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The Russian Gambit That Divided the Chess World

One of the earliest and most visible messages from any Russian protesting the country’s invasion of Ukraine came from a man who is intimately familiar with ancient principles of attack, defense, and territorial gains. He learned them on his way to becoming one of the top chess players on the planet.

“History has seen many Black Thursdays,” grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, the highest-rated Russian in the game, tweeted on Feb. 24. “But today is blacker than the others.”

Nepomniachtchi struck a sensitive chord not just because of his nationality. It was also because of his profession. No game or sport in the world is more intertwined with Russia (and its predecessor the Soviet Union) than chess, which has produced more than half of all world champions since World War II and whose leaders have direct ties to the Kremlin. As of mid-2021, Russia had more than twice as many current grandmasters as any other country, according to Chess.com.

So as the world watched Russian troops march into Ukraine, the chess community confronted both its roots and its own position in international politics. A game that is often used as a metaphor for war suddenly had to reckon with its governing body’s close connections to President Vladimir Putin. Major players, past and present, lined up on both sides of the conflict.

“As far as any ‘global community’ that’s been affected, and deeply wounded, the chess community could very well be at the top of the list,” said Danny Rensch, the chief chess officer of chess.com, the game’s largest online platform. 

Chess’s governing body is based in Russia and run by a former Deputy Prime Minister named Arkady Dvorkovich. One of the game’s most celebrated legends, Garry Kasparov, is also one of Putin’s most vocal critics. Another former world champion from Russia, Anatoly Karpov, is so supportive of Putin that he was sanctioned by the European Union for voting in favor of the invasion as a member of the Duma. 

The conflict has even split the modern generation of super-grandmasters. While Nepomniachtchi issued an anti-war message—later echoed by the likes of Russian tennis stars Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev—his countryman Sergey Karjakin was personally called out by chess’ governing body for his pro-war sentiment. 

Few went further than Oleksandr Sulypa, the 49-year-old grandmaster and team captain who guided Ukraine to the gold medal at the 2021 European Team Championship. He shared a photo of himself manning a barricade in Western Ukraine wearing what appeared to be a hard hat, a hi-vis vest, and holding a shotgun.

“I am defending my land from enemies and ‘peacekeepers,’” he wrote, in a post confirmed by Chess24. “Truth will win!”

Last Sunday, chess governing body FIDE held an extraordinary meeting to address the quickly escalating situation. The outfit—run by Dvorkovich, who enjoyed Putin’s support when he became FIDE president in 2018—condemned the Russian attack and took measures that followed the International Olympic Committee, which recommended banning all Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition. 

FIDE said no official competitions or events would be held in Belarus or Russia and stripped Russia of the upcoming Chess Olympiad. It is terminating partnerships with Belarusian and Russian state-backed companies. And it promised to bring the cases of Karjakin and Sergey Shipov, another Russian grandmaster, to the body’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission for their public support of the conflict.

Karjakin, nicknamed the “Minister of Defense” for his style on the board, went on the offensive as soon as the Russian attack began. In a public message addressed to Putin, he said he was closely monitoring the “special operation.” He echoed Putin’s language, referencing both the “denazification” of Ukraine and claims of “genocide” executed by the Kyiv regime.

“I express to you, our Commander-in-Chief, full support for the protection of the interests of Russia and our multinational Russian people, to remove the threat and establish peace,” Karjakin wrote. 

Karjakin rose to prominence in 2016 when he challenged Norwegian Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship. Carlsen’s latest opponent, in 2021, was also Russian—that was Nepomniachtchi, Karjakin’s teammate at the most recent Chess Olympiad, where the team of Russian men finished third. 

Chess has been on the front lines of geopolitics before. When American Bobby Fischer successfully toppled Russian champion Boris Spassky in 1972, the showdown in Reykjavík, Iceland was dubbed the “Match of the Century” and was widely considered to be a cultural front in the Cold War.

The game has remained closely intertwined with Russian politics ever since. Karpov, a world champion in the 1970s and 1990s, became a representative in the Duma. FIDE’s previous head from 1995 to 2018 was a Russian politician named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, whose scandalous tenure included relationships with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. 

In 2015, Ilyumzhinov was added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list for his relationship with Syria’s Assad regime, which later led to financial problems for FIDE. In one instance, he defeated Kasparov for his re-election. And when his tenure finally came to an end, he was replaced by Dvorkovich, the candidate backed by Moscow. 

Now the chess world’s longstanding Russian tension has returned to the surface—and for a few stars to mobilize in support of the Ukrainian people. American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura has already leaned on his vast social media and Twitch following to raise more than $130,000 for a Ukraine crisis fund with a 12-hour chess marathon.

“It has been many years since I was in Ukraine, but to see what is happening now is heartbreaking,” he tweeted. “Stay strong.”

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For decades, Garry Kasparov - one of the greatest grandmasters of all time - has been a hero for his opposition to Putin, while Anatoly Karpov has been a villian because of his support for Putin.  Both of them have authored chess books with titles something like, "Play the World Champion's Chess Openings and Win."  They're for suckers. Chess tactics are what win games. The way to win in tournament-level chess is to use the opening (the first 10-15 moves) to get you to a playable middlegame where tactics win the games.

I thought "Russian Gambit" was going to be a Chess Opening I didn't know about!

A gambit in Chess is where you offer to give away a pawn and if your opponent takes it, it gives you an edge in position.

Gambits are risky and usually create wild, wide-open games. I've only had the nerve to play the King's Gambit twice as White in rated play and won both games, once in a club match for Team USA vs Team Hungary in 2019 and once in the 2017 Team USA Southeast Championship Tournament (whose rounds ran into 2018)

image.png.5158d7d0a3720a52d912d8231bc0e91b.png

The move-by-move game against Hungary, King's Gambit Declined, is here: https://www.chess.com/game/daily/208247790

The Hungarian traded pieces to simply to an endgame (few pieces left), probably because American players are notoriously weak in the endgame.  But it's my strongest part of the game and I maneuvered him into a lost position.

The move-by-move game in the USA SE Tournament, King's Gambit Accepted, is here: https://www.chess.com/game/daily/192545898

image.thumb.png.0e40c4917c14a197dc0c6d3d8de7884f.png

I have studied the Urusov Gambit, closest to being named a "Russian Gambit" and a variation of one of my favorite openings, the Bishop's Opening, but I haven't yet played the Urusov Gambit in a rated game.

image.png.66069c57d4e2e17eadf343b6680e442a.png

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