Regarded by many as the best chess player of all time, Gary Kasparov was welcomed with much excitement by the chess community in Malaysia during his recent visit.
At first glance, Gary Kimovich Kasparov appears reserved and, indeed, rather stand-offish, not looking directly at me while being introduced, although he does give a good handshake.
Perhaps it is stereotypical Slavic stoicism (although Kasparov is of Armenian Jewish descent, he grew up in the Soviet Union), perhaps it is the inward focus and introversion required to produce a chess grandmaster of his legendary stature, or perhaps it is his recent self-imposed exile from his adopted homeland of Russia due to the dangers provoked by his strident opposition to Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
But this first impression is soon revised upon further acquaintance. While I wouldn’t exactly say the youngest ever world chess champion (achieved at age 22 in 1985) warms up to me, he certainly answers my questions considerately enough.
Sharing his thoughts on whether the leap in technology over the past few decades has affected the way young professional players play chess, he says: “It goes without saying, machines definitely have an impact. On one side, machines help; on the other, they block certain instincts.”
He explains that players nowadays often rely on machines to help analyse games and moves, and this affects their ability to examine and understand chess strategies on their own.
Machines also do not take into account instinct and psychological factors, as Kasparov notes when talking about his experience playing against various computer programmes, the most prominent being his six-game match against IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997.
“Machines are very steady, they are not affected by psychological factors. That makes it difficult for humans to fight them; (because) in a game, there are always (emotional) fluctuations,” he says.
The only exceptions to his straightforward responses occur when I ask him questions that are too open-ended or not well-defined enough for him – he is obviously a man who prefers precision and exactness – and when I ask him what inspired him to enter politics.
Kasparov, who retired from playing professional chess in 2005, is well-known for his political opposition to Putin.
Among other things, Kasparov created the United Civil Front, which aims to “preserve electoral democracy in Russia”, and helped set up The Other Russia, a political coalition uniting political opponents of Putin’s.
Although my question is about how his interest in politics started, he responds by asking, “Politics, what politics?”
Upon clarification that I am referring to his prominence in the Russian opposition, he replies: “I left Russia 14 months ago.”
Although currently residing in New York when he is not flying around the world for his speaking and chess-related engagements, Kasparov applied for, and was granted, Croatian citizenship in February.
He explains that “going back to Russia would be a one-way trip” as “it is not a safe place for people who have dissenting views”.
Kasparov has been arrested at least twice in Russia in connection with his political activities, with the latest detainment occurring two years ago outside the courthouse where members of the anti-Putin Russian female punk rock band Pussy Riot were being tried for “hooliganism incited by religious hatred”.
Game against five
Kasparov was in Malaysia last month to help promote chess in education and campaign for his bid to become the next president of the World Chess Federation (usually known by its French acronym, FIDE, for Fédération internationale des échecs).
His trip here was organised by the Malaysian Chess Federation and the Umno Youth Economic Bureau.
One of the events he attended was a charity chess drive dinner held at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre.
The highlight of the dinner was the simultaneous chess game he played against five selected players.
TalentCorp Malaysia chief executive officer Johan Mahmood Merican, one of the players, enthusiastically described getting a chance to play against Kasparov as “a dream”, even though he “got destroyed”.
Johan eventually ran out of time during the timed game – but he was in a bad position anyway, he said later.
Having once been the Kuala Lumpur under-20 champion, Johan remembers his competitive chess days coinciding with the rise of the young Kasparov’s fame and record-breaking stay at the top of the world chess rankings. Kasparov was ranked world No.1 for all but three months from 1986 to 2005.
“I would have cancelled anything to be here tonight,” Johan shared with a smile.
He wasn’t the only childhood competitive chess player to take on the grandmaster. Royal Selangor executive director Chen Tien Yue was the national under-12 champion in his day. Expecting more players to participate in the simultaneous game, Chen apparently felt a little sting in losing to Kasparov in front of so many witnesses. However, most would surely agree that there is no shame in losing to a grandmaster of such stature and experience.
Chen too ran out of time during his game. Kasparov got 15 minutes on the clock against each player, while his opponents had 10 minutes each.
Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin had the privilege of making the first move against Kasparov, but was thereafter replaced by the Selangor Junior Open Under-Eight champion, seven-year-old Iskandar Haikal Zulkippli.
The two had a little disagreement at the start when Khairy opened by moving the king’s bishop’s pawn forward two spaces while Iskandar wanted to advance the king’s pawn instead. The minister eventually deferred to the young player, who was the first among the five players to make Kasparov pause for longer than a second in making his move.
Iskandar was a little shy when we approached him later but shared that he had enjoyed the game and had used his own moves (as opposed to set gambits or plays) during it.
Kasparov eventually checkmated the seven-year-old, the penultimate person to lose to the grandmaster. The final person defeated was Pelaburan Mara chairman Datuk Sohaimi Shahadan.