How a Story on a Shady Russian Oligarch Came About
Journalist Pete Madden details how he reported and, finally, published an investigation into the former “king of chess.”
When journalist Pete Madden approached The Hatch Institute in 2015, he pitched an intriguing story involving a shady Russian oligarch, the brutal murder of a journalist who investigated him and the corruption of an international chess organization he ran for two decades.
The only thing it didn’t have? An outlet to help him give the story life.
Hatch’s editor-in-chief Brad Hamilton set out to assist Madden with this project, an ambitious undertaking that required a deep dive into Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and the Russian’s dark past. Over the next three years, there were false starts, frustrating delays, and many challenges -- all a part of long-form investigative work.
But on Oct. 4, Madden’s story, “Russia Made The King Of Chess. The U.S. Dethroned Him.” was published in a collaboration with ABC News and FiveThirtyEight.
Madden detailed the journey in a sitdown with The Hatch Institute’s managing editor, Scott Simone, talking about the digging that he and two other reporters, Patrick Reevell and Oliver Roeder, did to put it all together
Hatch: How'd you first come across this story, and why did you decide to pursue it?
Pete Madden: I first heard about Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in 2014, when I was still at Sports Illustrated, and it stuck with me as I moved to the investigative unit at ABC News. I wanted to know how someone like Ilyumzhinov — who served simultaneously as the president of a Russian region called Kalmykia and as the president of the World Chess Federation — could maintain control of the state and the sport for so long despite decades of damaging headlines. The answer not only shed light on the relationship between wealth and power in Russia but also provided a window into how the Kremlin views sports as a valuable tool for spreading influence around the world. It wasn’t an easy story to tell. We knew we had to do so deeply, or not at all.
What was the reporting process like?
I started gathering material and conducting interviews with guidance from Hamilton, and when I joined the investigative unit at ABC News, I teamed up with two talented colleagues — Reevell, an ABC News reporter based in Moscow, and Roeder, a FiveThirtyEight writer who frequently covers chess. Reevell conducted the interview with Ilyumzhinov and tracked down several other key sources in Russia; Roeder spoke to a number of chess insiders and top players; and I focused on obtaining documents and testimony from a variety of sources in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Collaborations can be complicated, but in this case, pooling our efforts helped us take the reporting to new heights.
What was the most important or illuminating part of the process?
Editing. I had been buried in the story for so many years that I think I had almost lost sight of what readers who aren’t familiar with chess would find interesting and important. It took the fresh eyes of my editors — ABC News’ Cindy Galli and FiveThirtyEight’s Chad Matlin — to keep the story tight. The cuts were painful, at times, but in the end, they made the story better.
Did you hit any snags in the reporting? If so, how did you overcome them?
I have been trying to find a way to tell this story for years. I got close a few times but kept running into roadblocks. Money. Logistics. A Trump-focused news cycle. I never doubted that there was a powerful story to tell, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find an outlet with the appetite to tell it. But over the last few years I pitched and promoted the story to what my colleagues would certainly describe as an irritating degree, and the persistence eventually paid off when we found in FiveThirtyEight an outlet eager to take the time, devote the resources and provide the real estate to do it right.