Between Israel and Russia, Chess Is More Than Just a Game

Russian shipping tycoon Andrey Filatov and Israeli chess master Boris Gelfand have been buddies since their student days. Now Filatov has donated $5 million to fund this month’s chess match in which Gelfand will play Viswanathan Anand for the title of world champion.

NICE - Sport, science or culture? This eternal question has forever evoked debate among chess aficionados who view the game as a sport, and those who consider sport a matter of physical exertion. In the view of the wealthy Russian businessman Andrey Filatov, the dilemma was resolved a long time ago. Chess is simply his great love, a unique combination of sport and culture. This month Filatov, the main sponsor of the duel for the title of chess world champion, will give lovers of the game and of art something unique. At his suggestion, the battle between the current champion, grand master Viswanathan Anand of India and Israeli grand master Boris Gelfand, will be held in Moscow in the famous Tretyakov Gallery. Spectators who come to enjoy the beauty of the game of kings, will at the same time be able to take in the fantastic Russian art collection, one of the biggest and best in the world.

It is no coincidence that Filatov decided to donate $5 million to ensure that this world championship match be held in Moscow for the first time since the clash of the great chess titans Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov there in 1984 and 1985. Filatov, 40, has been friends with Gelfand for many years, since they were both students at the University of Minsk more than 20 years ago. In Nice, France, where Filatov was enjoying a brief holiday, he tells a fascinating story about a wonderful friendship, love of the game and national pride.

Andrey Filatov - May 4, 2012

“The idea came about pretty much by chance,” Filatov reveals. “Boris came to my home from Kazan, after winning the Candidates Tournament. I asked him where the championship would be and he said, ‘We haven’t checked into it, but I don’t think there are any proposals yet.’ How can Moscow not be on the list, I wondered. How is that possible? Why don’t we try to arrange to hold the championship here? I got in touch with the Russian Chess Federation and things took off from there.”

Beyond being a nice gesture to a friend, the Russian businessman sees the staging of the chess world championship in Moscow as a contribution to Russia’s standing within European culture and a way to impart to the public at large, both in Russia and elsewhere, the importance of chess and of art, and the connection between them. He points out that this con nection has a historical basis. “Back in 1935, a chess competition was held in the Pushkin Museum because Stalin wished to show off Russian culture by means of an international chess competition. One of the games from the Alekhine-Euwe match was sold to a museum in Holland.”

Filatov, born in the city of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, learned chess as a child from watching his father play with friends, and fell in love with the game. By age 10 he was identified as a gifted child, and he began studying chess at the Children-Youth Sports School in Dnepropetrovsk. His work with coach and chess expert Alexander Sinitsin led to real progress: At 14, he had two marks for the rank of master candidate, and after a tough competition, Filatov was accepted into a special school in Moscow for Olympic talents, a status very few attain. While a student in Moscow, Filatov was also hired as a “game demonstrator” for the Karpov-Kasparov match, explaining the moves to viewers using special large chessboards.

He had trouble adjusting to life so far from home, and eventually returned to Ukraine. His love for chess remained strong. After graduating from high school while holding the rank of master candidate, with his family’s backing he decided to enroll at the Belorussian State University of Physical Culture in Minsk, where he went on to earn a diploma as a Chess-Playing Coach. There he met Gelfand, several years his senior, and they became fast friends. He also befriended a future Israeli champion, grand master Ilya Smirin, and the eighth women’s world champion, Zsuzsa (Susan) Polgar, a native Hungarian Jew, who were both studying in Minsk.

The mention of Filatov’s friends from back then Gelfand, Smirin and Polgar brings to mind some amusing memories, such as the time Polgar was absent from gym class because U.S. President Bill Clinton wanted to meet her. The gym teacher was not impressed with this excuse. He scolded the future world champion and then turned around in a self-important huff, as if he couldn’t care less about the American president.

Who ever heard of Viktor Popkov?

After his meeting with Gelfand, Filatov quickly set about promoting the idea of holding the chess world championship match in Moscow. A week after his first call to the Russian Chess Federation, the Moscow proposal was ready. “This is a very big chess event even for a chess power like Russia,” says Filatov. “Since 1985 no event of this magnitude has been held in Moscow, and it’s not surprising that a number of senior figures are on the organizing committee: Deputy Parliament Speaker Alexander Zhukov, the former head of the Russian Chess Federation; presidential adviser Arkady Dvorkovich; and also my business partner, Gennady Timchenko, recently joined the committee and took on the funding of the social component of the event.”

It’s an important event for Moscow, but also for Filatov himself, who is hoping to shore up Russia’s standing in the world. “This is a country that has known terror and humiliation, yet still managed to get to space. In the 20th century, Russia went through revolution, hunger, labor camps, waves of state-sponsored terror, two World Wars in which it lost millions of people. And still, the people worked and created and aspired to preserve the potential of a great nation.”

To illustrate his point, Filatov cites a painting by Arkady Plastov, “Work Days,” a depiction of peasants gathering wheat in order to survive from one day to the next. “It’s a great and stirring work, in which with every touch the artist is able to revive the reality of the past. But it is not as well-known as it should be.”

Filatov wants to promote Russian art so that it receives the worldwide recognition he feels it deserves, and is frustrated by the fact that even within Russia it is not sufficiently appreciated or familiar to the public. “I see the chess competition as an excellent opportunity for one billion Indians, for example, to get to know about the Tretyakov Gallery. Chess lovers who come to watch the match will be able to enjoy the works of art in their free time. Works by Viktor Popkov, for one, another symbol of Soviet painting. His work ‘Department at Break Time’ depicts workers on a break, playing chess. Popkov was killed in an accident in 1974. Several dozen of his works were purchased and put on display in Paris and other places, but he is not that well known at home. And there are many others like him, whose names and works are not known to the people, on whose behalf they toiled.”

Chess and art museums should receive state support, says Filatov. “All I can say is that this is a welcome trend in modern Russia. The promotion of culture, art and sport will help the society to flourish.” Filatov makes no distinction between chess and art, expanding the definition of art to include any man-made creation. “I’m reminded of a somewhat odd but true incident,” he says. “There’s this fellow, Yuri Silayev, a real genius, with hands of gold. He was taken from his home on his wedding day. Everyone thought he’d been arrested, but it turned out that he’d been summoned for a consultation by one of the fathers of the Soviet space industry, Sergei Korolev. Without this simple fellow, the Soviet satellite could not have flown to space.”

Into the vacuum

Filatov graduated from the university in 1991 as a “certified chess coach,” but the breakup of the Soviet Union left the chess field without governmental support and he had to look for other ways to use his talents and earn a living.

When he was still a student, struggling to get by on a living allowance of just 40 rubles (about three dollars) a month, Filatov had already begun looking for other sources of income. He went to Poland to sell Soviet-made electronics. Years later, through his former classmate and future business partner Konstantin Nikolaev, he got into the cargo shipping business.

“We didn’t have the start-up capital to begin trading on a large scale,” says Filatov. “But we started by arranging shipments of goods and as an added service, we helped factories arrange sales, to create a chain of transportation and logistics. We made some good money relatively quickly and then we decided to deal with even greater volume.”

In the early 1990s, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the foreign trade system of the Soviet era collapsed and Russian industries had to search independently for ways to sell their products abroad. But they had no experience or knowledge of how to do this.

Into this vacuum came Filatov, Nikolaev and another partner, Nikita Mishin, who had also studied with Filatov at the university. Filatov was interested in anything having to do with international trade: how merchandise crosses borders, in what volume, the means of transport, how to ship a container by sea, how to deal with the paperwork for shipping goods by sea or land.

“We would make arrangements with the railroad, with the people in charge of the ports, and organize the shipment of goods. We started off with small quantities and later we got in touch with a large shipping company that worked with the Russian exporters, including the metalworks in the city of Cherepovets. And later we got to know the owner of the plant, Alexei Mordashov. In 1996, Mordashov and the partners founded a company they called Severstaltrans, which at first dealt with handling shipments and goods from various factories and companies by sea and train.

“We started as a shipping company and in time we accumulated profits and capital and we became partners in various ports,” relates Filatov. “In 2004, on the basis of the company’s activity in the railroad system, the Globaltrans group was formed. I currently hold 17 percent of this company’s stock, and together with my business partners I control 51 percent of the company.”

Mordashov held 50 percent of the shares of Severstaltrans, but sold his share to his partners five years ago. A year later, in 2008, the firm’s name was changed to Trans N. By then it was made up of a group of companies dealing with transportation and shipping, with an annual turnover of $1.7 billion. More than 20 companies operate under the Trans N umbrella. Russia’s current transport minister, Igor Levitin, formerly worked for six years in one of these companies, most of the time as deputy director.

In praise of Comrade Zyuganov

With his fondness for chess and art, Filatov did not get caught up in the last decade’s trend of Russian oligarchs buying soccer teams. “I was never interested in buying a soccer team,” he says. “And of all the business people I know, no one invests in soccer just because it’s fashionable. Each one has his own motives, no one just throws money around. The motivation to buy is affected by the objectives. Of course, in most cases, the owners aspire to gain some kind of political influence, or they decide to buy due to outside political influence.”
Filatov has some surprising views about Russian politics. He sees Vladimir Putin’s reelection as president, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister, as a positive development. “The important thing is that this election took place,” he says. “It was very transparent, as the government wanted. Whatever people may say, this was a legitimate election, beyond any doubt. I’ll go even further and say: This is the best government Russia has ever had, at least in the past hundred years. The best and the smartest.”

To bolster his argument, Filatov gives a quick rundown of the Russian regimes since the early 20th century. “Let’s go back in time, to the pogroms in the time of Czar Nicholas II. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt protested then to the Russian royal family about the abuse of the Jews in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 [49 killed, hundreds wounded] and granted some of the survivors American passports, but Russia continued to oppress them. The American government protested the harming of U.S. citizens, and in a cynical response, Mikhail, the Czar’s brother, said: Here we beat people not according to their passport, but based on their faces. Then came the revolutionaries, Stalin’s terror, the fanatic Krushchev, who almost had a nuclear war break out under his tenure, and then Brezhnev and his government of senile old men – and for dessert we got Yeltsin, who had tanks fire on his parliament in 1993. The present government is a government of intelligent people. Of course, there is reason to criticize it, but the dangers to Russia and the world certainly won’t come from it. Personally, I’m only afraid of the ‘wonders of technology’ satellites that fall, planes that crash for lack of proper maintenance, nuclear submarines that could catch fire and cause a regional nuclear disaster. That’s where the real danger is, that’s where my real fears are.”

And as if that weren’t enough, Filatov is also ready to lavish praise on the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov: “Everyone knows that Zyuganov really defeated Yeltsin in the 1996 election by at least 10 percent, but the election results were falsified. Yeltsin and his people stole a legal victory from Zyuganov. You have to take your hat off to the Communist Party head, who didn’t call on his supporters to storm the barricades, which would have sent the country into civil war. He had just cause, but Zyuganov put what was better for the country ahead of his own personal political ambitions. There were a lot of people who said, ‘Give us weapons and we’ll be with you to the end,’ but Zyuganov didn’t want rivers of Russian blood to flow in the streets.”

Filatov’s view of the other opposition parties is not quite as positive: “Most of the people presently in the opposition are incapable of putting forward any kind of practical plan. For the most part, they just spout empty slogans. What did really surprise me was the success of Mikhail Prokhorov, especially in Moscow. I never expected somebody from the Forbes list [of the world’s wealthiest] to achieve such an impressive result in the Russian presidential election. Given the opportunity, Prokhorov could definitely contribute to Russia’s future prosperity.”

The heart of Russian culture

Filatov, though a friend of Boris Gelfand, doesn’t play favorites when it comes to predicting the outcome of the match. “It’s 50-50,” he says. “I know Boris well. He lives and breathes and dreams chess, but he’s also someone who takes an interest in other areas like politics, art, sports.”

Can a match between an Indian and an Israeli attract an audience in Russia?
“It’s a highly interesting athletic and cultural event. Russian chess lovers have been missing an event of this magnitude. Chess was always one of the symbols of the Soviet Union, but Russia in the modern age has yet to host a world championship chess match. If you like, it’s a way of bringing the symbol back home again, to the heart of Russian culture, to the Tretyakov Gallery, which connects our art with the wider, enlightened world.”

Filatov met the current world champion, Anand, for the first time in November last year, at a Moscow tournament in memory of the Soviet Jewish world champion Mikhail Tal. “He made an excellent impression on me,” says the chief sponsor. “A lot of people, myself included, have the feeling that this is going to be a match of true gentlemen great chess players, but also terrific people, which is something you don’t always see.”

As befits a graduate of a university for physical education, Filatov has a keen appreciation for the need for proper physical preparation for what will likely be an exhausting match. “It goes without saying that physical preparation is necessary for an event in which brain cells are stretched to the limit and the players exert a ton of energy in an all-out physical effort. I imagine that both Gelfand and Anand are preparing themselves extensively for the contest, physically as well as mentally. And I presume that medical advice wouldn’t be out of place here either, since both of these men are now over 40.”

In May, Andrey Filatov will apparently achieve his childhood dream, though in a slightly different form than he originally pictured it. “My big dream was to take part in a world championship match. And now the dream is coming true, although of course I never could have imagined that I would take part in this match as the chief sponsor. But here I am very close to the world title, and my friend also has a chance of winning it.”

Formally, the Russian Chess Federation and its head, Ilya Levitov, are in charge of organizing the match. And what would have happened had the Tamil Nadu government in India been able to make a higher financial bid and win the right to host the match?

“Nothing would have happened,” replies Filatov. “My friend Boris would just have made more money.”

Of the $5 million Filatov donated for the match, $2.55 million is allocated for the prize money, which is split 60-40 between winner and loser. “FIDE [the World Chess Federation] made the logical decision to grant the right to host the match to the country that would provide the highest prize money, and that’s what happened,” says Filatov. “There were no political pressures here, even though Moscow had the infrastructure and tradition going in its favor. The amount of prize money we offered was simply higher.”

Moscow is Russia’s cultural and financial capital. “Putin has made Russia into a country that is respected,” Filatov says proudly. “Russia is on the brink of a new stage of modernization, in which its economy will be upgraded. Like in the time of Czar Nikolai I when Russia started to develop its railroad network, or in the time of Lenin when they began to expand the electricity network.”

Swept up in describing his country’s world significance, Filatov adds: “It was the Soviet Union that helped the West emerge from its economic crisis following World War I and the Great Depression in 1929. The country had endless natural resources but no money to develop them, and the franchises that Lenin and Stalin gave to other countries created many jobs in Europe, which softened the blow of the economic crisis on the continent. The Soviet Union, for its part, benefited from foreign expertise, from huge factories and aid in building the Dneprostroi Dam one of the world’s largest and most impressive hydroelectric power stations, which supplied a significant portion of the electricity consumption in the European parts of the country.”

He also sings the praises of the Russian capital: “Moscow is still the city with the most readers in the world, and it’s the same throughout Russia. Billions are being invested in renovating the Bolshoi, a lot of money is given for art exhibitions, cultural life is thriving, although the theaters could still use more massive investment. A country that invests in culture and tradition will also look after its citizens’ welfare properly.”

Good for the country

Andrey Filatov has his own illustration of the saying “only in his hometown is a prophet without honor.” In World War I, a Russian legion fought in France, and a young sergeant who fought there, Rodion Malinovsky, was awarded two French medals for bravery. After World War II, Marshal Malinovsky came on a visit to France and was received with great honor and headlines. But in Russia, to Filatov’s great dismay, there is no mention of this historic episode, even though Russia generally goes to great lengths to memorialize its past heroes.

“The great commanders of the past always played chess, and made sure that it was the same among the officer ranks, too,” says Filatov. “The game of chess is good for the country, it benefits society and should also provide a good living for those who work in the field. In the new economy, a chess teacher should earn a good living, on the level of a senior engineer or a good schoolteacher. A country has to ensure this, as a way to upgrade intelligence and education. In the Soviet Union, chess was also used for propaganda purposes, and the top chess players were part of the wealthy sector of society. All this fell apart, but I believe that combining chess and art, through museums, will serve as a springboard for a better common future.”

Restoring a tomb

Andrey Filatov’s philanthropic activity is not limited to chess or to his massive support for the arts. A few years ago, he learned that a storm had damaged the tomb at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris of Russian chess player Alexander Alekhine, the fourth world champion and one of the greatest chess players of all time. Alekhine, who was married to a woman of Jewish descent, agreed to cooperate with the Nazis during World War II in order to save his wife, some say. After the war, he was ostracized because of this and remained in Spain, where he lived until his death in 1946. His body was transferred to France for reburial 10 years later, with funding from the International Chess Federation.

“I heard about the damage to the tomb and I paid for its renovation and reconstruction,” says Filatov. “Afterward I traveled there to see for myself how it was handled. Everything was done well.”