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2002-03 Unification


Garry Kasparov on "Fresh Start" and Professional Chess
"Compromises will be found, but now I must wait"
By Garry Kasparov

[Mig Greengard spent the weekend with Garry Kasparov in New York as Kasparov prepared his response to GM Yasser Seirawan's "Fresh Start" article. All text in quotes is from Kasparov, other comments are from Mig. -ed.]

I was a little worried when Garry Kasparov told me to come by the next day with my tape recorder to talk about the history of professional chess. So, I imagined, a lengthy discourse on why nothing bad in the chess world since 1985, when he rose to power on and off the board, had been his fault. In his 'Fresh Start' article Yasser Seirawan had taken issue with some of Kasparov's earlier statements on the history of the Grandmaster Association (GMA) and it was almost a sure thing Kasparov was going to return fire. A pleasant night of Chinese food eaten in an atmosphere of triumph after Kasparov's win in Linares seemed in danger of turning into an afternoon of recrimination.

My little Sony recorder had only been rolling for three minutes when it was clear I had completely misjudged the position. Kasparov was as prepared for this conversation as for the black side of the Najdorf, and he hit with a trademark novelty. 'I would like to create a public record of the way things happened so the players today can see what happened then and learn from our mistakes. They are in danger of reinventing the bicycle. It will only be my perspective and I am sure others remember things differently.'

First, Kasparov addressed the 'Fresh Start' section of Seirawan's proposal and the current state of the professional chess world, which has been holding its collective breath wondering how Kasparov would react. 'Fresh Start' proposes bringing everyone with designs on the world championship into a new qualifying cycle that would unify the highest title for the first time since 1993. 'It's important that Yasser is trying, that he has raised all these issues and is coming up with ideas. For many years the chess world has suffered from a lack of discussion, nothing has been happening. I was the only person who tried and I was always criticized. Now today Yasser is breaking this vicious circle and I am grateful for this.'


To eliminate any suspense for the reader, Kasparov later said that he welcomed 'Fresh Start' and that he believed 'compromises will be found on my side.' He was also happy to see Seirawan 'talking business' in his proposals.

'I will be at the meeting in Prague [at the player workshop] as the top-ranked player, as an interested party. I will listen closely, participate in any player workshops, and play a positive role toward reuniting the chess world. I will contribute my unofficial title as the top player for the past 17 years and my unique reputation in the outside world because I want the game of chess to succeed. However, I know from experience that it won't help if I try to take a leading role. I don't want to revive old negative memories. I am happy to hear Seirawan saying that it is important to draw Kramnik and Ponomariov to the table before anything can be accomplished. Anyone who opposes these attempts to find a solution to the current crisis is doing a disservice to the game.'

'I want to make it clear that I am open to any proposals and I hope we can bring all the parties together and negotiate something attractive to the sponsors and of benefit to the game and its future. Beyond that, I must sit and wait, there is not much more I can do. I have my own ideas, but for the sake of maintaining intact this fragile balance, I'll keep them to myself for now.'

'Outside of the details, in my opinion, before we can go forward with any proposals it must be clear that there is a consensus on two things: the continued existence of classical chess and the importance of having a world champion with a legitimate claim to being the number one player.'

Kasparov said he was happy that Seirawan's document had generated so much interest and discussion, 'because it shows that the players, the journalists, care about change and that they are not happy with the current situation.' He called it the only proposal of importance since the days of the GMA (1986-1992). Kasparov wanted it made clear that his earlier remarks about FIDE - which inspired Seirawan to write 'Fresh Start' - were not just polemics with Khalifman or anyone else. Kasparov wants to show that changes can only be effected if everyone gets involved, a fact which Khalifman and, to a lesser degree, Seirawan, do not pay enough attention to.

'These things are the responsibility of everyone, all the players. Inaction is also an action, a choice. The strength of the GMA at its start was based on a powerful sense of unity. In order for us to escape our current miserable situation the players must understand that everyone is responsible. There were certain key moments during the development of the game in the past 15 years when the support of the leading GMs and the GMs en masse could actually have shifted the course of events. But several loud voices that opposed our activities caused us to miss these opportunities. So I think 'responsibility' is the key word. I am happy chessplayers are responding to Yasser. The atmosphere today does not exactly resemble 1986, when the GMA was formed, but there is an understanding that it is up to us. Trying to grasp this momentum, before we discuss Yasser's proposal or any other proposal, there are two questions that must be answered.'

During this year's Corus Wijk aan Zee tournament in January, Bessel Kok called for a 'players workshop' that would correspond with the giant Prague knockout rapid tournament in early May. Obviously this is an ideal opportunity to discuss the Fresh Start proposals, although Kok was clear that the meeting should not be hijacked by Seirawan's movement. Kasparov would like to use this meeting to give the elite players a chance to speak out on the future of the game in more general terms.


First comes the issue of preserving the classical time control, which has been abandoned by FIDE and even by several top players in print. While Kasparov and Seirawan are clearly on the same side and see the traditional time control as essential to the game, if the players as a whole cannot reach a consensus on this Kasparov believes it is a waste of time to talk about a new cycle.

'As in music and art, the classical heritage is crucial to development of modern currents in chess. We should take a poll of players, organizers, fans, and see if we get a positive answer. We need to know if it is worth our efforts. I believe that without classical chess the game will fade into oblivion, but this opinion should be confirmed by the majority. If we agree on this foundation, only then we can begin to agree on a course of action. We all have to take responsibility and be prepared to take action. This is a step Yasser has left out.'

His second critical issue is what it means to be the world champion. The FIDE KO events and the current outline of the Dortmund qualifier are far from the rigorous cycles of the past and the long matches suggested in 'Fresh Start.' Instead of the world champion as the dominant player of the period, we are now seeing the idea that any strong player who is having a good week or two can be world champion. This cheapening of the title over the past decade has been a public relations disaster for the sport, as anyone who has ever been asked 'Who is the world champion?' by a layman can attest.

'You can't attract sponsors, you can't sell the idea to the public, unless you have the idea that the winner of the event is the strongest player in the world and that it was a fair contest. I do not really buy into the statements that the world champion was not always the best player. Lasker didn't play in all the matches he should have, but he won almost all the big tournaments. There were few moments in the mid-1960s with Petrosian, maybe he wasn't the best player, but Spassky was, Fischer was, Karpov was. Euwe is not regarded as having been stronger than Alekhine, but he beat him in a match of 30 games for the title so no one can deny that Alekhine had a fair chance to display his superiority.'

'Kramnik won in London, he won the match. He is the 14th world champion in my book. [Literally. Kasparov is now finishing a book on the world champions. - Mig] But he has failed to prove he is the number one player since then and he doesn't care. He says Astana doesn't matter, that Moscow doesn't matter [Both events in which Kasparov finished ahead of Kramnik in 2001. -Mig], but they do matter and it hurts the reputation of the game to say that it doesn't matter if the world champion is best player. I am not saying the world champion is not allowed to lose, of course. It is saying that it doesn't matter that is so wrong; it shows no respect for the title. If Kramnik doesn't respect it, who will?'

'I don't say this because I am the number one player but because this attitude can prevent us from organizing a proper event or cycle. No one is going to put up any money if they cannot see that the best player will be produced by the event. I think many people do not understand this, or they believe that they benefit from the current chaotic situation.'

'Without agreement on these two things, no proposal is going to succeed. For Yasser these assumptions are automatic. Many people who may disagree with Yasser's proposal may do so because they do not support these two fundamental elements and we need to know this. It's not about if I am right or wrong, but about opening a debate.'


Kasparov then moved on to the proposal itself, although he was not interested in discussing the technical details. He reiterated that he was glad to see the amount of interest in it and that he hoped this momentum could be tapped. Thanks to the internet these discussions can make more progress in days than they would have made in months before. His concern is that today's players are not aware of what the GMA went through in the late 1980s and should learn from that organization's successes and failures. Young players make up the bulk of the elite these days and they are largely ignorant of the recent past.

'We cannot move ahead without being a professional organization. We all want to be professionals, that's what the GMA wanted. For example, joining the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may or may not be beneficial for chess, but it's not going to change our lives. Basketball, soccer, and tennis are not great because of the IOC, it's the other way around. We cannot ignore the way other sports like tennis and golf were built up, we should learn from other disciplines. The GMA had a trade union but no commercial sponsorship. The PCA had commercial sponsorship but no union support. Both are required for lasting success.'

'I was excited to read the letters from [GM Smbat] Lputian and [GM Emil] Sutovsky to and from Yasser, and I think they are right. It's important to look at the entire structure. But we must build up from within and unlike in the construction business, in professional sports that building begins at the top. It's not because we want an exclusive club or because we're selfish, or because Garry Kasparov lives on this side of the road and they live on the other side. It's because we have to sell it, sell chess. Promoters and sponsors want to know who is going to win and that is always going to be just four or five names. The names don't matter, everyone can have their own list, but it's only going to be a few. That shouldn't be insulting, it is just a fact of life. The top players attract the fans and the sponsorship in any sport. When a GM from the top 100 says it is unfortunate that his opinion does not count as much as that of Kasparov I don't think the word 'unfortunate' really has a place. The sponsors want to hear the opinions of the top players regarding any proposal.'

'It is too early to start dividing money that does not exist, spending a lot of energy talking about the details of the qualification system and sharing this money. I wish Sutovsky well and I want him to make one hundred thousand dollars a year, guaranteed, for playing chess. But before that, Mickey Adams and Veselin Topalov need five hundred thousand! That has to happen first, it's not the other way around. We must attract sponsors first, we need support and to build a professional sport. Everybody wins and loses together, so compromise is crucial. That was the key to the successes of the GMA. It started out as only the elite players but eventually we had 95% of all the Grandmasters. I am willing to compromise.'

Kasparov calls this 'joint responsibility for the game,' the elite coming together for the good of chess and the so-called second-echelon of GMs supporting these top players at the same time. This is a difficult thing to accomplish in difficult times, but the benefits are clear. The attention and sponsorship attracted by, for example, a quality cycle and a unified title, would profit every professional player. But unless a solid majority of those professionals actively support the elite it becomes almost impossible to promote change at any level.

The players must be prepared to occasionally go against their own immediate interests in order to reap long-term benefits. Otherwise they end up having to accept whatever someone like Ilyumzhinov dishes out to them. This is why establishing a consensus in Prague, or by other means, is so important. The challenge Kasparov threw down in his earlier article, and again now, without saying it in so many words, is whether or not the players are ready to act. Sending e-mails of support is great, and speaking out publicly in interviews and magazines is even better. But unless the players are unafraid to stand (or fall) together they are always going to play the role of beggars.

We did get sidetracked for a few moments to consider the hypocrisy of some organizers and other observers that Kasparov believes has caused, or at least aggravated, the public relations problem chess has had since 1993 regarding the world championship. He singled out Dortmund for recognizing Anatoly Karpov as the world champion in the mid-90s and then ignoring Viswanathan Anand, who held the same FIDE title in 2001. Now Dortmund is hailing Vladimir Kramnik as the champion and even organizing a qualifier for his title. I can't pass up a cheapo and must ask where Kramnik's title came from if Kasparov wasn't world champion from 1993-2000! Was he left on a doorstep in Dortmund as a lost orphan?


The full chronology of the GMA and the PCA that Kasparov presented will take up another four pages and will be published in a few days. However, during the conversation it was clear to both of us how many parallels there are between now and the situation 16 years ago when the GMA was founded. (Other than the interesting fact that many of the names are the same: Seirawan, Kok, Kasparov.)

Consternation about the shorting of time controls? One of the first issues confronted by the GMA was FIDE's desire to give rating points and even titles based on rapid games. Dissatisfaction with FIDE's handling of the world championship? FIDE's controversial cancellation of the first Karpov-Kasparov match was fresh in everyone's mind in 1986. (Many still remembered the 1975 FIDE decision against Bobby Fischer.) A retirement fund for players? Gamescore copyright? Tournaments for all the players? These were top topics for the GMA as well.

Kasparov also pointed out that the first big speed chess match was played in 1987 between him and Nigel Short in London. (Won by Kasparov 4-2 with no draws.) 'It was a great event. We played in tuxedos out on the stage and we had incredible coverage. Then when I showed the video of this event to my colleagues on the GMA board, there was an opinion in the room that it was a form of prostitution! There were strong opinions back then that rapid chess was a threat. My view from day one was adamant, that rapid chess was a great promotional tool for chess. So today you hear these discussions of time controls and television and it's like reinventing the bicycle.'


After Kasparov left New York for the west coast, GM Boris Gelfand announced the Dortmund player list in an interview at KC: Adams, Morozevich, Topalov, Shirov (who apparently changed his mind), Leko, Gelfand, Bareev, and the top German player, Christopher Lutz. Gelfand mentions that Kasparov, Anand, and Ivanchuk aren't playing, but forgets to mention that Ponomariov is not there either. That means the Dortmund event was unacceptable to #1, #3, #7, and #8 and that no past or current FIDE world champion (or any other kind) is participating. Dortmund organizer Carsten Hensel, who is in the terribly compromising situation of also being Kramnik's representative, and Kramnik have said that Kramnik is working to 'restore what was destroyed in 1993.'

I don't see how they can imagine this to be true when half the top ten are on the sidelines (including a former world champion, a former challenger, and the current FIDE champ and finalist) and the qualifier has two groups playing just six games before FIDE-style mini-matches. Gelfand says Kasparov would be the favorite to qualify if he played, but how can you have a favorite when only six games are played? One loss basically ends your chances. (In the 2000 FIDE World Cup, which had a similar format, no one with a loss was included in the eight players who moved to the next round.) From BGN we've gone to BTN (Better Than Nothing), but nothing would actually be better than dragging the traditional title down to the FIDE KO level.

The chess world is waiting to hear from Vladimir Kramnik and his sponsors and representatives. Ruslan Ponomariov and FIDE may or may not speak with one voice, but FIDE should at least speak out. Instead of criticizing or throwing down a gauntlet, Kasparov has declared his openness to discussion and his support for the 'Fresh Start' ideals. Kramnik has a tremendous opportunity to use his title and influence to bring chess back from the brink instead of allowing the Dortmund qualifier to throw it over the edge. Let us hope that we are not faced with yet another year in which we spend all our time talking about what might have been.

This article originally appeared at It has been reused with permission.


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