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Kazakhstan to host chess world championship match, FIDE says

January 19, 2023

With less than three months to spare, world chess federation FIDE has announced the match between Ding Liren of China and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia will take place in Astana. Ukraine likely explains the short notice.

Ding Liren and Ian Nepomniachtchi playing at a different competition, the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, in 2020.
Ding Liren (left) is the higher-rated player, but Ian Nepomniachtchi (right) has the better head-to-head recordImage: KOEN SUYK/ANP/picture alliance

The successor to Magnus Carlsen as classical (traditional, long time control format) world chess champion will be decided in Astana in Kazakhstan, the world chess federation FIDE announced on Thursday. 

Speculation in the specialist press had been rife for months as chess' most prestigious match — long scheduled to start in April this year — drew ever nearer but lacked a venue and title sponsor.

Some commentators pointed to FIDE's ties to Russian politics and business and Moscow's invasion of Ukraine as the most likely underlying reason. 

But the governing body's president Arkady Dvorkovich — himself a high-ranking Russian politician — said there had been advanced interest both from Kazakhstan and Argentina, as well as negotiations with Mexico about a major chess festival that ultimately could not be realized in time for the 2023 appointment. 

"As much as we would have loved to hold a world event in the American continent, the time difference would have seriously impacted the audience in this particular case. Kazakhstan is a thriving country with a flourishing economy and a privileged geographical situation, which made it perfect for hosting this match," Dvorkovich said on Thursday.

He said Kazakhstan's time zone was ideal to reach viewers in Russia and China, whose top players will vie for the crown.

Djorkovic had also acknowledged in November speaking to TASS that hosting the match in Russia — as FIDE had in 2006, 2012 and 2014 — was almost certainly not an option in 2023, also because one of the contenders is Russian and home advantage would not be appropriate. 

Some also noted that the draw of the match for hosts and sponsors may have been diminished as chess' most famous player by some distance was giving up his crown without a fight.

Who is competing if Carlsen is not there? 

Reigning champion Magnus Carlsen announced his plan not to defend the title last October. World number 3 Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia, the man he defeated last time round, will face the second-highest rated player in the world, Ding Liren of China.

They earned the right to compete for the prize at last year's "Candidates" tournament between 16 hopefuls among the world's best players. Nepomniachtchi, aka Nepo, won that competition, with Ding the runner-up. 

The event will start on April 17. Depending on whether all the 14 scheduled games are needed to crown a victor, the match could run until May 1.

FIDE said that the prize fund would be a "sensational" sum of €2 million (just over $2 million), with 60% going to the winner and the remainder to the runner-up. 

"We are on a mission to make it an exceptional event," FIDE CEO Emil Sutovsky wrote on Twitter.

Soviet Union and then Russia the major FIDE power for decades

Typically in recent history, this decision has been reached with much more advanced notice, usually somewhere in the region of a full calendar year. 

Players from the former Soviet Union dominated world chess for decades, and Russian influence at FIDE remains extremely widespread. 

FIDE CEO and grandmaster Sutovsky is a naturalized Israeli citizen but grew up in the Soviet Union. On Thursday, he hit back at the first critical reports about the decision, saying:

"Funny to read: 'FIDE had no other option.' a) Kazakhstan is a regional power, with a vast chess tradition, ideally situated from a broadcast perspective. b) We had a strong bid from Argentina." Sutovsky went on to thank Argentina in Spanish and say he believed it would also host a "big" FIDE tournament "this year."

FIDE's president, Arkady Vladimirovich Dvorkovich, is a former deputy prime minister of Russia, during the period when Vladimir Putin was prime minister, and before that was an advisor to Putin late in his first stint as Russia's president.  He won a second term in the role last year at the expense of a Ukrainian challenger, Andrii Baryshpolets.

What FIDE and Nepo have said about the war in Ukraine

In March last year, Dvorkovich told US magazine Mother Jones: "wars are one of the worst things one might face in life ... including this war. My thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians," prompting some members of Putin's United Russia party to call for his immediate expulsion. Dvorkovich later told Russian media that he was also "extremely proud" of Russian soldiers and called Western sanctions against Moscow "harsh and senseless." 

Russia's grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi and Norway's grandmaster Magnus Carlsen play game nice during the FIDE World Chess Championship Dubai 2021, at the Dubai Expo 2020 in the Gulf emirate, on December 7, 2021.
Phosagro was the title sponsor of the last world championship in Dubai, Moscow's mayor played the symbolic opening move in one of the gamesImage: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP

The organization has taken some steps to criticize Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, such as banning the use of Russian and Belarussian flags and national anthems at major events. However, recent major FIDE sponsors include Russian companies like Gazprom, fertilizer giant Phosagro, Aeroflot, nuclear energy company Rosatom and the Sirius Education Center.

As for world number 3 Nepomniachtchi, he famously issued a somewhat critical comment about Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the day war broke out, February 24 last year, albeit seemingly being careful to go only so far. 

"History has seen many Black Thursdays. But today is blacker than the others," Nepomniachtchi wrote in Russian, followed by hashtags in English and Russian for the "say no to war" slogan that was particularly popular among disaffected Russians as the invasion began.

Why is the match being played in Kazakhstan?

FIDE said that "a decisive figure in bringing the World Championship match to Astana is Timur Turlov," a billionaire behind one of biggest investment companies in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.

It noted the parent company for his various interests, the US-based Freedom Holding Corp of which Turlov is CEO, founded in 2008, had been "trading on the NASDAQ since 2019." 

However, Peter Heine Nielsen, a Danish grandmaster who has been a vociferous FIDE critic in recent months, tweeted: "Turlov is sanctioned by Ukraine. He was on the 2022 Forbes list of Russian billionaire Oligarchs. Now has Kazakh citizenship."

Turlov took up the citizenship in 2022, having formerly held dual nationality in Russia and St Kitts and Nevis. He faces no sanctions in other countries besides Ukraine.

One of his companies, Freedom Broker, was the main sponsor of the FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championship, which took place in Almaty in Kazakhstan in December. Soon after, he was elected president of Kazakhstan's chess federation.

Kazakhstan, along with Belarus and Russia, was a founder member of the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic union of post Soviet states founded in 2014. However, regional observers say Russia's neighbor to the south has been quietly trying to distance itself from Moscow somewhat in recent months, for instance welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first post-COVID foreign trip late last year, in overtures to its other superpower neighbor.

A former deputy president of the German chess federation, Michael Langer, wrote on Twitter: "Great. The world championship match in Astana, an open in Qatar with Magnus Carlsen... The world is such a wonderful place full of common sense and morals."

An executive at Carlsen's Play Magnus Group company, Leon Watson, said: "Astana then for the chess World Championship. I'd like to go, but it seems unlikely."

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CORRECTION (January 20, 2023) — The original version of this story contained a serious factual error. We incorrectly stated that Timur Turlov was also blacklisted in the US at present because of his businesses’ dealings in Russia. This is not the case, nor was it in the past. Furthermore, demonstrating this, Turlov is in the US at present. DW apologizes for the error.

Edited by: Rob Turner

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam