In Moscow on 19 March a press conference was held at the headquarters of the Interfax news agency announcing the results of a Muslim/Christian peacemaking trip to Baghdad, which had taken place over the previous few days. Among the returning dignitaries reporting on the outcome were the Orthodox Bishop Feofan of Magadan and Sinegorsk and the chairman of the Central Muslim Board in Russia, Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin. But centre-stage at this Islamic/Christian peacefest was taken by a self-professed Buddhist, His Excellency Kirsan Ilumzhinov, President of the autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia, who also happens to be president of Fidé, the World Chess Federation.
The association between Baghdad and chess is a time-honoured one, stretching back more than 1,000 years to the days when Baghdad was a world centre of science, culture and learning. It is the birthplace of chess as a competitive activity. Periodically, hard-line interpreters of Islamic law condemned chess – along with gambling – as the work of Satan, but it was the support of the Baghdad caliphs which finally established chess as a justifiable pastime for Muslims – as a preparation for battle, strategic thinking and an excellent training for the mind. It was said that Harun Ar Rashid himself, immortalised by the Arabian Nights, could play two games of chess simultaneously, without sight of either board. Caliph Al Mamun, Rashid's son, perhaps less gifted at chess, lamented, 'Strange that I who rule the world from the Indus in the east to Andalus in the west cannot manage 32 chessmen in a space of two cubits by two.'
The new link between Baghdad and chess may, however, have more to do with petroleum than with pawns. Kirsan Ilumzhinov was born in 1962 in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Before he was 30, he was elected a deputy of the supreme Soviet – a good start – but by 1993 he had rocketed sensationally to become the head of more than 50 companies, banks and bourses, both in Russia and abroad, was elected the first President of Kalmykia (a position he retains; election slogan: 'Every shepherd will own a mobile phone') and had almost overnight become a conspicuously consuming billionaire. The following year he was to add to his laurels the post of president of the World Chess Federation.
Over the next few years, Kirsan spent more than $30 million on chess. Such largesse was unprecedented in the history of the game, but what puzzled observers was the apparent disdain that he exhibited for any payback for his flowing millions. He happily organised championships without the supreme chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, and remained perfectly content, even when his multimillion-dollar chess extravaganzas – for example, in Las Vegas – produced virtually no publicity, owing to the absence of the key superstars whom he had alienated.
The Russian publication Sport noted in 1996: 'It took Kirsan only a few weeks to turn upside-down the many years old customs of the chess world. The Fidé people had never before seen such radical reforms or such huge amounts of money. He likes comparing Bobby Fischer to Mozart or Einstein; likewise, Kirsan himself may be compared to Nobel, the inventor of dynamite: Ilumzhinov has exploded everything in Fidé. Such people do not emerge once every 100, 200 or 1,000 years; such people emerge only once.'
There is a suspicion – fuelled by passages such as the above – that Kirsan also likes to write his own reviews. But where did such huge sums come from? There is a seemingly inexhaustible money-tap that led him, in 1998, to host the chess olympics in Elista itself, and to build an entire chess city with villas modelled on chess pieces.
If you visit Kirsan in his embassy in Moscow, as I did two years ago, it immediately becomes apparent that Saddam Hussein is his hero. Pictures of the two leaders, locked in fraternal embrace, festoon the walls of his study, and it is glaringly evident that, at a time when the rest of the world regarded Saddam as a pariah after the first Gulf war, Kirsan felt nothing but the warmest of sentiments towards him.
In an interview for Komsomolskaya Pravda of 10 April 1996, Kirsan sympathised with the dictator's plight: 'Saddam is a normal man – just like we are now sitting together and talking, you can sit and talk with him. It is hard to be under such immense pressure all the time. Living under a blockade for five years, Saddam not only reduced inflation but also raised people's wages. These are things not every leader would be capable of. Everything is fine in Baghdad.'
Can it be a matter of coincidence, therefore, that the sudden rise to immense wealth of the ruler of poverty-stricken Kalmykia coincided with his new-found friendship with Saddam Hussein? Vast wealth does not just grow on trees for overnight plucking. The suspicion grew among those aware of Kirsan's love/love relationship with Saddam that more than chess analysis may have been pipelined out of Baghdad via Elista during the period of UN-imposed oil sanctions .
It has been said of Kirsan that he runs one of the most eccentric cults of personality of any ruler – his favourite pose is to appear in full Ghenghis Khan-style, fur-trimmed white Mongol uniform resplendent on a white charger and, as if practising his Saddamian skills, he came under heavy international criticism in 1998 for alleged implication in the assassination of the opposition journalist Larisa Yudina in Elista.
The British chess writer Sarah Hurst sought strenuously at that time to implement an international boycott of the Elista chess olympics set for Kirsan's capital later that same year, on the basis of the charges against the President. But, perhaps fascinated by the chance to observe the newly constructed Elista chess city firsthand, the vast majority of the international chess community ignored her call. The whole saga is detailed in Hurst's recent book, Curse of Kirsan. Nothing was ever proven against Kirsan and, for his own side of every story in which he has become involved, readers can access his personal website at www.dol.ru/users/kirsan/engl/ vzgl_r.htm. When I made my own inquiries about Kirsan with the British Foreign Office, they went so far as to describe him as 'colourful'.
There is no doubt that 'colourful' Kirsan – after a very brief visit – flew out of Baghdad on 18 March on the final private jet before hostilities commenced. On 19 March he was still vigorously defending his friend Saddam in the Moscow press conference. Did Saddam smuggle himself and his family, and presumably several crates of gold bullion, out on his admirer's jet; or is there some other rat-run between Elista and Baghdad that the world does not yet know of?
Given, however, the complete absence of any alternative indication of Saddam's whereabouts, and also given the closeness of the relationship between Saddam and Kirsan, US intelligence could do worse than take a close look at the third castle from the right in chess city, Elista.