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Aliens Or Uzbekistan? World Chess Chief Offers New Theory About Game's Origins

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of chess’s world governing body, is an eccentric millionaire who ruled a Russian region with an iron fist. He’s also known for changing assertions about the game’s origins.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of chess’s world governing body, is an eccentric millionaire who ruled a Russian region with an iron fist. He’s also known for changing assertions about the game’s origins.

The head of the world governing body for chess has this to say about the origins of the centuries-old game played by shahs, sultans, kings, and emperors: It originally came from Uzbekistan.

No, wait.

Chess came from India.

Or maybe Bulgaria. Or it came from aliens?

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the eccentric Russian millionaire who has headed the World Chess Federation -- commonly known by its French acronym FIDE -- for more than two decades, offered the latest in a series of historical assertions about the history of the game during a visit this week to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

Meeting on June 4 with members of Uzbekistan’s Olympic Committee and chess authorities, Ilyumzhinov said FIDE was preparing an official appeal to the International Olympic Committee to recognize the Central Asia nation as the birthplace of the game, according to a report on the Uzbek Olympic Committee’s official website.

The report did not indicate that Ilyumzhinov offered evidence to back up his claim, and he appears to have contradicted a previous assertion, made in 2013, that in fact India was the “motherland of chess."

His remarks in Tashkent came amid what appears to be an increasingly bitter campaign for control of FIDE’s presidency, which Ilyumzhinov has held since 1995.

In a statement released by FIDE in April, the organization said Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos had reported to the Presidential Board that “the situation was becoming very nasty and personal” and that he had referred Ilyumzhinov and four others to the ethics commission “for spreading lies and defamatory statements.

The statement also said Makropoulos was seeking the FIDE presidency, a vote that is set to occur in October.

According to the Uzbek Olympic Committee's website, Ilyumzhinov secured the Uzbek chess authority’s support for reelection.

Ilyumzhinov previously asserted that archaeologists had found chesslike figures in places like Bulgaria, Mongolia, and Latin America, suggesting in a 2010 interview with The New York Times that the game may have originated with aliens.

“I do, indeed, consider chess a gift from extraterrestrial civilizations. Chess is one of the world’s oldest games. But where was it invented?” he said. “The rules of chess were almost identical everywhere. It is hard to imagine that people in different parts of the world many thousands of years ago simultaneously thought up an identical game with the same rules just by chance.”

Chess writer and historian Olimpiu Urcan told RFE/RL that Ilyumzhinov’s "proposed earthly locations” for the provenance of chess "seem to be used as way of flattering the local communities he visits, but when pressed further he often returns to his alien theories regarding the game's origins."

For many historians of the game, the question of chess’s origins is a subject of little debate. A 1913 book by the English historian H.J.R. Murray -- considered a near definitive account -- documents various Asian variations of the game and mentions of it in Arabic and Persian literature.

In a book published in 2001, another historian, Marilyn Yalom, echoed Murray’s conclusions that evidence points to the game emerging sometime in the sixth century in India, with the Sanskrit name “chaturanga.”

She said that a romance written in 600 A.D., in a pre-Persian language known as Pahlavi, contains the first written reference to the game, saying that the Persians adopted the essentials of chess from India -- for example, 64 squares, and six different figures.

FIDE did not immediately respond to an e-mail from RFE/RL.

For his part, Ilyumzhinov’s changing explanations reflect his reputation for sometimes outlandish statements, either about chess or other subjects.

Between 1993 and 2010, he was the leader of the poor, southern Russian region of Kalmykia, where he was accused of oppressive policies. An aide was convicted of the 1998 murder of a journalist.

Chess champion Garry Kasparov tried -- unsuccessfully -- to unseat Ilyumzhinov.
Chess champion Garry Kasparov tried -- unsuccessfully -- to unseat Ilyumzhinov.

In 2014, former world chess champion and vocal Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat Ilyumzhinov. But the Russian government stepped in to lobby against Kasparov, with its embassies worldwide contacting national chess federations to drum up support for Ilyumzhinov.

Last year, FIDE announced Ilyumzhinov had stepped down as its president before backtracking when he insisted it was "fake news" and that the organization was trying to "oust" him.

Ilyumzhinov’s fortunes, and wealth, have also landed him on the U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list, for alleged involvement in “networks providing support to the government of Syria, including for facilitating Syrian government oil purchases” from the extremist group Islamic State.

In February, FIDE disclosed that the Swiss bank UBS had closed its accounts due to Ilyumzhinov being placed on the sanctions list.

A letter co-signed by Makropoulos and more than a dozen other chess executives, and published on the FIDE website, also called on Ilyumzhinov to resign, citing the U.S. sanctions.

Ilyumzhinov’s assertions that chess may have come from an alien civilization dovetails with similar past comments.

He has publicly claimed on several occasions that he was once abducted by aliens and met them on board a spaceship.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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