|Kramnik (top), Topalov
As direct descendants of Genghis Khan, the people of Kalmykia can be expected to have an appreciation of the finer points of battle.
Now their tiny southern Russian republic is to be the arena for settling one of the most bitterly divisive conflicts in the world of chess.
In what is regarded as the most important match for 13 years, Veselin Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik will face each other across a board for the right to be the undisputed world chess champion.
The match in Elista, the capital of Europe’s only Buddhist nation, will end a 13-year split in the game that has produced rival claims to the title.
The grandmasters, both 31, will slug it out over 12 games in the chess equivalent of a heavyweight boxing contest to create a unified world champion.
Topalov, a Bulgarian ranked first in the game, holds the title awarded by Fide, the World Chess Federation.
Kramnik, who is Russian and ranked fourth, is Classical Chess world champion, a title established after Garry Kasparov, then the top player, led a breakaway from Fide in 1993.
An agreement to restore unity was signed in 2002, but it has taken four years to arrange a match that will produce a single champion.
A $1-million prize, split equally between the players regardless of the result, has helped to smooth discussions in the notoriously fractious chess world.
The driving force behind the match is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, 44, a millionaire businessman and chess fanatic who has been President of Kalmykia since 1993 and of Fide since 1995. He says that a Bulgarian mystic inspired him to run for both offices.
One of his first acts as Kalmyk President was to make chess compulsory in schools. The Fide flag flies alongside those of Russia and Kalmykia above his offices in Elista.
Ilyumzhinov arrived in Kalmykia with the rival champions on a chartered flight from Moscow on Saturday. He said: “This is very important for me as president of Fide but also as a player and chess lover. After this, there will be only one champion and chess will be whole again.”
Kramnik returned to playing only six months ago after a serious illness, but said he was happy to contest the title. He said: “The whole world of chess has been waiting for this unification match for a long time. It is a big event for both of us.
Topalov said he considered himself the only true champion as holder of Fide’s title. “But the world champion should be ready to show that he is the best at all times and this is why I accepted the match. There was a lot of interest and there was money, so I thought ‘why not'’
“Things should be decided on a chess board and if you try to hide it doesn’t work. The point is not only the title but to show everyone that you are the best.”
Ilyumzhinov whisked Kramnik and Topalov away from the airport in his white Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit for an exhausting three-hour tour of Elista, filled with crowds celebrating the city’s 141st birthday.
Ilyumzhinov has spared no expense to ready the city for the match. He moved deputies out of Kalmykia’s parliament and ordered it to be completely refurbished to stage the championship games.
The players were forced to step around workers who were still frantically completing the renovations, however, when the President showed them the stage where they will play. The opening ceremony is on Thursday.
The players and their advisers will live for the next month in Chess City, a multimillion-pound complex on the edge of Elista built by Ilyumzhinov to host the 1998 Chess Olympiad. Topalov was among the 2,000 participants.
Now largely deserted, Chess City resembles a Californian suburb with anonymous rows of houses behind neatly trimmed lawns that stand in roads named after individual chess pieces. A domed central hall houses chess tables and a museum. It was rejected as the venue for the championship because its open-plan design, around a central spiral stairway, was considered impractical.
Each player has been assigned a 20-room house and a new Mercedes to chauffeur him around the capital. Horses have been stabled for their personal use in case either man feels the urge to go riding between games.
Ilyumzhinov acknowledges that he uses his love of chess to bring attention to this republic of just 300,000 people who depend largely on sheep farming and agriculture for their living. The ethnic Kalmyks remained in Russia after the Mongols retreated from Europe to Central Asia.
The Times, London