Dictator's gambit: look who's joined the chess set

Footage from Libyan TV shows Colonel Gaddafi trading pawns with a minor Russian despot. It is, reports Shaun Walker, a favourite pastime for the tyrannical
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It will go down as one of the more bizarre attempts at conflict mediation. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the head of world chess body FIDE, former ruler of a Buddhist region of Russia and a self-declared alien abductee, sat down with Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli to discuss the Libyan conflict... and play a game of chess.

Mr Ilyumzhinov said yesterday that Colonel Gaddafi told him he had no intention of leaving Libya, during talks at an undisclosed location in Tripoli which lasted for two hours.

The game of chess ended in a draw, which Mr Ilyumzhinov said he offered sportingly, so as not to offend his host.

"Of course, he was weaker – much weaker – than me, but it was interesting," the FIDE President told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. "I offered the drawn game. It would not have been diplomatic to have beaten him."

Gaddafi's game was apparently rather rusty and Mr Ilyumzhinov appears to have been showing him how to play at times. If the Libyan leader now develops a passion for the game, however, he wouldn't be the first dictator to do so. Napoleon enjoyed the game, though it has been suggested that one of the greatest military strategists wasn't much good. His impetuous moves on the board "might have have saved Wellington a great deal of trouble" if they'd been replicated at Waterloo, according to the great chess writer Israel Albert Horowitz.

Lenin was both keen and rather talented at the game, as long as he concentrated on it, rather than being diverted to discussions on politics. Fidel Castro was another fan (though he was eclipsed in talent by Che Guevara, a strong club player). Others were less enamoured – Ivan the Terrible banned it in the 16th century until he had a change of heart. So great was his volte-face, that he was supposedly playing the game when he dropped dead, possibly after being poisoned by his opponent.

But is it surprising that such a solitary game that requires analytical intelligence and drive should be enjoyed by a dictator at ease? At the very least, it requires "determination and great nerves to maintain form under extreme tension", said Jon Speelman, The Independent's chess correspondent. However, the most extraordinary meshing of chess and politics was by Mr Ilyumzhinov himself, during his rule of the arid steppe region of Kalmykia, in southern Russia. The FIDE chief made chess lessons compulsory for schoolchildren (a move followed recently by Armenia), and built a "Chess City" complex on the edge of the region's capital.

Mr Ilyumzhinov told Russian radio yesterday that he was on a tour of Africa, meeting with chess officials, and called in on Colonel Gaddafi, whom he has known personally for a decade, at the last minute. The visit echoes a trip the eccentric chess supremo made to Baghdad in 2003, shortly before the city was bombed by US forces, when he sat down for talks with Saddam Hussein and his son Uday, both of whom he considered to be friends.

Mikhail Margelov, Russia's chief negotiator to Libya, said he told Mr Ilyumzhinov to tell Gaddafi it was "time for his end game". Russia has strongly criticised the Nato action in Libya, but in recent weeks has gradually come round to the idea that Gaddafi must go. Mr Margelov was in Benghazi last week meeting with rebels and is due in Tripoli in the next few days. It doesn't seem that the FIDE President took any notice of Mr Margelov's request, however. "It's a great honour for me to be here, to see that you look very well and healthy, because many people might have... wrong information," Mr Ilyumzhinov can be heard telling the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi wore a pair of sunglasses, while Mr Ilyumzhinov wore his trademark boyish grin, as the two played on a cut-glass chess board below a portrait of the Libyan leader. Few statesmen could enter a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi and be the most eccentric person in the room, but Mr Ilyumzhinov just about trumps the Libyan leader in the absurdity stakes. In an interview with The Independent last autumn, he reiterated his claim that he was abducted by aliens in 1997, who took him into space. He also insisted chess is a "cosmic game" brought to earth by aliens.

Mr Ilyumzhinov's visit to Libya is not the first time that he has put his faith in "chess diplomacy". Last year he wrote to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, proposing an initiative to build a World Chess Centre on the Ground Zero site. In the future, "the only battles between East and West will be over a chessboard", he said at the time.

Comments