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Why Kasparov Quit Chess

By Stephen Moss

14 March, 2005
The Guardian

Late last Thursday, having just won the prestigious Linares tournament in Spain, Garry Kasparov announced that he was quitting professional chess. A colleague asked me what it meant. I said it was the equivalent of Ronaldinho suddenly turning his back on professional soccer: a genius, the world's greatest player, unexpectedly packing it in.

I was rather pleased with the analogy and repeat it to Kasparov when we meet in London two days later. He had watched the Chelsea-Barcelona game and marvelled at Ronaldinho's magical goal. I thought he would be flattered. Not a bit of it. "I don't think you can make a comparison," he says. "I was at the top for 20 years."

Kasparov is aware of his position in chess history: the highest-rated player ever, the youngest world champion at 22, the No1 player for two decades - match that Ronaldinho! But he is so engaging and expansive that you forgive him his vast sense of himself. His agent had warned me that he had just stepped off a plane from Spain and was exhausted. If this was Kasparov exhausted, Kasparov energised would be a truly fearsome prospect.

His decision to quit after Linares seemed bizarre because he had been back to his very best. So why, at 41, has he decided to retire? "I made a conscious decision well before the tournament," he says. "These kind of decisions you don't make overnight. It takes time before you decide to quit one of the most successful careers in the history of any sport. I grew up with chess, built up my character with chess, won everything at the chessboard, gained recognition as the best chess player. So for me every aspect of life was related to chess. In your early 40s in chess you don't feel like retiring, especially if you are still the No1-rated player in the world. But I had to find a new target. My nature is that I have to excite myself with a big challenge."

That challenge is Russian politics. Except that Kasparov says the very term "Russian politics" is a misnomer. "I wouldn't say that I'm entering Russian politics, because politics doesn't exist in Russia in the terms you use here," he explains. "I will be trying to help Russia to get back into normal political life and to make sure my country lives in a civilised way."

Kasparov is already a leading figure in a pro-democracy organisation called Committee 2008: Free Choice, which was formed last year. Now he has decided that the threat to freedom of expression in Russia is so great that he needs to devote himself to campaigning full time.

He has been talked of as a possible presidential rival to Vladimir Putin in 2008, and he doesn't rule out standing for office at some stage, but his real concern is that there will be no election to stand in. "People say to me, 'Garry, are you planning to run in 2008?' I say, 'Run for what?' The trend in Russia is very clear: Putin is abandoning democracy as an institution. He doesn't want there to be an election. There will be an appointed parliament that will then appoint the president. It will be like a perpetuum mobile."

If Kasparov's condemnation of Putin is any guide, his political style is likely to be as relentlessly abrasive as his chess, renowned for its aggressive, risk-taking style. "Under Yeltsin the system had many flaws, but it was a democracy," he says. "There was an independent press, independent television, a parliament, political parties. We could dislike the opposition - it was a communist opposition - but we had all the right elements of a democratic society. Now, five years after Putin took office, there is no independent press, no independent television, the election of the regional governors has been cancelled, the election of the parliament has been changed, parliament is a branch of the executive office, and Putin controls virtually all decision-making in the whole country.

"The tragedy of Russia - and western leaders don't want to recognise it - is that Putin has already crossed the red line where he could just retire as Yeltsin did. He and his group have to fight to keep power because they have too many enemies, too many unsettled scores - and that is why they are desperate to retain power. Their wealth is based on their grip on power. They are seizing new properties, seizing more control of Russian finances by using their power. The moment they lose this grip, it will be a different ball game."

He is scathing about the west's failure to hold Putin to account. "Putin has learned that because of certain geopolitical realities - the war on terror, high oil prices - he is immune to criticism. He knows that he will have enough political support from Chirac, Schröder, Berlusconi, Blair, all of whom are supporting a criminal regime in Russia."

Kasparov's decision to quit reflects his feeling that time is short in Russia, but also a frustration with the anarchic state of world chess and its boxing-style rival champions. He lost the version of the title he held to fellow Russian Vladimir Kramnik in 2000, and has not been given an opportunity to regain it. Kasparov remains the highest-ranked player in the world, but attempts to establish an undisputed world champion have foundered, and Kasparov is no longer willing to wait for the pieces to fall into place.

His victories at Linares and in the Russian championship last November were his way of proving that, despite having lost his world title, he was still leaving at the top. "I proved that I hadn't lost my touch," he says. "In my last two tournaments, I showed that I am very good at the chessboard. At last we closed down this subject. I wasn't sure that I could win at Linares. I wasn't well prepared, I had been spending too much time on other activities, but I had a strange belief. I just sensed that I would get my act together, and miraculously I did. I played some really great games. I played like I did 20 years ago, though I collapsed at the end. After the game with Mickey [Adams, the England No1], I just lost any interest because I had won the trophy already. My mind was already travelling somewhere else."

The other ambition he had fulfilled was to show his son, who is eight, what a great player he was. "I remember in 1999, when people asked me about my chess career, saying that I wanted to play when my son grew up, so he could see his father winning a world championship. I was denied that chance, but he saw me in Moscow at the Russian championship winning that event. He saw the closing ceremony, he got my medal and put it round his neck. Mission accomplished!"

Kasparov's private life is messy. He has an 11-year-old daughter by his first wife Masha. They live in New Jersey and his former wife won a court order forbidding his daughter from visiting Kasparov in Moscow for fear she would not return to the US. That court battle was fought just before the match with Kramnik and is widely thought to have undermined Kasparov's preparations. He had his son with his second wife, Yulia, but they are now divorcing, too. Kasparov is currently engaged to a young business graduate called Daria Tarasova.

His business life also had its messy phase. His internet chess site collapsed when the dotcom bubble burst and at one stage he was threatened with legal action - another distraction that affected his form. But that is now resolved, his series of books on his predecessors as world champion have sold well, and he is currently working on a book called How Life Imitates Chess. He is in the UK for the London Book Fair, where he is meeting the 15 publishers who have so far bought the rights in different parts of the world.

The book will be published early next year and Kasparov hopes it will take chess beyond its traditional niche market. "I want to present it to the mainstream public as something very important," he explains, "not just as a tiny game played by some awkward people, but a game that has values that are important for our understanding of human nature." He is also planning a book on the battle between man and machines - he has had several famous matches with computers - and will go on writing columns for the Wall Street Journal, which shares his robustly rightwing view of the world. Though when I suggest that he is an unreconstructed rightwinger, he demurs.

"On the American political scale I would probably be somewhere near Arnold Schwarze negger," he says. "Economically conservative but socially liberal, definitely pro-choice, non-religious. I don't qualify as a new Republican. But on the other side I will be for lowering taxes and reducing the size of the state." In any case, he says, because Russia has no conventional politics, terms such as left and right are redundant. "That's why we can work with strange bedfellows. You just have to find a number of vital elements that people can agree on. It's about wrecking the nomenklatura state and bringing law back to Russia."

Kasparov is obsessed with what George Bush Sr once called "the vision thing". "Today we have very few, if any, visionaries," he says. "There are too many managers. Of course you need managers, but you also need visionaries." Anyone can drive along the highway, he says, but when you get to a crossroads you need a vision of where you are going. "Today I think our civilisation is at a crossroads, yet we're still trying to manage it."

Kasparov, of course, believes he has vision in abundance, honed at the chessboard and now being applied to a tougher game - and, worse, a game where the Russian authorities change the rules every week. He believes he can help plot a new course in Russia, replacing emotion and self-interest with logic and rational analysis but his self-belief is tempered by realism. "I'm not mad enough to imagine that I can change things overnight by just clicking my fingers," he says, "but I believe that my presence could make a difference because it could influence other people to join this fight."

He is also aware of the risks he is running in attacking Putin. "I'm sure all my telephone lines are tapped. That's normal practice in Russia. Here in England you have been arguing about the terrorism bill, but in Russia we live under conditions that are much worse without even being told. We understand that we live in a state that acts as a Soviet state, paying no attention to the constitutional rights of its citizens, but we assume there are still certain limits that they can't cross."

Initially, he says, he will be vilified. "I expect vicious attacks from the government-run press and television. They will make a laughing-stock of me, saying: 'What does a chess player know about politics?' I know that the worst is yet to come - most of the things I expect in the next few months will be very negative."

He also recognises the danger of more serious retribution. "These people have no allergy to blood. But you have to act. If I convince myself I have to act, I do act. If I believe that I am doing the right thing at the right time, I don't consider the risk factors. It's a part of the game."











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