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Russia's Grandest Master

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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

      A Conversation with Garry Kasparov

For nearly three decades, since he first exploded onto the world scene, Garry Kasparov ruled the chessboard. A product of the Soviet system that elevated chess and its greatest champions to a pantheon reserved only for the most revered members of the elite, this grandmaster from the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan was at once worshipped and feared. Millions played this de facto national game in small, crowded, smoky rooms and vest-pocket parks across the Soviet Union. Those at the pinnacle of political power feared him as they watched, helplessly, the arrival of a popular outlander into their most hallowed precincts. At age 13, he won the Soviet junior championship, and within three years was rated number 15 in the world, becoming a grandmaster a year later.

It was in the final decade of the Soviet era that Kasparov rose to international fame. In January 1984, with just five years left until the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was the number 1 ranked chess player in the world. But ahead of him lay one last hurdle for the world title—Anatoly Karpov, darling of the nomenklatura, embraced by President Leonid Brezhnev and each of his successors as an example of the finest product of the Soviet system. To take on the Soviet chess establishment, Kasparov joined the Communist Party and just months later played Karpov in a marathon 48-game match, which concluded a year later with 24 more games, leaving Kasparov triumphant. By 1987, he was a member of the Central Committee of the Komsomol—the union of Soviet youth. But in November 1989, the wall came down, and the Soviet Union began its rapid disintegration. While Kasparov continued to play chess—brilliantly—he had begun to look beyond the chessboard to the new, open society that held so much promise, he hoped, for new beginnings.

Today, Kasparov has transcended his circumscribed beginnings and has sought to build a bridge from the game of chess to the transformation of the Russian government, a political game where the stakes are so much higher. A leader of Moscow’s liberal opposition, he is confident that the end is near for the system that for so long curbed his aspirations for a free Russia. And, even more broadly, there are profound lessons to be learned from the link between his game and the societies where its most accomplished players flourish, as he explained to World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman and managing editor Christopher Shay.

*****

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Let’s start off by talking about chess. It’s one of the most universal games. Tell us what you see as the role of such universal activities in terms of bringing people together as a bonding mechanism. You’ve been a chess master, but you’ve also been a political figure. We’re interested in the nexus of these two concepts.  

GARRY KASPAROV: Let’s start with chess as a bonding mechanism. It has its universal values, and it’s quite a unique game. It’s a game that fits the Internet era, because you can play it online. You can follow the game’s great players, and you can analyze it through computer engines, which is very helpful for amateurs. To some extent, there is no longer a cloak of secrecy covering the game. You may have two of the world’s greatest players competing, and any amateur can immediately see the blunder. It’s very different from when I started.

It is no longer the old-fashioned game, when two big champions play the game and one is smoking a cigar while the other one is drinking coffee, and they look at the board, and it takes ages to make a move. Every move is like an enigma for those who do not belong to this temple of ultimate chess truths. Now they just look at the computer screen, push a button, move the mouse, touch the screen, and the machine can give you quite an objective evaluation. If it’s a bad move, the machine will show that it’s a bad move. The machines don’t know everything, but you can no longer hide behind the authority of the player who made the move.

I also think that chess can play a very important role in changing modern education. That’s what I’ve been doing in recent years. For most of the last eight months, I’ve been traveling the world, meeting different education authorities under the auspices of the Kasparov Foundation in the United States.

WPJ: What mechanism would make chess an important educational tool?

KASPAROV: It has been taught in thousands of schools in this country and around the world. It teaches concentration, which is very important—and to see the big picture. It’s a first experience with a legal framework. You have to respect the rules. You can’t do whatever you want. It also teaches responsibility, because there is no one else to blame. It also has a very positive impact in improving social attitudes, because chess doesn’t belong to a certain social group.

You can have competition between kids from very different social backgrounds—from very expensive private schools to schools in Harlem or the Bronx or inner city schools in the suburbs of Detroit. They play each other, and they can actually see that the winner is someone who works hard and who can apply his or her intellect. Just because you were born in an unprivileged environment doesn’t preclude you from being successful. We saw a huge positive social impact in places like the slums of Sao Paulo and deprived black townships near Johannesburg. This social element makes chess quite a unique link or educational tool because it boosts kids’ confidence.

It’s also inexpensive. You don’t have to build a stadium, or a court, or a swimming pool. I met educational authorities in Brazil,
Argentina, France, the UK, Turkey, South Africa, and of course, we also had a lot of activities in this country. It’s beyond any doubt that chess helps kids.

That’s one side of the story, and another one is that chess is related to modern technologies. We are now entering a world where the educational system is failing, because we are seeing the iPad generation.
The iPad generation does not take information which goes one way. It must be interactive. The traditional classroom was always based on the authority of the teacher, who was the ultimate source of information.
You can ask questions, but you cannot challenge. But now, chess can serve as a link to build these connections between the traditional way of teaching and a new modernized classroom.

WPJ:  So chess can be a democratizing force in the world?

KASPAROV: For me, it’s a tool. It’s a tool that belongs in education. It also helps people get together. It’s a nice intellectual environment where people meet, and with the Internet, you can have kids playing from South Africa to Brazil to New York. It helps them learn more about each other.

WPJ: But ironically, the greatest chess empire in the history of the world, where you emerged, was the communist empire in Russia. So how is that working now, in the post-Soviet, so-called democratic Russia?

KASPAROV: Of course it’s not democratic, but it also doesn’t have an ideological agenda. Chess in the Soviet era was very much a tool of ideology to prove the intellectual superiority of the Communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why huge resources were invested in chess as a game, as a sport—not as education. It’s a huge misconception that chess was played in Soviet schools. Although there was a very sophisticated network of competitions between schools, the target was to pick up great players. I’m the last person to complain, because I greatly benefited from this network. But objectively, it was all about finding the best players. And of course, the process was intensified once [Bobby] Fischer took over.

WPJ: What has happened since then?

KASPAROV: Actually nothing. Russia is no longer a dominant force. Not surprisingly, the center of chess has moved south of Moscow. The three most advanced countries now in the world of chess are Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Chess is almost dead in the Baltics, which was also once a very vibrant chess community. What you need for chess, if you want strong players, is either private donors or strong state institutions. If there is state support for chess as a game or as an educational tool, you can see the results.

For example, Armenia is definitely one of the most important chess countries today, yet it has a small population, just over 3 million people. Starting last fall, they had chess as part of the school curriculum. What helps is that the president of the chess federation is also president of the country. It’s not about the size of the country, it’s about the number of kids playing. Russia is doing fine, but it’s not as great as before because nobody cares.

To the contrary, Putin’s regime doesn’t trust intellect. Anything intellectual is treated with great suspicion. And chess is quite intellectual, so the game is pushed to the back stage. We still have talented players, but there’s no infrastructure.

If you look at the amount of money Russia spends on football, or soccer, it’s very different. There is nothing that stops any country with a certain amount of money invested from showing great results.

For instance, the best girl now under 20 is an 18-year old Peruvian, Deysi Cori. She’s the women’s world champion under 20—a Peruvian with Indian blood. They have so many activities there, and it’s all about numbers.

We have been working here for quite a while in the United States. For six years, we had special training sessions with talented kids, working with schools. In the last year, we found three extremely talented—the most promising—young players from very different parts of the country. We have a Chinese-American from Texas, a Mormon from Utah, and a boy of Armenian origin in California. It shows that if we work hard and we put in an effort, we’ll find them. That’s why the Soviet phenomenon was not genetic, not based on geography, climate, the position of the sun.
It was just big numbers and a huge, concentrated effort by the state.

WPJ: So talk to us a little bit about the role more broadly of games and sports in building a national consciousness or a national identity.

KASPAROV: If you do it over time, it becomes a national pastime, and people feel associated with it. Obviously America’s more associated with basketball and baseball, but it’s about building this tradition. So in Canada, there’s ice hockey. You concentrate on something, and eventually it becomes a very important element of national pride. I don’t see any downside here, though if it’s excessive, it could be inciting.

WPJ: In the Soviet era, they took children, when they were three years old and began training them in ice hockey. And then all the way through, all they did was ice hockey. And that, it seemed to me, was a warped effort to build a national pride and stature.

KASPAROV: Yes, they thought it was an important element of propaganda. Chess, ice hockey—it all started as propaganda, definitely. Now it’s no longer a privilege of  dictatorships—and there’s not so many of them left. You can see it all around. In many countries, you see huge resources allocated to support rising stars and to securing Olympic medals.

WPJ: Now you personally transformed yourself from basically being a chess grandmaster to becoming a political activist. Take us through those steps.

KASPAROV: It’s not a transformation that happens overnight. Chess was a part of the political environment in the Soviet Union. From my earliest days, I knew it was an important element of propaganda. Chess was part of an ideological department of the communist party. For me, it was my environment, but I always had my own rebellious views about the overall situation. At the end of the day, I wanted to be a world champion, so I climbed this ladder just trying to get to Anatoly Karpov and eventually to clinch the title. Even at the early stages though, there were elements of crisis, when they tried to block me and create obstacles. Because Karpov was the champion and a loyal soldier, we knew when Brezhnev hugged him and kissed him and said, “Take the crown and keep it,” that’s what the system meant—a very specific order. Karpov was protected by the system, because it was a matter of convenience.

WPJ: And he played the game. They knew he would play.

KASPAROV: He played the game, and he was very much like them. Even before I opened my mouth, I looked different. And it’s not so much national identity, as much as character. I did not fit the very strict parameters of the old Soviet era. So I had problems at an early stage. Then in 1983, when they kicked me out of the semi-final match with [Viktor] Korchnoi, there was a big debate. Eventually, they brought me back. Politics was always a part of the game of chess, so that’s why I was not a novice. For me, Gorbachev’s perestroika was not something that caught me by big surprise. I knew the system was rotten inside. Something had to happen. And fighting with FIDE [World Chess Federation] and the Soviet sports committee, eventually brought me to fighting Soviet authorities. Again, it was not so much a transformation, but a shift. Every step was broadening the base for this eventual fight for democracy. I believed democracy was needed, first, in the game of chess. I saw the shortcomings of the world federation, the Soviet sports committee, and eventually the entire Soviet system. My joining the most radical anti-communist opposition in 1989-1990 for me was a very natural development. I also knew that the world chess champion in the Soviet system was kind of a sacred figure—a symbol of intellect and success in our country. And I thought staying outside of the fight would be a betrayal of those who looked up to people like me, expecting us to be proactive.

WPJ: Do you think that chess, one person against another person, that kind of independence, might be troubling to kingdoms, like Saudi Arabia for instance, with a powerful monarchy, because it is a kind of liberating force?

KASPAROV: Saudi Arabia is the only country that doesn’t have a chess federation. Chess is played there. I’ve met a few chess aficionados during my recent very short stay, but for whatever reason chess is just not a registered game there. Maybe because the king is, you know, under attack.

WPJ: You mentioned computers and chess. Video games are now the big thing. And a lot of people are concerned, because they are very solitary—basically one person playing against a screen. Are you concerned about development of that kind of video game, replacing games like chess which involve interactions? Will that drive people apart?

KASPAROV: That’s exactly what I think makes chess a very important element of curing the potential psychological problems of the new generation, because chess is interactive. Chess brings kids together, rather than just being caught in the abyss of games where only dexterity of the hands is required. If we just look at the chessboard, there’s always room for creativity. You look deeper, you eliminate mistakes, but there is still room to invoke your creativity.

WPJ:  But then there are the machines that play chess, or can assist people playing the game. For instance in 1999, you played a group of players online around the world, many of whom were using machines.

KASPAROV: A machine doesn’t kill creativity. On the contrary, it can actually boost your creativity—if you know how to use it. What is important is to actually analyze the nature of the decision-making process. This was the most significant result of the 1999 match, which was the first sort of crowdsourcing on the Internet. This group was formed, and they were using this network to maximize the result of the search by saying, “You analyze this line, and you analyze this line,” and then everything goes to the main board. They could figure it out very, very quickly.

WPJ: But you beat them.

KASPAROV: Yes, but I also had two of my coaches and several computers, including a very powerful one in Israel. It was the first time you could not only see human elements plus a machine as a force of calculation, but you could also see the process. The reason the game was so close is because they came up with a very sophisticated process of combining these elements. Later on, there was a free-style competition. That’s a new form that is practiced on the Internet, which I call “inviting cheating,” because you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter; you just produce the moves.

The fact that this very powerful hardware—called HYDRA, at that time sponsored by people from Abu Dhabi—lost to a grandmaster assisted by a computer was not a surprise. But the fact that the winner of the overall competition was not a grandmaster, but two American amateurs—weak club players with three computers—was surprising. They figured out how to maximize the effect of this cooperation. The most powerful machine was inferior to two average players with very average machines. Chess serves as a field where we can test these things. That’s why I believe that in the future there will be demand for chess to help understand the nature of this very sensitive process of combining human factors with machines and their brute force of calculations.

WPJ: So let’s talk about chess strategy as a device in politics, because politics is basically a game of strategy in some respects. So if you can master the strategy of a chessboard and use a computer to harness that ability, is that not encouraging to you that perhaps there are ways of mastering a Putin or a Medvedev, operating in their own system, so that democracy can emerge instead? 

KASPAROV: No. The game of chess, or any other game that we try to program on the computer, is based on firm rules. Any game we play has firm rules with uncertain results. In political systems like Russia’s, it’s exactly the opposite. The outcome is known before, and the rules can change at anytime.

WPJ: But it becomes essentially a three-dimensional chess game right? So they make a move—you make a counter-move…

KASPAROV: But they can make ten moves. That’s the problem. This is not chess really; it’s more of a casino. They win in most cases, because they own it. You can still look for probabilities. If you believe the tide of history is working for you, then you just have to figure out at what point the system will become redundant and when there will be a revolt from other casino visitors against the crooks—the owners.

WPJ: So are we reaching that stage now in Russia? Are we there yet?

KASPAROV: Close, very close. But I wouldn’t look at Russia as something unique. It’s also applicable to the Arab countries. We are entering a brand new world, and the changes we are facing now can be compared only to the late 15th and early 16th centuries with book printing, which united the Reformation and led to the collapse of the traditional map with its old-fashioned monarchies, aristocracies, and Rome. That’s what Martin Luther said when praising Gutenberg—that they got a very powerful weapon in books, printed books, which could involve thousands more people in decision-making. The moment you expand the circle of people who participate in decision-making, you create a new political reality. What we are seeing is that the circle has been expanded from millions to hundreds of millions. We don’t yet know the consequences of the move from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.

WPJ: But what we haven’t foreseen in the Arab Spring world—matching fears of that in Putin’s Russia and in the old Soviet Union—is the outcome.

KASPAROV: The outcome is something no one can predict. In European countries in the 16th century, the outcome, after eliminating the papal inquisition, was a Protestant inquisition. It doesn’t mean you have a bright future. You may end up hunting for Salem witches. You cannot just create a new, perfect world. And yes, removing all these dictators—the Mubaraks, Qaddafis, Saddams, Assads—will most likely bring results we may not like if we had a choice. Still, it’s inevitable, and it’s absolutely wrong to think that we can protect against the consequences by saying, “Oh, let’s stick with an old dictator, because we may end up with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

WPJ: Indeed, word has it that the Muslim Brotherhood is what the United States now wants, because now they’re afraid that even more radical-Islamists could be poised behind them.

KASPAROV: Exactly. Over the years, the dictators that stay in power master this game. They eliminate any decent opposition, and they leave behind them a political desert. What can live in a desert? The most rigid plants and the most cruel animals—roaches, rats. It’s a very poor political landscape that’s left. In Syria, I have no doubt when Assad goes down, we will be facing a massacre of Assad supporters. But does it mean we have to stop supporting the opposition? No.

The later it happens, the higher the price we pay. It’s a natural development. We are trying actually to limit the negative results, but the sooner we eliminate all these redundancies, the better our chances are to avoid the worst. And the same goes for Russia.

WPJ: Do you fear violence and bloodshed in Russia?

KASPAROV: In the last few years, a new generation of young Russian political activists has come to believe that non-violent resistance is the most heroic form of opposition. Even left-wing radicals or nationalists are doing their absolute best to stick with a non-violent resistance. We have neither burned cars nor even broken windows. But if the Putin regime shows no sign of making any concessions and liberalizing the system, eventually you could have more forms of resistance. We are trying to limit it by adopting boycotts of the most despicable members of the regime. But the regime, as we say in Russia, “doesn’t understand values, it understands numbers.” That means one day you will need half a million people in the streets of Moscow, or a million. Do you believe that a crowd of a million people will be very peaceful? Hopefully, but you never know—if somebody starts shooting and if you have, God forbid, the military brought in by Putin…

Unfortunately, it’s not so much for us to control the events. We do our best. More can be done from the opposite side actually or from the West. I have no doubt that Putin will order police to shoot the crowd. Now, the question is not about Putin’s determination. He will stay there until the end of his life.

WPJ: But chess is a game of patience right?

KASPAROV: That’s what I am saying, I know the trend. Putin and the regime are discredited. He lost the support of the middle class, and he’s hated by Moscow. You cannot rule Russia by being rejected in Moscow and relying on Chechnya and Dagestan. It takes time. It could be a year, it could be two years, but it’s not going to be six years. I bet my bottom dollar he’s not going to survive six years. Now, what can be done to make this process less violent and as smooth as we hope? It’s all about Putin’s subordinates. The mafia structure still follows him because he offers them the key element of survival for any mafia community: immunity. As long as they know that the big boss—the capo di tutti capi—offers them immunity, they can do whatever they want. The moment they recognize he is not able to protect them, they will not follow his orders. That’s why Putin is so adamantly fighting against the Magnitsky Act, both here and in Europe. [A law proposed in the U.S. Senate and at the European Parliament that would punish Russian officials responsible for the abuses that led to the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer who’d uncovered massive tax fraud carried out by high-ranking Russian officials.]

Last year, he threatened that if the Magnitsky bill is approved, Russia would cut all transit to Afghanistan. That itself shows the value of the Magnitsky Act for Putin. He has a great talent for recognizing important items within the mafia structure. He must protect everybody. If he lets one local killer go, using him as a trade in some geopolitical game, the whole system falls apart. Because then the chief of the Moscow police begins to think, “Should I just give this order? Should I or shouldn’t I do it?” That’s why we’re pushing, both here and in Brussels. You are not fighting Russia, you are not interfering in domestic affairs, you are trying to punish the criminals. You can see the records. All these crimes have been properly recorded. And now it seems that the Obama administration is about to accept the trade—repeal Jackson-Vanik [a 1974 U.S. law that still provides for annual review by the president of most favored nation status, denying tariff reductions to nations that restrict emigration] and approve Magnitsky, which I think will be the biggest blow to Putin’s regime. If you have a few individuals targeted—freezing their visas and bank assets abroad—then, when the day comes, Putin may not find enough loyal officers to follow his orders.

WPJ: But it hasn’t worked in Iran so far. And there, it’s been much more stringent.

KASPAROV: Yes, but the Iranian nomenklatura don’t have their fortunes in Western banks. The integration of Putin’s regime and the oligarchy is unprecedented, which is another reason to be concerned. They are also interfering with and polluting Western financial systems.

WPJ: But that kind of pressure would derail the whole Russian-American reset.

KASPAROV: But there is no reset. What reset are we talking about? Reset means that you have something to change. The American administration wanted Russia to help, number one, with transit to Afghanistan, but that whole war is a disaster. It’s dragged America into something that you cannot win. In any event, Putin will go relatively soon, way before 2018.

WPJ: But how do you envision Putin going? He has a mandate now. An electoral mandate.

KASPAROV: No, no, he doesn’t have a mandate. Many political groups in Russia, even some relatively loyal to him, deny the mandate. If you start looking at a whole country, that’s one story, but you shouldn’t look too far. It’s Moscow. Putin’s state is super centralized—it’s like a feudal state. The revolution in France in 1789 was not across the country—it was just in Paris. Moscow decides, and Moscow hates Putin. And it’s not political activists, elitists, or the opposition. It’s about average people, many of them relatively young. They were kids when Putin took over, and they don’t want to see their kids aging while Putin is still there. It’s the same in dictatorships. People just don’t feel dictatorships can offer them any future. In Russia, we are facing the greatest wave of emigration since 1917. People have been losing faith in the future of the country. I think it’s due to a general depression and social apathy based on the fact that we had a big change in 1991. Huge expectations, and then what?

WPJ: But there is still a big middle-class there, and there never has been in Russian history.

KASPAROV: Only in the big cities. If you look at the numbers, based on their income, 20 percent is the absolute maximum of the middle class. In polling just a few months ago, 80 percent had problems buying a TV set or freezer. Twenty percent is still a big number—it’s 28 million. Of course, more of them are allocated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. That’s why you see huge wave of protests in Moscow. In the last couple of months, they have changed their attitudes. It hasn’t changed the trend completely. But the attitude is different. People think, “Okay, maybe we can try to do something here in Russia.”

Putin, during his campaign when he mobilized all the resources of the regime, made too many promises, and these promises cannot be kept—unless oil goes to $200 a barrel. That’s why he needs war in Iran. Soon, it will not be simply the middle class. It will be a different wave, and this wave will be far less peaceful, because they will have more demands. The protests in December, January, and February are called the Dignity Revolution. It didn’t have the economic component. The middle-class didn’t want Putin to push them around. They hate Putin and Medvedev playing these games. And they just expressed their dissatisfaction and showed their rejection of all these dirty games being played behind closed doors. Now the next wave might be very different. And this wave will not stop short of taking over government buildings, if the economic situation deteriorates, which I think is inevitable, because the Russian economy is just not functioning.

All of which is, by the way, very dangerous. What makes people really angry is not overall poverty, it’s the gap. You have more and more stories about Putin’s oligarchs and with 70 million people on the Internet, millions every day learn about Russian oligarchs, most of whom happen to be Putin’s buddies. This is why I say it will not take long. It will not take long before all these elements create a wave. Let’s hope this wave will be of clean water, not of tons of garbage.

Every day I read blogs with comments. The intellectual power behind these comments from anonymous people are amazing. Just a few days ago, one wrote, “Under Stalin, there was killing; under Brezhnev, there was stagnation; under Yeltsin, there was theft; and with Putin, they decided to combine it all.” It’s not as brutal as before, but it’s selectively brutal. Being selectively brutal is not going to work when you have a tsunami rising.

*****

*****

[Illustration: Miguel Jiron]

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