- 09 Apr 14
After spending two decades as undisputed kingpin of the chess universe, Garry Kasparov is now pitting his wits against his most formidable adversary yet - Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Garry Kasparov (born Garik Kimovich Weinstein) is a Russian-Armenian chess grandmaster and former World Champion, widely considered the greatest player in chess history. During a two-decade spell from 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he held the World No. 1 ranking for all but three months.
A child prodigy, Kasparov is perhaps best remembered for his famous victory over fellow former Soviet world champion and regime favourite Anatoly Karpov in their 1985 championship battle, after which he became the youngest ever world champion at the age of 22. Now engaged in politics as an active and outspoken opponent of autocratic ruler Vladimir Putin, Kasparov came to Ireland as part of his campaign to become president of FIDE, the ruling world chess body. I caught up with the Grandmaster to talk about the role chess can play in the education of young people, the ‘Mozart of Chess’ Magnus Carlsen – and why he thinks Putin could be the next Hitler.
So tell me your impressions of Ireland so far?
I never visited Ireland before. Thanks to this campaign, I can finally close that chapter in my biography! I’m really looking forward to looking around and getting an impression about Dublin. But I have met Irish people and read Irish writers, so I know enough about the history. Certainly in chess, Ireland is less prominent than in literature.
Do you think we could produce a ‘Kasparov’ in the future?
It’s all about numbers. It’s all about making sure more kids are being engaged: the talent is just waiting for us around the corner.
You’ve spoken very passionately about getting more children playing chess and getting it onto the education syllabus.
I have been saying this for many years. I’m a great believer that chess should be part of education. I think that this is the way for the game of chess to earn its place in the mainstream of the public attention. Chess has all the components to help reform the education system. It’s also inexpensive: you don’t need to build a stadium, golf course, swimming pool and so on. It’s easy to implement – plus it’s connected to computers. It could have a strong appeal for kids.
What do you think is the difference between a good chess player and a great chess player?
First you should get to the good chess player. The difference is always very small: because it’s so small and delicate, it would be hard to explain in a few words.
What made you the best chess player of all time?
My dedication, my hard work, my concentration, my talents... the same components as for anything else really.
The late Bobby Fischer popularised chess in the West, then it drifted out of the spotlight. Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen is beginning to do a similar job. Do you think it can return to a high level of popularity?
You make the automatic assumption that chess was much more popular in 1972, but let’s be honest. In 1972 there were Cold War components: America versus the Soviet chess machine. So 1972 was a different climate and what is also being ignored very often is that in 1972, there was not much competition. Football was making its first steps, tennis was just gaining ground. There was no CNN, no cable television, set aside internet – so today the competition for the public eye is a thousand times bigger than it was in 1972 or in 1985 when I played Karpov. So that’s why we have to find a way to attract people. As you said Magnus Carlsen is a perfect champion – he has great appeal.
Carlsen has been described as the ‘Mozart of Chess’.
I’m not happy to just call him this: he is a great, great player. I worked with him for one year in 2009. Today undoubtedly he is just a great asset for the game: that’s why I think its amazing that FIDE couldn’t sell the world championship match when Magnus Carlsen was one of the players in it. As FIDE president I would be thrilled to have Magnus Carlsen as a world champion to help me to promote the game.
Cheating has always been a problem in chess – but much more so now with the advent of technology...
It’s about the integrity of the game: if we want to sell it to corporate sponsorship, we have to make sure that the game is attractive. One of the other is the short draws. My administration will be fighting fiercely to make sure the games are exciting: they will not end in ten minutes because players agree on that. Protecting the integrity of the game will also be of utmost importance. I understand the gravity of the problem with cheating. Organisers will be equipped to make sure cheating is eliminated from the tournament hall.
You had a recent article in the Washington Post warning against Putin. How do you see the current crisis between the Ukraine and Russia playing itself out?
Look, every regime that’s corrupt and undemocratic eventually needs foreign policy justification for its survival. So that explains Putin and his aggression in the Ukraine. I’m afraid of the steps to follow after Crimea. It’s the only way to justify him staying in power in Russia.
Do you feel that this could escalate into a war?
Again from history we know that the longer we wait without a strong response, the higher the price we pay. Dictators grow with our weakness and indecisiveness. If nothing happens or the response from the free world is weak, well then it will encourage Putin to move forward. So it’s not yet carved in stone that he would move beyond Crimea but I think it’s a 50/50 chance that he will do it in the next few weeks because it’s very clear that he is not recognising the Ukrainian government as a legitimate government. He makes no secret of his intention to split Ukraine. We know that there is the presidential elections in Ukraine, scheduled on May 25, and that this election will bring a new legitimate President. So while there is no President now, there is still a legitimate government based on the parliament. But for Putin, the May 25 elections might be sort of the closing day for his legal arguments to challenge the integrity of Ukrainian statehood.
Have you met Putin?
I haven’t met him and I haven’t met Adolf Hitler either.
Is there a comparison to be made between the two?
Of course! The problem is, the moment people hear Adolf Hitler they think, ‘Oh, Adolf Hitler, absolute evil’. We are not talking about Adolf Hitler from the history books: we are talking about Hitler in 1936, ‘37 and ‘38. So now it’s clear we are in 1938: you can compare Crimea and Austria. Also when you hear Putin speak these speeches in the last few weeks, they are almost direct translations from German. There is the structure, the text, the passionate approach for national unity and the protection of Russians outside of Mother Russia or the Fatherland. So I get the feeling Putin does it intentionally to send a message that he will be acting as brutally as Adolf Hitler to capitalise on the weaknesses in the western democracies.
Do you think it’s a bluff?
I think he is bluffing, and he has been bluffing throughout his entire rule – but so far nobody has called his bluff.
So what should the West do?
If he wants to get crazy and cross the border, you cannot do anything because I think Russia has reached the point where he can push beyond any limits. We should forget about Putin: this is about his entourage, the generals and lieutenants of Putin’s army, and also the political and economic advisors. Putin has burned all the bridges, but they have not. So many of them might get very concerned their boss is getting crazy. Right now they are following him because they do not believe the sanctions will last, they believe in Putin’s lucky star. But any time you concede territory, any time a dictator succeeds in bluffing and winning, people behind him believe that he is invincible. You have to show that the Free World is serious.
It’s very important to make it clear that the consequences of Putin’s troops crossing the Ukrainian border would be disastrous for Russia. The message should be sent that immediately after Russian troops cross that border, all Russian state assets will be frozen. You don’t want to do that – but nobody is going to send troops, there’ll be no boots on the ground, no NATO tanks in the Ukraine. But you have to demonstrate that you are deadly serious. I understand why the G7 has to work in a concerted way, but you have to make very strong statements and you have to make credible threats. That’s very important: let me emphasise credible threats for people surrounding Putin to understand that these threats will touch them.
Do you worry about your own personal safety?
Again, if you want to know the views of Adolf Hitler you should read the newspapers of the time: read what the London Times, Le Monde or the New York Times wrote about him in ’36, ‘37, ‘38 and that will be very similar to what is being written about Putin now. I left my country in February 2013 and I have no intention of flying back because I’d say it would be a one-way trip. I had to obtain Croatian citizenship to make sure I can travel freely around the world, without being forced to renege of my Russian citizenship. I believe I’ll come back eventually...
But do you fear for your safety?
Not here in Dublin. Yes, it’s a dangerous life – but I spend so much time on the plane. I’m used to a certain amount of risk. I don’t know if something terrible can happen outside of Russia. I can only try to minimise the risk.
We saw the impact and publicity that Pussy Riot generated worldwide.
It’s very difficult to confront a regime which is so strict. It’s not yet totalitarian but it’s on the way. There is 24/7 propaganda on all channels: even the small windows that had been left have been blocked now. There is a very small area of the internet where people can express their views. Of course it reaches a tiny population in Russia. I saw a recent report that said 80%-plus of Russians still receive news from the television – which means they are brainwashed by the propaganda. The positive side is that two weeks ago there was a demonstration in Moscow against Crimea’s annexation – and that was more than 50,000 people. Can these people change the situation now? Unfortunately not. That’s why I hope the sanctions will actually start changing lives in Russia. So, long-term, the Crimea annexation will have a cost and the people should recognise that this cost is a direct result of their silent support or approval of Putin’s suicidal policies.
Will your bid to become FIDE President succeed?
I’m used to playing professional chess and I know that the game isn’t over until the clock has stopped. I think I’m doing well. If you look at this campaign as a chess game, we are now entering the middle game. Europe was always in favour of change in the current corrupt and inadequate leadership of FIDE, but I believe we will win in Africa and Asia too. I have travelled a lot and I am collecting not just votes but friends and collaborators. So things are looking good.