On paper, the race to choose the next head of the top international chess body looks to be no contest. One candidate is one of the most recognizable figures in global chess. The other is a pal of Bashar al-Assad and the late Saddam Hussein, who also happens to believe chess was brought to Earth by aliens.
Most chess aficionados – if they had a vote – would likely give it to Garry Kasparov, the long-time world champion who helped popularize the game through a series of matches against IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue. But Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has thrown its substantial diplomatic weight behind the eccentric Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, mobilizing Russian embassies around the world to lobby local chess federations on Mr. Ilyumzhinov's behalf.
Mr. Kasparov, a loud opponent of Mr. Putin who has gone into self-imposed exile to avoid persecution in Russia, isn't surprised that the Kremlin is seeking to block his rise. But he was taken off guard this week when he learned the Chess Federation of Canada was also backing the incumbent Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who in addition to his chess duties has taken advantage of his semi-diplomatic status to repeatedly serve as an emissary between the Kremlin and Middle Eastern dictators.
The Canadian federation admits Mr. Ilyumzhinov has his faults, and openly opposed the wealthy businessman for his political and cosmic eccentricities in each of the past two elections. But faced with an onslaught of insults and intimidation from a vocal Kasparov camp that threatened to overthrow federation executives unless they endorsed Mr. Kasparov, president Vladimir Drkulec said the choice became clear.
"I started out favouring Kasparov with a few reservations," said Mr. Drkulec, from Windsor, Ont. "But the Kasparov people were very disrespectful. They tried to change the rules to have him elected. I've been called every name in the book by them."
In one misguided attempt to win over Mr. Drkulec's support, a Kasparov loyalist told him that U.S. President Barack Obama had a personal stake in the results. "I was told that I could expect a call from Obama," Mr. Drkulec said. "I'm still waiting for that call."
While Mr. Kasparov doesn't believe the Chess Federation of Canada was swayed by Kremlin pressure, he does think the CFC's leadership is part of a tightly knit old boys' club that is resistant to change.
"I doubt very much this federation needed any push [from the Kremlin]," Mr. Kasparov said in a telephone interview from New York. "It's a small federation of people who don't care about promoting the game. Which is why many chess traditions have been abandoned in recent years and Canada is no longer a major chess power."
Mr. Kasparov said other chess federations have told him they've come under pressure from Russia to support Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who he said had turned the World Chess Federation (known as FIDE, the acronym for its French title) into "a global KGB network" during his 19 years at the helm.
"There's a personal element [to the Kremlin's involvement] – obviously, Putin doesn't want to see my triumph. And it's a major strategic loss for them too." Mr. Kasparov said Mr. Ilyumzhinov was "amazing, flamboyant, eccentric.… He would be in trouble in many law-abiding countries. But he's very useful to [the Kremlin]."
The 52-year-old Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who became a millionaire while representing a Japanese carmaker in Moscow following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, was also the first president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, where he built a vast "Chess City" and made chess lessons compulsory for Kalmykian schoolchildren. He has told interviewers that he was abducted by aliens in 1997, and thus discovered that chess was a "cosmic" game.
"Yes, sometimes he acts like that crazy uncle," Mr. Drkulec said. "But there's a method to his ways. He's got a Buddhist perspective. He does the things he does because he believes he's furthering world peace. He's odd at times, but I regard him in a generally positive way."
While Mr. Kasparov, 51, says he has secured the support of larger chess federations across Europe, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, the Ilyumzhinov camp has countered by focusing on smaller chess countries in Central America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Each of the world's 176 chess federations will have an equal vote when the new FIDE head is chosen on Aug. 11, in Norway.
"Russian embassies all over the world have campaigned tirelessly in support of the incumbent," Mr. Kasparov said. "Telephone calls were made to every federation. Even the chess federation in Ukraine [where government troops are battling Moscow-backed rebels in the east of the country] received a call from the Russian Embassy in Ukraine, which tells me there was an instruction and it came from the very top."
Mr. Kasparov said he was nonetheless confident he would oust Mr. Ilyumzhinov. If he succeeds, Mr. Kasparov says he will focus on cleaning up FIDE – he says the federation acts as though it is "totally above the law" and compares it unfavourably to soccer's governing body, FIFA – as well as developing a universal rating system for players and promoting chess to children.
Despite the storm over the election, Mr. Drkulec insists the outcome will have little bearing on chess in Canada. "This whole election has taken our attention away from important issues here at home," he said. "We have to turn our focus onto what we can do here at home to make chess more popular. Ultimately, the figurehead for FIDE will not make that much difference."