By attacking one of the kings of the game, the world’s chess bureaucrats have backed themselves into a corner.
The International Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, is weighing a two-year playing ban for popular Ukrainian Grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk, the world’s third-ranked player, for failing to take a mandatory drug test after a painful loss at the Chess Olympiad held in Dresden, Germany, in November.
The drug-testing policy, adopted by FIDE in a so far futile attempt to qualify chess as a sport for the Olympic Games, has been widely criticized by players. Many argue that the Olympics quest is misbegotten, and ridicule the idea that “performance-enhancing drugs” can improve one’s ability to play chess.
“Can we believe such news?” Latvian-born Spanish Grandmaster Alexei Shirov, once a challenger for the world title, wrote in an open letter on the Ivanchuk case. “A player who has been at the very top for more than 20 years … gets banned simply because he wanted to calm down after a lost game?”
Michael Atkins, one of the Washington area’s most active tournament organizers, called the Ivanchuk imbroglio a case of “bureaucracy gone haywire.”
“Enhancing physical performance for athletes obviously needs testing, but I don’t think anyone has ever shown that there are mental performance-enhancing illegal drugs that would improve play over the board to the degree that it affects results,” he said.
Veteran German star Robert Huebner, one of the best players in the West during the latter years of the Cold War, has stopped competing altogether in FIDE events to protest the drug-testing policy.
As an organizer, Mr. Atkins said, “Having to become a chess cop would drive me away from tournaments quickly. It really isn’t worth it to do this just to get in the Olympics.”
FIDE officials, led by mercurial President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, beg to differ. They say that qualification as an Olympic sport would give the game badly needed prestige, media exposure and sponsorship opportunities.
Mr. Ilyumzhinov, who is also the president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, defends the drug-testing program as a matter of fairness, not just a hurdle that must be cleared to be considered by the International Olympic Committee.
“Chess as a sport itself deserves the clean competition of the players, devoid of falsifications, cheating and doping,” he said in written answers to questions submitted by the International Herald Tribune last month.
“We were well aware that in chess we would not cope with steroids and other hormones used in physical sports, but at the same time, the scientific research identified several substances that could affect the mental performance of a chess player,” he said.
Caffeine, whether delivered by black coffee or Red Bull, is not a banned substance in chess. But there is considerable debate whether drugs thought to promote concentration or mental alertness - including Ritalin and some beta blockers - might give a player an edge after six or seven hours of sustained calculation at the chessboard.
FIDE officials forfeited two lower-ranking players at the 2004 Olympiad on the Spanish island of Mallorca when they objected to a random drug test after their game.
But the Ivanchuk case would be far more momentous, and not just because of the prominence of the player familiarly known as “Chukky.”
At the Dresden match, Mr. Ivanchuk stormed out of the playing hall after losing a last-round game to U.S. rival Gata Kamsky. The loss was particularly painful as Ukraine’s team lost a chance for a top medal and the U.S. team, which won three of the four games in the match, earned a surprise bronze medal with the victory.
By an odd twist of fate, Shaun Press, the player from Papua New Guinea penalized by FIDE in 2004, was outside the playing hall as a visibly upset Mr. Ivanchuk blew past, ignoring the pleas of FIDE officials to provide a urine sample.
“I witnessed Ivanchuk kick a large concrete pillar, then bang his fists on the food service counter a couple of times, before storming past where we were standing into the cloakroom area of the venue, all the time being followed by a couple of officials,” Mr. Press wrote on his blog (chessexpress. blogspot.com).
Acknowledging the depth of support for Mr. Ivanchuk, FIDE officials have put off a final decision on the two-year ban.
A “doping hearing panel” will hear the case in the next couple of months, and the 39-year-old Mr. Ivanchuk has competed in a number of elite-level tournaments while his case is being considered.
The American men’s chess team will be following the case closely.
If FIDE orders all of Mr. Ivanchuk’s games from the Dresden Olympiad be forfeited, it would change all of the team’s match results and alter the tie breaks for determining the team medals.
Under the recalculated tie breaks, it is projected that the U.S. team would lose the bronze medal to Hungary.