While perhaps no surprise to the jaded observer, interviews with the President of the Internation Chess Federation are often extraordinary. Where else, in the middle of a heated election campaign, can you find a candidate talking openly about aliens, astrology, clairvoyants and meetings with such assorted characters as Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, Bobby Fischer and Chuck Norris.
This interview, with Alexander Levit of the Ukrainian “FAKTY”, was published last week but must have been conducted over a month ago when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was in Odessa for the end of the ACP rapid tournament. It does, of course, touch on the campaign for FIDE President – e.g. Ilyumzhinov claims to have put $50 million of his personal funds into FIDE – but it’s more remarkable when it moves on to other topics:
Which famous people have you managed to meet at the chess board?
Henry Kissinger, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi. Not so long ago I played the Crown Prince of Jordan. They all handle the pieces excellently, but I also had some won games. However, the norms of political etiquette extend to chess. I couldn’t win or lose – I had to do everything I could to ensure the games ended as draws.
Did you meet Fischer?
When Russia recognised the debts of the former USSR, Bobby Fischer wrote to the Kremlin with a request to return him the royalty payments for his book, “My Sixty Memorable Games,” that was published in a print run of 100,000 copies in the former USSR. Many well-known chess players studied it. It was also, by the way, a book that I’d enjoyed reading. However, Moscow rejected Fischer’s request. He was angry and declared that he wouldn’t have anything more to do with the Russians. Then I wrote him a letter indicating that I was personally prepared to pay the Soviet Union’s debt. I flew to Budapest and Fischer met me at the airport. We went to his flat and made lunch: I’d brought caviar and vodka. I remember we also cooked pelmeni. I gave Bobby 100,000 dollars and he wept: “For the first time in my life I haven’t been deceived, I’ve been paid for my efforts”.
It’s known that you’ve visited the famous clairvoyant and healer Vanga more than once…
That started at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where I was studying with some guys from Bulgaria. In early 1993 relatives of Baba Vanga arrived and the guys invited me to drink tea with them. The relatives told me that Vanga had asked them to bring back a young president from Russia. Well, Yeltsin might have been young, Nazarbaev… I was already at the time the youngest Supreme Council deputy, having been elected at 27. And even before that I’d been president of the international corporation “San”. So the word “president” fitted: we flew together to Sofia, then to Petrich. It was late evening so we went to sleep. In the morning there was a knock on the door. Standing there is Ivan, a relative of Vanga’s. “Baba Vanga just called now”, he says, “she asked why we hadn’t come with the president we’d brought from Moscow”. Though no-one had informed her that we’d come…
We met. From then on we had a friendly relationship. At the time Vanga told me: “You’ll be president, you’ll run a country”. I was amazed: “What country, I’m 30!” A few months later they elected me head of Kalmykia. I remember at the time passing a decree making her an honourable citizen of the Republic of Kalmykia.
On the second occasion she foretold I’d be elected as the President of FIDE, a year and a half before the elections. She said: “I see two Kirsans, two presidents”. She smiled and added: “So small and thin, but you’re sitting on two chairs, split in two…”
You’re really into astrology. Is it your hobby?
It’s not a hobby, but a component of my life. We’re born and we die beneath the stars. Everything in our lives is predestined: the position of the planets and stars influences certain events in the life of mankind. I was drawn to it all when I was still a student. They held the first Soviet Sorcerers’ Conference in Tajikistan. I sponsored a great number of so-called laboratories for studying astrology. They made predictions for football teams and very well-known politicians, both here and abroad. There’s a solid database of political parties, governments, presidents, major businessmen. All of that doesn’t rule out the existence of crooks and charlatans. After all people like Baba Vanga are one-of-a-kind.
I also have a certificate: they named planet number 55-70 after me. It’s between Jupiter and Mars… 310 million kilometres from the Earth. So that if anything happens, I tell everyone, I’ll have somewhere to run. It’s curious that the International Astronomical Union were against giving the star my name. Their statutes include: stars can’t be named after politicians. Even in 1964 when they wanted to name a star after John Kennedy they weren’t permitted. But here they found a way out as “Planet Kirsan” isn’t named in honour of the President of Kalmykia, but in honour of the Sportsman and President of FIDE.
It’s true – the “Dictionary of Minor Planet Names” does include the planet “Kirsan”, though the human Kirsan is mistakenly given the grandmaster title. “Planet Kirsan” is also the title of what seems to be a remarkable film set in Kalmykia. The image on this site is clickable to start a long trailer with English subtitles (thanks to Giovanni Ornaghi who mentioned it on an Italian blog).
Ilyumzhinov goes on to talk about the chess city he built in Elista, and the world’s only chess museum that’s located there.
And yet at the time when City-Chess was only being planned many doubted that we’d manage to pull off all of this construction work. They even thought up an ironic name – the New-Vasiuki project [Vasiuki was the provincial town which Ostap Bender, the con-man hero of Ilf and Petrov’s comic novels, promised to make into a chess mecca]. I recall that at the time I even argued with the American actor Chuck Norris who, having arrived in Kalmykia in June, also expressed scepticism. We argued over a bottle of whisky. I assured him that we’d open on 28 September, while he only smiled in response. Nevertheless chess was played here on that day! It’s true that Norris still hasn’t given me the bottle I won. While another famous Hollywood actor, the action movie star Steven Seagal, turned out to be a good guy.
You drank whisky with him?
No, I’m not talking about that at all. We simply played chess, seriously fighting over literally every single square of the board. And in the end we drew! I made Seagal an honorary citizen of Kalmykia.