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


Tarjei's picture

It's important to note that Maghami does not really have a choice in situations like this. Knowing he had faced an Israelian, he would most likely get in serious trouble once returning to Iran. I think he couldn't play an Israelian even if he wanted to.

ChessVibes: This word verification is incredibly annoying. I'm sure you get a lot less comments from it. Why don't you use Akismet instead? Should get rid of at least 99 % of the spam.

Peter Doggers's picture

Word verification shouldn't appear in the first place, and so far we haven't figured out why it does. We'll continue to do research on this matter!

Hughbertie's picture
Peter Doggers's picture

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.

Vipin's picture

Couldn't agree more with Mr Battesti. Good Job.

sligunner's picture

Should have been thrown out of the tournament, and banned from FIDE events for three years.

sligunner's picture

Misread article! Well done to the organisers. Now over to FIDE (don't hold your bearth)

Nicholas's picture

I totally agree with Mister Battesti point of view. Someone who doesn't respect the FIDE motto, has nothing to do in such tournaments.

Arne Moll's picture

Why don't people who prefer not to play others (for whatever reason) simply resign on move 1? They wouldn't even have to give a reason for doing so. Just sign the scoresheet and wait for the next round. It won't win them the sportsmanship of the year award, but neither does burdening the arbiter with political opinions that have nothing to do with chess.



Nima's picture

You miss the political (thus illogical) nature of the situation Arne. This is not about practicality. By simply sitting down at the board, GM Ghaem Maghami could face serious trouble when back in Iran. The Iranian government expects it sportsmen and women to refuse to compete with those from Israel. Failure to do so would be costly for the Iranian player. S/he would most likely be expelled from the national federation, refused exit visas for future international tournaments and face other forms of harassment. The authorities could ruin their lives.

Arne Moll's picture

But why would he be forced to sit down at the board? As I wrote, he could just sign the scoresheet without making a move. It would still be impolite, of course, but so is asking for another opponent.

Nima's picture

Because he whole thing is supposed to be symbolic, extracting support from citizens for the stance of an authoritarian regime. He is not expected to resign, but to make a statement by refusing to play.

WARGOD's picture

There is a large distinction between forfeiting voluntarily and accepting a loss, rather than sidestepping the encounter and its possible outcomes by avoiding any interaction to begin with.

Knighk's picture

The act of sitting across the board of the player that your government prohibits you to play is simply too big deal to do. Its pretty dangerous for for both players to do that. The Iranian GM made a sacrifice. The other party accepted it. Unfortunately GM Maghami was just too optimistic about his position and miscalculated things and did not consider the other variation: he was thrown out.

Guillaume's picture

Given how Leo Battesti pathetically mishandled the cheating accusations of French players not so long ago, the emergence of this unnecessary scandal is unfortunately hardly surprising.

hatsekidosie's picture

I am surprised that pairings are sometimes changed. What if Bobby Fischer had never played the Russians because of politics? Sports and politics should not be mixed. Let the pieces speak and shake hands afterwards. I understand that these minor chess players are lesser gods than Fischer, but class should not be the guideline here.

bla~'s picture

@hatsekidosie - Ghaem Maghami did not play, because otherwise he would have been punished by his government!! So he had no other choice... :(

ebutaljib's picture

Croatia and Bosnia were never in war.

R.Mutt's picture

If "gens una sumus" is such an important principle, isn't it a good thing if players from the apartheid state are boycotted?

Eran's picture

"If "gens una sumus" is such an important principle, isn't it a good thing if players from the apartheid state are boycotted?"

They would, IF it were an apartheid state. Uninformed opinion doesn't make it so.

R.Mutt's picture

There's no opinion in the statement that Israel practices apartheid - it's simply fact. If streets and roads are prohibited to Arabs, like the inner city of Hebron or the "bypass roads", this is the correct word.

Joe Fiasco's picture

First of all, FIDE isn't supposed to boycot anyone, except the boycotters of others. Gens una Sumus entails opposition of intolerance, not encouragement of it.

Israel is an enormous addition to the professional sport, and is, considering its size, one of the top nations in chess. Anand's contender for the next World Championship is Gelfand, Israel's best player.

Also, considering FIDE's head was still playing around with the now-lynched ex-dictator in Libya, I would keep quiet on so-called 'apartheid states' and speak no ill of the only democracy in the Middle East.

stevefraser's picture

I agree.

R.Mutt's picture

We cannot criticize Israel because Ilyumzhinov is an idiot? What kind of logic is that?

To call Israel a democracy is a bad joke; a country that occupies another people for 40 years and disallows them the most basic human rights is not a democracy. It's like saying apartheid South Africa was a democracy because White people had rights.

Joe Fiasco's picture

Of course you can criticize Israel, but do so in an educated way, not with the ignorant words spewn from propagandized media.

To call israel an 'apartheid state' is not only wrong and deceiving, but indirectly mitigates the fate of the real apartheid victims in South Africa.
Israel gives full rights to its Arab citizens. You have Israeli Arabs who are judges (even on the Supreme Court), generals, doctors. A former Miss Israel is Arab and Arab profesors are free to criticize the state in Israeli universities. In any case, they have FAR more rights than they do in any Arab country. It's not a coincidence that should a Palestinian state be created, most Israeli Arabs would prefer staying in the Jewish state (as a recent international poll shows).

To deny that means you have either never been to Israel, know nothing about Israel, have no idea what Apartheid was like in South Africa or you are a plain bigot. Have your pick.

R.Mutt's picture

You're being deliberately obtuse. The apartheid comparisons apply to the occupied West Bank, where Israel builds towns and roads for settlers only, locking the local Arabs out.

AlvaroFrota's picture

Your ideological speech is just the contrary of "Gens una Sumus" as you only consider "Gens" whom supports Israel...

Joe Fiasco's picture

Your short, rather illiterate, speech shows you have not fathomed a single aspect of what I have said.

'Gens una Sumus' means 'we are all one people. This is a call for sportsmanship and tolerance, and has nothing to do with supporting certain causes or countries.

For what it's worth, I do not think it was right to throw the Iranian player out of the tournament (as it really is not his fault, at heart). But a forfeit should have been well enough.

VOLODYA's picture

Israel has a good chess school, sure, but please, an "enormous addition to the professional sport"?? Look at the the israeli national team!! They are all former soviets....absolutely all of them!! No exception, althoug I admit that Maxim Rodshtein went to Israel when he was just a child. So it is easy to be a medal contender in teams events. Armenia is still smaller than Israel and ALL players are really armenians. This is an enormous addition to the professional sport!!

Pyotr's picture

Correct decision by Mr Battesti. We should give more respect to the spirit of chess and sport, and give less respect to the supposed 'right' of governments to use players as their political puppets.

Suppose that I come from a country which thinks women should not be involved in sporting activities. Would you change my pairings and allow my government to butcher the very values the game of chess stands for?

Steve Giddins's picture
Alvaro Frota's picture


Nima's picture

Interesting! I hadn't thought of it that way.

Ashish's picture

Steve - I can't believe you are seriously suggesting that the arbiter should kowtow to the blatantly anti-Semitic demand by the Iranian player! What will we tolerate next? "I'm scared to play against the black man." "Don't pair me against the gay guy!" "No Muslims!!"

I get that the fault here is with the Govt. of Iran, and not the Iranian GM himself. But that's no reason at all for us to condone or accomodate his actions.

And that's even before considering that so many (most?) of the chess greats throughout history have been Jewish. Maybe Iran should focus some other sport. This is disgusting.

adam's picture

you have a point there. i understand that in certain countries you risk to face serious troubles in case should you do no more than sit down against a player from some other, but seriously, where does this end, what kind of politics/hatred justifies your actions?! i don't want to play againts women, religious people, left-handed ones, those with bad breath or anyone from this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_slurs??
this is a (mind) sport where mutual respect should count as one of the most important part of the business (and leave for a moment fide and its questionable president out). and i do mean this to be considered by top-level players as well (see, e.g., current world no. 3-5, 7 and 17 among others...)

Vips's picture

Completely pointless drivel. Yes lets the mullah led tin pot govt keep dictating the terms without punishing them. Iranian govt officials also do not shake hand with women, so I suppose we should follow Topa-Kramnik rule for Iranian players if they ever have to play women?

AlvaroFrota's picture

The Iranian chess player is not a mullah at all. By punishing him with the ideological speech that "we need to stop the mullah" the organizers had the same hated attitude of the Iranian Government.

Frits Fritschy's picture

I'm not an expert on jewish orthodoxy, but as far as I know refusing to shake hands with an unrelated woman is not uncommon for orthodox male jews either. People sometimes have more in common than they would like to know.

Kevin Goh's picture

Thoroughly agree with this.

Many of you are missing the point here. What Steve means is that this could have been avoided in the first place and all within the rules. The forbidden pairings, though undesirable, would have achieved a much fairer result than what happened here. The organisers should have thought of this when they invited players from both countries. Sure, you may argue that this is against the spirit of sport but why should players be penalised because of the actions of their government?

Thomas's picture

What makes you (and Steve Giddins) think that the organizers invited players from both countries? This is an open tournament where anyone can participate. The only way to avoid such a situation before the tournament would be to reject players from Israel once Iranis signed up, or the other way around. First I wonder if these is even possible (as a matter of fact, could Battesti prevent Feller from playing in this event?). Second IMO this would be an even bigger scandal.
During the tournament, pairings could be manipulated. But how far could this go? What if the Irani government decides that their players must boycot Jews from any country, US-Americans, ... ? I guess the intention of the rule is rather that organizers can (try to) avoid pairings between players that are very close to each other, e.g. husband and wife or players from the same club travelling many miles to attend a tournament abroad

Anthony 's picture


Great stuff!

Nicholas's picture


One reason could be: if you play the game and give up on move 1, you lose FIDE points.

Raul's picture


If you resign on move 1 without actually playing any move you don't lose rating points, you lose by forfeit. FIDE rules are very clear, without a move you are not "in" the game.

rivaldo's picture

In my view Battesti's solution was the only correct one. The situation is sad for Ghaem Maghami of course. But still this way is better than to let dictatorial Governments have an influence on chess tournaments, how small it may be.

Anthony 's picture

well, since more and more people seem to think Israel has degenerated into a pariah state, this problem will probably get worse.

yeb's picture

And no one has a problem with Iran? Their hostile and abusive actions toward Israel and their own citizens (and sportsmen) should not be accommodated and legitimized in the international sports arena (or anywhere else).

Anthony's picture


I thought Israel was the one with a few hundred nuclear warheads and an atrocious track record in Palestine.

Iran has not attacked any nation in centuries.

They have, however, witnessed first hand what 'huminatarian interventions' against 'authoritarian governments' transpired to mean for their neighbors.

Although there is, to my knowledge, no proof the Iranians are doing anything but developing nuclear power for peaceful means, it's hard to blame them if they created a few nukes just to be on the safe side when the great humanitarians of Nato and Israel decide they'd like to have a go at Teheran too.

pat j's picture

someone should explain to the gm that a person is not the same thing as a government. he should be able to understand that idea.

AlvaroFrota's picture

someone should explain to the organizers (and to you) that a person is not the same thing as a government. they should be able to understand that idea.

AlvaroFrota's picture

... but i think that you should not...


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