Will Israeli chess players make history in Saudi Arabia?

World Chess Federation pushing for Saudi Arabia to permit Israelis to participate in upcoming chess tournament in Riyadh.

Elad Benari,

Chess (illustration)
Chess (illustration)

Israeli chess players could make history by participating in a tournament in Saudi Arabia after the international chess governing body on Tuesday said it was pushing to allow it to happen, AFP reported.

A spokesman for the Israel Chess Federation told the news agency that seven players had filed requests for visas to participate in the games to be held in Riyadh on December 26-30 as part of the world rapid and blitz chess championships.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official relations, and the presence of Israelis there would be highly unusual, though the latest news comes as officials from Israel have been hinting at covert ties with the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Georgios Makropoulos, deputy president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), said on Tuesday that the papers of the seven Israeli chess players -- five men and two women -- had been handed to the Saudi organizers "and the visa status is currently pending."

"We are making a huge effort to assure that all players get their visas," Makropoulos said in a Tuesday statement quoted by AFP.

The Israeli chess federation said it "supports FIDE's policy to hold the tournament in Saudi alongside FIDE's commitment to ensure the participation of Israelis would not be subject to limitations," spokesman Lior Aizenberg told AFP.

"We expect the Saudis, aided by FIDE, to approve our requests for visas to play," he said.

Aizenberg noted the Israeli chess federation chairman Zvika Barkai had discussed the issue of the Saudi visas with Makropoulos as well as with FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who recently visited Israel.

A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said he didn't believe there would be a problem for the Israelis to participate in the Riyadh games if the visas were granted.

Israeli athletes often face difficulties when competing around the Middle East due to hostility toward their country.

Just last month, Israeli judokas who participated in a tournament in Abu Dhabi were barred from displaying their national symbols.

The head of the Judo Federation in the United Arab Emirates later apologized for a local athlete’s refusal to shake the hand of his Israeli opponent.

In a more recent incident, an Iranian wrestler was lauded by his government after he intentionally lost an international bout at a tournament in Poland over the weekend to avoid having to face an Israeli opponent.

Earlier this year, Iranian chess officials banned a 15-year-old from domestic chess tournaments and the national team after he played against an Israeli opponent at an international chess event.

In 2011, Iranian chessmaster Ehsan Ghaem Maghami was expelled from an international chess tournament after refusing to play an Israeli opponent.

Last year, an Iranian refused to compete against an Israeli at a chess tournament in Switzerland in order to reject the existence of "the Zionist state".

In 2014, the president of the Sudanese Chess Association resigned following a game of chess that took place against an Israeli player at the World Youth Chess Championships in South Africa.

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