With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine raging on, Svitlana Demchenko pauses to think about how she’ll handle her next Russian opponent.
“I think it depends on the person … not every Russian player has such strong opinions,” said the 18-year-old Ottawa chess player, who holds the woman international master title and is one of Canada’s highest-ranked competitors.
“I do not know how I would feel. I’m a bit conflicted.”
Born in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, Demchenko has friends and relatives there who’ve been sleeping in bomb shelters at night. Between those worries and her university studies, chess isn’t her biggest priority at the moment.
Nonetheless, the war, now more than a month old, is reverberating far beyond Ukraine’s borders — and the world of chess is no exception.
Tournaments have been relocated. One top Russian player has been suspended for supporting Putin, while others are unable to play due to travel restrictions. There have been calls for the Russian head of FIDE, the sport’s governing body, to resign, even though he’s spoken out against the conflict.
‘Evil and illegal’
Russia’s ties to chess run long and deep, with players like Garry Kasparov, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Mikhail Botvinnik dominating the game’s landscape for the better part of a century.
The country has twice as many grandmasters as any other, according to a 2021 post on chess.com, the most popular online chess site. Tens of thousands play the game recreationally.
He’s just like a petulant child, getting revenge right now.— CFC president Vlad Drakulec on Vladimir Putin
So when Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in March, it sent shock waves through the game’s top levels, according to Viktor Plotkin, the FIDE representative from the Canadian Federation of Chess (CFC).
The invasion prompted the CFC to both condemn Russia’s “evil and illegal” actions and applaud the courage of the Ukrainian people. The federation also declared that, for now, no Canadians would compete in official events on Russian soil.
While dozens of top Russian players have decried Putin’s actions, some have stayed loyal — including Sergei Karjakin, one of the world’s best.
Before the war, Karjakin had qualified for the 2022 Candidates Tournament, an eight-person round-robin to determine who’ll take on Norwegian chess superstar Magnus Carlsen for the title of world champion in early 2023.
But after his comments, FIDE gave Karjakin a six-month suspension, almost certainly meaning he won’t be able to compete.
“I believe it’s right, but it’s a very strong decision by FIDE,” Plotkin said. “It means that right at the top, Russia does have a problem.”
War on Ukraine ‘just seems insane’
The suspension of Karjakin, who was a win away from becoming world champion in 2016, isn’t the only big development.
Several players have called for the head of FIDE, Arkady Dvorkovich, to step down. That’s because of Dvorkovich’s close ties to the Kremlin — he previously served as Russia’s deputy prime minister. Despite that fact many believe, political ties aside, he’s done a good job in the role.
The 2022 Chess Olympiad, which draws teams of players from countries around the globe, has been relocated from Moscow to Chennai, India. International sanctions, meanwhile, are cutting into the sport’s funding, as many Russian companies were sponsoring top-level tournaments, said CFC president Vlad Drakulec.
Plotkin and Drakulec say for the moment, the war’s effects are mostly being felt at the highest levels, ones that Canadian grandmasters tend not to reach. (As of FIDE’s April 2022 rankings, Canada had no players in the top 100.)
I’m just in disbelief that this could even happen.— Svitlana Demchenko
Nor is the chess board turning into a venue for political disagreements, said Drakulec, at least not among Canadian players of Russian and Ukrainian heritage.
“In Canada, I don’t know anyone that’s supportive of what [Putin’s] doing there. And it just seems insane, really. He just seems to be wanting to break everything,” he said.
“He’s just like a petulant child, getting revenge right now.”
Online players raise money
Amidst all that uncertainty, the growing world of online chess has stepped up to help out the Ukrainian people.
Shortly after the invasion, U.S. grandmaster Hikaru Nakamuru — one of the highest-profile online players, with more than 1.4 million followers on online gaming platform Twitch — streamed chess-related content for 12 straight hours in a fundraiser that brought in more than $100,000 for humanitarian relief efforts.
“I think as a streamer, there should be a social implication that … you should be doing something to help,” said University of Toronto student Qiyu Zhou, who holds the woman grandmaster title and streams chess and other e-sports to thousands of followers on her own Twitch channel.
Zhou took part in Nakamuru’s fundraiser, and has also hosted her own. Aside from “one or two trolls,” her streams have been largely free of any political back-and-forths, she said.
The game’s international profile, Zhou added, makes online chess an ideal venue for raising money during the conflict.
“Chess players are definitely more in tune [with the war] than a lot of other streamers, just because we have friends in Ukraine, friends in Russia,” Zhou said. “I’m not faulting anybody for that, but I feel like as a whole, chess players did a really good job with fundraising.”
As for Demchenko, she said while some online games might be “more heated” than before, she’s seen an overwhelming amount of support for Ukrainian chess players — and the prevailing sentiment is that almost everyone wants to help.
“The situation is just very scary and worrisome,” Demchenko said. “I’m just in disbelief that this could even happen.”