President of Russian Chess Federation takes aim at Nepomniachtchi: ‘He’s a monkey with a hand grenade’

Ranked second in the world, the player is currently leading against Ding Liren at the World Championship with four games to go, but he is under pressure for his rejection of the invasion of Ukraine

Nepomniachtchi during one of his matches against Ding Liren at the World Cup.Anna Shtourman
Leontxo García

Chess players often agree on the difficulty of performing at your best when other problems are boiling inside your head. Despite his frontal opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, Ian Nepomniachtchi is supported by one of the richest men in Russia, Vladimir Potanin. But another millionaire, Andrei Filatov, president of the Russian Chess Federation, criticized him a few days ago, following a defeat, for his insecurity: “He looks like a monkey with a hand grenade.”

The number-two player in the world on Sunday tied comfortably at the 10th game of the 14th scheduled against China’s Ding Liren at the World Chess Championship in Astana (Kazakhstan), where he is currently leading with a score level of 5.5-4.5.

His remarks about the war would be enough to send any normal citizen to jail immediately. But no Russian media of any relevance has echoed what Nepomniachtchi told EL PAÍS on April 9: “I signed that manifesto [in April 2022, a few weeks after the start of the invasion] with my heart. That war is horrifying, a tragic catastrophe. I understand to a certain extent the sanctions against Russian athletes, although I have serious doubts that they will help improve the situation. If they force me to play under the FIDE [International Chess Federation] flag, as when Russia was punished for the mass doping scandal, I will do it. But I do not identify the Russian flag with the war, which horrifies me, but with my country, which I love.”

On the nepoteam.com website, managed by the player’s assistants and admirers, there is a recent unsigned statement criticizing Filatov’s outburst: “We fully recognize anyone’s right to express their personal opinion. But if it is a high government official, directly related to current events, his words are no longer personal. And they do more damage because they affect people’s reputations. Furthermore, these statements were made officially, in an interview with the TASS agency.” Nepomniachtchi’s representative, Zoe Artnaskaya, confirmed that this website has not been hacked and that these words “reflect the general feeling among those who support Ian.”

After the third consecutive draw on Sunday in just three hours — the result of an intense preparation with no outside help — Nepomniachtchi responded to Filatov’s outburst: “It’s a good question, but I’d rather not explain that now.” Several conversations with people close to him lead to a clear conclusion: Filatov, who is close to Vladimir Putin, is not only annoyed by Nepomniachtchi’s insistence on condemning the aggression against Ukraine a year after the manifesto signed to the same effect by 44 Russian chess personalities, he is also upset that the player did not ask the Russian Federation for help to organize his months of pre-championship training, as he did in 2021 when he faced Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the current champion, in Dubai.

Russian millionaire Vladimir Potanin.
Russian millionaire Vladimir Potanin.Sergei Karpukhin (REUTERS)

However, Nepomniachtchi can count on support from Potanin, who is much more influential than Filatov and closer to Putin (in fact, he has been included in the international sanctions list), as highlighted on nepoteam.com. Potanin is himself a fan of chess with a high level of technical difficulty, and has even played a few friendly games against Nepomniachtchi in the past.

Considering that Putin has said at least twice in public that regaining the world chess title is a priority for Russian sport, one wonders why Filatov would issue such a shrill reproach in the middle of the World Championship, knowing that it could do psychological damage to Nepomniachtchi. A source very familiar with the ins and outs of Russian chess, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave this newspaper an enlightening explanation: “Filatov is protecting himself preventively, in case Niepo loses the duel and he falls out of favor with power.”

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