In an obscure corner of Russia, Anatoly Karpov and American Gata Kamsky start play Thursday in a chess championship rich with colorful personalities and subplots.
The World Chess Federation title match, shifted from Baghdad by international outrage over the proposed Iraqi venue, is being staged in an arid southern backwater known - if at all - for cattle-raising, Buddhism and a fabulously wealthy leader.
The provincial setting in the region of Kalmykia, where sheep outnumber people 5-to-1, arose from a split that cost the federation its status as the all-powerful ruling body of world chess. The breakaway Professional Chess Association, which held its bally-hooed title match in Manhattan, and its champion, Garry Kasparov, now take top billing.
But while the Karpov-Kamsky match may lack credibility, it is not short on money or intrigue.
Wednesday’s opening ceremony began with a parade led by three horses draped with black-and-white checkered cloth and ridden by men in chess king costumes. Children dressed as chess pieces and marchers in colorful national costumes paraded in the rain, considered a sign of good luck in the desert.
A Buddhist dance was held to purge evil spirits.
Kamsky and Karpov drew lots first by throwing seven Kalmyk dice made of lamb bones. Karpov won, giving him the right to choose which box to open. The box he opened contained a white flag, giving him the white pieces for the first game.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is president of both Kalmykia and the chess federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, has lined up a purse of $2 million that he says is the largest ever for chess.
Emotions are expected to be high as the players, who both detest Kasparov, battle for a hoped-for showdown with the champion and a chance to knock him off his throne.
British grandmaster David Norwood, writing in The Daily Telegraph of London, called it “a clash between the bitter, the snubbed and the dispossessed. Off the board we can certainly expect some drama.”
Karpov, a 45-year-old Russian whose status as an all-time great has been overshadowed by Kasparov’s pre-eminence, wants a victory to push for what could be a last crack at regaining the title he lost to his enemy in 1985. He is the defending FIDE champion.
The bespectacled Kamsky, 22, technically is the first American since Bobby Fischer to challenge for the chess title. He has not yet been granted American citizenship but has been living in New York since he defected from the Soviet Union eight years ago and has reigned as U.S. champion since age 16.
A patient, conservative player, his emotionless demeanor belies a driving desire to be champion.
And driving him is his father, Rustam Kamsky, a combative ex-boxer who dictates virtually every facet of his son’s life; imposing a grueling training regimen with no days off, answering reporters’ questions directed to his son and forbidding him from dating.
Overseeing it all is the attention-grabbing Ilyumzhinov, who is rumored to be one of the world’s wealthiest men. A member of Russia’s upper house of parliament and a chess master himself, he got several Russian sponsors, including the oil company Rosneft, to guarantee match funding.
A fourth of the prize money - $500,000 - will be given to the Children’s Fund of Kalmykia.
The match will be played in a child development center. The players will sit on a stage behind a glass screen, and their moves will be displayed to spectators on an electronic board.
Under a grueling schedule, games will be played every other day without a break until one player reaches 10.5 points and claims the $937,500 first prize. Second prize is $562,500.