Garry Kasparov celebrates special 10th anniversary in Manhattan

6/19/2012 – Back in 2002, Garry Kasparov was the world's top-ranked chessplayer and the launch of the Kasparov Chess Foundation seemed unlikely to receive much of his attention. But in 10 years KCF has brought chess into thousands of US classrooms and expanded with branches in Brussels and Johannesburg. Over cake in Midtown we spoke with Kasparov on chess in education, FIDE, and more.

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The Kasparov Chess Foundation Turns 10

With its program running in over 3500 schools in all 50 US states, you would think Garry Kasparov would be satisfied with the progress of the non-profit that bears his name. But it turns out that seven years away from the competitive chessboard has not dimmed Kasparov's ambitions, only redirected them. He continues to play an active role in Russia's reborn pro-democracy movement and KCF recently launched branches in Europe and Africa. In the last year, Kasparov has had high-level visits in Brazil, Turkey, France, UK, South Africa, Georgia, Estonia, and the United Arab Emirates.


Like proud parents at a child's birthday party: Garry Kasparov and KCF president Michael Khodarkovsky

On June 16, KCF celebrated its 10th anniversary with a kids chess tournament and party in beautiful Bryant Park, right in the middle of Midtown Manhattan in the shadow of the incredible main NY Public Library building. A special VIP was Dutch GM Genna Sosonko, who introduced Kasparov to the audience. We took lots of pictures and interviewed Kasparov on the future of chess as a modern education tool and the role FIDE should be playing in this initiative.

Q: Congratulations on this milestone. Is KCF today what you imagined it would become back in 2002?

Kasparov: As ambitious as our hopes were, it is safe to say KCF has surpassed my expectations. Its success shows how chess can thrive as long as the bureaucrats don't get in the way. The educators, the administrators, the kids, the parents, and both public and privates sponsors have pushed things along the entire way. They come to us! I like to say we are really followers who pretend to lead! They are the ones who asked for more, who suggested new ways to bring chess into the education system, who asked how they could support our initiatives here in New York and around the world. It's been amazing.

Q: So how has KCF and its mission changed in ten years?

Kasparov: Our core mission is still the same, to bring chess into the classroom. What has changed is how we view chess as a part of a bigger revolution in education in general. I will always believe that chess is worth learning, and teaching, for its own sake, of course. But we are seeing how it can also be a model of new ideas in education and an example of how to bring interactive technology into teaching. Okay, we are obviously not advocating replacing literature or mathematics with chess, but more and more people are seeing how chess improves results in everything else. It improves concentration and mental discipline, skills that improve test scores. It's fun, so attendance improves as well.

And if you have kids playing online under a school structure, it is an example of the sort of dynamic and interactive content school systems are looking for. Most classrooms haven't changed in one hundred years but the world is a very different place. Kids need interactivity, and chess can serve as a gateway to this. "Gamification" is a word we are hearing a lot, bringing competition into education content. This is the sort of thing we hear from both the public education ministers and the corporate sponsors. They don't necessarily care about chess at first but they want to be on the cutting edge, to support something innovative and effective.


Bryant Park and the main NY Library building, an oasis in hectic Midtown


Thousands of locals and tourists stopped by on a beautiful day


Of course there had to be some chess. There were kids from all over, including many from KCF's
programs in some of New York's top private schools and also champions from their programs in Harlem.

Q: KCF is based in New York but a lot of the slides in your presentation are about activities on other continents.

Kasparov: As I said earlier about KCF following the demands of the people, in this case we have been following the lead of my wife! Dasha saw the potential to expand and she brought a lot of energy to KCF to broaden not only our programs, but also our fundraising and PR. KCF Europe and Africa would never have come into being without Dasha. And this event never would have happened without her! She also put together the big fundraiser we held here in January. I am hardly the cautious type myself, but whenever Dasha sees a possibility she thinks of a way to do it bigger and better; she doesn't let us rest on our laurels.


Dasha Kasparova with guitarist Simon Powis (l), Robert Granieri of Jane Street
Capital, and Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen (r).

And as a result, the interest in our programs around the world has been remarkable. [The Republic of] Georgia is planning to implement our program in two thousand schools! Kasparov Chess Foundation Europe launched last year and has already made tremendous progress, successfully lobbying for a European Parliament declaration in support of chess in schools along with the European Chess Union. This was a landmark achievement for chess that will open many doors. Instead of having to convince people about the value of chess, the entire EU parliament has given its endorsement. And this was a real coalition with overwhelming support.


Kasparov and colleagues speaking on behalf of the Chess in School declaration at the European Parliament.

Kasparov: The potential in Africa and other places in the developing world is perhaps even greater. The benefits of chess come at a very low price! You don't have to build a stadium or buy lots of expensive equipment. Dasha and I went to townships in South Africa where the schools have one room and a wood floor but the passion for education was tremendous. Chess can bring together kids of every color, gender, and economic level, and that is no small thing in many places. Imagine, at a young age gaining intellectual achievements, what confidence that can give.

Education departments are seeing chess as a way to leapfrog over antiquated education methods. They want to produce entrepreneurs, inventors, a creative class that can lead the way. The old top-down methods of repetition and memorization won't produce a 21st century creative class. If it doesn't involve technology, if it's not interactive and social, it's already outmoded. Chess is already there; it's up to the content creators to produce other material to fit this methodology. And they learn how to do it from seeing how it works with chess.


A slide from Kasparov's presentation about his visits to South Africa. He also met
President Jacob Zuma, an enthusiastic chessplayer and supporter of chess.


The Kasparovs in South Africa with President Jacob Zuma on Kasparov's right

"No amount of video games can teach a child the same level of patience, strategic thinking, concentration, analytical skills and the attention to detail that they would gain from this timeless intellectual game." — President Jacob Zuma

Q: How is this happening so quickly? Where does the money come from and where does it go?

Kasparov: This is the irony of our efforts contrasted with FIDE today. We bring money into chess from the outside and FIDE takes money out of chess for its own benefit! KCF's support varies from place to place, from public and private donations and sponsorships, and we invest that money in expanding our programs, supporting the educators and kids with materials and training.

KCF is happy to work with successful partners, as we do with the Moves for Life program in South Africa. They are doing amazing work. We contribute our methods and our brand and always gain from their local knowledge, contacts, and experience. You cannot march around trying to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all system. In some places, like France, the centralized education authority is very powerful. So we work with the ministry directly. In England it's the privately sponsored Chess in School and Communities, run by Malcolm Pein. In other places, such as the US, you have to deal at the local level, sometimes even the individual school level.

Once companies hear about our programs and meet with us, and see how their money will be spent, we have little trouble finding support. We also rely on individual donors who love chess or who want to support an innovative education program. I again have to contrast this with Ilyumzhinov's FIDE. Our doors are open, not closed, and sponsors are attracted by chess and by an open and honest way to support the game and kids. Meanwhile, FIDE's deals are behind closed doors with closed books and sponsors want nothing to do with them.

And that's even before they google Ilyumzhinov and see him meeting with Assad and Qaddafi or talking about aliens! Then they run away and never want to hear about chess again! In a way what KCF does can serve as a vaccination against the clandestine activities of the current FIDE president. It's a great pity we are succeeding despite the actions and reputation of the international chess federation and its leadership instead of with its assistance.

Q: Well, now we definitely can't avoid asking about this week's story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine about the possibility of your running for FIDE president in 2014. Maybe we are old fashioned, but a few of your tweets really don't satisfy.

Kasparov: Look, it's not like I have a lot of free time, or that I dream about being FIDE president. But for me, or for anyone who loves chess like I do, watching what Kirsan has done to the sport causes real pain. The most important thing is putting FIDE in the hands of people who care about chess and who will use FIDE for what it was intended, to help the players and the federations and promote the sport. If it looks like the only way for that to happen is for me to be a candidate, okay I will run, but that is not yet my priority. If there is a better chance to remove Kirsan by supporting someone else, I will do that. The bottom line is that we need someone who will work for chess instead of living off chess!

Look at the scandal in Turkey with the way FIDE is allowing the organizers to rip off the players and federations, charging them extortionately high prices for accommodations. Just one more example of how Kirsan's FIDE takes money out of the chess community instead of bringing it in. It will take time to repair this damage and we cannot afford to waste more time.

Q: Removing Ilyumzhinov is a negative concept. What are the positive themes for a potential 2014 FIDE presidential campaign?

Kasparov: Speaking very broadly, strategically, chess must defend its status as a serious sport while also moving into new cultural ground in education. This will broaden our resources and our appeal, growing a new generation of players and supporters. A strong FIDE education initiative will be a big step in that direction. It can bring together kids, sponsors, educators, and network technology. We have to look at the big picture, see how we can grow the game in new ways and in new places and find new support while staying true to the things have made chess great.


Dutch GM Genna Sosonko has become a preeminent chess writer and commentator.


"When I speak to a crowd like this in Russia the police try to arrest us! Here they help us!"


A slideshow on KCF's activities was projected on a huge LED screen.


A young participant gets a signature on his medal.


A special performance by renowned classical guitarist Simon Powis of Australia.


Kasparov being interviewed by Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent
for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. You should read the resulting article here.


Well, maybe he has lightened up just a little since retiring from chess...

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