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games: chess

The World Chess Championship is still in a terrible mess. The new formula for the International Chess Federation (Fide) championship is due to start next month, but looks like being without the world's top two players. We'll come back to that in a moment. First some history:

The turmoil began in 1993, when Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov were so irritated at the way Fide was trying to organise their world championship match that they decided to run the show themselves. Their new organisation, the Professional Chessplayers Association (PCA) ran its own world title match, while Fide brought back Anatoly Karpov and Jan Timman to contest their now vacant title. From 1993 to 1996, we therefore had two world champions: Kasparov for the PCA and Karpov for Fide. Both champions successfully defended their titles in later challenge matches, and then things got worse for both organisations.

The PCA championship had been sponsored by the computer-chip manufacturers Intel, but their involvement ceased when Kasparov became closely involved with IBM as he played matches with the computer Deep Blue. Without sponsorship, the activities of the PCA became very limited. Meanwhile, Fide had been having its own political problems.

Its controversial president, Florencio Campomanes, had been surprisingly re-elected to his post on the platform of a re-unification match between the two champions. When negotiations broke down, however, he handed over the reins to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov - a fabulously wealthy Russian chess fanatic who also happened to be the president of the autonomous republic of Kalmykia.

Ilyumzhinov then almost created a total collapse of Fide by announcing that the Karpov-Kamsky match would take place in Baghdad, but changed his mind and sponsored it himself in Kalmykia's capital city of Elista. Then he announced his own plans for re-unification of the two titles: the old world championship challenge matches, which had served the chess world well since 1886, would be abolished and an $5m annual knock-out tournament would replace them. Karpov and Kasparov would be seeded directly into the semi-finals.

Both champions announced their opposition to the new format, but Karpov agreed to play, while Kasparov refused. On Kasparov's refusal to play, however, Karpov, as the sole defending champion, was seeded through directly to the final.

This preferential treatment of Karpov, however, has infuriated Vladimir Kramnik, who at second place in the world rankings is three places ahead of the Fide champion. This week Kramnik announced that he will not be competing in next month's new championship. In other words, the schism is getting deeper.