“While all artists are not chess players,” the legendary French conceptualist Marcel Duchamp once said, “all chess players are artists.”
And although its popularity has diminished since Duchamp abruptly walked out on the New York art scene in 1918 to dedicate nine months to playing the game in Buenos Aires, chess is still seen as a noble, refined pursuit: the classiest of past-times.
But the power struggled that has gripped world chess's governing body FIDE has been anything but noble. The body was plunged into controversy when its longtime president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov – a man who has played chess with Muammar Gaddafi and believes he was once abducted by jumpsuit wearing aliens in 1997 – appeared to resign, only for Ilyumzhinov to declare the statement had been “fake”.
Since Monday, Ilyumzhinov has been involved in a surreal power struggle with FIDE's executive director, Nigel Freeman. A statement announcing Ilyumzhinov’s resignation after 22 years in charge of FIDE appeared at the start of the week, followed by a letter of denial from Ilyumzhinov the following day.
A subsequent letter from Freeman claiming that the president had repeatedly declared he was quitting quickly appeared, only for Ilyumzhinov to call a news conference on Wednesday to insist that he was still in charge and was the victim of “a revolution to seize the telegraph office”.
"I didn't sign any resignation announcement or hand one over. I'm the current president," he said, adding that the matter of his possible resignation had come up in informal discussions but that he had made clear he did not think he should go unless there was proof he was at fault in some way.
But when compared to the rest of his career, FIDE’s farcical power struggle ranks very low on the controversy scale for the enigmatic Ilyumzhinov.
The Russian millionaire, who is staunchly supported by Russian president Vladimir Putin, was considered virtually untouchable by those in the sport when he defeated former world chess champion Garry Kasparov’s bid to become president in the 2014 FIDE presidential elections.
But his grip on power has been shaken in the last few months, particularly when he was placed on a US Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list in 2015 having been accused of “materially assisting” Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Ilyumzhinov strongly refuted the claims and planned a $50 billion lawsuit against the US government, but was forced to hand over the temporary running of FIDE to his deputy, Georgios Makropoulos.
It did not much help Ilyumzhinov’s case that the Russian has been photographed playing a game of chess against the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and held ‘cordial relations’ with none other than Saddam Hussein.
“I like them all the same way,” Ilyumzhinov is quoted as saying in the Daily Beast. “Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Dalai Lama, or Vladimir Putin—everybody who supports the idea of chess playing is my friend.”
And that’s without even going into the details of his alien abduction in September 1997, when Ilyumzhinov alleges aliens in “yellow space suits” picked him up from his apartment and took him on a joyride through space in a ship with “chambers the size of a large football pitch.”
“They flew in and picked me up wearing yellow spacesuits,” Ilyumzhinov allegedly told the Czech Republic’s Radio Freedom in 2001. “We went off to their interplanetary ship and the most interesting thing was that they appeared not to pay any attention to me – I did not understand their purpose in picking me up.
“We landed on one of the planets and picked up some piece of equipment. And they told me everything in detail, the ones who transported me explained things, either the captain of the ship or someone else. And then I remember that I asked them to take me back to Earth as quickly as possible.”
He has even claimed that chess itself is a gift from extra-terrestrials, revealing in an interview with The Independent in 2010 that “There was no internet before, so how did [chess] get across the world? It means that it was brought from somewhere.”
Although amusing to external observers, Ilyumzhinov’s unpredictable behaviour is no laughing matter to those in chess, with Malcolm Pein, the English Chess Federation's international director, telling the Telegraph: “A lot of the people he put in place are now getting fed up with him because a lot of the things FIDE does that it needs to survive it simply cannot do.”
But Wednesday’s news statement confirmed that, for now at least, Ilyumzhinov is still very much in charge of world chess. He even insisted that, as well as seeing out his current term, he may even consider running for re-election in 2018. The world of chess holds its breath.