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Corruption checkmates chess champions in Pakistan

Shahab Jafry
Filed on November 5, 2019 | Last updated on November 5, 2019 at 08.38 pm

Yet, much as we would have loved it, Short was not in Pakistan to play chess, nor to cut any ribbons at some landmark tournaments.

Imagine a Pakistani chess enthusiast's joy at shaking Grandmaster Dr Nigel Short's hand, that too in Islamabad. Nigel is, of course, the famous British grandmaster who challenged Garry Kasparov, monster among men in the world of chess in the '80s and '90s, for the world championship in 1993.

For those familiar with the game, beating Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov - Garry's nemesis as well as compatriot, first from the USSR then the Russian Federation - to face Kasparov for the highest prize was about as high as a mortal could rise in those days. Only two men, other than Kasparov, managed to defeat Karpov in a long, classical-format match: Short in '92 and the Indian super grandmaster Viswanathan Anand in 1994.

Yet, much as we would have loved it, Short was not in Pakistan to play chess, nor to cut any ribbons at some landmark tournaments. Now vice-president of FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs/International Chess Federation), the grandmaster was here to investigate, on the orders of the president, all the corruption and nepotism at the Pakistan Chess Federation (PCF) whose stench has, finally, reached the highest offices of FIDE.

There's a reason that none of the few of us who managed to learn the 'regal game' here, idolised the Kasparovs, Shorts and Anands of this world, and dreamt about becoming grandmasters and world champions, never got too far in chess. There were no clubs, no tournaments for years on end, and no chess books except for the rare occasion when somebody would go abroad and bring back a chess book or two. This despite the fact that more books have been written on chess than all other sports combined.

That was because the chess federation was run by a corrupt clique. According to an interview Short gave to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the FIDE delegation he headed was here to look into corrupt practices at the PCF that go all the way to its president, who happens to be a senator. Through a very fraudulent election, which is presently being challenged in the Islamabad High Court, a few people have been able to take over the Federation.

Strangely, PCF's chairman and general secretary are gentlemen that the senator herself accused, quite loudly in the local press, of taking friends and family to international tournaments instead of legitimate chess players. Recently, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation chess championship in China, one of the Federation's representatives took along a female player who was rated number-five, leaving the top four ladies understandably upset. This, ironically, led the Federation's own joint secretary to charge sheet the general secretary.

That, sadly, is not all. It turns out that the Federation has also blacklisted, without any formal notification, the country's top players for years. Masters like Tanveer Gilani (Olympic gold medallist), Amir Karim (Olympic silver medallist and former Asian junior number 2), and Mohammad Waqar (Olympic team gold medallist) have not been allowed to represent the country because the mafia running the Federation take their family and friends for chess outings.

These players made these marks just when players like Vishy Anand and Nigel Short were also first getting noticed in world junior chess. Yet while others reached the highest summits in world chess - Anand is seven times world champion - Pakistan could not even produce one grandmaster.

"It's a shame," Nigel said to me and then later to APP, "that despite being the birth place of chess (Indus Valley Civilisation) the top Pakistani player is not ranked even in the top 6,000 players in the world." India, on the other hand, is the undisputed new powerhouse of international chess with their men, women, and children dominating their respective divisions. It's as if something suddenly happens when you cross the border.

Everybody's now looking to FIDE to untie this particular knot, because there's apparently no chance of in-house justice (she's a senator, remember?) and courts on average take a lifetime to decide cases. But that will be small comfort to masters who worked hard to get good at the game, despite being at a disadvantage to begin with, yet faced cruel bans and saw the country's rating and profile go to the dogs.

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore


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