October 25, 2011 15:53

Iranian GM refuses to play Israeli opponent, gets excluded from Corsican Circuit

Iranian GM refuses to play Israeli opponent, gets excluded from Corsican Circuit

Iranian GM Eshan Ghaem Maghami was excluded from the Corsican Circuit on Monday after he had told the organizers he refused to play against the opponent he was paired for in the 4th round: FM Ehud Shachar of Israel. "I want to emphasize that personally I don't have any bad relations with anyone from Israel," Ghaem Maghami told us.

Yesterday the traditional Corsican Circuit, which takes place October 22-29 in Ajaccio, reached its 4th round. The pairings showed for board 8:

8 [2½] GHAEM MAGHAMI Ehsan 2583    -  SHACHAR Ehud 2355 [2½]

When he saw these pairings, Ghaem Maghami went to the organizers and told them he refused to play against this opponent because of the political situation between Iran and Israel. The tournament director, Léo Battesti (also Vice-President of the French Chess Federation), decided to exclude Ghaem Maghami from his tournament. The next morning, Battesti sent the following text and video to different chess media:

The Iranian Grand Master Ehsan Maghami Ghaem informed me of his refusal to play against his opponent of the fourth round, the Israeli Fide Master Ehud Shachar. I told Mr. Ghaem Maghami that as an organizer of a sporting International competition, I could not accede to his request to change the pairings, for him to play against another player. The presence of five Israeli players in this tournament is known by all participants since Saturday, October 22. It honors our competition as well as the presence of Iranian players and about thirty other nationalities. The motto of our Federation is Gens una sumus, we develop in Corsica awareness of the positive aspects of chess sport on our youth, being complicity of any form of segregation would be unworthy, and in total contradiction with the foundations of our sport action. So regretfully I have to exclude the player who unfortunately has persisted in his choice, inspite of my imprecations. I regret it. But I could not escape from our responsibilities.

This is not a unique situation. Numerous times it has happened before, in individual tournaments and team competitions, that certain players or teams couldn't play against a certain opponent. One example that comes to mind is that in the 1990s, players from Croatia couldn't play against players from Bosnia, simply because the two countries were at war.

In his 2004 column #73 'An Arbiter's Notebook' (PDF here) for Chess Cafe, international arbiter Geurt Gijssen gave an early example:

First, I would like to mention what happened in 1939. The Chess Olympiad was organised in Buenos Aires. During this Olympiad, World War II began, and many countries refused to play against Germany. FIDE decided not to change the pairings but the results of the unplayed matches versus Germany and “Böhmen und Mähren” were 2-2. The last country was, as a matter of fact, the Czech Republic, which was occupied by the Germans. (...).

These days the situation often occurs when players of Israel are involved. In many sports, players from Arab countries cannot play against their rivals from Israel. In chess, a recent example occurred during the last Olympiad in Septemer 2010 Khanty-Mansiysk. Yemen didn't show up for their match against Israel, and lost 0-4 by default. Our co-editor and Israel-born IM Yochanan Afek has some experience too:

This happens all the time. For example, two years ago Sacha Kaplan encountered it in two different rounds in Biel, and won both games by default, but of course he couldn't score a norm this way. In fact I had the same situation with Mr Ghaem Maghami in the first round of a tournament at the Isle of Man! In my case they just changed the pairings.

In fact this is a much-used procedure: arbiters simply tend to change the pairings, so that a politically problematic situation will be avoided. Afek:

Arbiters normally avoid this in the first place. You can enter certain 'forbidden pairings' in the computer system. As long as you are consistent, it is accepted by FIDE. Experienced arbiters know this in advance. 

Alternatively, the opponent of the Israeli player loses by default, like with Jemen at the Olympiad and with Ghaem Maghami in Corsica. The fact that the Iranian grandmaster was excluded from the tourmament is remarkable. We spoke on the phone with Ghaem Maghami, who plans to travel back to Iran tomorrow.

Gaem MaghamiIt was something normal for me. Time to time it happens that I meet an Israeli player in the pairings. I want to emphasize that personally I don't have any bad relations with anyone from Israel. I respect people from all over the world and I understand very well that we are all sports men.

The fact that I was excluded from the tournament came unexpected. It may happen to anyone that he doesn't want to play a game, but will he be excluded immediately? I would have preferred a loss by default and continue the tournament. This makes the situation more complicated. It's not helpful for chess, or politics.

Chess is my main job and my hobby, I love it. I've played it for almost 22 years. So I'll continue playing tournaments and I just want to give the advice to organizers that we should try to avoid this problem in advance.

So the question remains whether Ghaem Maghami's exclusion by Léo Battesti was really necessary. Some of the top players in Corsica were upset, supported the Iranian grandmaster and tried to persuade the organizer. Yochanan Afek thinks differently:

My opinion is that I respect what Mr Battesti did, as much as I sympathize with the Iranian players and the impossible position they continuously find themselves in. At some point it has to stop; FIDE should take measures. It brutally violates Fide's sportmanship spirit, inserts dirty politics in pure sport and also causes damage, because often players miss chances for a norm after investing money to go abroad and sometimes it has also a direct effect on the final results of the event.

We'll return once more to Geurt Gijssen's 2004 column:

Geurt Gijssen(...) I think that it is better to change the pairings, if possible, and if the change does not affect the normal progress of the event. I know that it is easy to criticise me for my opinion, but let me explain the situation. There are governments who explicitly forbid the players of their country to play against players from a specific country. Let me emphasize that it is the governments that forbid it and that quite often the players have a different view. They would like to play, but they have no choice.

Well, the arbiter can decide not to change the pairings, but he knows in advance that one of the players will not show up and lose his game by forfeit. This is, of course, an unpleasant situation. Yet there is more – a game decided in this way, will not be counted for rating calculations, which is not a very serious problem, but it will also not be counted for a norm. It means, that, for instance in a 9 round tournament, both players do not have the possibility of making norms, because 9 games must be played to qualify for a norm. So both players suffer in such a case.

I hope that everybody agrees that changing the pairings is preferable. And I already know the next question – suppose two tournament leaders refuse to play each other before the last round, because one player is forbidden to by his government. What would you do in this case? Well, in such an exceptional case I would probably have no choice, but this case would be very exceptional.

Update 17:44 CET: After reading the article, Léo Battesti sent us the following reaction:

5 Israeli and 2 Irani were playing among 40 players of their levels. Could you imagine the numbers of forfeits... I have never been informed of his intention before this 4th round. If they had informed me before the open, I would have told them not to take part. It's a special open which qualifies the first 14th with 6,000 € of prizes. Could you imagine the consequences of arranged pairings on the sportive equilibrium of this qualification? So it will be a permanent position considering also, of course, that chess is a sport.

Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers


S3's picture

Bravo (again!) Léo Battesti!! When every organizer would act like this players and governments would be forced to drop these politics.
Gijssens collaboration is cynical, spineless, illogical and unethical.

Sander's picture

Oh get real! You think Ahmedinajad will change his policy of not playing Israeli's now after Battesti's action?
Gijssen's idea is more practical; try and prevent situations that create an impossible position for players like Ghaem who is just doing what he's told.

stevefraser's picture

Didn't Korchnoi defect from communist Russia because of their control of his chess life?

Septimus's picture

Fleeing is not always the solution. What becomes of his family? Perhaps he loves his country and would rather suffer in his homeland than be wrenched away from it?

Some of the comments here are rather ignorant of the ground realities Iranian sportsmen face. Things are not cut and dry when your family is threatened. Perhaps he received "orders" to conduct himself in a certain way? Who knows?

A tough situation overall. The organizers are right and did what they had to, just as the Iranian GM did what he had to (for the sake of his family/career).

S3's picture

Are you really unable to read? Like I said, every tournament organizer should act like this. When the whole world shows they that they condemn this, Iranian players and government will have no choice but change in order to play. And if they don't; then it's fine too for who needs such people. Either way, such incidents would be prevented in the end as well.

By the way. Why is the GM doing what he is told? It's not like he would get jailed if he didn't. As far as I know, there is not even proof that the Iranian governments forbids its citizens to play. Apparently you are one who thinks "Befelh ist Befehl".
In my opinion that is disgusting.

Bauerndiplom's picture

I would wish FIDE would be so consistent and had excluded Yemen after their first round default in Khanty-Mansiysk Olympiad 2010 .

Septimus's picture

Unfortunate situation on both sides. Can't fault the organizers for not wanting to let politics influence the outcome of the tournament. Likewise, the Iranian GM would probably be in hot water at home if he did play the Israelis. The guy has his family to worry about.

Shame on politicians for injecting their poison into this noble sport.

Nima's picture

Well said.

Axel's picture

I feel quite sorry for Iranian chess players. I guess at home they draw some suspicion anyway as chess is considered dubious by the mullahs anyway. So I think that they deserve some help by the international community. I also realize that there are problems to accommodate special requests in small tournaments. Overall the situations just makes me sad.

shiraz's picture

Ghaem is not Fischer who dare to challenge their country and playing for chess. it's a shame that such a player surrender their wooden' piece to the @$$ of their president.

Anon's picture

Ghaem surprised to be tossed out of the tournament? Well maybe Ghaem will reassess his political/symobolic move in the future. Not being banned in the past perpetuates such actions.

bhabatosh's picture

I don't think it is right to exclude him from the tournament. Everyone is aware of these type of situation and the score should be automatic loss for Iranian player and that's it. If this has never happened before in history I would agree with the decision. And someone mentioned here about the french chess scandal and so this guy is always in controversy. His integrity is questionable , for me this is more of racial decision. I am not a Muslim and also wanted to pointed out that majority of friends that I have don't like them. In this case my sympathy will be with the Iranian player even though I would never do such thing as this and nor do I support these refusal to play conditions but for me it means 1-0 not out of the tournament.

bhabatosh's picture

I don't think it is right to exclude him from the tournament. Everyone is aware of these type of situation and the score should be automatic loss for Iranian player and that's it. If this has never happened before in history I would agree with the decision. And someone mentioned here about the french chess scandal and so this guy is always in controversy. His integrity is questionable , for me this is more of racial decision. I am not a Muslim and also wanted to pointed out that majority of friends that I have don't like them. In this case my sympathy will be with the Iranian player even though I would never do such thing as this and nor do I support these refusal to play conditions but for me it means 1-0 not out of the tournament.

shiraz's picture

lots of people promote peace using chess, but this scandal use chess to promote his country policy. excluding him is a right choice to do not tolerate this kind of action. his decision not to play player from certain country is a racist itself, imo.

Szoker's picture

Excluding from the tournament is kind of extreme thing to do.

I think that giving a w.o or just changing the pairings (maybe the first is better) should do the trick.

Players themselves can do nothing against the politics of the entire country...

ebutaljib's picture

Don't know what all the fuss is about. The organisers made the right decision - if you don't want to play against someone then you won't play at all. Completely logical decision. I would make the same rulling in every such case. It is a sport competition, leave the politics outside.

blueofnoon's picture

So, all the kibitzers who agree with the arbiter's decision basically believe that Iranians should be excluded from all the international tournaments which could possibly have Israelis as participants?

Of course, the Iranian's act was not something to be praised, but on the other hand it was the only thing he could do, unless he was OK with being beheaded in public.

Those who are lucky enough to be born in "advanced and democratic" countries criticizing those who aren't, makes me feel vomit, to be honest.

Sander's picture

Couldn't agree more.
The conversation with GM Ghaem-arbiter must have gone as follows;
Ghaem: "If I play him I'll go to jail (at best), could you please select another opponent?"
Arbiter: " I don't care, even though I can easily change the pairings, instead I'm gonna blame you not wanting to go to jail by kicking you out if this tournament. Then I'm gonna show the chess world my decision and prove that I'm a big tough guy."

ebutaljib's picture

Who said they should be excluded? It is their decision not to play against certain opponents, so they are excluding themselves out.

If the people of Iran are not ok with their state politics, then maybe they should change it instead of going along with it. Or their sportsmen can change the country (it wouldn't be the first nor the last). Or simply don't sign up into a tournament with Israeli players.

There is always a choice.

S3's picture

I'm not surprised that one vomits when the mind is sick. What you are basically saying in your last sentence is that a citizenship in the Western world makes someone unqualified to form or state an opinion on a 2nd/3rd world country and it's politics or citizens, even if that opinion is based on basic human values like saying no to discrimination. I think that is plain wrong and postmodernistic nonsense.

As for the rest of your post, please note that "all the kibitzers who agree with the arbiter" DONT want all Iranians to be excluded from tournaments with Israeli's. We just want to exclude people who refuse to abide to rules set for all. Especially when their motivation is based on racist ideas. No exceptions and special rules as a reward for them!

As for this particular player, we are not sure whether or not this was the only thing he could do. I don't know if the state would have noticed him playing against an Israeli. Personally I doubt that they would fysically harm him or his family if he had played, but I might be wrong. In the end this doesn't matter for the tournament organization. They can't go along with these things and just cooperate with an act of discrimination. It would be preposterous to set aside ones own values in order to accomodate people with ridiculous requests/orders.
So, for anyone not racist it should be clear that this arbiter made the best decision. Excluding from the tournament is a signal that discrimination is not allowed and a nice incentive to change players and states actions...

In the end, most of us are not criticizing the GM, but praising the arbiter and condemning the Iranian discriminatory rules.

André Morais's picture

I believe that the organizers don´t have to be dogmatic in this matters and exclude the player. They should just decide a win by default for the israely player. The exclusion is like a computor decision, it´s not wrong per se, but it´s not the best solution.

Mr E's picture

Good job, Battesti! Politics shouldn't have anything to do with chess, and it's important to show that. What if Anand had been Iranian instead of Indian? Could he have refused to meet the Israelian Boris Gelfand in the World Championship Match? If there is a problem for the Iranian player in that he will face consequences at home if he plays the Israelis, then let it be. It shouldn't influence anything anyway, because chess is not politics. If he runs the risk of playing an Israelian player in a tournament, then he should not participate in that tournament. Why should we allow the bearded nut jobs in Teheran to influence chess tournaments in Europe? Sod them. Well done, Battesti!

Dick's picture

It might be that Maghami has no choice, because he will get in trouble in Iran. This is even worse. But of course, changing pairings is a dead end street. 1. you give in to political madness 2. there are a lot more conflicts imaginable, the list of forbidden pairings will grow fast. 3. that list can be used in tournaments to avoid certain opponents!
Just (let him) play the guy. This is chess and we play anybody, regardless race, sex, rating, whatever. Play or leave.

mr cat's picture

I can't believe that ANY Israeli player would agree to "change the pairings".
It is a disgrace and a very unwise idea. Players who refuse to play should get a nice FIDE ban of at least a year.

Stephen's picture

Why are the countries of the players even mentioned in non-team tournaments ? Doesn't the display of flags against the players' names incite this kind of nationalism ? If Ghaem doesn't have a personal problem with any Israeli then without flags and countries would his excuse for not playing be removed ?

Coco Loco's picture

A beautiful idea, and hopefully one that will at least be adopted at small elite tournaments - do we really need to think of Anand as "the Indian", Aronian "the Armenian," etc. (as if their countries somehow define them as people)? However, nationalism is an ingrained component of the modern human psyche, and it has mostly been a positive force in the last couple of centuries. Maybe it will diminish in importance in the future.

bronkenstein's picture

They really went too far by excluding him (not to mention not doing anything in advance to avoid already well known issue).

Organisers obviously decided to go the easiest way.

AlvaroFrota's picture


Organizers obviously decided to go the **political** way.

Cadfael's picture

I do not really understand the headlines. In my opinion the decision by Mr. Battesti is absolute correct, although the way he made his decision public might be questionable.

In the moment as Mr. Ghaem Maghami accepted to play in the tournament he accepted to compete with players from Israel and he agreed to play against players from Israel. In the moment as he entered the open tournament he agreed to play against any player in the tournament. If he is not willing to accept this, he might not play. Therefore the decision to exclude him from the event is consequent and by the way which Mr. Maghami should have chosen.

By the way, I think the opinion of Mr. Gijssen is pragmatic, but simply wrong. The current rules for swiss-pairing leave just one correct pairing. Even it is possible to exclude certain pairings – the rules are otherwise.

By the way again, I think any player knows in advance the rules of a tournament, the possible opponents and the schedule. If he can’t play against certain opponents, at certain times (maybe for religious reasons) or with certain clocks, he might not play at all. If tournament directors start to allow extras for certain players they simply sacrifice the serious sporting character of their event.

AlvaroFrota's picture

Thus, you "believe that Iranians should be excluded from all the international tournaments which could possibly have Israelis as participants"?

vips's picture

Yes and it is no big loss of the chess world that Iranian players cannot compete. How many in the top 100? Its not like the world is missing the next Fischer.

AlvaroFrota's picture

Thus, there is no big difference between your ideas and the ones of the mullahs..

S3's picture

You are making two mistakes here.

First of all: the organizers make the rules. Not the participants. It's not really strange when one excludes players who don't follow rules. As a consequence your comparison with him and the mullahs is pretty stupid. If your mollahs have other ideas they should start their own tournaments.

Secondly: Unlike what vips says, Iranians should not be excluded from all the international tournaments which could have Israelis participants. They should be excluded when they actually refuse to play and say that this is because of nationality issues. If they are forced by their government, they should just call in sick for the round or not particpate in the first place.

Alfonso's picture

If the Iranian Chess Federation endorses a politics of discrimination against the players of another country, it should be punished by the FIDE. This could include expulsion from the FIDE, removal of their players from the rating lists, and banning them all from official competitions. This is a lenguage any problem-causing bully can understand.

The same thing happened to South Africa in all sports during the 70's and 80's because of the apartheid, and everyone thought it was OK.

By definition, any unacceptable behaviour cannot be accepted.

Joe Fiasco's picture

I also wonder, if it would have been the other way round (an Israeli refusing to play an Iranian), I reckon we would have seen long texts of bashing criticism.
What we're seeing now is people trying to protect his decision and person, and some imbeciles even blaming the Israelis for it.

But hey, we're getting used to hear this nonsense.

sirschratz's picture
Guillaume's picture

Do you really think that this type of violent rant is a convincing way to defend a democracy?

It would certainly be better if chess had not been taken hostage for political battles, but Iran cannot be taken solely responsible for this. The simul chess record playground has recently been embraced wildly by both nations as if their future depended on it. Incidentally, Iran's Champion was no one else but GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami.

AlvaroFrota's picture

Hope you have the courage to do what you want that he does when not sitting behind a computer and been protected by an Internet Forum...

David's picture

Isn't this the same type of situation the Soviet players faced in the late 70's after Korchnoi and Alburt defected? The USSR forbid their players from playing the same tournaments. When they had no choice i.e. Olympiad (Karpov vs Alburt) and Candidates matches vs Korchnoi, the solution was to refuse to shake hands.

David's picture

Wish there was an edit button.

Not claiming that refusing to shale hands is a solution, just pointing out what happened historically with the Soviets.

Nick Faulks's picture

Every player who enters a tournament should agree that they will play against any opponent, whatever their race etc. If they don't like that, they don't enter.

Phil Y Csteak's picture

I thought the playing of chess was haraam...that would certainly make pairings easier.

blueofnoon's picture

OK, so let's get this straight.

GM Eshan Ghaem Maghami was born in Iran. This is not his fault.

His country forbids him from playing Israelis, or he will be harmed, so he has to follow what his government says to him, however irrational it is. Again, this is not his fault.

Suppose all the arbiters of open tournaments followed Mr. Battesti's path. Then GM Maghami would be effectively excluded from all the tournaments, since Israel is a strong chess force and you see Israeli players in almost every tournament.

I do not understand how GM Maghami is responsible for this scenario. As someone who believes in individualism, I believe the arbiter could have forfeited him a game, instead of excluding him from the tournament altogether.

Let me repeat, most of Iranians are not responsible for what the government is doing. Thanks.

Nick Faulks's picture

Sorry, but nothing you say changes my view. You play againt anyone without prejudice, or you don't play at all.

Ashish's picture

Yes, Maghami will be excluded. Sad for him. But better than the alternative - to condone his hateful actions! (Even if you say they are not entirely of his free will.)

blueofnoon's picture

Come on, Maghami has nothing against Israelis. He himself clearly stated that. He (probably) does not have any prejudice against players from Israel either.

The fact is, he is not God, but just a human, who needs to protect himself, just as we all do. He just had no alternatives, and I bet 99.99% of us would do the same thing in his shoes.

I am not suggesting Maghami is a saint, but excluding him from the tournament is going too far.

Cadfael's picture

I think it doesn’t matter if Mr. Maghami supports the boycott from Iranian players against Israeli intentionally or not. As a matter of fact – he does it. And the result for the opponent and the tournament is the same. His personal opinion is simply irrelevant if he do not follow his personal opinion. If the Iranian government do not allow him to play against Israeli’s – or players from other countries (the USA comes into mind) – it is his choice to handle the problem. If he accepted this he might think about another job, as indeed, without playing against Israeli players to make a living as a professional chess player is difficult.

I think, if we accept – in any sport – this form or comparable forms of boycott, we simply allow that sport is taking as a hostage for political or more serious hostilities. Therefore players - and teams - who are acting like Mr. Maghami in this case should be excluded from tournaments and events.

And finally, yes, it is quite easy to support such an opinion when sitting behind a screen in a free country (Germany in my case) and using a more or less anonymous handle. However, I think I’m right – even when I’m using a handle and despite I’m living in a free country.

S3's picture

So why didn't he say he was sick f.e.? Why did he say he did not want to play an Israeli? And where is your proof on Iran threatening it's sportsmen when playing Israelis? And since when did he have no alternative? He could have played several other tournaments without Israelis.
You are just condoning anti semitism.

Manu's picture

My opinion is that chess players should not consider themselves citizens of any country in particular , but pariahs of humanity as a whole.

AlvaroFrota's picture

I agree. But not pariahs. Humans Citizens or even Earth Citizens are a better definition.


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