A Journey to Elista — (2)
On Buddhists, alien abduction and cheating in chess — and on the deadly danger of driving on the vast Kalmyk highway.
Rock Concert in the Park
One evening in Elista we were taken to a rock concert in the central park, and then to a gala dinner. On the final day on the trip back home I probably cheated death — a grandmaster friend was not so lucky.
The concert was held on an elevated stage. Thousands of people attending The band played guitars, keyboards, a violin and a sax.
Boris Grebenshchikov was the star. The Sanskrit inscription on his guitar reads “OM Namah Shivaaya” (“I bow to Lord Shiva”), a popular Yoga chant.
Grebenshchikov is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Russian rock music and, together with his band Åquarium, a household name in Russia. As a school boy he was enamored with the Beatles, and then moved on to a deep appreciation of Bob Dylan, whose influence could be felt in the rock concert we visited in Elista. His style is hard to define: “rock” is too crude and noisy, “folk” too bland, “electric blues” comes closer. At the gala dinner (see below) I asked him, and he replied with a wry smile: “Why don’t we just call it jazz?”
After the concert we were taking to a gala dinner in a very luxurious restaurant on the outskirts of Elista.
We were greeted by a bevy (a clutch?) of waitresses dressed in colorful Kalmykian costumes, as well as Buddhist monks and nuns who happily conversed with the guests.
Our host was the Šajin Lama Telo Tulku Rinpoche. After speaking to Telo Tulko, who is the highest ranked Buddhist Lama in Russia, I said: “Come on, you are American!” (I could tell by the accent and his fluent English). Indeed, he was born Erdne Ombadykow, to Kalmykian parents, in 1972 in Philadelphia, USA. When he was seven he was sent to a monastery in India to be trained as a Buddhist monk. In India the Dalai Lama recognized him as the current reincarnation of a Buddhist saint, Telo Rinpoche, who had lived many centuries earlier.
In 1991, under his new name, he joined the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Kalmykia, and became the country’s spiritual leader, the “Šajin Lama” (Supreme Lama). At the time, he did not speak the Kalmyk language, nor was he familiar with the nation’s culture. Frustrated, he left Kalmykia and moved to the United States. Laterl he decided to resume serving as Kalmykia’s spiritual head. “I renounced my monkhood but retained my title of Šajin Lama,” he told me cheerfully. “They can’t take that away from you.” Since then Telo has overseen the construction of several Buddhist temples. His wife and son continue to live in the US, where he periodically visits them.
After Boris Grebenshchikov and his entourage had left, Telo waved me over to his table, and I spent a very interesting hour discussing his beliefs, rituals, and religion in general. The great thing about Buddhists is that they are cheerfully open to skeptical discourse. Nothing is blasphemous, as I discovered at this memorable dinner with the top Lama. He even told me which of his hundreds of priestly vows he had broken. The only thing slightly weird was his explanation that the planet Venus, shining brighter in the dark Kalmyk skies than I have ever seen it do elsewhere, was “made by human beings.” The thing is over four billion years old, Talo. Maybe I did not understand his point on this matter.
This is a final group photo, with his holiness the Šajin Lama imitating rock star Grebenshchikov.
What a day, what an evening! It is something you will never forget.
During the two weeks I spent in Elista, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was not present. He was away attending to political affairs — maybe playing chess against Muammar al-Gaddafi, or discussing policies with Vladimir Putin? No, wait, these pictures are from a few years later.
In any case Ilyumzhinov returned to the venue of the Chess Candidates tournament just in time for the closing ceremony.
After the closing ceremony Iljyumzhinov spent the evening until after midnight in his office in the central building, receiving visitors, who were lined up to meet and chat with him.
When it was my turn I saw an exhausted Ilyumzhinov and said: “You are too tired to do an interview now, Kirsan! Maybe later.” He was grateful for this and asked when I was scheduled to leave. I told him it the day after tomorrow.
The next morning, unannounced, I was picked up in a shiny white Rolls-Royce, with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in it. “Let me show you Elista,” he said. We were accompanied by a security car.
During the ride I could not resist: “Kirsan, you say you were abducted by intergalactic aliens?” It’s a story he was know for. “Absolutely,” he replied, and went on to graphically describe his experience: “They took me from my apartment, from my bedroom, onto an interplanetary spaceship. They were wearing yellow spacesuits, and since I had difficulty breathing they gave me a spacesuit as well. The ship was very big, absolutely enormous, with cabins the size of football fields. We travelled through space and landed on a planet around a distant star. I don’t know what they wanted. I asked them to take me back to Earth because I had to open a tournament. They brought me back, into my bedroom, and soon everything returned to normal.”
I laughed dutifully and said “You are joking, right?” But Ilyumzhinov clearly meant everything he said. “It’s known as a dream, Kirsan,” I said, “I sometimes have one myself.” But he looked at me straight in the eyes and said “No, it was completely real, just like you and me sitting here in this car.” And while saying this he reached over and pinched me hard in the arm.
In the end I said: “Okay, believe whatever you want, but I have some advice for you: stop telling the press about it. Nobody will believe you. They will just laugh.” He promised to follow my advice, but a week or two later broke the promise with a vivid alien abduction interview on Russian TV.
Our first stop on the drive around Elista was at the spectacular Buddhist temple that Ilyumzhinov had opened two years earlier. The above picture is by Vladimir Mulder and better than any I took at the time. On this Russian Travel Blog page you can read all about the temple, which is called “The Golden Abode of Shakyamuni Buddha” and is one of the largest in Europe.
Inside we were greeted by a number of affable Buddhist monks, with whom I got into a vigorous debate on philosophy and religion. It was quite adversarial, but also full of humour. At some stage an Ilyumzhinov aide told him it was time to leave, but Kirsan, who was watching us, said: “No, let him discuss with the monks. It is important.”
Next stop was at the Buddhist “Pagoda of Seven Days,” on Lenin Square in the middle of the city. At night it is beautifully lit up, and people play chess in front of it.
After visiting of the pagoda Kirsan took me to the home of his parents, where we sat together in a gazebo for lunch and snacks.
The parents showed great friendship and hospitality, and sat around patiently while Kirsan and I spent a number of hours discussing the problems (and opportunities) that the chess world faced.
One important subject was cheating. I told Kirsan this would become a major problem as computers became stronger than human players. There were so many ways you could give human chess players electronic help during a game. And I described a first partial solution I had to offer: delay the live Internet broadcast of important tournaments by fifteen minutes. That way it became more difficult for anyone to get move suggestions from external computers in remote places in real time. “But they can have someone giving the computer operator the moves by mobile phone!” he said. “That is great,” I replied. “If someone is exiting the playing venue after every move to make phone calls, we can easily catch him.”
After a while Kirsan picked up his phone and called the FIDE office, describing my proposal in detail. “We’ll have it done immediately!” he said to me. It never happened, of course — too much opposition from his colleagues and many “experts”.
I should mention that this solution is no longer viable: you can cheat with a regular smartphone located at the venue. These things are now stronger than any human player, and in addition have WiFi and Bluetooth. I have described one way it can be, and most likely was done in my report “The shoe assistant.” And if you are interested you can read about some reactions to my proposal in this article from 2011: Anti-cheating: the fifteen minute broadcast delay. One influential journalist, who decidedly rejected it, wrote: “During a visit to Elista in 2007, Mr. Friedel tried to convince Mr. Ilyumzhinov of the need to adopt the 15-minute delay. At the end of a cosy afternoon with tea and snacks in the Ilyumzhinov family garden, the FIDE president jumped up and enthusiastically exclaimed ‘Let’s do it!’ That was reassuring, but of course nothing ever happened.” I’ve written extensively about cheating in chess (index at the end of this article). It remains a major problem.
Before dropping me back to my cottage in City-Chess Kirsan wanted to show me one more thing: the soccer stadium he had recently built.
“Take a look at this: artificial turf, but so realistic…”
The road to Volgograd — a final tragedy
The day after the presidential tour of Elista I set out on my journey back home. A driver picked me up from my cottage at six a.m., to take me to the airport in Volgograd, where I would catch the flight to Moscow, Riga and Hamburg.
The trip from Elista to Volgograd consists of a three-hour drive on the M-6, after which you spend an hour navigating the city to get to the airport. The first part of the drive was quite harrowing: the driver was speeding like his life depended on it. “Why are you driving so fast?” I asked, “This is not a grand prix. We have plenty of time to reach the airport.” His reply: “Road is straight, is safe.”
The real reason for his hurry was that he knew there would be horrific traffic in Volgograd. Apart from that he was not sure of the exact location of the airport. In fact, he stopped a number of times to ask for directions.
The road from Elista to Volgograd traverses the southern Volga steppe. We arrived at the airport in good time, and I got back home safely.
During the Candidates Finals I often saw Max Sorokin (dark blue shirt in the above picture, taken on June 9th, 2007), mainly in the City Chess restaurant, and enjoyed chatting with this learned and humourous chess grandmaster.
A week after I had returned home I got the news: on his way from the Kalmykian capital to the airport in Volgograd, his car — the same car I had travelled in, a day earlier than him — with the same driver, on the same road, had been involved in a traffic accident. Max Sorokin was taken to hospital and diagnosed as having non-life threatening injuries. But a week later, just as he seemed on the path to recovery, he suddenly passed away.
A colleague, grandmaster Ruslan Scherbakov wrote about Max: “His erudition was almost legendary among his friends — it seemed that he knew everything, be it mathematics, medicine or foreign languages. He was a very generous person, who was ready to help any moment. Someone told me: “I get up in the morning — Max is already analysing something. Either he always got up earlier than me — or he never went to bed!” R.I.P. Max.