Garry Kasparov's Next Move

2/25/2014 – We know he is running for FIDE President. But what does Garry Kasparov think about the Sochi Olympiad and Russian President Vladimir Putin's rule in the country he can no longer vist? And for chess fans more relevant: what does Kasparov think about World Champion Magnus Carlsen, with whom he has worked, or about computers playing chess? It's all revealed in this must-read Smithsonian article.

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"A vast global game of geopolitical chess seemed to be hanging in the balance the morning I met with Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess genius whom many regard as the greatest player of all time," writes Ron Rosenbaum in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine, a publication that is always worthwhile to visit (read for instance the article explaining why Carl Sagan is truly irreplaceable, or the one on a "virtual retina" headset).

In the four-page Kasparov article Rosenbaum continues:

What’s less well known about him is that for the past decade Kasparov has become a major player in that great game of liberty versus tyranny in which the globe is the board. He was jailed and, as recently as 2012, beaten in Moscow for protesting Vladimir Putin’s regime and its crackdown on civil liberties, and he’s been driven out of his homeland. After daring a presidential election challenge to Putin in 2007, one that was disqualified under murky circumstances, and a number of what he calls “accidents,” he no longer feels life and liberty are safe there.

Not that his life is necessarily safer anywhere else in the world, as the fate of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko—who was poisoned with polonium-laced tea in a posh London hotel in 2006—attests.

No tea was served in the mazelike reception lounge area of the large Upper West Side apartment complex where we met. Kasparov, 50, came barreling out of the elevator, a compact fellow with the physique and the no-nonsense mien of a welterweight boxer. He had just returned from the World Chess Championship in India where his former protégé Magnus Carlsen, a then 22-year-old Norwegian prodigy, stunned the world with a smashing victory over the reigning champion, Viswanathan Anand.

Kasparov, who became the 13th world champion in 1985 and was ranked number one in the world until he retired in 2005, seems genuinely in awe of Carlsen’s ability: “He has unique chess talents,” says Kasparov, who trained Carlsen for a year back in 2009. “I would say that he is a combination of Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov [the Russian world champion whom Kasparov dethroned]. Because he has Karpov’s precision and ability to just locate the piece’s best positions but also Fischer’s determination. So he can play to the last point, the last moment, last chance, and some people say he’s good at squeezing water out of stone.” Meaning he can see possibilities of victory even in often bleak-looking end-game boards, possibilities that can be obtained only by exploiting minute, nearly invisible positional advantages. In fact, Kasparov believes the Norwegian has so far-outdistanced the rest of the world that he will not be beaten by anyone “for next five years, at least,” although Kasparov thinks an American, Hikaru Nakamura, he had been bringing along may have a chance.

According to Rosenbaum Kasparov speaks with a kind of Russian stoicism about his entry into politics: “I was not playing to win, it was just something I believed was important for me as a human being. So it’s like a moral imperative rather than coldblooded calculation.”

What impressed me about Kasparov was how well read and sophisticated in his knowledge of history and international politics he was. Chess genius does not always translate to real-world intelligence (Bobby Fischer ended up as a paranoid Holocaust denier). And Kasparov deplores the tragic depiction of a Russian prodigy in Nabokov’s chess novel, The Defense.

He’s deeply learned in history and historical parallels. When the talk turns to the Sochi Olympics, he refers back to the German games of 1936: “The Olympics started four months after Germany [remilitarized the Rhineland], violating Versailles agreement, and within one month after the beginning of the civil war in Spain. Soon German planes were bombing Spanish cities—the Western powers pretended it was business as usual.” The Sochi Olympics, I think, might be a total disaster, [but] we’re lucky. Because [the difference between] Hitler and Putin is that Putin doesn’t have a proper organization behind him in Russia.

On chess as a vehicle for worldwide intelligence enhancement Kasparov says: “We have plenty of evidence that at early age chess helps kids to learn about legal frameworks, to understand logic and patterns, to see the big picture, to structure minds. We need to start reforming education, and chess is a very useful tool.”

On the relationship between human and artificial intelligence, Kasparov has no doubt that advanced chess computers will always be able to beat the most brilliant human beings from now on. “In a game of 50 moves, you can make 45 good moves, four great moves and one inaccuracy, it’s almost enough to win,” Kasparov said. "But if you make one less than optimal move the computer will destroy you. And the computer never makes a less than optimal move. They have changed the face of tournament chess. Now adjournments have been banned from most tournaments to prevent players from consulting computers." On Magnus Carlsen's relationship to computers Kasparov says:

Watching the computer screen sometimes...it’s like most of them become hypnotized. Because it’s hard to take your eyes off the machine. One of the greatest things about Magnus [Carlsen] is that he doesn’t care what machine says. When I worked with him, he could sit at the screen following the machine but not being paralyzed by it. By brute force of calculations the machine has recommendations, but Magnus was never impressed not to look for his own solutions. For him it was like a calculator: You will use calculator, but you have to use your own brains. Magnus was always able to play his own game.

Does Kasparov think that in his prime he could have beaten Carlsen? “I always resist the question of comparing people. We live at different times, so Garry Kasparov in ’85 was once the champion, but my knowledge of chess was way, way less. It was 25 years ago.”

Read the full Smithsonian article here, and bookmark
the Smithsonian page, which is certainly worth regular visits.


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