Garry Kasparov on the record

5/11/2004 – FIDE is moving ahead with their knock-out world chess championship in Libya. Tomorrow is a press conference for the Kramnik-Leko world championship. Ponomariov is writing letters of protest. The ACP is criticizing FIDE. The name Kasparov is often mentioned but only now is the world's top-ranked player speaking out, and only here at ChessBase. Mig Greengard got on the phone to Moscow and brings sound and fury.

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Garry Kasparov on the record

[Click the "Listen!" icons to play short MP3 clips from the Kasparov interview.]


Garry Kasparov’s voice was a little more muffled than the usual long-distance call to Moscow. He was trying to shake a change-of-seasons cold and it took a little while for the verbal Kasparov express train to reach top speed. The world’s top-rated player has been quiet during the last few months of controversy in the chess world. It was quickly apparent that he’s been keeping a close eye on the proceedings.

Our hour covered current affairs, social studies, business finance, and finished off with some history. We focused on the status of the world championship unification plan and moved on to the fundamental issues of chess sponsorship. Kasparov responded to Yasser Seirawan’s November interview and addressed the activities of the new Association of Chess Professionals.

In keeping with the plan laid out in the 2002 Prague agreement Kasparov is slotted to play a match against the winner of June’s FIDE world championship in Libya. His first declaration came as a surprise at a moment in which some are accusing him of receiving unfair preferential treatment in the world championship derby.

"First let me say that I don’t think any one player should have a special position. In the current environment there is no player who deserves special treatment. In his recent interview [New In Chess] Kramnik says he doesn’t see any reason to consider me as the number one. Okay, maybe I agree with him. But applying the same logic I don’t see any reason to consider him to be the world champion. He won a match against me four years ago, correct. But why should he be considered above Anand right now?"

Kasparov bases his rationale for this inter pares situation on Kramnik’s inability to show he’s the best and his failure to defend his title against legitimate qualifiers on a regular basis. He also agrees with Kramnik on something else, that there are currently four players that can be considered ahead of the rest: Anand, Kramnik, Leko, and himself. You shouldn’t ignore the excellent results of Svidler and Morozevich, but I don’t think many would argue with the favored status of the first four.

Back in 1946 the highest title was left vacant by the death of Alekhine. It was an unprecedented scenario and one that thankfully has not been repeated. With the tradition of succession unavailable, a match tournament was organized in 1948 and the world’s top players were invited to battle it out for the crown. Botvinnik dominated to become the sixth world champion.

(There was controversy then as well. Many (“most,” according to Golombek”) wanted to include Miguel Najdorf in the event but the Argentine was excluded. One rumor went that the Russians wanted him out because of his good results against Botvinnik, although they had played just one game.)


As in 1948, the important thing now is to guarantee the participation of all the relevant players, to leave no doubts when the title is unified for the first time in over a decade. The obvious flip-side to no one player being above the rest is that for purposes of expediency we are forced to choose four who are. It is critical to agree on the formula and get everyone to the board. That was the idea of Prague. Of less importance is the method itself.

Kasparov says he’ll play in quarterfinals, semifinals, or any other fair system that doesn’t put another player at an advantage. By that he means Kramnik and this is consistent with the position he held in Prague two years ago. The only qualifying Kramnik did for their 2000 world championship was to lose a candidates match to Shirov in 1998. Kasparov can’t see why he should have to jump through more hoops than anyone else when he is the top-rated player in the world. In 2000 Kramnik was selected because he was #2, although he had recently changed places with Anand, who declined to play.

Kasparov even went as far as to suggest a new, more democratic solution, one that he points out should sound familiar.

"It’s very simple now. We have four players at the top and we can take the top four from Libya and have matches: quarterfinals, semifinals, and a final. Anand, Kramnik, Leko, Kasparov, we have these four and then the four semifinalists from Libya. While I don’t see any reason for modifying the current structure, I would have no problem with this."

For those with bad memories, this is practically identical to the original “Fresh Start” proposal by American GM Yasser Seirawan, which eventually turned into the Prague Agreement. Kramnik bluntly vetoed that eight-player plan and suggested that Kasparov, Anand, and Ivanchuk face off to play Ponomariov first.

Instead, after epic negotiations we ended up with the Prague Agreement, signed by Kramnik, Kasparov, Ilyumzhinov, and an impressive band of organizer luminaries. Less a contract than a moral commitment to do their best to unify the title, the document also outlined the structure that is basically what FIDE is trying to do now, if at the second gasp.

Kasparov was to play a match against the FIDE champion, Ponomariov at the time. Kramnik would face the winner of the Dortmund 2002 supertournament, which turned to out to be Peter Leko. Not everyone was smiling but the deal was done and the chess world would be much the better for it. It’s worth noting that the current structure is derived from Kramnik’s 2002 proposal.

It didn’t take too long for the wheels to start coming off. FIDE left Seirawan hanging, Kramnik was unable to get the Leko match sponsored to his satisfaction. After more FIDE foot-dragging Ponomariov left Kasparov at the altar in Yalta. What we have now is a remix after two years of delay. It looks like Kramnik-Leko will finally happen in September. FIDE will have a new champion in Libya in July and this time around all the players have agreed in advance that part of their obligation as FIDE champion is to play a unification match against Kasparov.

If what is in motion now is so similar to what was agreed two years ago, why the grumbling? Several top players have declined to play in Libya, including world number two Vishy Anand and stars like Svidler and Shirov. Of them only Ponomariov has made his reasons known and until that changes it’s best not to put words in their mouths.

Instead of guessing their – likely diverse – motives we should note that it’s not as if anyone really asked their approval the first time around in Prague! The unification deal was met with shrugged shoulders by many top players. The phrase “let’s just get this over with” was often heard.

Elo kings Kasparov and Anand, #1 and #2

As Kasparov said above, his results since Prague haven’t helped his case much and perhaps Ponomariov really does resent his role enough to stay away from Tripoli. FIDE dealt with him very inconsistently, to put it nicely, but the fact remains that he missed his golden opportunity and now it will pass to another.

On the other hand it seems very likely that the dramatically reduced prize fund has even more to do with the absences. This year’s first prize of $80,000 is just 20% of that of the 2001 event. Not to accuse others of my own vices, but I’d be willing to bet even Anand might be there if each prize was multiplied by five!


What happens next will almost certainly depend on who wins where. If Leko beats Kramnik the main issue will be getting the sponsorship together. Leko, like the rest of the chess world, will recognize that while beating a player like Vladimir Kramnik in a match is a tremendous feat, the title that comes with victory isn’t worth the shadow of the unified title. Kramnik can say he beat Kasparov, but at this point beating Kramnik is a little like a boxer beating the man who beat Tyson but didn’t do much after that.

If Kramnik wins it’s a different story because he may decide that his signature in Prague doesn’t mean anything and that his win over Leko has extended his reign as champion. This danger is why it is so important to make everyone involved re-commit to unification. It has always been better to get players to agree to things before they win matches. Afterwards they tend to be a little foggy on the details.

Kramnik might decide he’s got a few more years, Kasparov may think the prize fund is too small, Ilyumzhinov might see something shiny on the ground and wander off. These guys must be held accountable for their commitments. They, including the ACP, should make it clear that they still support unification. With that in mind we'll keep running these photos of them signing in Prague.

Kramnik, Kasparov, and Ilyumzhinov committing to unification

Kasparov had this to say regarding his own role and the match against the FIDE champion:

"Right now there is no money, no date. I think Ilyumzhinov is waiting for the winner of Libya before putting together a plan. The winner can change things considerably. FIDE can always come up with a small prize fund, get it out of the way and move forward. But there are a few players who could attract significant sponsorship from their native countries, Mickey Adams and Nigel Short, potentially. Topalov, perhaps. Grischuk or Morozevich would mean Ilyumzhinov is dealing with Russian officials, which also changes things. The name of the winner and the country of origin dictate Ilyumzhinov’s next steps.

As for the match after that it depends on the winner of Kramnik-Leko. With Leko the resolution will be easier because he won’t have the credibility Kramnik had from beating me. In 2000 Kramnik beat the undisputed number one player. If Leko wins he won’t be able to say anything similar. If Kramnik wins, the will of the chess world will be very important. If there is sufficient pressure on him to unify the title maybe he will play."


So far we seem to be able to judge the wind in the Kramnik camp by watching the ACP. Kasparov is enthusiastic about the organization’s potential but concerned that its leader, French GM Joel Lautier, is using the organization to back his friend (and fellow board member) Kramnik’s interests. Their arguments are “all prepared in the same kitchen” as Kasparov put it. If the ACP sanctions the Kramnik-Leko match as the only relevant one it would deal a serious blow to unification.

I very much hope that doesn’t come to pass. The ACP has been fighting hard in the past month to keep FIDE honest with its draconian player agreements. They need to keep working with them without letting the disagreements turn into outright rejection. Kasparov laughs to open the topic of the recent harsh criticism of FIDE by Lautier and Seirawan.

" You hear all these things about “FIDE is dead, FIDE’s not good.” Yasser Seirawan has an interview, Joel Lautier saying that FIDE has ruined everything. I seem to recall hearing these words about ten years ago and it was me who said them! The irony is to look back at who helped topple the Professional Chess Association back then, who criticized it the most, and you have the same names. Yasser Seirawan, Joel Lautier, Carsten Hensel, Stefan Loeffler. These people took concrete steps, wrote articles, made a lot of fuss, scared Intel to death and made sure the PCA would never get an extension of the contract."

Several times while discussing this topic Kasparov said his remarks were about setting the record straight and learning from history and not about settling scores, but it’s clear he doesn’t mind doing both at the same time. He feels that his work and the millions of Intel dollars it brought in aren’t properly appreciated. Those who criticized the PCA now seem to be on the other side. Kasparov’s voice rises as he wonders where they were back in 1995 and how they can criticize when they have no track record of bringing in money while he has brought in millions for chessplayers.

"It’s important to mention that there was one moment in the history of chess in which the game had real corporate sponsorship and that was 1994-95. Not just a one-off event, it was a two-year contract and advertising money, pure sponsorship. Not like IBM running a special science project, it was true commercial sponsorship like any other professional sport.

These prizes weren’t small amounts either. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Anand, all of them into six figures for the PCA Grand Prix events. Then you have the Groningen interzonal, I think that was $250,000 and then the candidates matches. In the final match against Anand I think he collected $600,000, before taxes. Anand got his shot at the world title and all because of real professional sponsorship."

Kasparov wants it on the record that those currently attacking FIDE and pushing for corporate sponsorship are the same people who were the most active critics of his efforts to do the same thing with the PCA a decade ago. Back then Seirawan and Lautier were shouting about how Kasparov had “hijacked the title” and how FIDE was the only hope.

Chess writer Stefan Loeffler is singled out for particular condemnation. The entire time the PCA was active he was publishing devastating articles about the PCA in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the giant newspaper the Intel sponsors were reading. The money was coming from the Munich subsidiary and every week they read criticism and scandals, not a single positive word about how a local company was sponsoring great chess events around the world.

Coming back to the present, Kasparov takes issue with Seirawan blaming his 2003 match against Deep Junior for helping ruin Prague. "That match brought FIDE very close to real commercial sponsorship. FIDE was wrong, but not for staging the match. They were wrong for not following up on it. Sponsors and TV were lining up for new chess events and FIDE disappeared."

I can personally vouch for the fact that the money-man at X3D still turns purple at the mere mention of Ilyumzhinov’s name. Here we had a serious company with big plans for chess and FIDE at first joins in and then simply stops taking their calls. The million on that match is the least of FIDE’s problems in the greater scheme of things.

And at least that million got results! It bought more publicity than the other twenty million Ilyumzhinov had spent since 1997 combined. Compare the empty halls of the 1999 Las Vegas KO with the Kasparov vs. Machine games being shown live on ESPN. If getting that sort of publicity is a mistake it’s not a bad kind to make.

There is a huge difference between Kasparov’s criticisms of FIDE, both now and then, and the complaints leveled at the organization by the ACP. They make it sound like the money itself is the issue, that if FIDE paid out more and bigger checks – like they did a few years ago – things would be fine. This reflects a lack of imagination. Kasparov is saying, and has been saying for years, that the structure itself is sick.

Like a patient with a damaged immune system FIDE rejects everything that could help it. From the Junior match and the sponsorship opportunities it represented to the Seirawan Grandmaster steering committee, FIDE is unable to handle a good thing when it falls into their hands. This reflects fundamental problems that have been around for twenty years.

Now FIDE’s fortunes are tied to Ilyumzhinov and he is tied to the political pendulum of Russia. If he enjoyed the same privileges as ten years ago, even five years ago, a million dollars here or there wouldn't make a difference. Kramnik, Lautier, and their ACP brethren would be better off addressing the root causes and not the money itself. Whether Ilyumzhinov rustles up more money or is replaced by a new chess sugar daddy it still won’t solve the real problems of FIDE, which is unable to function like a professional sports organization.

If FIDE bounces back with more shadow cash, will they again be seen as the good guys by these critics, as they were from 1993-2000? I hope not, especially since the money is as much a symptom of the problem as the current lack of money. As long as it is coming from such dubious sources it will be nearly impossible to establish a structure that can deal with true commercial sponsorship.

Essential reading

In the next few days we will be publishing a new "open letter" and interview by Ponomariov and reports on ACP controversies with FIDE. At the end of it all you, dear readers of, can express your opinion on the situation in the chess world today. In order to prepare for the momentous task we advocate a careful study of the following documents. Taking a week off your regular job might be in order. But it could be worth your while. Maybe you will come up with a proposal that gains widespread acceptance and solves the problems of the chess world.

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