In the days following the 2016 election, a large group of Russians gathered in New York to watch one of their own wage war in miniature.
They were at the World Chess Championship, where a patriotic Russian grandmaster was challenging the Norwegian defending champion in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. Members of Russia’s business and political elite gathered in the venue’s dimly lit VIP lounge and whispered over martinis as their countryman tried to restore Russia to its former chess glory.
One person was especially conspicuous, and he wasn’t even there.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has lorded over the sport as the president of the World Chess Federation, more commonly known by its French acronym FIDE, for more than two decades. But the game’s most powerful figure had been barred from the country hosting its highest profile event. Ilyumzhinov was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2015 for providing financial assistance to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria as the regime inflicted a shocking degree of violence upon its citizens and purchased oil from the terrorist group ISIS.
The sanction was an extraordinary allegation to level against a sports chief, but Ilyumzhinov is no ordinary chief, and chess is no ordinary sport.