mentioned that everyone seemed shocked at the comment.
After his fragile ego took a beating, the Russian GM felt it appropriate to lash out with a racial epithet. He also felt entitled to make the comment since there was no deterrent, nor was there any punishment or reprimand. Bystanders simply ignored it and no one stepped in to condemn his comments. Violent reactions to racism come because it has been ignored for so long.
“In fact, no one has filed a complaint about racial discrimination at any of our official events at least since the current administration took office in 2018.”~FIDE Statement on Racism (2020)
Back in the turbulent summer of 2020, FIDE drafted its first statement on racism and therein presented,
FIDE condemns racism in the strongest terms, and we stand for non-discrimination as one of the founding pillars of the Olympic Movement, to which FIDE belongs. This is reflected in the Olympic Charter, Fundamental Principle 6: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
In the FIDE Handbook (Article 4.4), it reads,
FIDE rejects any kind of discrimination against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, citizenship, birth, age, status, wealth, disability, language, religion, sex, gender identity or expression, pregnancy, sexual orientation, political opinions, or any other reason.
Some have offered ways to address these issues. American actor Morgan Freeman has said the best way to defeat racism is to stop talking about it. Freeman can continue to make great movies, but will never be considered a social reformer with such an escapist mindset. Should we pretend problems don’t exist because we’re not interested in hearing about them? Unfortunately, this is how many societies with racial conflict deal with the problem.
Why is racism such a sore spot? With the sordid history of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, there is a tendency to urge the victims to forget about the past and only look forward. This amounts to the same misguided “don’t talk about it” ideology of Mr. Freeman. Fortunately, many organizations have talked about it and have drafted resolutions against it.
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2001)
Admittedly, some acts of ethnic prejudice in chess are rather innocuous, but it does show that there needs to be more effort to change the face of chess. There tends to be a stereotype of who is and who is not a chess player. For example, there have been countless situations where a Black player walks into a chess club in a different city, and with no additional information available, is immediately taken for a beginner or weak player. I have also experienced this several times.
U.S. Life Master Marvin Dandridge relayed a story while visiting a Texas chess club and being treated rather dismissively when he asked to get in the blitz rotation (5-minute chess). While noted as a dangerous tactician in the Chicago area, Dandridge sat down amongst curious eyes. He proceeded to crush all comers (including local masters). Astounded, they finally asked him his rating. After he stated, “2320” the nature of the conversation changed. It was an obvious misperception and perhaps no malicious intent, but the host club learned something that day.
With Marvin Dandridge at 1989 U.S. Open in Oakbrook, Illinois
Photo by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum
FIDE was proud to say that there are no cases filed, but what does that say about their filing system? In fact, there is a group of prominent chess personalities drafting a resolution against racism within the FIDE family, both online and in-person events. While there have not been any cases brought to FIDE dealing with racism, what is the reporting mechanism? How is racism determined? What are the levels? What is the punishment for those found guilty of racism, or any aspects of discrimination?
Granted, it will be impossible to stop all acts of prejudice and racism, but FIDE has to enlist the cooperation of all private chess companies that host chess arenas where discrimination does occur. Right along with sexism, online cheating, and false allegations, there have to be measures put in place to ensure that chess remains a safe and enjoyable environment for all demographics. Chess is experiencing growth and our policies must also grow with the times.