The King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships took place in Riyadh at the end of December. They got more publicity than chess competitions often do, but most of it was bad publicity, mostly because the Saudi government had refused to issue visas to competitors from three countries with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations: Qatar, Iran and Israel. This would appear to be in conflict with the statutes of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which say that ‘FIDE events may be hosted only by federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all federations.’
‘Generally’ here does not mean ‘if the host feels like it’: it means, and says, that exceptions are permitted only in cases of armed conflict, and even then only if approved by three-quarters of FIDE’s general assembly. Guaranteeing free admittance to all should have been a prerequisite for countries bidding for the tournament; but Saudi Arabia was offering two million dollars’ prize money, and there were no other candidates.
With less than 24 hours to go, the organisers announced that visas would after all be available for Qatari and Iranian players. This was too late for the Rapid tournament, though two Qatari grandmasters made it to the Blitz. (In a Rapid chess game, each player starts with 15 minutes on the clock; in a Blitz game, three minutes.) No Iranians or Israelis took part in either tournament. At the end of the Blitz, the winner, Magnus Carlsen, suggested that the Israelis shouldn’t be excluded again.
This is right, of course. Israel may have its own freedom-of-movement issues, not small ones at that, but objecting to their exclusion from a chess tournament isn’t about the Occupation – or the Nakba or the settlements – any more than objecting to Iran’s exclusion is about theocracy. Hosts can’t be boycotters: it isn’t their call to make.
Players can be, though, and not many were prepared to turn down Saudi money to protest against Saudi politics. Practically the only person to emerge from the show with real credit was Anna Muzychuk, the holder of both women’s titles at stake in Riyadh, who refused to defend either of them:
In a few days I am going to lose two World Champion titles – one by one. Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia. Not to play by someone's rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside, and altogether not to feel myself a secondary creature.
This was particularly irksome for a professional chess player, since ‘in five days,’ she said, ‘I was expected to earn more than I do in a dozen events combined … All that is annoying, but the most upsetting thing is that almost nobody really cares.’
The European Chess Union statement deploring the exclusion of Israelis didn’t mention women, let alone the compromises on their personal freedom that women had to make in order to compete. There’s been time to think about the issue, since the 2017 Women’s World Championships were held in Iran, where participants were obliged to wear the hijab. Muzychuk played in that one (though her sister, Mariya, did not), which doesn’t make her stand on Riyadh any less admirable. Easy for me to say, as an enthusiast and an amateur, but my view is that a little more boycotting, and a little more support for players who make that sacrifice, might do the game a great deal of good.