Garry Kasparov is considered to be the strongest chess player ever. The youngest world champion in history when only twenty-two, he lost just a single match in his twenty-five-year career. Now retired, he is a leader in the Russian opposition movement and a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.
One of the first things you notice about Kasparov is his intensity: he walks rapidly, and when in conversation his whole body seems to focus, confronting the questions I pose. Life, then, mirrors chess, where Kasparov was renowned as much for his compelling chess style as his results. It is a style that he describes as “very dynamic, aggressive chess, dominant chess”, contrasting with the more “pure”, “long-term” approach of the current top player Magnus Carlsen.
He speaks quickly, jumping between sentences. This energy is important. For him chess consisted in intense encounters that required mental but also physical preparation, with championship matches lasting months. “Exercise was a very important part of my overall preparation” he says, “to be in the perfect shape before the match you have to work out the combination of your body and your mind, so feeling strong and being in excellent shape physically always helped to generate more energy.”
His memory is extraordinary. Kasparov reputedly could remember every professional game of chess that he had ever played, so I printed out two chess positions, selected randomly from a huge online database of his games. As soon as he glimpsed them, he told me when and where the games were played and named his opponent. He even knew which round of the tournament the games were from, the subsequent moves, and the improvements that he should have made. It was a surprising start to an interview, yet Kasparov merely looked indifferent. “But these are my own games…” he said, his voice trailing off. “You could have made that a lot harder”, added his aide, laughing.
For Kasparov, analysing one’s mistakes is crucial to success. “When playing chess I learnt that every decision requires post-mortem analysis… There is no such thing as a perfect game.” Optimising his performance was a matter of finding a unique approach: you have to “build your own — which is only your own — decision making formula to maximise the effect of your strengths, and to minimise, obviously, the negative effect of your weaknesses.”
In early 2005, after being the number one ranked grandmaster for more than twenty years, he retired from chess to shift his energy toward restoring democracy in his home country, Russia. A constant critic of the regime, he was recently detained and beaten whilst at the Pussy Riot trial rallies. Does Kasparov still hope to overthrow Putin? “I think that things are heating up, but this is not a linear process. its like a volcano, you have all the signs about eruption, but you can’t say its going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” The man who predicted the fall of communism does not have strong predictions for Russia’s future. “I believe that Mr Putin under no circumstances will survive his six-year term. In the next two/three years maximum we will see a major explosion in Russia. I’m not saying it will bring us positive results, but I think the status quo, the current status quo in Russia, is doomed and is about to expire.”
It the global economic stagnation that drew Kasparov to Oxford: he visited the Oxford Martin School to meet with academics and students from Oxford University to continue to develop his view of the crisis, which he has formed along with Paypal innovators Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. From Kasparov there is no talk of restructuring debt, or of yearly growth targets. To him, the crisis results from the “virus of risk-averse society”, where innovation has stagnated and short-term thinking has triumphed.
In his event at the Oxford Martin School, Kasparov contrasted the mid-twentieth century and today, pointing to the rapid development of antibiotics, rocket technology, nuclear technology and more. Even the internet has its origins in the 1960s. And today? Our planes travel at the same speed they did in the 1950s. Our major recent technological developments, mobile technology and computers, are actually advances from the mid-twentieth century. Our satellites are launched in a similar manner to Sputnik. Growth comes not from technological advance but from the housing market. We are even running out of antibiotics.
What went wrong? He points to the emergence of a safe, ‘milestone driven’ approach to progress. ‘Nobody wants to take a risk, and it reflects very much the over-cautious nature of the publicly or privately funded science today’. He points to the present lack of big, blue-sky projects, such as the Apollo missions.
To Kasparov, this shift began in the “late sixties”, but was only visible much later. “We had such a huge pile of innovations allocated over decades, so that’s why you didn’t even feel it in the seventies or eighties. I think the first time where we actually could feel the heat was the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The existential threat for the free world has disappeared, and it helped to expose the public appetite for a safe, comfortable life.”
Kasparov sees Fukuyama’s End of History as symptomatic of this shift, the view that society has reached an endpoint. “So the world reached the end of history, so now we can afford, you know, to enjoy the life we inherited from our parents and grandparents.” He hits the table, emphasising the point. “No more sacrifices, the idea of sacrifice has disappeared from the public, private and social agenda.
“Now its time to recognise that the notion that the next generation will have a better life than the previous one may not work, actually, it will not work.” So can we do anything? “Of course we can… At the end of the day its about public pressure… If the public wanted a Mars expedition, Americans would be landing on Mars in this decade.”
Kasparov admits there is “no immediate solution.” The answer lies in creating opportunities. “All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”
Kasparov to abandon Russia
On Thursday the Moscow Times reported that “Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion-turned-political-opposition-stalwart, told a news conference in Geneva that he would not return to Russia for fear of criminal prosecution for his political activities.”
Kasparov, who co-founded the opposition movements The Other Russia in 2006 and Solidarity in 2008, later tweeted “I refuse to allow Putin and his gang define Russia. They are a temporary disease that the Russian immune system will soon fight off.”