Ten years in ten days – the Kasparov effect

12/10/2003 – In 1993 a young teenager switched on her TV set and caught a glimpse of two men engaged in a struggle. It was the world chess championship between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. With that began a ten-year fascination, which culminated in a ten-day visit to New York in November. Here is a very personal story by Joanne Pittaway.

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Ten Years in Ten Days

Ten years ago a miracle happened to me. Not the sort you hear about in church or in trashy magazines. No, this was different. At the time I didn’t know how important this day would be, that it would result in my experiencing the best and sometimes worst that life has to offer. I didn’t know that it would bring me to strange lands, and I was unaware that it would result in me making friends the world over. But I knew one thing. That I had to stick around and learn everything I could…

I can remember that day like it was yesterday. I came home from school, dropped my bag by the door and collapsed in front of the TV to vegetate like I always did. But I didn’t get the chance. There was something on that small screen that captured my attention immediately. It was just a guy. A nerdy-looking guy, sat in nervous prayer over a table, the back of his hand rubbing his dry lips in fevered incantation… What was he doing?

Suddenly the scene shifted to another man I’d never seen before. For just an instant they showed him, but it was enough. Dark haired, deep-set eyes, bristling eyebrows. A vast and powerful energy emanating from him that lifted me from my seat in sheer awe. Who was he? What was this? What was I watching?


Nigel Short, Garry Kasparov, four simple words that had a ten-year impact on my life

Then; pandemonium! Voices crying out and heads in hands! “He’s flagged! Nigel Short has run out of time!” And as I desperately tried to make sense of the confusion in front of me, I looked up and there he was again. The dark-haired guy. Sat forward in his chair looking at a clock on his left. In all that chaos he was serene. And with his cream-coloured suit and the studio lights blazing down upon him he glowed… To the teenage me he looked like an angel.


The World Championship 1993 on the cover of Ray Keene's match book, which I purchased at the time

That was 1993. The scene I had witnessed was the first game of the PCA World Championship held in London. Chess had officially entered my life, and this ‘angel’ I had witnessed was some fella called Garry Kasparov, whom I found all about over the next two months. I read everything I could about him and the game. This was a whole new world, one that I never knew existed It was fresh, and it was exciting, and a million miles away from my banal little existence.

On the evening of that first game I sat down and got my ‘Things To Do Before I’m Forty’ list out. It’s something I’ve compiled since I was a little girl, having decided that when I reached that age I’d like to look back on my life and be able to say I’d done something exciting. So, along with the ambitions of one day seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence, and travelling across America alone by train, I scratched in deep with a fountain pen the following legend: “Before I am forty I will go to see Garry Kasparov play a chess match…”


Giant screen, giant personality in the New York Athletic Club

In the end it took me ten years. Ten years of distractions and devastations that saw me close my little silk-covered notebook containing my sacred list, and hide it in a box under my bed. Ten years in which those inky words seemed no more real to me than any of the promises made that vanished with each passing day. But through it all I followed him, Garry. I’d pick up a paper now and again, or click on a site and read about his latest triumph or controversy. He never failed to make me smile even when times were at their worst.

One day early this year I realised that something had to give, and I didn’t want it to be me. I reached under my bed and pulled out an old, dusty shoebox. I decided to fight for what I wanted and not settle for less than that. As part of my campaign in November this year I packed my bag and set off for New York to go watch my childhood hero play the computer: Garry Kasparov vs. X3D Fritz. Ten years all over in ten days. Ten days that have changed my life forever. And this report is part of the story, the part I can tell you about, anyhow…

New York

New York is this huge, vast place, or so I’m told. I say that because I never got that impression. I lived right on Times Square whilst I was there, and I soon got used to the bright lights and the tall buildings. The truth is New York is whatever the hell you want it to be. It’s the city of the American Dream, founded by people who flock there and wring every drop of opportunity that flows through it.


Times Square – big, bold and surprisingly beautiful

New York doesn’t make or break your day; she doesn’t affect your mood. She just reflects the state of mind you’re in. If you’re having a bad morning she’ll do all she can to lift every paving stone to trip you up, if you’re having a good afternoon she’ll send every good-looking guy in a ten-mile radius to walk by you and give you a sexy smile. Nope. New York doesn’t owe you a thing. She just stands there with one hand on her hip, jutting out provocatively, saying “Well, whaddaya want?” in that cool, nasal drawl. She wants you to make the best of what she has to offer, and in turn bring the best of you to her.


We took Manhattan, but not the Bronx and Staten Island too

I learnt that by the end of my stay. After ten days all those diners and tacky gift shops were as familiar to me as my hometown. The Chrysler Building became my village church spire, Rockerfeller Plaza my playground, and the haunting, echoing beauty of Grand Central Station was my schoolroom to sit in and learn all that New Yorkers talked and laughed about. New York impersonal? Nah. Wear a smile and she smiles back. Throw in a generous tip and she’ll sing you an old jazz standard. Believe me, if you get the chance: go – enjoy.

 
The most famous woman in New York, and the Statue of Liberty

The NYAC

Which brings me to my next part. The setting for the match. The New York Athletic Club. This grand old dame sits on the edge of Central Park, where the slutty splendour of Midtown gives way to the diamond encrusted wealth of those who can afford an apartment by the greenery, to shop on Fifth and not have to ask what the price is.


The NYAC – ‘interesting’

To me, the NYAC was everything that I didn’t like about the city. Not because I particularly object to parquet flooring, rich oak panelling and gold leaf painted everywhere. It’s just that with such opulence comes a stiff formality ill at ease with real people. One of the ChessBase team told me a story of how on his first morning he had to rush out on an emergency mission at seven a.m. to buy a tie to wear to breakfast. A tie, I ask you! Who wants to wear formal dress so early in the day? The price it would seem for having so much money is that you have to be bound by silly rules and regulations. Wealth has its costs, and I watched the faces of the rich and powerful who wafted through that lobby with its leather and gilt, and not once did I see a smile. Personally, I’d rather stay the penniless poet I am, eating my breakfast in my pyjamas, grinning as I do so.

Chess Fans – Rebels Without a Dress Code

The observation area for the match was up on the ninth floor, consisting of two rooms. Garry played up on the twelfth, away from the coughing, spluttering and nose-picking that I have discovered occurs at these events. Here, try as the NYAC might, it could not reign supreme over the manners of the chess fan, and I was very glad of it. The enthusiasts were there to watch, and no amount of stiff seating and livery was about to turn them from it.


Warning – men without ties in vicinity! What will Donald Trump say?

Forced as we were to dress formally, I sat and watched an endless succession of people turn up each day in ill-fitting shirts and crumpled suits, still smelling of mothballs from the years in storage. No stiff collars were going to deter this crew though, and I watched with glee as sneakily, during each match day, jackets were discarded and ties loosened or abandoned. The chess fan had donned a cunning disguise to get in, but once they were over the threshold it was time to kick back, get the pocket-set out and relax.


Giant Frizt 3D display for ESPN and the audience

Some, however, took relaxation to the point of farce. One day my chess enjoyment was rudely interrupted by a loud rumbling sound. I thought it might be workmen outside, but when I turned to my right I saw the true culprit: an old guy, fast asleep on a chair, snoring away. Fears that the ESPN film crew might broadcast this damning piece of evidence that chess is indeed the most boring pastime on the planet soon gave way to my loud giggling. I laughed so much that I woke Rip Van ChessFan from his slumber.

Stargazing

We were kinda spoiled at this event when it comes to the celebrity count. Are you ready for this? I saw: Susan Polgar, Joel Benjamin, Bruce Pandolfini, Lev Alburt, Joel Lautier, Anna Hahn, Greg Shahade, Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan, Paul Hoffman, Maurice Ashley, and others. If Bobby Fischer had sat beside me and asked me where he could find the cheese and biscuits I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.


Ian and Kathy Rogers, Jenny Shahade, Ilya Gurevich, Anna Hahn, Joel Lautier, Susan Polgar, with legendary New York Open organiser José Cuchi in the background

But the funny thing is, it didn’t actually bother me. I was pretty unmoved by them all, and as I sit here writing this I wish I could tell you a different story. It was as if all that gazing at them over hundreds of web pages, books and magazines had made them too familiar to me. And to be honest, why should they enthral me? These people have no more importance in my life than I do in theirs. They’re just doing a job at the end of the day. They’re just normal. They go to the bathroom just like the rest of us. I know this to be true as I used the ladies at the same time as Susan Polgar.


Frederic Friedel talking with William Lombardy (more on Fred later)

No, the people who made the trip for me were the friends I have made over the past year via the internet. The great thing about chess is that you can play it and discuss it with people thousands of miles away. I had a chance to meet up with a few of them for the first time in NY, and in common with so may other chess fans I meet, I found them to be funny, intelligent and sincere. For me chess has been a goldmine for friendship, with great seams of generally good and entertaining people to be dug up. I am very rich when it comes to friends.

The Kasparov Effect

I am not going to sit here and type away about the games. I am not qualified enough to do so, and if you want analysis, there’s plenty to be had. Neither am I going to comment on Kasparov’s after-game commentary or the myriad of interviews given. And I’m not interested in holding up his misdeeds to judgement. As far as I’m concerned all of the above has been done to the death with Garry. I’m tired of it all, bored.


Garry – about whom I have nothing clever to say

Instead, just indulge me for a moment as a fan, pure and simple. Put aside all your thoughts about him, all your prejudices, your dislikes and misgivings. Come over here and look me in the eye and you’ll see instantly why he’s as popular as he is. See that sparkle? It’s the Kasparov effect.

I tried hard you know, to fight it. I reasoned with myself before I saw him that he’d just be like the all the other chess celebs that swarmed around the X3D honey pot. I battled to retain my composure when he strode past and swept us all towards him like leaves blown by the east wind. But it was no good in the end. I succumbed to the Kasparov effect. I carry too much of that teenage girl who first witnessed him beat Nigel Short to not stand and smile, and stare, and wonder at him.

I wasn’t the only one though. I saw it in the faces of the crowd who rushed up to the stage each time he appeared for a press conference. Garry Kasparov is the adult equivalent of Santa Claus for chess-lovers, and just like children waiting for our turn in the Christmas grotto, we clutched our pieces of paper hoping that he’d give us the gift of his signature.

Two things of Kasparovian significance happened to me, each a timely reminder of how far I’d travelled in my ten-year quest. And they happened during games two and three.


Klara Shagenovna Kasparova, making sure her son's glasses work

On occasion even gods are made mortal, and Garry came crashing to earth during game two. The signal for his fate was none other than his mother, Klara Shagenovna, who appeared in the observation room. There, amongst the ordinary folk she sat and prayed and struggled, rocking back and forth softly. I have rarely seen such pain, such devotion, and I could only watch her in silent deference. She was beautiful, strong, and yet fragile all at the same time, and I don’t for one moment believe that anything other than her son and his fight ever entered her head. I truly felt as if the rest of us seemed like dreams to her. This famous mother-son connection played out right in front of me, proving to me that no matter how much of a follower I am of Garry, and curse the air when he blunders, I’ll always just be the passive observer. Klara and Garry are the true story, the necessary one. This is their life. No games here. And right at that moment I admired her more than her son.

On Sunday – game three - I went upstairs to the twelfth floor of the NYAC with one of the ChessBase people. It was here during game time that they were all in action, so I got to see them doing computer things. It was interesting for a bit, but as they were so busy I asked to leave…

On my way out I noticed a couple of doors set back from the corridor, just to the right of the ChessBase room. One of them was ajar, just slightly, not even by an inch. It stopped me dead in my tracks and I didn't know why. I was just struck by this overwhelming feeling that there was something in there that I should see.

I turned round to the ChessBase guy, and he smiled. Coming up close to me he whispered in my ear, "Go look, but be careful. Don't let him see you..."

I had this nervous, sick, excited feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I crept forward to the doorframe anyway, and silently peered through the tiny, tiny gap.


That day – as I remember it

There he was. Garry Kasparov. The guy I’d waited all this time to see and followed for thousands of miles. Garry was playing in that room, opposite me, peering and grimacing over the board. Feet tapping, lips pursing, glasses on, glasses off.

I wasn’t there very long. At least I don’t think so. In truth, I’m not sure because time became insignificant. I didn’t make a noise or try to outstay my welcome. I just stayed long enough to thank him silently. To thank him for bringing me to chess, for teaching me the importance of being true to yourself and to have the courage to pursue what you really want in life. I thanked him for bringing me friends from all over the globe. Most of all I thanked him just for being himself.

Garry won that day. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my being there, but it was nice that the two coincided. Garry won’t know the good he’s done, or the lengths I’ve gone to just to scratch off another two of my ambitions from my famous list, but that doesn’t matter. I know what I’ve done. I know what I’ve achieved. And after this trip I now know that I am capable of anything. Now I have to open my little book and find another dream to chase.

Pictures by Paul Truong and Frederic Friedel

Joanne Pittaway was born on 10th February 1977. After school she studied Russian, and lived in the country for some time. On graduation she chose to work in finance, but has now realised that writing makes her happy, and a writer is what she must become.

To this end she has decided to make 2004 the year in which dream becomes reality. She aims to be published somewhere in the next twelve months, and believes that by making this promise to herself on ChessBase.com, that it will grant her the strength to make it come true.


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