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Saudi Arabia bars Israel from taking part in chess championship

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Riyadh has refused to issue visas for Israeli players who were expected to take part in a Saudi-hosted chess tournament, the World Chess Federation said. Israel says it is considering a response.

The speed chess tournament, named after King Salman, will see “the world’s highest IQs and greatest chess players compete,” an ad from the Saudi Center for International Communication (CIC) says. It does not mention that Israeli players have been left out of the elite club.

The event scheduled for December 26-30 has been mired in controversy from the very start. In mid-November, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) already warned that there “may be problems for players from certain countries” with obtaining visas for the tournament.

At that time, FIDE said that it had “not been advised that any player will not be able to participate.” It also said that it was working with the organizers to “ensure that visas will be issued to all players who have confirmed their participation.”

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On Sunday, however, FIDE Vice President Israel Gelfer confirmed to journalists in Athens that visas for seven Israeli players who planned to take part in the competition “have not been issued and will not be issued.” At the same time, he said that the tournament would go on as planned.

Israeli Chess Federation Spokesman Lior Aizenberg told Reuters on Sunday that efforts are still being made to ensure the Israelis’ participation. “The event is not a world championship if they prevent chess players from several countries from taking part,” he said.

The CIC only said that more than 180 players will take part in the championship, which will involve competitions between men and between women. It did not comment on the exclusion of any countries. However, Reuters reports that Qatari players fear their visa applications could be rejected.

“Every chess player should have the right to participate in an event on the basis of professional criteria, regardless of their passports, their place of issue or the stamps they bear,” Aizenberg said. He also called on FIDE to ensure that Israeli players can compete in the international championship, and said that the Israeli Federation was already working on a response, which could involve legal action as well as holding a separate international competition for players rejected by the Saudis in Israel.

In the meantime, the Saudi championship is already marked by an achievement which both FIDE and CIC call “historic.” FIDE managed to strike an agreement with the organizers, by which female participants will not have to wear a hijab or an abaya during the event – for the first time for any sporting event in the ultraconservative Kingdom.

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