20 years ago: Russia vs The Rest of the World

by Dagobert Kohlmeyer
9/8/2022 – 20 years ago today, on September 8, 2002, the match Russia vs. The Rest of the World began in Moscow. It was a rapid match with the world's best players at that time. The Russians wanted to follow up on the USSR vs. the World matches from 1970 and 1984, but things did not go as desired. Dagobert Kohlmeyer was in Moscow in 2002 and now shares memories of a better time. | Photo: Evgeny Bareev, Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparow wonder what's going. | Photo: Boris Dolmatovsky | All other photos: D. Kohlmeyer

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20 years ago: Chess surprise in the Kremlin

On September 8, 2002, the teams of Russia and The Rest of the World started to play a chess match in Moscow, and today we would like to look back on this match. In 1970 in Belgrade and in London in 1984 Russia had won similar matches. In these matches the players of the great chess nation, who were so used to success, went abroad and won, but when they played at home they lost the prestigious match.

In the end the Rest of the World won 52:48 and in no phase of the match could the Russian Grandmasters around Garry Kasparov stop the guests, who were led by India's Viswanathan Anand. Experts were surprised about the final result and the clear four-point lead of the world team.

The Basil cathedral

To save time and money the match was played with a rapid time control, unlike the first two matches, which were played in classical chess. But the rapid games offered a lot of quality, excitement and entertainment. The venue was the beautiful banquet hall in the Kremlin, where the Knockout World Championship with the surprise winner Ruslan Ponomariov (Ukraine) had been played a year earlier. The match was played on ten boards and the "World" led from the very beginning. In fact, throughout the match the Russians trailed by at least one point. Before the final matchday the international stars even led by three points and in the last round they extended their lead even further.

Moscow was occupied by the masterminds for a total of four days. No fewer than four World Champions and two FIDE World Champions took part in the match: Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Khalifman and Ponomariov. Any tournament organizer would have been happy about such a select field.

However, Karpov and Kasparov, Russia's top players, had to realize that former world championship titles do not protect against defeats. Garry Kasparov started with a loss against Vassily Ivanchuk from Ukraine, and in the second game of the day he had to concede a draw against Peter Leko from Hungary. Karpov fared even worse and started with two losses: first, he lost against Ilya Smirin (Israel), and then against the 15-year-old Teimour Radjabov from Baku. With this win, the Azerbaijani, a highly talented grandmaster from Kasparov's native city, had justified his inclusion into the Rest of the World team.

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A total of ten rounds were played. After two rounds, the world team was already leading with 11.5:8.5 points. The top scorer at the start was Vishy Anand. The Tiger of Madras first swept last year's Russian champion Alexander Motylev and then Vadim Zvjaginsev off the board. On the evening of the second day the spectators in the Kremlin witnessed a big upset and a happy Judit Polgar. For the first time in her career, the First Lady of Chess from Hungary had defeated Garry Kasparov. In Moscow, of all places! After the game, the strongest chess player on the planet left the board in consternation and left the scene to Judit, who was enthusiastically celebrated by the audience and colleagues.

Judit Polgar -  Garry Kasparov

At half-time the "Rest of the World" team led 25.5:24.5. A narrow margin and nothing was decided yet. However, Russia continued to show surprising weaknesses. The "World" team seemed to be more homogeneous and tactically better adjusted.

 

For more than a decade Judit, who was born in Budapest, had already been the world's best women player. But she refused to play in women's tournaments and preferred to compete in men's tournaments, where one could learn more and above all earn more. Her father Laszlo Polgar once instilled the necessary toughness in her.

The chess fanatic held the view that there was a genius in every child. His three daughters Zsuzsa, Sofia and Judit were not given dolls, their toys were chess pieces. So he bred world-class players who won team gold for Hungary at the Chess Olympiad and plenty of individual titles. Zsuzsa, the oldest, became Women's World Champion in 1996, Sofia beat half the world's elite at a tournament in Rome at the age of 14. Judit, however, wanted more and from then on played only in men's tournaments. There she captured many scalps of prominent chess greats. Kasparov's was still missing until the memorable evening in Moscow. "This victory is one of the absolute highlights of my career," said the then 26-year-old chess queen, who was now accompanied on her travels by her husband, a doctor from Budapest.

Boris Spassky and Yuri Razuvaev commentate

Bebchuk, Vasiukov, Rasuvaev

The national drink: vodka

Many prominent people from the world of chess visited the event. David Bronstein, Boris Spassky, Evgeny Vasiukov, Yuri Razuvaev and others came and were sought-after commentators. The friendly David Bronstein signed his legendary book "David against Goliath" for me.

The author Dagobert Kohlmeyer (left) with David Bronstein

Most of the chess heroes mentioned are no longer alive today. Only the brave Boris Spassky, now confined to a wheelchair, who now lives in Moscow again. He told me at the time: "Of course, this match cannot be compared to the one we played against a world team in Belgrade in 1970. There was more rivalry and also more class in it."

Boris Spassky, World Champion from 1969 to 1972

Among the kibitzers in the Kremlin were three innocent chess prodigies. Just to be on the safe side, I made pictures of them. You never know... And indeed: years later, when their time had come, they even fought (and still do) for the World Championship.

Sergey Karjakin, Katerina Lagno, Ian "Nepo" Nepomniachtchi

One of them has long since lost his innocence as far as morality is concerned. Sergey Karjakin, who openly supports Putin's war against Ukraine, "has deactivated his brain", wrote one newspaper. Yet thinking is one of the strengths of a grandmaster. After Karjakin had damaged the reputation of chess in such a way, he was banned by FIDE from this year's Candidates Tournament. Nepomniachtchi, who is against the war, showed a fearless attitude as a co-signer of an open letter from top Russian players to Putin. After winning the Candidates for a second time, he can reach for the chess crown next year.

While Russia's up-and-coming grandmasters put in solid performances in the match, Kasparov, Karpov and Kramnik were not in shape. Although Karpov recovered in the course of the tournament and won twice on the final day, Kasparov was out of form and lost three games, which was an absolute rarity for him. One has to put it so harshly: The world number one was a total failure in the match.

The best player of the match was Alexei Shirov (who at that time was playing for Spain). Shirov scored 7.0 points from ten games, the best Russian player was Alexander Morozevich with 6.0/10. Only the two finalists of the FIDE World Championship 2002, Vassily Ivanchuk and Ruslan Ponomariov from Ukraine, remained undefeated. USA grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, who successfully coached the world team, enjoyed a good whisky at the closing banquet.

The Russian players, on the other hand, had no reason to celebrate. The successful snapshot of my colleague Boris Dolmatovsky (see above) with Bareev, Kramnik and Kasparov, shows their great astonishment when the match reached a critical moment.

The memorable match showed that the Russian supremacy in the chess world was slowly dwindling. The unprecedented state support system of the Soviet Union was no more. Today's ruler in the Kremlin has no love for the mental sport and chess was left to the private initiative of patrons and businessmen. As for the former teammates Kasparov and Karpov, they are light years apart in their political views. One has been fighting Putin for many years, the other keeps his feet still as a Duma deputy.

The Russians only won one more Chess Olympiad, in Bled 2002, but then it was over. In the past two decades, the winners in the open tournament of the Olympiad have been Ukraine, Armenia, China and once the USA, and most recently a young team from Uzbekistan caused a sensation with the gold medal. The Uzbeks would now like to host the Chess Olympiad themselves. They are applying to organise the event in 2026. Tashkent or the beautiful Samarkand are being discussed as possible venues. What will happen to the chess nation of Russia is unclear. Russia is now internationally sanctioned and isolated. Will the prestigious mental sport emigrate from the largest country on earth?

The historical museum

A bridal couple

The GUM mall

Russian dolls

The impressions from the centre of Moscow in September 2002 show: Those were different times and, above all, it was a different world...


Dagobert Kohlmeyer is one of the best known German chess journalists. For more than 25 years Kohlmeyer, who lives in Berlin, has been travelling all over the world to report about and to capture impressions of Chess Olympiads, World Championships, and top tournaments.
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