29 March 2011

The Worst World Championship Ever

With Libya in the news for the last month or so, anyone who has been following world class chess for the last decade can't help but be reminded about the events of 2004, when the last FIDE World Championship using the knockout format was held in Tripoli. I made the mental association just a few days ago while working on The U.S. Championship as FIDE Qualifier, where 2004 Tripoli received a passing mention.

The saga started, as so many recent chess sagas have, as an apparent whim of FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Let's follow it through the stories by Chessbase, which at that time had no real competition in the day-to-day reporting of top level chess events.

In an interview conducted by Yuri Vasilyev with the premier Russian sports site, ‘Sport Express’, Ilyumzhinov states that the 17th FIDE World Championships will be held in Tripoli from 8th May 2004 to 2nd June 2004, in a knock-out format. Sponsored by the Libyan government, the prize fund is a healthy $1,508,000, the spoils for the eventual champ being $100,000. The organisation itself has secured $700,000.

Chess fans have longed for an announcement regarding the championships, but reaction to this news has been mixed to say the least, due in no small part to the choice of venue. Libya’s past links to terrorist activities (the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie being one) and animosity towards the West made the country a no-go area. Recently Libya has made efforts to raise its international profile, paying compensation for the Lockerbie atrocity and opening its borders to international visitors. • A Tale of Two Cities [Chessbase.com; 28 February 2004]

Note the time lapse between the Chessbase story and the proposed start date for the tournament, a little more than two months. Compare that with the recent hullabaloo surrounding the 2012 London World Championship, where the organizers said they needed 18 months to prepare properly. In fact, the organization of the 2004 event involved two venues (from the same Chessbase story):-

Israeli nationals are not allowed to travel to Libya, which has obvious ramifications for the participants, some of whom will not be permitted to play. [...] The FIDE president will not be stopped in his tracks. "I will endeavour to persuade Gaddafi to make an exception for Israeli players. If the plan succeeds, it will be a fantastic breakthrough. If not, then [the proposal] is to split the championship into two groups. One group will play in Tripoli, the other in Malta (it is a half-hour flight from Tripoli)."

The formal announcement followed a few weeks later.

The full wording of the announcement is as follows: "FIDE has a pleasure to announce the dates and venue of the World Chess Championship 2004 – Tripoli, the capital of Libya, from June 18 till July 13, 2004 under the patronage of the Leader of the Libyan Jamahiriya, H.E. Moammar Al Gathafi, who also provides the prize fund for the Championship." • FIDE world championships in Libya, Hanoi [19 March 2004]

Let's not forget that the Tripoli event was itself another chapter in an even larger chess saga, the reunification of the World Chess Championship title. I don't want to recount those events here, so I'll defer to my page of that name, The Saga of Chess Unification (1994-2006), and another page filled with relevant contemporary links, World Chess Championship : 2002-04 Unification. In brief, the Tripoli event was organized to identify a FIDE World Champion to replace the reigning champion, Ruslan Ponomariov, who had been unable to play a reunification semifinal match with Kasparov in 2003.

Ruslan Ponomariov is still technically the FIDE world champion, but not for long. The next cycle begins in Libya in June, and the winner is to play Kasparov in Hanoi at the end of the year. There is no indication that Ponomariov intends to participate. The reunification match, should it take place, will be between Kasparov and the winner of the Libyan World Championship tournament. • Ponomariov's Open Letter to the ACP [7 April 2004]

The exclusionary policies of Libya could not be ignored,

So what if FIDE is hosting its 2002, no, 2003, I mean 2004 world championship in a country that will not admit players from one of FIDE’s own member federations? Isn’t a million dollars more important than quibbles over anti-Semitic bigotry? No doubt it is to the players and politicians who will be pocketing the Libyan cash. It’s not fair to ask chessplayers to choose between eating and taking a vague stand. • To the Shores of Tripoli [Mig on Chess #201; 15 April 2004]

but FIDE backtracked on its earlier pledge to accommodate all players by providing a second site. At about the same time, its first list of qualified players indicated that some players, including two from the USA, had already refused to play in the event.

PRESS RELEASE (27 April 2004): [...] The Libyan Olympic Committee (LOC), the local organizing body of the event, guarantees entry visas to all the 128 qualified participants of the Championship and the invitation to the players is signed by the President of LOC, Eng. Mohammad Moammar Al Gathafi. Consequently, all the games of the championship will be played in Tripoli, Libya and no parallel event will be organized in Malta. [...] • To all participants of the World Chess Championship 2004 (26 April 2004): Invitations will be sent to Libyan embassies in all the countries and for the countries which have not a Libyan embassy or consulate, entry visas will be provided upon arrival at the Tripoli airport. • List of Participants (29 April 2004): 1. Ivanchuk, Vassily (UKR), 2. Zvjaginsev, Vadim (RUS) [...] The following 13 players did not sign their participation and will be replaced by the reserve list: [...] 12. Kaidanov, Gregory (USA) – Americas qualifier (Zone 2.1), 13. Benjamin, Joel (USA) – Americas qualifier (Zone 2.1) • World Championship in Libya – for all participants! [28 April 2004]

To the surprise of no one, the Libyan powers-that-be soon backtracked on FIDE's pledge to guarantee 'entry visas to all the 128 qualified participants of the Championship'.

Just hours ago several Israeli newspapers reported statements by Khaddafi's son denying that Israelis had ever been invited and insisting that they would not be allowed in for the event. [...] from Khaddafi's son: "We know the Zionists will seize such occasions to enter the Arab society ... but we will not give up our principles even if that leads to canceling holding the tournament in Libya." • Libya will not allow Israelis in for FIDE KO [6 May 2004]

FIDE continued to deny the obvious.

FIDE is of course in no position to follow unofficial reports and rumours spread through the internet. Therefore, FIDE would like to express its appreciation to the vast majority of worldwide media who did not enter into the reproduction of reports which do not contribute to the establishment of good relations between all nations. FIDE is also calling worldwide chess media to follow carefully the official announcements of FIDE and the Organizing Committee of WCC 2004 for authoritative information about the 2004 World Chess Championship. • FIDE says Israelis can play in Libya [7 May 2004]

Despite appeals for sanity,

President of the USCF: Ever since FIDE announced that Tripoli (Libya) would be the venue of the 2004 World Championship it has been increasingly evident that players from many countries would experience insurmountable problems in traveling to and competing in the event. Many nations have national laws preventing their citizens from traveling to and doing business with Libya. It was premature for the FIDE Presidential Board to award the FIDE World Championship event to Tripoli at a time when the United Nations had not lifted its sanctions.

Players unable to compete in Tripoli were due to be given an alternative way of participating in the cycle, i.e. by playing in a parallel competition in Malta. Unfortunately, the Maltese event has been cancelled, which means that some players of FIDE member nations currently find themselves barred from the competition. The host nation of the FIDE World Championship is required to permit safe travel for all competitors, and since Libya is unable to offer such guarantees we call upon FIDE, in the spirit of its own motto, Gens una sumus, immediately to reinstate a parallel event in Malta so that all players entitled to participate in the World Championship cycle may do so. • USCF, Israeli GM protest FIDE decisions [10 May 2004]

FIDE made no further changes to the format. Three more USA players eventually joined the boycott.

Gulko's Open Letter: Gulko notes that the phrase "Zionist enemies" refers to citizens of Israel, but also to Jews generally. As a Jew who holds Israeli citizenship (in addition to American citizenship) he concludes that Libya has withdrawn its invitation to him as well as to participants from Israel. This is a clear violation of the charter and spirit of FIDE. Gulko supports the demand by Israel’s Chess Federation that the world championship be moved to a more suitable country. "Mr. President, I implore you not to be the first president of FIDE to preside over the first world chess championship from which Jews are excluded. Our magnificent and noble game does not deserve such a disgrace." • World Chess Politics – a review [14 May 2004; 'we provide, as an additional service, brief summaries of all documents']

Here are a few other relevant Chessbase articles posted in the weeks leading to the start of the Tripoli KO.

As summary of Chessbase articles on the event itself can also be found on the Chessbase site.

GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov won the event by beating Veselin Topalov in the semifinal round and Michael Adams in the final round. At the start of the tournament, the Uzbek was rated 44th in the world. He did not qualify for the event directly, but earned his spot via the Reserve List, as did many other players.

GM Vadim Milov, who qualified via the 2003 European Championship, was unable to play, took FIDE to court, and lost. He put forth another reason why FIDE was so eager to hold the event in Libya.

The choice of Libya was highly controversial from the beginning as due to its political situation the country hasn't organised big sport events for decades. But as Libya offered a sum of 2.2 Mio. dollars for the tournament it's understandable that Fide was happy to finally find the sponsor for the World Championship. It's widely known that previous knock out World Championships held in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001 had no sponsor and the prize fund came from the Fide President. Fide's constant failure to find a sponsor explains a significant time gap between 2001 and 2004. Fide was probably even more pleased to hold the tournament in Libya since the prize fund was 1.5 Mio. dollars and the rest sum of 700,000 dollars (!) was announced as Fide's expense for organizing the tournament. Plus Fide received its usual 20% from the prize fund of 1.5 Mio. dollars which means another 300,000 dollars so all together Fide made 1 Mio. dollars from the event. • Open letter by GM Vadim Milov[9 August 2005]

The Tripoli KO was the last of five FIDE World Championships using the knockout format. With the exception of Anand, who won the knockout stage in 1997 and the full event in 2000, none of the other winners stands on the pedestal of World Champions stretching from the first champions Steinitz and Lasker to the most recent champions Kasparov, Kramnik, Topalov, and Anand.

FIDE was unable to find a sponsor for the Kasparov - Kasimdzhanov match and the search for a unified title remained in limbo until Kasparov retired in 2005. For more about subsequent events, see my page World Chess Championship : 2004-05 Unification, with links to ChessChrono articles from my days as the Chess Guide at About.com.

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