The World Chess Champion is bound to be an unusual person. One would certainly expect willpower, concentration, the ability to soak up an abnormal amount of tension. But beyond that there must be some special ingredients to set him (or perhaps, with the advent of the Polgar sisters, her) apart from the myriad other strong chess players in the world. In the case of Garry Kimovich Kasparov those special ingredients are a quite extraordinary amount of energy combined with a superb memory.
Garry Weinstein was born in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku on April 13 1963, the son of a Jewish father and an Armenian mother. Weinstein’s father came from a family of musicians and hoped his son would also be interested in music. But at the age of six, Garry learnt chess.
In his autobiography, Child of Change, written by Donald Trelford, Kasparov gives a presumably slightly apochryphal account of how he picked up chess by watching his parents trying to solve a problem. Not ever having been taught chess, he was nevertheless able to tell them the solution. The same story is told of four-year-old José Raoul Capablanca, and it always reminds me of Aphrodite springing naked, but perfectly formed, from the foam of the sea.
Whatever the precise details of his initiation into chess, Weinstein showed such aptitude that music was soon left behind. At the age of seven, he was taken to the Palace of Young Pioneers in Baku for special chess instruction. By the age of 10 he was already getting tuition at the chess school founded by Mikhail Botvinnik (world champion intermittently from 1948-63).
Like an alarmingly large proportion of chess players, Garry Weinstein lost his father very young – he died in 1971 when the boy was only seven. In his absence, Garry has always been very close to his mother Klara, who is obviously an extremely strong person.
Indeed under Botvinnik’s influence, he changed his name in his early teens to Kasparov, a Russification of his mother’s Armenian name Kasparian. This had the advantage of losing a Jewish name in a country where there is always latent anti-Semitism.
It would not be too fanciful to see Botvinnik as a sort of chess father to Kasparov. Now they have quarrelled about the complexities of the control of the World Championship. But Kasparov has certainly inherited certain qualities from Botvinnik, including his stubbornness and strength of character; and more technically, his scientific approach to the opening.
There is a popular misconception that chess players have fantastic memories. Actually, many strong players, including Anatoly Karpov, forget their games very quickly. But it is absolutely true of Kasparov, who will happily tell you about any one of his 130 games against Karpov; and can also, for instance, name all of the American states. Together with his team of helpers he has used this gift to assimilate more chess opening theory than anybody else.
But Kasparov is not a man to limit his goals or his spheres of action. Stocky and strong, with black hair already streaked with grey by the pressure of his life-style, Kasparov lives in perpetual whirlwind of activity. Naturally this is reflected in his speech, which is rapid in English and positively supersonic in his native Russian.
This immense energy is expressed in his chess. While Botvinnik was his teacher, Kasparov’s great chess hero is Alekhine, the master of attack who was world champion from 1927 until his death in 1946. Like Alekhine, Kasparov’s chess pulsates with life and danger.
Like Alekhine, and even more so that genius of attack, Mikhail Tal, Kasparov loves to calculate variations. Playing chess with him is like facing a tiger: one chance and he’ll jump at your throat. Against Karpov the danger is much more insidious. He will gain control of the game almost imperceptibly, and then you will find yourself in the grip of an anaconda.
Kasparov first faced Karpov in 1984 in an unlimited match to six wins. After only nine games he was being massacred 4-0 but then his extreme strength of character and Karpov’s indecisiveness came to his rescue. After a fantastic war of attrition he fought back and after wins in games 47 and 48 had reached 3-5.
It was then that Florencio Campomanes, the president of FIDE (La Fédération Internationale des Echecs) stepped in to declare the match drawn. Relations between the ‘two Ks’ have never fully recovered from the recriminations which followed. And from that time on, Kasparov has been involved in a tireless political campaign against Campomanes.
The following year Kasparov won the title, beating Karpov 13-11, and he has held Karpov off in two subsequent matches, 12+11+ in 1986 and 12-all in 1987. This January, he fulfilled a further ambition, reaching an international rating of 2,800, the highest in history.
In 1977, Kasparov was a founder member and the first president of the Grandmasters Association, set up in Brussels with the help of Belgian financier Bessel Kok. The GMA negotiated with FIDE for control of world chess but when an accord not to his liking was ratified by the GMA, he resigned as president this June.
Now Kasparov is more concerned with his own internal player’s union, the Soviet GMA. And he has also moved on to the broader stage of real politics. He helped to found and is vice-chairman of the Democratic Party of Russia and owns their newspaper.
Initially an enthusiastic supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, he is now violently opposed: “Not only was [the regime] rotting during Brezhnev’s time, but it is rotting still.” Earlier this year the rioting between Azerbaijanis and Armenians forced Kasparov to flee Baku with family and friends. To this end he arranged via his English manager, Andrew Page, to hire a plane – an extraordinary thing for a Soviet citizen to be able to do. He now lives in Moscow with his wife, Maria, an interpreter who speaks English and Danish.
For the last month though, he has been in Martha’s Vineyard near Boston, preparing with his various seconds for the match which starts today. It will be a ferocious contest. After four matches and 130 games, Kasparov would like to get rid of Karpov for good. Karpov has not been playing well recently, but only, in my opinion, because he has been unable to focus properly on any task which is extraneous to the coming battle.
Now we will see. I expect Kasparov to win – he has always shown better nerves than Karpov when it has really counted – but only just.
Jon Speelman, a grandmaster in the world’s top 20, has played Kasparov eight times.