Of all the topics special counsel Robert Mueller put before President Donald Trump during his sweeping 22-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, chess was perhaps the most surprising.
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But buried among the myriad of revelations contained in Mueller’s 448-page report, released on Thursday with limited redactions by Attorney General William Barr, was the fact that Trump disclosed to investigators that sanctioned Russian powerbroker Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, then the president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), invited the Trump Organization to host the 2016 World Chess Championship at Trump Tower.
“During the course of preparing to respond to these questions,” wrote Trump on November 20, 2018, in response to a chess-focused inquiry from Mueller, “I have become aware of documents indicating that in March of 2016, the president of the World Chess Federation invited the Trump Organization to host, at Trump Tower, the 2016 World Chess Championship Match to be held in New York in November 2016.”
That invitation, from a Russian sports chief with ties to the Kremlin, appears to represent both another Russian outreach to Trump and his associates in the height of a political campaign, and another example of the ways in which critics say Russia has used sport in general, and chess in particular, as statecraft.
In the days following Trump’s shocking electoral victory, Russia’s business and political elite, headlined by Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, gathered in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport to watch Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin challenge Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen at the biennial World Chess Championship.
Mueller, it seems, suspected that someone – perhaps one of the powerful Russians in attendance – may have invited the president-elect to attend the pre-tournament gala.
In response to questions from Mueller, Trump said he did not attend the event and “[does] not remember” being invited. But according to Mueller’s report, the World Chess Championship indeed appears to have been an unlikely nexus of characters central to the Trump-Russia drama.
Mueller reported that Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian sovereign wealth fund, flew to New York for the event and invited George Nader, a mysterious Middle Eastern businessman who was later questioned by Mueller about his meetings with Trump allies, to join him for the opening of the tournament. He asked Nader if there was “a chance to see anyone key from Trump camp," Mueller found, because he "would love to start building for the future," and urged him to invite Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Nader did not pass along the invitation, the report said, and investigators “did not establish that Trump or any Campaign or Transition Team official attended the event.”
But the invitation to host, which the match’s organizer Ilya Merenzon confirmed to ABC News that Ilyumzhinov extended to Trump, not through official FIDE channels but rather “via his personal connections,” could have established another business relationship between the Trump Organization and an institution with close ties to the Russian government.
As described in a recent joint investigation undertaken by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, Ilyumzhinov, the wealthy former governor of the Russian state of Kalmykia, has repeatedly been alleged to have acted as an informal envoy for the Russian government.
The Kremlin denies this characterization, but over the years, Ilyumzhinov maintained a packed travel schedule that saw him unexpectedly appear beside some of the world’s best-known strongmen leaders, typically under the auspices of promoting chess.
In 2003, Ilyumzhinov flew to Iraq, less than two days before the start of the U.S. invasion, where he reportedly met with Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday. In 2011, he flew to Libya, amid an ongoing NATO bombing campaign, where he played a chess match against Moammar Gadhafi. And in 2012, he flew to Syria, shortly after the outbreak of civil war, where he met with Bashar Assad to, in Ilyumzhinov’s telling, deliver chess textbooks to Syrian schoolchildren.
Indeed, Ilyumzhinov’s son David confirmed that his father served a unique role. “It’s not a secret,” David said. “He can go like he is just there for chess, for the chess tournament, but he can deliver a message. And the message won’t get screwed up.”
He was recently forced to step aside as FIDE president -- following a scandal-plagued reign that included allegations of corruption – after struggling for legitimacy in the wake of the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioning him in 2015 "for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria."
It was that sanction, in fact, that prevented him from attending the 2016 World Chess Championship, the very event that had drawn Mueller’s attention.
But even without Ilyumzhinov, FIDE and chess remain firmly in the Kremlin orbit, with former Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who led Russia’s successful staging of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, succeeding Ilyumzhinov as president. And with 188 national chess federations scattered across the globe, the opportunities for chess diplomacy are all but endless.
With Ilyumzhinov’s outreach to Trump, those opportunities appeared to reach new heights.