Israeli Chess Players Clash Over Whether to Compete in Saudi Tournament

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Israeli chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand.
Israeli chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand.Credit: Alon Ron

A rift has opened at the top of the Israeli chess world over whether players should compete in a tournament in Saudi Arabia next month – the country’s top three grandmasters are staying away from the event that scores of players from around the world have said they will boycott.

But seven Israeli players have submitted visa requests to the Saudis asking to be let in to play. They are supported by the Israel Chess Federation, which believes their admission would mark the first tangible sign of a thaw between the two countries following decades of enmity.

The split in the chess world emerged three weeks after FIDE, the World Chess Federation, provoked anger around the world with its decision to let the Saudis host the world speed chess championship. On top of an outcry over the country’s human rights record, female players objected to the strict Saudi dress code and their need to be accompanied by a man whenever they stepped outside.

To win some of the female players over, the Saudi authorities agreed to relax rules that insisted on women wearing a hijab while competing. Instead, women will be allowed wear dark blue or black formal trousers and a high-necked blouse.

As of Tuesday, Israel’s three highest-ranked chess players – Boris Gelfand, Maxim Rodshtein and Emil Sutovksy – were sticking by their decision to stay away. They have been joined by another grandmaster, Boris Alterman. But two female players – Masha Klinova and Yuliya Shvayger – have submitted visa requests to be allowed to go, possibly because of the more relaxed dress code.

Sutovsky said that, as a matter of principle, the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in Riyadh should be open to all chess players around the world regardless their country of origin. Saudi Arabia is one of a number of Arab or Muslim countries that normally do not allow entry to Israelis. Entrants from Qatar and Iran, bitter rivals of the Saudis, might also stay away.

Sutovsky blamed the world federation for choosing Saudi Arabia as the host nation in return for a $1.5 million payment over the three years the tournament is due to be held.

“It’s never been held in a country with such a controversial reputation,” he said.

But even if some Israeli players end up going, other competitors might refuse to play against them. Many times over the years pairings in tournaments have been switched around to let an Arab or Muslim player skirt a match against an Israeli.

One Palestinian chess champion has already said he would refuse to play against an Israeli in Saudi Arabia if the situation arose. “We are not in a normal situation with Israel, so I can’t act as if it is," he told The Media Line.

Lior Eisenberg, of the Israeli Chess Federation, said: "Like everyone else I have read that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are getting better. If we compete in Riyadh it will be the first official sign of a change in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but we have to wait and see. There is also the question about what happens to players from Qatar and Iran."

Eisenberg said it did not matter if Israel’s three best chess minds, who are in the world’s top 50, were not playing, because tournaments were about competing, not winning.

As players take part as individuals, it would not be a case of Israel fielding a weakened team, he added.