Until recently, the phrase was just a lazy metaphor used to describe the less-than-enthralling and never-ending volley of passive-aggressive statements and air strikes that the U.S. and Russia took turns swapping. But now, thanks to recent upheaval at the World Chess Federation, the Syrian conflict has expanded to include international chess games as one of its subplots.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian politician who has run the World Chess Federation for about 20 years, decided to step down temporarily after the U.S. put him on a sanctions list last month for “materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria” and its president, Bashar al-Assad. According to The Guardian, Ilyumzhinov was last in Syria three years ago, when he played chess with Assad. At other times in recent history, he played chess with equally controversial leaders Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
The organization is working on preparing for the 2017 World Chess Championship, which is supposed to be held in the U.S. It would be exceptionally hard to plan if the person in charge was barred from doing business in the United States. Vice-President Georgios Makropoulos will be in charge of dealing with the U.S. instead for the time being.
Ilyumzhinov — who “takes seriously what the stars or the sorcerers say" and says he was abducted by aliens in yellow spacesuits, which led one Russian politician to ask, according to the BBC, if there were "official guidelines for what government officials should do if contacted by aliens, especially if those officials have access to state secrets" — has faced opposition a few times over the course of his long presidential tenure. Last year, famous chess player Garry Kasparov lost a race against him while complaining that Ilyumzhinov was too close to Putin. Someone also ran against him in 2010; however, his supporters in the Kremlin — and perhaps the many times he has been accused of voter fraud — have helped keep him in charge.
Back in September, Ilyumzhinov said he was thinking about running to replace Sepp Blatter as president of FIFA, a sports organization that also has a tendency of empowering people who tend to cause financial mischief.
Ilyumzhinov hasn’t spoken about his decision to step down yet or the international politics involved, but considering what he told The New Yorker in 2006, he may not think he will have to worry about the increasingly complex state of international politics and chess. “Tomorrow, aliens will fly down here and say, ‘You guys are misbehaving,’ and then they will take us away from the earth,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Why are you fighting down here? Why are you eating each other?’ And they’ll just put us in their ships and take us away.”