Harika among women chess players targeted by sexually abusive mails

Indian Grandmaster Dronavalli Harika at the Grand Swiss tournament in Latvia FIDE

Indian Grandmaster Dronavalli Harika was the target of a sexually abusive mail while at a tournament in Latvia last November. Her revelation to ESPN comes days after it was reported that at least 15 female chess players had been the targets of a similar form of sexual harassment. It happened via anonymous mail - envelopes containing pornographic material sent to players in hotel rooms and tournaments - in a pattern that continued for over a decade, most recently at the Grand Swiss tournament in Latvia. The matter is now being investigated by the Latvian police, according to the world chess federation FIDE.

The initial revelations were made earlier this week by the Russian news site Meduza, which said it had carried out extensive investigations and spoken to many of the victims, most of whom were Russian. Five of them were minor when the abuse started, the report said. It said the first such letter it found was written in 2009. The most recent instance occurred last November in Riga, the Latvian capital, when hotel staff informed the police and, on FIDE's advice, intercepted further letters.

Harika, ranked 11 in the world, was the lone target of the five Indian female players at the tournament.

"The police asked me whether I wanted to open the envelope for myself and stay back in Riga to be a part of the investigations," she told ESPN. "Of course I was more than happy to not have anything to do with the envelope or its contents and signed a no-objection authorising FIDE to be a part of the investigation on my behalf. It was a really strange feeling. I didn't know what to make of the whole experience. Perhaps had I opened the envelope unknowingly, I would have reacted differently."

On hearing that Harika had been targeted, another player who'd been receiving such mail for several years reached out to her. "We chatted and she told me I shouldn't feel scared. She didn't have any fear despite receiving them for so long. It was almost as if she'd stopped caring about it and was numb to it." Apart from Harika, the other Indian players in Riga at the time were Padmini Rout, R Vaishali, Divya Deshmukh and Vantika Agarwal. "Most of us had no idea that something like this had been happening all these years," WGM Padmini told ESPN. "We were horrified when we heard of it for the first time after the closing ceremony in Riga. I remember feeling really scared. As a female chess player it makes you feel really vulnerable when you realise that some depraved psychopath can reach you anywhere, at your home, club and even at the tournament you're playing."

"Everyone was so shocked. No one had discussed it so I thought it was only me," GM Valentina Gunina, one of the players who received the letter in Riga, told chess.com. The Russian GM had received five such envelopes since 2013.

According to the Meduza report, the usual form of mail was in white envelopes containing pornographic material; there would be no written letter and they were sent out in identical fashion, the only change being recipient's addresses.

The players who've been receiving these letters, as per the Meduza report, include IM Bibisara Assaubayeva, IM Alina Bivol, IM Anastasia Bodnaruk, IM Anastasia Savina, WGM Daria Voit, WGM Dina Belenkaya, WIM Irina Utiatskaja, WIM Anna Styazhkina and GM Gunina.

Bibisara reportedly received her first envelope in 2018. She was 14 then and was playing in the European Chess Championship in Batumi, Georgia. The day after her first-round match an envelope arrived at her chess club in Moscow; it was opened by the head of the club, who alerted the police and Bibisara's mother, Liana Tanzharikova. In June 2018, Liana published a post titled "Postal Pedophile" on the chess website chess-news.ru, where she spoke about a letter from a "sexual maniac".

In their conversation with Meduza, representatives of the Russian Chess Federation (FSHR) and the Sports Chess Federation of St. Petersburg claimed that they hadn't heard of the envelopes in question and were quoted to have said that even if they did, "nothing could be done". "We are not Pinkertons", Meduza quoted them as saying, in a reference to the US detective agency.

While there is no confirmation of the identity of the perpetrator, Meduza said its investigations pointed - based on parallels seen by experts between the envelopes and online posts - to a chess player based in Latvia.