Russia's Chess Match Goes off the Board
IN the high-stakes world of Russian chess, tempers as well as kings are often difficult to check.
Last week, in a tactic worthy of his game, former world champion Anatoly Karpov took his long-standing feud with archrival Garry Kasparov to extremes. Extremist members of parliament, that is.
Emotions run deep between the two Russian chess czars. It was Mr. Karpov, once the darling of the Soviet-era's Communist establishment when he reigned as the world chess champion, who fell nine years ago in humiliating defeat to the younger Mr. Kasparov, a democrat who supports President Boris Yeltsin.
The latest round of their feud began in April, when Kasparov lined up Yeltsin loyalists to take over the Russian Chess Federation. Karpov was so enraged that he boycotted the World Chess Olympiad, which opened in Moscow yesterday.
The feud now moves to political pawns in parliament, with Karpov enlisting hard-line nationalists to launch a counterrevolution.
``We believe that the Russian Constitution was violated,'' a defiant Karpov said in an interview.
The chess masters have plotted against each other on and off the chessboard for more than a decade. They have fought so bitterly that one Moscow newspaper recently suggested that only the offer of a Nobel Peace Prize would tempt them to reconcile.
The most recent intrigues began following a ``coup'' reminiscent of the one that temporarily ousted Mikhail Gorbachev from power in 1991 while he was on vacation in the Crimea. Last April, while he was away in Spain, Karpov found himself summarily dismissed as vice president of the federation during an impromptu congress.
Decrying his removal as unfair, Karpov accused Kasparov of orchestrating the reshuffle and of installing a long-time friend as first vice president. Both Kasparov and his friend deny the accusations.
In fact, Karpov is so convinced of wrongdoing that last Thursday he took his case to a committee of the State Duma, parliament's lower house, and conferred with a group of hard-liners, including nationalist deputy Sergei Baburin and reactionary film director Stanislav Govorukhin.
``I like things that are legal, but I don't like things that are illegal,'' said Karpov, who is known in Russia as gadyonysh, or ``little skunk'' for his testy behavior during tournaments.
During the meeting at parliament, Karpov and Vitaly Sevastiyanov, a Duma deputy from the Communist Party, effectively accused the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov of sabotaging Karpov's career by teaming him with second-rate players during the Olympiad.
They also claimed that international chess authorities and the Russian Ministry of Justice had broken Russian laws on nongovernmental organizations when they recognized the congress and its decisions as valid.
``We don't need a government that is out to harm chess. But unfortunately, government bodies such as the Ministry of Justice, despite its convictions, have brought great injury to the sport,'' says Mikhail Botvinnik, an octogenarian Karpov supporter who won three world crowns between 1948 and 1963.
Karpov gained preliminary approval to hold full parliamentary hearings on the status of the federation, which oversees tournaments, funding, and travel for Russia's top chess players. No date has yet been set for the hearings.
But Vladimir Dvorkovich, Kasparov's aide, says he doubts the hearings - if held - will have any effect, despite Russia's mania for chess. The majority of deputies in the Duma were unaware that last week's meeting even took place, he said.
Karpov ``met only with a small committee,'' he said. ``The Duma itself didn't even know anything about it.''
Despite the Karpov boycott, the Olympiad should still prove to be significant for chess-watchers.
Among the competitors, according to British Embassy officials in Moscow, is Nigel Short, the British grandmaster who turned global chess upside down last year.
Mr. Short had Kasparov's help in doing so. In March 1993, the two shocked the chess nomenklatura by walking out of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) just months before they were to play against one another.
They ended up founding their own Professional Chess Association (PCA) and holding their own championship, a lucrative $2.6 million match sponsored mainly by Britain's The Times newspaper. Kasparov, also popular for his boyish good looks, won.
But however much the players' independent behavior may have endeared them to the general public, it did not impress chess officials. As a result of their revolt, both Kasparov and Short were stripped of their titles and banned from FIDE events.
The FIDE eventually staged a new world championship to find Kasparov's successor. Who won? Karpov.