Anna Muzychuk currently holds two world chess titles, but is about to lose both over a protest about where the championships are held this year. That would be Saudi Arabia, and the 27-year-old Muzychuk (who holds titles in both rapid and blitz chess, which have time limits of 15 and 10 minutes for all your moves respectively) and her sister Mariya both refused to travel to the country in protest of Saudi Arabia’s rules for women. Here’s the statement Muzychuk posted on Facebook:
As Ed Malyon writes in The Independent, this is only part of the controversy around holding these championships in Saudi Arabia. The country reportedly paid $1.5 million U.S. to host the tournament, four times the normal fee, and that’s led to a lot of extra prize money. But there are issues with how women are being asked to dress, even if that’s somewhat looser than the typical Saudi rules (allowing formal pants and high-necked blouses instead of long robes called abayas), and there are issues with clerics’ comments on chess overall and with certain foreign players being denied visas.
The very fact that this country is hosting a world chess tournament for the first time is controversial domestically as it comes two years after the country’s top cleric issued a religious edict against playing the board game. Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said in early 2016 that chess is “forbidden” in Islam because it wastes time and can lead to rivalry among players. Similarly, top Iranian clerics have also decried the game, saying it can lead to gambling, which is banned in Islam.
Then there are the political issues, with countries that are currently geo-political rivals of the Kingdom complaining they have not received visas to enter the country and compete.
Israelis say Saudi Arabia ignored requests by Israeli players to obtain visas to participate in the tournament, perhaps unsurprising given that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations. But Qatar and Iran have reported similar grievances. While the top three male players are all travelling for the tournament, many will be missing and the women’s competition is still reeling from Muzychuk’s withdrawal on Tuesday.
So there are plenty of top players who will be missing these championships, but Muzychuk’s withdrawal still stands out. It’s certainly quite the stand for her to decline to defend her title over Saudi Arabia’s rules for women, and she’s missing out on both a title defense and a lot of prize money as a result.