By Stephen Moss
14 March, 2005
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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,
"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
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."