A vast global game of geopolitical chess seemed to be hanging in the balance the morning I met with Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess genius whom many regard as the greatest player of all time.
What’s less well known about him is that for the past decade Kasparov has become a major player in that great game of liberty versus tyranny in which the globe is the board. He was jailed and, as recently as 2012, beaten in Moscow for protesting Vladimir Putin’s regime and its crackdown on civil liberties, and he’s been driven out of his homeland. After daring a presidential election challenge to Putin in 2007, one that was disqualified under murky circumstances, and a number of what he calls “accidents,” he no longer feels life and liberty are safe there.
Not that his life is necessarily safer anywhere else in the world, as the fate of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko—who was poisoned with polonium-laced tea in a posh London hotel in 2006—attests.
No tea was served in the mazelike reception lounge area of the large Upper West Side apartment complex where we met. Kasparov, 50, came barreling out of the elevator, a compact fellow with the physique and the no-nonsense mien of a welterweight boxer. He had just returned from the World Chess Championship in India where his former protégé Magnus Carlsen, a then 22-year-old Norwegian prodigy, stunned the world with a smashing victory over the reigning champion, Viswanathan Anand.
Kasparov, who became the 13th world champion in 1985 and was ranked number one in the world until he retired in 2005, seems genuinely in awe of Carlsen’s ability: “He has unique chess talents,” says Kasparov, who trained Carlsen for a year back in 2009. “I would say that he is a combination of Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov [the Russian world champion whom Kasparov dethroned]. Because he has Karpov’s precision and ability to just locate the piece’s best positions but also Fischer’s determination. So he can play to the last point, the last moment, last chance, and some people say he’s good at squeezing water out of stone.” Meaning he can see possibilities of victory even in often bleak-looking end-game boards, possibilities that can be obtained only by exploiting minute, nearly invisible positional advantages. In fact, Kasparov believes the Norwegian has so far-outdistanced the rest of the world that he will not be beaten by anyone “for next five years, at least,” although Kasparov thinks an American, Hikaru Nakamura, he had been bringing along may have a chance.
Invisible positional advantages are what Kasparov must hope for in the global human rights game he’s playing now. His chief opponent, Putin, has a nuclear arsenal and a much-feared army of intelligence operatives, the FSB, as the successor organization to the KGB is called today. Kasparov’s “invisible” arsenal is moral force, which sometimes—as the recent celebration of Nelson Mandela reminds us—can triumph after years of struggle. But the odds are heavily stacked against him.
Kasparov speaks with a kind of Russian stoicism about his entry into politics: “I was not playing to win, it was just something I believed was important for me as a human being. So it’s like a moral imperative rather than coldblooded calculation.”
Kasparov is now chairman of the international council of the Human Rights Foundation, an organization identified with Vaclav Havel, one of modern history’s greatest dissidents, whose Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was a landmark in the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire—but not the end of repression in Russia. After a coterie of Harvard-based economic advisers helped engineer the privatizing of Russian state assets in the 1990s to the profit of corrupt oligarchs, the consequent immiseration of the Russian people led to Putin’s rise to power. And that led to Putin’s ongoing attempt to recoup what had been lost—seeking to recapture the states that had separated themselves from the Soviet empire, and to crush democracy within Russia.
This very morning it looked as if Putin had pulled off another bold move, what might be called in chess terms, “Putin’s Gambit,” his attempt to recapture Ukraine, the lost queen of the new Russian empire, from the seductive embrace of the West.
I show Kasparov the morning’s Wall Street Journal dramatic Page 1 headline: “Ukraine’s Pivot to Moscow Leaves West out in the Cold.” The gist: When it looked as if Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych was about to sign long-negotiated economic agreements that would bring it closer to membership in the European Union, he was reportedly summoned for a chat with Putin and, not long afterward, announced that he had decided not to sign the agreements. It was widely reported that Putin had used a combination of threats, bribes and economic enticements to lure Ukraine back.
As Kasparov and I spoke in New York, halfway across the globe in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, tens of thousands were converging to protest what they regarded as their being sold back into neo-Soviet satellite status, toppling the statue of Lenin in Kiev’s main square. As I write, there are despairing reports of heavily armed police storming into opposition TV and radio stations. By press time, the violence was intensifying and spreading throughout Ukraine, no endgame in sight.
Foreign policy commentators were speaking of this as a decisive moment in post-cold war history. And Garry Kasparov, I came to realize, as he analyzed the news, was viewing the episode in the perspective of the history not just of the past two decades, but of the past century. He sees the contemporary situation as a badly played chess match in which the West lost its chance to press its advantage after the fall of the Soviet Union, instead complacently settling for what looked like a draw—one that now might turn into a decisive loss.
What impressed me about Kasparov was how well read and sophisticated in his knowledge of history and international politics he was. Chess genius does not always translate to real-world intelligence (Bobby Fischer ended up as a paranoid Holocaust denier). And Kasparov deplores the tragic depiction of a Russian prodigy in Nabokov’s chess novel, The Defense.
He’s deeply learned in history and historical parallels. When the talk turns to the Sochi Olympics, he refers back to the German games of 1936: “The Olympics started four months after Germany [remilitarized the Rhineland], violating Versailles agreement, and within one month after the beginning of the civil war in Spain. Soon German planes were bombing Spanish cities—the Western powers pretended it was business as usual.”
“You think the Sochi Olympics is...?
“The Sochi Olympics, I think, might be a total disaster, [but] we’re lucky. Because [the difference between] Hitler and Putin is that Putin doesn’t have a proper organization behind him in Russia.”
Kasparov’s animus toward Putin led me to ask the philosophical question “Do you believe in evil?”
“Everyone has an evil component within,” he tells me. “It’s matter of circumstance whether it emerges. Whether he becomes ‘the right man in the right place at the right time’ for evil to emerge. Stalin had it, all the components in place.”
“How would you assess Putin?” I ask.
“Evil,” Kasparov replies. “Pure evil.”
“Evil from the beginning?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s just the...” he pauses, trying to find a way to describe it, “evil from the very beginning, but eventually he was brought into power and eventually he discovered himself....”Again he pauses and then comes out with it. “He discovered himself in the center of this universe with unlimited powers with enormous luck!”
There’s something Faustian to this characterization, this vision of Grandmaster Putin suddenly finding himself like Milton’s Satan, realizing it’s better to “reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” He’s found himself in a universe he can reign over with godlike abandon. No one in the world, not any of the leaders of the other countries, has powers so unlimited. Few in history have had it—and fewer still have been able to keep it.
But Kasparov will not grant Putin grandmaster strategist status.
“He got lucky from other factors: high price of oil, 9/11 attack, general weakness of the West, complacency, muddy waters in the global politics, apathy of Russian people—the combination [of all that].” And Kasparov also feels there are limits to the effects of Putin’s evil. “It’s unimaginable to think he could cause as much damage as Hitler. It’s [different], 21st century from the 20th century. I always say that Hitler used tanks, Putin’s using banks. But the damage Putin has caused to the integrity of Western financial, political system has yet to be measured.”
Returning to Ukraine and Putin’s Gambit, “This is an amazing moment in history, wouldn’t you say?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he replies, “I think this [is] an amazing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the big change. But it was a mistake to think the end of the cold war was the end of history.”
Kasparov’s reference is to the title of a once-fashionable geopolitical book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, and to its thesis that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was on an uninterruptable path to global liberal democracy.
“Could things have gone that way?” I ask.
“The failure of Russia, I think, was a reflection of the failure of the U.S. administration and the Western Europeans to recognize the new trends. It was all dictated by Fukuyama’s ‘wisdom,’” he says sarcastically. “It’s the end of history, now let’s just enjoy. Let’s get rich, let’s make friends. Ignoring that there are new dangers. In 1992 America was in a position to implement dramatic changes. A lot of positive things could’ve happened. Clinton could have offered a plan for Russia, Eastern Europe, similar to the Marshall Plan. Any plan. We say in chess, a bad plan is better than no plan. And there was no plan. And at the end of the Clinton’s rule we had Al Qaeda on the rise and just, you know, a few months left before 9/11. The global map changed dramatically.”
“What about George Bush Sr.? Didn’t he have the opportunity?”
“I was harshly critical of his actions, his desperate attempts to cling to the old order because he couldn’t believe that the world could change so dramatically. But by 1992 America’s power was unchecked. Now you have to [evaluate] what was [accomplished] with this unchecked power and ideas,” he says.
“So what should we have done?”
“First of all, you don’t say ‘That’s the end of the game.’ Because the game is endless. It’s the human race. Nobody had a plan that could go for four years, six years, ten years. That was an opportunity to make plans like the Truman administration did in late-1940s.”
“And now?” I ask.
“Everybody’s complaining that today things are so difficult, the Obama administration is facing [so many] enemies, it’s difficult to confront China and radical Islam and Putin is...someone told me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948. Are you serious? That insults my sense of history. It’s just politicians trying to cover up a lack of ideas, inability to strategize, and unwillingness to break a status quo, desperate attempts to cling to the power by [emphasizing] the magnitude of the global challenges.”
It sounds like Kasparov is in despair, but to my surprise, he finds good reasons for long-term optimism.
“What I see now,” he says gesturing at the Wall Street Journal and its picture of the vast crowd of Kiev protesters, “is that demographic change. You should look at the faces of these students, of people of my town. [He was born in Baku.] Most of them are young. They are talking about geopolitical choice for the country. And they are ready to fight for that. And that’s very different. That’s what I’ve been saying for several years—that change will come when the new generation under 40, but more likely under 30, will take to the streets.
“So you’re optimistic?”
“I’m optimistic because I can see that every attempt to reform the old Soviet empire and the satellite states with people my age fails. I was probably one of the freest minds in the Soviet Union—I could travel since I was 13 abroad and I read books—but for me certain things were difficult to overcome because it’s part of your education.”
He means loyalty to the dream of greater Russia.
“But new generations should overcome it. And what we will see in Ukraine, it’s a beginning of the shift.”
Moving from the big board to the small one, I ask Kasparov why in addition to his human rights activism he is devoting his time and energy to a global campaign to wrest the presidency of the International Chess Federation from its current Russian head.
He handed me a slick professionally designed brochure that was bannered: “Team Kasparov, Global Leadership, 2014 FIDE Campaign.” (FIDE is the French acronym for the International Chess Federation.)
“I always wanted to see the world of chess move to a new level, to become immensely successful,” he says. “I felt that the opportunities in 1972 with Bobby Fischer have been missed, some opportunities have been missed in the ’80s. So I was looking for solutions outside the federation. And they all failed. Eventually I recognized that you have to do things from within. Because opportunities are still there.”
As are opportunities for mischief and intrigue. Late in January, charges and counter charges flew between the opposing camps of Kasparov and the incumbent FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov with each side charging the other with offering improper subsidies to allies, with Kasparov speaking of “dirty tricks,” “stolen” e-mails and denying any untoward conduct. Kasparov told me there was no impropriety. The London Sunday Times story, “Clash of kings as bid to sex up chess gets dirty,” compared it to “the plot of an espionage novel.” The story adds the piquant detail that Kasparov’s opponent “believes chess was invented by extraterrestrials.”
Unfazed, Kasparov is already thinking several moves ahead: beyond just reforming the insular, scandal-plagued world of 64 squares to make chess a vehicle for worldwide intelligence enhancement. “Everybody talks about the shortcomings of education. And I have plenty of experience traveling around the world and talking to education authorities, from the very top to the very bottom of the social ladder.
“We have plenty of evidence that at early age chess helps kids to learn about legal frameworks, to understand logic and patterns, to see the big picture, to structure minds. We need to start reforming education, and chess is a very useful tool.”
Kasparov has thought a lot about chess and intelligence. He was, after all, the man who beat the first sophisticated chess computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, and then, in what many regard as a landmark in the relationship between human and artificial intelligence, lost to a next-generation Deep Blue in a rematch watched worldwide in 1997.
Kasparov has no doubt that advanced chess computers will always be able to beat the most brilliant human beings from now on. “In a game of 50 moves, you can make 45 good moves, four great moves and one inaccuracy, it’s almost enough to win,” Kasparov told me. But if you make one less than optimal move the computer will destroy you, he says. And the computer never makes a less than optimal move. They have changed the face of tournament chess, he says. Now adjournments have been banned from most tournaments to prevent players from consulting computers.
“There was a fascinating thing I saw somewhere,” I say, “about your meeting at Google, where you tried to convince them that there should be a human element added to the computational...?”
“I don’t have to convince anybody, I think everybody in the Valley or in this world recognizes that the future is very much a combination of human intuition and advanced computation. I think the question is not whether it’s good or bad idea,” he says, but how you actually accomplish the integration.
“So you think that no matter how good computer computational chess gets, it will always be lacking something?”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about things beyond chess. We’re talking about decision-making on a global level or even on a universal level. Even a small infusion of human intuition and the ability to evaluate facts could dramatically enhance the power of machine.”
“I got the impression that Google was not getting it.”
“I’m not sure, it was quite a short presentation and I actually had a few other lectures in the Valley....” He sounds a little disappointed.
“Do you feel like you’ve learned something from your study of computational chess? Have you changed your own play?”
“I finished my professional career in 2005 when machines were not as powerful as today. But naturally in the last ten years of my career, I had to deal with the increasing power of the machines. I was the first one who introduced these machines, computer machines, and used them as the most important training tool.”
“Have they become a kind of Frankenstein monster in a way?”
“Hmm...” he pauses. “The young generation has great difficulty in resisting the power of the computer. Watching the computer screen sometimes...it’s like most of them become hypnotized. Because it’s hard to take your eyes off the machine. One of the greatest things about Magnus [Carlsen] is that he doesn’t care what machine says. When I worked with him, he could sit at the screen following the machine but not being paralyzed by it.”
“He could see things the machine would not show him?”
“By brute force of calculations the machine has recommendations, but Magnus was never impressed not to look for his own solutions. For him it was like a calculator: You will use calculator, but you have to use your own brains. Magnus was always able to play his own game.”
“Do you think that in your prime you could have beaten him?”
“I always resist the question of comparing people. We live at different times, so Garry Kasparov in ’85 was once the champion, but my knowledge of chess was way, way less. It was 25 years ago.”
“That’s what’s so interesting about chess, isn’t it? That it’s an endless process of learning.”
“Exactly. It’s like in science, people know so much more now. So how can you compare even me in ’89 with Magnus?”At the end of our conversation I return to the geopolitical chess game hanging in the balance and he makes a surprising prediction about the fate of Vladimir Putin.
I ask him what he thinks the next move by the protesters in Ukraine should be. As a chess player. As a human rights activist. As a human—someone who knows the price of a violent outcome.
“They have to stay firm and they have to show confidence. We’re talking, of course, about a very diversified crowd, so there are people who are on the street, ordinary people who are fighting the future, and politicians who are also fighting for a future but they do it sometimes with a very brute force of calculation. I think that it’s going to be a great turning point not only for Ukraine but for the rest of the former Soviet Union—including Russia. The strengths and the determination of young Ukrainians on the streets of Kiev might be a deciding factor for the future.”
“What’s going to happen after Putin dies?”
“I think he will not die [before he leaves office]; I think he will be removed, and unfortunately in Russia, I’m afraid it will not happen peacefully.”
“So things could get worse.”
“No, I didn’t say worse. Because I still think that any removal of dictator is positive. The question is how violent this removal is, whether there’s bloodshed, whether it’s limited to the capital or just to the palace. Whether it’s backed by public demonstrations, whether they’re purely democratic or sometimes nationalistic.”
I admit I am stunned by his prediction of Putin’s fall. I wonder how many moves ahead Kasparov is really seeing. I’d asked him when he played, how many he could see ahead, and after hedging he said “five or six.”
When I ask Kasparov if he has any future political ambitions, he says he does not. But that denial may just be the right move now. Looking five or six moves ahead, I wonder if we won’t see Garry Kasparov mount another attack on the opposing king.