King of the Castle
Garry Kasparov on Vladimir Putin and why chess is simpler than politics.
At first, playing chess against Garry Kasparov is much like playing chess against anyone else. Take the pieces. They look the same as when you are playing against other people. They move the same way. For some reason this is surprising to me, and so is the fact that we are five moves in and he has not checkmated me yet. He must be off his game, or, just maybe, dare I hope, I am a lot smarter than I thought I was?
But there he is, across the table, actually thinking about his next move. I have a rush of satisfaction. Brain the size of a planet, the greatest chess player who ever lived, and I have made him think.
This moment has been a long time coming. When I had originally explained to Kasparov’s assistant that I wanted to play chess against the great man himself, she had made it clear that this was asking quite a lot, but she would see what she could do.
Then, when I arrive at his flat, I have to re-explain my errand to his mother, who seems to run the PR show for Garry Kasparov Inc. “What rank are you?” she finally asks.
“Um, no rank really. But I know the rules,” I say helpfully.
“No problem, I’ll put out the board. You know where the pieces go?”
When her son comes into the living room, I have a weak-kneed, gibbering moment where I can’t stop grinning. Kasparov, radiating the kind of charisma you tend to radiate if you recreationally play chess against supercomputers, takes his seat behind the board, and rearranges the kings and queens. I have put them on the wrong squares.
He is a bit plumper and greyer than when he played his famous marathon match against Anatoly Karpov almost 30 years ago, but has none of the arrogance or ill temper one expects of great sportsmen.
“What should we talk about first?” I ask. “Politics or chess?”
“I think your readership is more interested in politics? We can talk chess later,” he says.
Kasparov’s career has always mingled the two. His great rivalry with Karpov, the standard bearer of the Soviet establishment, tracked the decline of the Soviet Union when Kasparov, the darling of the democratic intelligentsia, beat his fellow grand master in 1985. At the world championship in 1990, he played under a Russian flag (despite being from Azerbaijan) while Karpov played for the Soviet Union. When Kasparov won, it was a sensation.
After retiring in 2005, Kasparov became the face of opposition to an increasingly authoritarian turn under Russia’s then president, Vladimir Putin, now prime minister. For a time, his face was ubiquitous at opposition marches in Moscow that usually featured more grey-clad riot police than demonstrators. He was arrested twice – the second time he spent five days in prison. But he was more successful at chess (“where the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable”, as he puts it) than he is at politics in Putin’s Russia (“where the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed”).
For someone who sees so many moves into the future, his decision to take on Putin in 2005 was reckless and ill timed, the political equivalent of a kamikaze dive when the regime was at its most popular and most repressive – before it was chastened by the economic collapse of 2009.
“[Politics] was a different game [from chess],” he says. “But although it was different, I had to play. There’s not much you can do, if you believe, as I do, that it is a very important moral choice.” Kasparov was vilified and Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, famously produced door mats emblazoned with Kasparov’s face for “patriotic” Russians to wipe their feet on. He was also hounded for supposed collaboration with the CIA.
“I used to play chess expecting to win,” he says, “but this game [politics] was not about winning or losing. It was about losing. From the beginning the position was a dead loss.”