HomeLearn to Play ChessImprove Your GameChess HistoryChess for FunChess Blog

Catching Up with Kasparov
Garry Kasparov at 45

(April 2008) No one catches up with Garry Kasparov. In our 2003 tribute, on the occasion of his 40th birthday, we guessed, 'He is certain to play a leading role in the chess world for many years to come.' (see 'Garry Kasparov : 13th World Champion' on the sidebar). We were right for the wrong reasons. Five years later, it's time to catch up with the greatest living chess player, who has packed more living into that five year period than most other people pack into a lifetime.

In the year 2003, when we last looked at his chess career, Kasparov was grabbing headlines with two high profile man-machine matches against strong computers: six games against Deep Junior in January and four games against X3D Fritz in November. Both matches were drawn. That same year saw the release of 'Game over: Kasparov and the Machine', a documentary by Vikram Jayanti on the 1997 man-machine match lost by Kasparov against IBM's Deep Blue. Kasparov was the non-FIDE World Champion at the time of the match and has never accepted that Deep Blue won by any other means than foul play.

June 2003 saw the publication of 'My Great Predecessors Part I', covering the first four World Champions, Steinitz through Alekhine. It was followed the same year by 'Part II', Euwe through Tal. The landmark series, destined to be a classic before it was published, covers the history of each of the first 12 undisputed World Champions through a selection of deeply annotated games and a discussion of important turning points in the players' careers.

Despite his critical and commercial success as an author, all was not rosy in Kasparov's world. After losing his non-FIDE World Champion title to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000, and then finding Kramnik unwilling to arrange a rematch, Kasparov had been pinning his chess future on the outcome of a title reunification plan begun in 2002.

A key component in the reunification process was a match against FIDE World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov of the Ukraine. In August 2003, not long after it was reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma would attend the opening ceremony to make the first moves for their compatriots, the match collapsed through no fault of Kasparov's.

FIDE arranged a competition in 2004 with the objective of replacing Ponomariov as FIDE World Champion. This time the title was won by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, a little known player from Uzbekistan. FIDE announced that the Kasparov - Kasimdzhanov would take place at the beginning of 2005, but this collapsed in December 2004.

Kasparov had had enough. In January 2005, he announced his exit from the World Championship cycle.

As for unification, I cannot see an avenue to contribute further. For those who saw me as an obstacle, I will be one no longer. I am not giving up on chess. I will compete as well and as long as I am able to play my brand of chess. I will continue to serve chess and those who love our game. I have now held the no.1 ranking for 20 years and I will defend my position against any opponent. My only retreat is from the battlefield of chess championship politics.

His vow to 'compete as well and as long as I am able to play my brand of chess' lasted less than two months. In March, after winning the annual Linares super grandmaster tournament, and still ranked world no.1, he announced his retirement from professional chess.

It could come as a surprise to many of you. But before this tournament I made a conscious decision that Linares 2005 will be my last professional tournament, and today I played my last professional game. [...] I may play some chess for fun, but it will no longer be professional competitive chess.

Instead of playing professional chess, he intended to finish the 'My Great Predecessors' series, to work on a new book titled 'How Life Imitates Chess', and to 'devote a certain amount of time to Russian politics, as every decent person should do, who opposes the dictator Vladimir Putin'.

Already back in December 2003, on a trip to Denmark, Kasparov had criticized Putin publicly; 'Russia is rapidly turning into a police state. Every week and every month adds more power into President Putin’s hands. Let’s not forget that he was a KGB officer -- and we say there are no ex-KGB officers. He doesn’t know any better, he believes that the country needs, if not a dictatorship, at least a very strong hand, an iron fist.'

Shortly afterwards, he joined other prominent Russian personalities in announcing the formation of 'Committee 2008: Free Choice'. The objective of the movement was to bypass the 2004 election, which Putin was expected to win easily, and oppose him in the 2008 election. Kasparov, as chairman of Committee 2008, continued to speak out against Putin throughout 2004.

After his retirement from chess in 2005, Kasparov's criticism of Putin reached new heights. The Wall Street Journal, a conservative bastion of American capitalism, had always been one of his favorite soapboxes. He again used it to explain his ambitions.

My retirement from chess is not about running for president or any other higher office, although I am not prepared to rule anything out. It is about opposing our authoritarian regime and bringing positive change. There are millions like me in Russia who want a free press, rule of law and fair elections. My new job is to fight for those people and to fight for those things.

Not all of 'those millions of people like me' appreciated his concerns for their political well-being. A month after his chess retirement, meeting in Moscow with a group of youth activists, he was hit over the head with a chessboard and injured. He began traveling with personal bodyguards.

At first Kasparov's opposition to Putin was most visible in his support for billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, The oil oligarch, former CEO of the company Yukos, was on trial in Moscow for fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement. In May, at a rally in support of Khodorkovsky, police detained 28 people and beat Kasparov with their batons.

Political action continued, as did work on the books. 'Predecessors Part III', on Spassky and Petrosian, had appeared in November 2004; 'Part IV', on Fischer, in January 2005; and 'Part V', on Karpov, in January 2006. The concept was expanded to include more volumes. The first, titled 'Revolution in the 70's (Modern Chess)', an account of the evolution of modern opening theory, appeared in March 2007. It was shortly followed by the very successful 'How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom'.

Except for the books, Kasparov's chess appearances were rare. In August 2006, he played with Karpov, Korchnoi and J.Polgar at the Credit Suisse Blitz, a one day event in Zurich. He also surfaced to comment on the Kramnik - Topalov unification match (dubbed 'Toiletgate' by the press) in September.

Russia has long been a dangerous place to advocate opposition to authority. In March 2006, Kasparov's aide Marina Litvinovich, was beaten as she was leaving her office in Moscow. Two murders, unrelated to Kasparov's cause, that captured international attention were the shooting of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October, and the poisoning of security agent Alexander Litvinenko in November.

Starting in 2006, Kasparov's displays of civil disobedience, now with the 'United Civil (Civic) Front', became bolder and more strident. In July, his response to Russia's hosting of a G8 summit in St. Petersburg, was to organize a 'Different Russia' summit just days before in Moscow. In December, he led an anti-government rally in Moscow, drawing 2000 protesters. Another 5000 people turned up for a rally in March 2007, where they were confronted by 3000 riot police. A month later Kasparov was detained during another demonstration in Moscow, where 9000 police had been mobilized. He was released later the same day. In May, he was prevented from traveling to Samara (Russia) for a political demonstration timed to coincide with a summit between Russia and the European Union.

At the same time he was making international headlines for his political activities, his views were capturing attention in mainstream American media. In April 2007, he was named by Time magazine to its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In September, he talked to Steve Kroft on a CBS '60 Minutes' segment titled 'The Match Of His Life'. October saw Kasparov appearances opposite HBO's Bill Maher, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews. [Matthews: Is Russia a free country? Can you speak out against the president when you want to? Kasparov: Yes, on US television.]

Back in Russia, political opposition, including the 'United Civil Front', had morphed into an anti-government alliance called 'Other Russia'. In September, the group chose Kasparov over former premier Mikhail Kasyanov as their candidate for the 2008 presidential elections. A few weeks later, the Central Election Commission declined to register the Other Russia candidates for the December parliamentary elections, on the grounds that it was not registered as a political party.

Near the end of November, at a rally in Moscow gathering 3000 protesters, Kasparov was arrested. This time he was jailed for five days, but got out in time to spoil his ballot in protest against the parliamentary elections. Putin's party nevertheless won 64% of the votes in elections for the Duma, the lower house of parliament. A few days later Putin announced that his hand-picked successor as President, Dmitri Medvedev, would in turn ask Putin stay on as prime minister. Almost simultaneously, Kasparov ended his bid for the Russian Presidency accusing authorities of preventing his party from holding a nominating conference. When the election was finally held in March, Medvedev won 70% of the vote.

Since dropping out of the election, Kasparov has been maintaining a low profile. He was interviewed widely in January 2008, after Bobby Fischer, the greatest of his 12 predecessors, died in Iceland at age 64. Somewhat oddly, the two men never met.

What will the 13th World Champion be doing over the next five years? We imagine that even Kasparov would have trouble answering that. Whatever it is, it will capture the attention of his many fans, chess or otherwise.

 Suggested Reading (* = offsite)
• Garry Kasparov : 13th World Chess Champion (*)
• The Best of Chess Informant - Garry Kasparov
• 'Game Over' : Did IBM Cheat Kasparov? (*)
 Kasparov's Art
• Every Move Explained : 1981 Tilburg, Kasparov vs. Andersson
• Walk Through Korchnoi - Kasparov, Olympiad, Lucerne 1982
• Kasparov - X3D Fritz, New York, 2003
 World Chess Championship
• FIDE World Championship (1948-1990)
• The Schism: Two World Champions (1993-1996)
• The Saga of Chess Unification (1994-2006)