Kasparov in Estonia – interview with Postimees

4/14/2012 – Garry Kasparov is on the roll. Apart from his political activities in Russia he is travelling around the world to actively promote chess in schools. He is also completing a book with a very startling thesis (in our times technical innovation has ground to a halt). And he has spoken about historical chess rating records in a lengthy telephone interview with an Estonian newspaper. Excerpts.

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Garry Kasparov: In the last 30 years the rate of technological
breakthroughs has slowed down

At a financial conference (Pärnu Finantskonverents), which will take place in Pärnu on 19 April, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and the famous chess player Garry Kasparov and politician will talk about the role of innovation in the modern world. On the eve of the conference Postimees was able to talk on the phone with Kasparov. Here are some of the highlights:

On his current activities

In addition to my political activities in Russia I am very actively working on a program to promote chess in schools. This program has been around for more than 20 years, and I have been funding the Kasparov Chess Foundation in the USA for ten years now. Our program has taught chess in more than 3,500 US schools. Last year I opened a branch in Europe, in Brussels, and we spent a lot of time collecting signatures in support of a European Parliament resolution on chess in schools. We got 415 signatures, more than the 378 required to pass the resolution. It does not obligate anyone to do anything, but it is a very important step to obtain political support. For the first time such a serious political institution was in favor of this idea.

Over the past year and a half I have visited many countries around the world – Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, UAE, different European countries. The first country in which we have signed an agreement on the introduction of computerised chess programs in the education system, was Georgia. From September there will be introduced pilot programs in 100 schools. France is also considering chess as a very promising direction, and from June 1, they begin a program of gradual integration of chess lessons in learning at an early stage.

In principle, it is not so much about learning to play chess, but about using chess to improve concentration, the ability to see the "big picture", to use a specific formulae for the solution of a problem, which is very important for mathematics. In addition, a number of countries in the poorest areas of chess training can improve self-esteem and give children a feeling that the intellectual work can bring concrete results. Chess is an inexpensive activity that does not require a huge investment to be included in the education system.

On his new book

My latest book was conceived by three people – myself, Max Levchin and Peter Thiel [the latter are the creators of the Internet payment system PayPal, Thiel is one of the initial backers of Facebook]. There are some problems with the harmonization of our positions – but main thesis is that, contrary to the impression that we live in an age of unprecedented technological development, the last 30 years were probably the worst in several centuries, from the standpoint of advances in technology.

We feel that we literally have something new every month, but in fact it is progress that is proceeding from technological innovations and revolutionary inventions of the 1960s and 70s. For example, my iPod containst latest technology from 1981. In medicine there nothing similar to penicillin has been invented. If we talk about the Internet, then do not forget that the whole theoretical framework has been prepared in the 1960s in America, and the first communication session was 1969. A patent for mobile communications was registered in 1962, and the first call was made in 1973. The fact that the phones are smaller, thinner, more beautiful, does not change the fact that they are basically the same technology.

An example of real innovation was the emergence of personal computers, introduced by Apple in 1977. After that, it is hard to find innovation of this level. Everything that followed were modifications that made them smaller, but the principle remains the same. Steve Jobs created the entire line of Apple's Macintosh, and it was a breakthrough because it created the basis for everything else. It has reached a new technological level, which we now master, but it is based on the work of 1950s to 70s.

Why is this happening? The main reason is probably a common desire to reduce the element of risk. For example, in the last 60 years our planes have grown more comfortable, but they now fly more slowly since the decommissioning of the Concord. It's an unusual fact: over the past 40 years the first time in human history we have begun to move slowly. This is much due to the fact that we have started to pay attention to overall comfort, to social issues and the need to reduce risk.

People have a sense that we should receive benefits from our investment, but need to reduce the uncertainty. Risk should be less, but the income should be the same. This creates a gap, because in a free society, in a market economy, there is a direct relationship between risk and return. If you want to avoid risk, but receive ten percent of of your annual income from your investment, you open the way for the so-called financial engineering. In fact this is all fake, not real income, because it is not based on real changes in the economy, because you do not create new and tangible assets. In the 1960s young boys dreamed of becoming aerospace engineers, now they want to be financial engineers, working in investment companies, which are the most attractive spheres for talent. This naturally affects the quality of the total scientific potential, because financial engineering creates nothing.

About chess and the current rating leaders

Question of the interviewer: "You can be compared to Sergei Bubka, whose record in the pole vault has not yet been broken. Your highest rating in chess, 2851, has also not yet been surpassed. The 21-year-old Norwegian Magnu Carlsen is now 2835. Is that a positive development?"

Kasparov: Carlsen is extremely talented, a star of first magnitude. But in contrast to the athletic records, chess ratings are affected by inflation. When I went up to 2851 there were just one or two people with a rating above 2700. Now there are at least 45. In fact, due to increase in the number of people playing chess the base of the pyramid has grown, adding points at each level. Fischer's rating was 2785 in 1972, but that was certainly more significant than Carlsen's rating today. It is similar to my 2851 rating in 1999.


Chart showing the progress of Fischer, Kasparov, Carlsen and the world's top ten, provided by Jeff Sonas

The evolutionary factor has an impact, and in spite of the mathematical soundness of the rating system, I still do not give the development great historical significance. When Fisher was climbing to the tope he was scoring plus six, I was scoring plus six and and plus seven, while Carlsen is scoring plus three and plus four. That is enough today, since the pyramid has grown, and super-tournament averages are over 2750. The only tournament of that kind in my day was in 1996 in Las Palmas, which had me, Karpov, Kramnik, Anand, Ivanchuk and Topalov, the top six players in the world. That was quite unique, despite the fact that the average rating of these top players was not the highest by today's standards. You have to take all this into account when you make historical comparisons. Many experts recognize Garry Kasparov as the greatest chess player in history. I cannot comment on that.


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