Bisik-Bisik with Garry Kasparov – Part 1

1/19/2010 – Last year Garry Kasparov visited Asia – for the first time since the Philippines Olympiad in 1992. He was in India and in Malaysia, where our reporter Edwin Lam did a Q&A with him. Kasparov spoke engagingly and candidly about Asia, his early career as a chess player, his protégé Magnus Carlsen and his Chess Foundation in America. Not a line of blah in this interview. Must read.

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"The interview with Garry Kasparov lasted forty minutes," Edwin Lam tells us. "If his minder had not stopped us he would have gone on for hours. I can still see his eyes light up when he talked about Carlsen – he just glowed, and I saw so much passion when he was on that subject. I must say that I learnt a lot from the man himself in the Q&A – I learnt a lot about life, work. and coupled with a game theory book I was reading back then, The Art of Strategy, it re-shaped my thinking about work and how best to approach it."

Bisik-Bisik with Garry Kasparov – Part 1

By Edwin Lam Choong Wai

Garry Kasparov made his first trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, back in mid November 2009, in order to speak at the Youth Engagement Summit (YES) 2009. I had the opportunity to catch up with the best player in chess history, ever, over a “Bisik-Bisik” session for ChessBase at the Putrajaya Convention Center. Our candid 40-minute chat covered a variety of topics. In this first part of the Bisik-Bisik session, Garry talked about his recent speaking engagements across Asia, his fascination with Malaysia, growing up years and most importantly, his collaboration with Magnus Carlsen.

Bisik-Bisik is a word from the Malay Archipelago, and means the act of “whispering” from one person to another. In my interviews I seeks to “whisper” to all our readers out there the previously unknown other side of his interview partners.

Edwin Lam: Is this your first trip to Malaysia?

Garry Kasparov: Yes, this is my first trip to Malaysia. 2009 is my first year that I have been around Asia. Due to the inequality in the distribution of chess events, I have travelled extensively across Europe, visiting many countries, many times. I have also been to the United States, Canada, Mexico and many Latin American countries, but never to Asia, with the only exception of the Philippines for the Chess Olympiad of 1992. It’s hard to imagine and people wouldn’t believe it if I say that before 2009, Philippines is the only Asian country I’ve ever visited. But, it is true! And, in this year alone, I’ve already made two trips to India, once to Delhi and the other one to Mumbai. The Mumbai trip took place only a couple of weeks ago for an all India IBM conference and now it’s Malaysia. I am definitely covering new areas on the map!

Panorama of Kuala Lumpur (photo by Azreey in Wikipedia) by day

You had arrived in Malaysia about two days’ ago with your wife. Have you had the chance to go around Kuala Lumpur?

No, no, not yet. My wife and I liked what we have seen so far here in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. We went to the mall here in Putrajaya yesterday and it is very clean, very organized. We saw a very interesting mix of ethnic diversity in the population of Malaysia. The other thing that we observed in the mall was that 40% of the stores there are catering for kids. This is an interesting, and again, for me someone like me who is into politics, it’s always interesting to see how people behave in public places and the atmosphere of the mall on a Sunday, with a lot of middle class people and their families. It is interesting and the impression is very positive.

Panorama of Kuala Lumpur (photo by Wikipedia)

We also noticed one other thing: that the colors of the clothes worn by Malaysians are very bright. Again, this is a refreshing change from Europe and the United States, in winter. So far, we have been quite inspired by the overall atmosphere – it’s a very positive atmosphere and the people are friendly. I am sure there are other parts of Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur, where we can see more diversity. But, so far, the experience in Putrajaya has been very good. We will go to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, after the speech and on the 18th of November. We have to see the Twin Towers, no doubt. Otherwise, it will be very strange, you know. Thanks to the flight schedule – the non-availability of daily flights to Moscow – meant that we are stuck here for one more day, and this is good news for us.


The landmark Petronas Twin Towers (photo by Wikipedia)

Let’s talk a little bit about growing up and chess. What are the factors that pushed you towards mastery of the game? How did you know it was your real passion?

My own early development certainly owed a great deal to my determined parents. My natural aptitude for chess was quickly discovered by my family. My father, Kim, then struggling with leukemia, made the decision to send me for chess schooling at the age of seven and my mother enthusiastically supported the idea. Internally, it is clear to me that I would not have achieved such success at anything other than chess. I must count my lucky stars here as the game came to me naturally, its requirements fitting my talents like a glove.


First game against Anatoly Karpov, a simul when Garry was twelve

Looking back at your own experience, and we see how kids these days start chess at a very young age, some as young as four and five, do you think is this a little too young, given that you started chess only at the age of seven?

I don’t think that it is too young or too late to start learning the game. Instead, it is a question on the goal or the objective of learning the game. I believe chess can play a very important role in a child’s education as it can help to improve their vision of things around them. Most of them, in fact 99.9% of them, will not play chess later in life. But, it is still very helpful for chess to be included in their general education curriculum. If the child shows interest in chess at the age of four or five, then fine. I believe that you have to help kids – you have to guide them – but, you cannot force them to do something they don’t like. For instance, my son doesn’t want to play chess. He has no interest and there is nothing that I can I do about it. He learnt chess when he was five or six and showed no special interest. He did not demonstrate any passion for it. While we play an important role of trying to guide kids to not be under the heavy influence of modern, mindless games, we must also understand the limitations of our interference. It’s about finding the golden balance of how to influence them without being too nasty and causing a counter reaction. This is true in any form of human relations, be it in a working team or in a father and son relationship.


A game against the great Viktor Korchoi – young Garik had winning chances but drew

In your opinion, can a less talented individual still succeed in chess, if he or she has the utmost passion in the game and a detailed plan to get there?

I had written in my book, How Life Imitates Chess, that working hard is also part of an individual’s talent. Sometimes, I find it hard to understand what it means when someone said, “Oh he or she is talented, but lazy”. To me, this simply showed that there is a big gap in the person’s character. Working hard is a form of talent – it is in fact, an important element of the person’s talent. By not working hard, how can your natural gift become real diamonds? So, that is why I think working hard is sometimes just as important to having a talent. Of course, I must admit that it will be difficult for someone without a huge talent to be a world champion. But, you can still go very high up and achieve a lot, even with limited talent. Of course, when I said limited talent, please do not get confused with the term. People can get really confused as talent can mean anything, you know. Being number one in your school also requires some talent. Being number one in the world also requires talent, but these are very different forms of talent. That said, I am a great proponent of the concept that the ability to work hard is a unique talent and if you can work hard and if you can spend the long hours and if you can concentrate on the goal and if you can make detailed plans, you could still be ahead of your competitor even if you are less talented or less gifted in chess or anything else simply because he or she is not as good in organizing their work.

We have all heard about your collaboration with the exceptionally talented Magnus Carlsen. When did the collaboration begin?

I met him in Oslo in 2005. I was there filming a documentary and we spent a few hours together. After I stopped playing chess, Magnus actually came to Moscow with his father, and we spent a day maybe and that’s it. For the next four years, we didn’t communicate except that I sent him my book, My Great Predecessors volumes 1 and 2, through Frederic Friedel of ChessBase. We re-established our contact last Christmas, again via Frederic, as there was an interest on Magnus’ part to find an opportunity to push ahead, because he has always had a problem of not having a real coach, someone who could organize things in the most efficient way. And, he also needs the extra teeth to play at the highest level. I mean he is already quite good in beating the average GMs and even the strong GMs. But, to become number one, you need more than just a talent, and I was quite interested. So, we established this communication and we talked for a while.


First encounter: Garry Kasparov vs Magnus Carlsen in Reykjavik in 2004. In game one Kasparov escaped with a draw (!), in the second he outplayed his youthful opponent. "I was not at all happy with ½-1½ against Kasparov," said Magnus later. "I should have won as White. As Black I played like a child!”

During Wijk ann Zee 2009, we spoke a couple of times on the telephone. It was just the beginning. And before Linares 2009 we had just one short session. Technically, in Linares, I had already offered him some advice, but it was not yet the full scale work because I also needed time to prepare for it. Despite my continuous work on chess and also my constant update of my chess database, I was obviously lagging behind. And, I also needed to get back my feel of the competitive atmosphere and it took a little bit of time before we actually got our act together. When summer came, we had quite a good training session in Croatia. And, then we had another training session in Oslo. I also accepted the chance to play the match with Karpov because I got back my feel for the game after working with Magnus. I got back with my senses. And, right after our Oslo training session, he played very successfully in Nanjing. And after the Moscow tournament he is unofficially number one. It’s still a very thin gap. And, I hope that London will be another success for him – a real success so that he will end the year as the clear number one in the official rating list. [This was said in November 2009]


Garry Kasparov coaching Magnus Carlsen in his summer residence in Croatia

Still, there is a lot of work to be done. I mean, he has showed tremendous progress and resistance recently. He was very sick in Moscow and even considered withdrawing after round two. I mean, we discussed it seriously with his father and his doctor. He had a very high temperature and throughout rounds three and four he played on while feeling really sick. He was seriously sick, and he only gradually recovered before round six, after the game with Anand. But, he was still far from good. I mean, even in the last round, he still had some complications and it was very tough. And, I was very proud that he had a +2 in a tournament, even with such horrible conditions. This showed that he is getting stronger. It is a demonstration of your character, to do well, not only in tournaments like Nanjing, but also when you are down and out. I think he is getting tougher and I have high hopes for the future of this cooperation.


Found it! Carlsen works on a chess board, Kasparov on his notebook computer

I think it is important for chess to have someone like Magnus Carlsen to give it a new “face” to excite the world. He is a young man with no prejudices of the “old” world of chess. He is a representative of the new generation, with an open approach and he can attract the following for the game of chess from the public. The current leaders of the chess world are not very active in promoting the game of chess, and they are not encouraging the new generations to join in. I hope that things can change with Magnus.

Coaches will typically accompany their charges to tournaments. With your busy schedule, how do you help Magnus during competitions?

Skype. We do Skype. Skype is most convenient. We can even send databases very quickly you know, any database. It’s just Skype.

So modern technologies help a lot, huh?

But, still I have to admit that Skype and computers are not and cannot be considered as equal replacements for normal training sessions. One of the problems for the Moscow tournament was that Magnus and I couldn’t find the time for a normal training session before the event. He was busy in Norway and I was in Mumbai. Even three days, you know, of just moving the pieces, and things can be very, very different. Before London, we are definitely going to have a session. There is no doubt about this.

Is your collaboration with Carlsen an indication of your intent to form the Kasparov Chess School, moving forward?

I have never stopped working on chess and education projects and I tried to do it in several countries. The most successful attempt has been in the United States. The Kasparov Chess Foundation was founded in 2002 and we had a very generous donor who kept supporting us all these years. We built up a blueprint curriculum that is used in all 50 states, of course mainly in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut as well as in Chicago and Texas. Technically, we are in all 50 states, in more than 3,000 schools and we are teaching teachers how to teach chess. We believe that the teachers who are already in schools need some simple lessons to teach the game of chess because it is more important to be a teacher than to be a chess player in the classroom. And, again, our concept is that chess is an inexpensive but very efficient way to improve their education.


Garry Kasparov with members of the Kasparov Chess Foundation

Besides that, the Kasparov Chess Foundation has been actively helping American talents in the past few years. We have also been sponsoring semi-professional youth events such as the All-Girls US Championship, whereby the Texas University are providing scholarships for the winner. Twice a year, we run special chess sessions with kids, the most talented ones. The next one will be in December, just before Christmas. We started with many, up till 30, and now we have about 10 to 12 kids. We go through their games. It’s all very Soviet tradition that we have now installed in the United States.


Kasparov during a Chess Foundation simul at the Harlem Children's Zone

As you can see with all these, I’ve never stopped working on that level. But, as for professional collaboration, my answer to your question is “No”. I mean, if you work with a player like Magnus, you can’t work with anybody else. I also have no interest for it as I am very satisfied working with Magnus. Working with the kids through the Kasparov Chess Foundation as well as with Magnus keeps my chess playing skills alive. And, it is a refreshing change, thanks to the advice of my mother, to keep your mind working and not get bored or tired by switching from one area of work to another. So, you don’t get stuck with politics, or doing the speeches. I mean, playing chess, or working on chess and I am still working on the books, you know volume three of all my games against Karpov this year, and next year I will be working on another three volumes of Garry Kasparov’s best games. But, you know, doing actual work with Magnus is also very refreshing. And, I am very happy. It’s not that I am playing the moves in the games myself, but sometimes, I feel that I am personally preparing for Kramnik or for Anand. And, it’s nice. It feels good. Working with kids at the 2300-2400 level with the Kasparov Chess Foundation is one story. Now, working with a 2800 player is another story.

© Edwin Lam Choong Wai 2009

Links

Breaking news: Carlsen and Kasparov join forces
07.09.2009 – It was the best-kept secret of the year: Magnus Carlsen, at 18 already the fourth highest ranked player in the world, has won the legendary Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest player in chess history, as his personal trainer. The goal is to make Magnus the world's number one in the course of the coming year. The Norwegian newspaper VG has broken the news.

Media blitz: Kasparov and Carlsen in Oslo
17.09.2009 – A scheduled training session with Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen was used as an occasion to meet the Norwegian press. The two sat down for a friendly game against Education Minister Solhjell, and all three answered questions for a Channel 2 journalist. The government is set to back their brightest chess star, said the Minister, and his country's bid to host a Chess Olympiad. Video report.

Kasparov and Carlsen on Norway's NRK talk show
22.09.2009 – Nobody watches long interviews on the Internet any more – Google and YouTube have satiated us pretty much. But sometimes you have to make an exception. Here are Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen talking about their cooperation to make the latter the number one in chess. The discussion on Norway's NRK Nett-TV talk show is charming and insightful. Video and full transcript.

Magnus Carlsen on Golden Goal
19.10.2009 – Johan Golden is a Norwegian TV host and a colorful figure in the country's comedy, musical and political scene. In his show Golden Goal he recently had a special guest: Magnus Carlsen, Norway's chess wonder and one of the greatest sports heros the country has had. A light-hearted trademark Golden exchange (in Nowegian) ensues. We bring you a video and English transcript.

Previous Bisik-Bisik articles by Edwin Lam

Viktor Bologan and the Chebanenko Slav
18.02.2009 – Recently we found a book entitled The Chebanenko Slav according to Bologan. The author is Moldavia GM Viktor Bologan, who looks back on a two decade long career, which includes a 2003 Dortmund triumph ahead of Anand and Kramnik. That came, incidentally, after a ten-day training session with Garry Kasparov. Read all about it in this Bisik-Bisik session with Edwin Lam.

Bisik-Bisik with GM Nigel Short
03.10.2008 – Mention GM Nigel Short and we think grandmaster, world championship challenger, coach, author and journalist. Some of us will also associate him with the French Defence, an opening that he used to play regularly many years ago. But away from the chess board, this man is also very well known for his witty reports and articles on chess. Edwin Lam interviews the chess writer.

Bisik-Bisik with GM Alexander Khalifman
20.08.2008 Bisik-Bisik is a word from the Malay Archipelago, and means whispering from one person to another. In a series Edwin Lam seeks to “whisper” to our readers out there the previously unknown other side of his interview partners. Today he talks with GM Alexander Khalifman, who in 1999 became the FIDE world champion in Las Vegas. Today "El Khalif" runs a training web site and publishes books. Bisik-bisik.

Ni hao, GM Zhang Zhong and WGM Li Ruofan
10.01.2008 – Ni hao, pronounced second tone-third tone, is Chinese for Hello or Hi ("Ni hao ma?" means "how are you" and "Wo hun hao" means "I'm doing great"). After this short lesson in Chinese first encounters we bring you a portrait of the Chinese dream couple: GM Zhang Zhong, Elo 2634, and his wife WGM Li Ruofan, rated 2417. Bisik-Bisik (Malay for "whisperings") by Edwin Lam.

Bisik-Bisik with Viktor Moskalenko
15.12.2007 Bisik-Bisik is a word from the Malay Archipelago, and means the act of “whispering” from one person to another. Starting with this inaugural article Edwin Lam will seek to “whisper” to all our readers out there the previously unknown other side of his interview partners. He kicks off with a conversation between Edwin and Ukrainian Viktor Moskalenko, grandmaster, teacher and chess author.

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