Martin Amis, writing about Kasparov vs Karpov — marathon matches of face-melting intensity that held the world enthralled for half a decade in the mid-1980s — observed that nowhere “in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical.” Chess grandmasters, never mind the very greatest grandmasters, operate on a strategic and tactical plane that the keenest amateurs cannot even begin to glimpse through the clouds. So instead we are fascinated by the human struggle, by what Kasparov described at his THiNK session, as the “violence of chess”.
Amis, with a touch more verbal flourish, says exactly the same: “The two Ks start a tournamentÂ tomorrow, but they will also be starting something else: scores are to be settled, grudges are to be purged. Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully, they will be hunting each othersâ€™ blood.” The fact is, as Kasparov said onstage, “any attempt to describe chess at a high level is reductive.” Because the level at which he and Karpov played chess was so rarefied, so beyond the mortals gripped by the action, we had to hang onto something else. And so the match, through the end of the Cold War, came to symbolise everything else apart: the end of the Soviet Union, represented by the dour Karpov; the triumph of the individual, the misfit, the aggressive outsider who won’t allow the system to prevent him reaching his goal, represented, of course, by the physically dominant Kasparov.
In the age of the computer — the age of “quick matches” as Kasparov described contemporary chess, citing the 16-move draw that opened the world chess championship in Chennai earlier today — it may be difficult to imagine these two men, playing each other over months, spending “dozens, even hundreds of hours” in gruelling preparation. The battle was not over the board but for mindspace. The psychological jockeying, the imposition of one man’s will over another without a punch being thrown, made defeat that much more devastating. Without a computer, Kasparov relied on the creativity of his game, its daring and attacking romance. He was also, of course, a more prosaic brawler, exercising for two hours a day before tournaments so that he would have the stamina to stay at the board for hours a day, days on end. Losing, Kasparov said, “was a physical pain.”
His performance onstage was relaxed, lacked the famous intensity. He joked that his life now of “lectures and seminars” had left him unfit for the rigours of competitive chess. “I’ve been reduced to being the highest-rated kibbitzer on the internet.” Speaking about having to prepare without a computer, about relying on his imagination, he said that when he put some of those old games with Karpov into a computer, games he had played based on a single idea or intuition, he discovered that sometimes what he “thought was a magic sword was actually a broken knife.”
Nowadays, it’s not the skill that he lacks, just the application, the ability to focus and concentrate during long matches. It’s what, he said, also separates the best human players from computers. There are too many possible moves (1045) for even a computer to calculate but a computer never slacken its vigilance. A human being might make 45 good moves, four great moves, and one below average move “but that one mistake is enough for the computer to force a draw”, to change the course of a game.
Of course, chess is not all of Kasparov’s (still only 50) life. He is a strong critic of Vladimir Putin. At THiNK, he compared Putin to the mafia — “if you’re loyal to the boss, you’re ok.” Kasparov’s own political career was stillborn. Despite Western enthusiasm for his ideas and his credibility, he just didn’t have the popular support. Not that politics makes much sense to Kasparov. People compare it to chess, he says, but “chess is not a great help, it has fixed rules and predictable results. Russian politics is the other way around.”
Kasparov’s brush with politics hasn’t dissuaded him. He still has ideas that he believes will change the world. He’s focused on education. On introducing chess to schoolchildren, to inculcate the tactical planning, the creativity and pattern recognition necessary to thrive at the board. It would be a crowning achievement.