Interviews / Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: The Knock-out achieved its Goal

Questions – Vladimir Barsky

Q: Kirsan Nikolayevich, the Kramnik-Topalov match clearly took a lot of nerves and energy from you. Do you still like inviting players to Elista?

A: It has already become a tradition to organize major events in Elista, the city that became the world’s capital of chess. We will continue hosting championships and other high-level tournaments here, in order to popularize chess in Kalmyk Republic and Russia . I would say that this has already become a daily routine of Kalmyk chess life.

Apart from that, we began cooperating with the international organization of disabled children. This year, along with the candidates matches, we organized a tournament for disabled children. We hope that this event becomes traditional.
As for the toilet scandal… Well, it only added some spice to chess.

Q: So you recall it with a smile now?

A: We are all human beings. It is life, everything happens, especially with big money and the World Champion’s title at stake. Also, Topalov’s example showed that chess players are not always participating in decision making. Three days and three nights I negotiated in City Chess and, thank God, the conflict was resolved.

Q: What measures were taken to prevent such incidents in the future?

A: We are blocking all the signals in the playing hall in order to rule out the computer assistance. The players share restrooms and relaxation rooms. And there is another solution I am firm about: cutting down the thinking time. When Topalov and Kramnik played their 25-minute tiebreak games, they didn’t run to the toilet! You were in Elista last autumn, and you remember that the hall was half-empty during the long-play games, but was full of excited spectators for the rapid games. Popularity of the web relay rose even steeper by the end of the match. The rapid games were very tense and exciting. In addition, I think that their quality did not differ much from the classical control games.

Q: So, your new proposal is 1 hour for the entire game?

A: Maybe more, but this is the direction we are going.

Q: Will the classical control be kept only for the most important tournaments?

A: For World Championships, yes. However, we will still decrease the time from 7 to 4-5 hours. For all other official tournaments we will use 20 or 25 minutes per player. All chess players I talked with support this idea. During the Olympiad in Turin we questioned female players, and 100% of them backed the FIDE control. I guess 90% men share their opinion. When I met Vladimir Kramnik in Paris recently, he said that the classical control should be preserved for World Championships, but rapid control can make chess more exciting for the public.

Q: In the mid-90s you made a courageous reform, introducing the knock-out format for the World Championship. Everybody seemed to get used to it eventually. Do you feel pity abandoning this format, your own innovation?

A: Life changes and we cannot stand still. I am sure someone prefers stationary phones to cell phones, but one has to deal with both. Large bodies such as FIDE or FIFA must develop constantly to avoid stagnation. The decision to introduce the knock-out system was made at the Presidential Board in Singapore in 1995. Do you remember that time? I got tired from running between Karpov and Kasparov, trying to resolve the situation. The world of chess could not wait for ever. Leading grandmasters were saying they are losing interest to chess: there was no money, no promise, and only a few players on the very top were getting all the money and fame. One had to take unusual steps to deal with that usurpation of chess power.

It was very hot in Singapore , +40. I remember I went outside and met Alexander Borisovich Roshal near the hotel – blessed be his memory. We went into a cafe across the street, and I said:

– Alexander Borisovich, something must be invented, it must be a bomb!

We spent the entire night in the cafe, discussing various reforms in chess. Afterwards Roshal wrote an article with the heading ‘ Aurora salvo in Singapore ‘!

Initially I received no support. The atmosphere heated so much that we had to call a break. However, the time proved that the idea was right. I offered 5 million dollar for the prize fund. Many players who were among the top 20 or 30 told me that now they could plan their budgets: if you qualify through three or four stages of the World Championship, you get $40,000-50,000. This allowed us to keep many professionals in chess, and increased popularity of our sport as well. So I think the knock-out achieved its goal.

On the other hand, the last-year match Kramnik-Topalov returns us to the classical match tradition. I suggested introducing a knock-out World Cup, and give its winner the right to challenge the World Champion in a match. Thus we preserved both formats.

Q: Candidates matches were used to determine the title challenger until the mid-90s, and then they disappeared. Will they disappear again after a brief return in Elista?

A: It turned out very difficult finding sponsors for such matches. There are players from Hungary , Israel , Norway , USA , France and other countries playing in Elista, but none of the national federations managed to find the money for this competition. They say: we can find the money for a title match, but not for a qualifier. When the decision about the candidates matches was taken, Makropoulos and other FIDE officials were confident that potential sponsors will line up for these matches, but now they came back to my pocket. And I said: okay, I give these $500,000, but this is the last time! There are only two competitions attractive to sponsors: the World Championship, and the World Cup. The interest to the latter is growing, especially after the latest reform that minimized the randomness of the competition.

Q: Are you still trying to bring chess into the Olympic family?

A: We are working on it every day. You probably know that we opened a FIDE office in Lausanne , getting closer to the IOC headquarters. We work in all the structures of the IOC – committees, IOC associations etc., and ask the IOC to state criteria for an international sports federation to join the Olympic family. They are reluctant to state it, and we keep pressing.

For example, why curling became an Olympic sport? When they applied for the status, they advertised curling as ‘Chess on Ice’. Isn’t it absurd that chess on ice is an Olympic sport, and ‘mere’ chess is not?

The rest of this interview and many more can be seen here.

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