It was 1995, and on the 106th floor of the World Trade Centre in New York, the attention was on three men and a square black-and-white board.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani made the first move in the World Chess Championship title fight between Vishwanathan Anand and Garry Kasparov, a match Kasparov, unsurprisingly, went on to win.
It was his 10th world title in a row.Â It was also September the 11th.Â Back then, neither the World Trade Centre, nor Kasparov â both icons in their own right â held political meaning.Â Today, both do.
If Kasparov had never moved beyond the world of chess, he would still have been one of the most extraordinary sporting talents to have walked the earth.
In 1985 â at just under 22 years of age â Kasparov beat the iconic Anatoly Karpov to become the worldâs youngest chess champion. He held that title for a staggering 15 years, defeating every recognisable name in the sport till the year 2000, and was ranked the No 1 chess player in the world for 20 consecutive years.
It wasnât enough that no man alive could beat him â technologyâs biggest giants were making constant attempts to create computers that could. When IBM announced Deep Blue, a computer that could calculate 200 million possible positions per second, Kasparov didnât blink. He played two matches against the âsupercomputerâ â and tied 1-1. When Kasparov challenged the computer to a third, decisive match, it was IBM that blinked, withdrew, disabled Deep Blue, and sent its parts to different locations all over the United States so it couldnât be re-engineered.
A couple of years later came a challenge against the new top âcomputerâ chess program in the world, Deep Junior. It ended in a 3â3 tie. The Man vs Machine series didnât end there: when asked to play the Fritz 3D computer program â wearing 3D glasses and using only voice commands for his moves, never actually touching the pieces â Kasparov didnât balk. It was another challenge that ended in a draw.
He has taken on entire Olympic chess teams, playing 5 or 6 grandmasters simultaneously, and winning.
In a match at Tel-Aviv University, Kasparov played 30 games, against individual chess players â and won every single one.
He is, in case you hadnât quite grasped it yet, the greatest chess player the world has ever seen.
But that, it turns out, wasnât enough for Garry Kasparov.
He had the promise of a political destiny to fulfil, one unwittingly fated for him, maybe, in New York two decades ago.
There were those who read early signs of his future political engagement in his epic stand-offs with Anatoly Karpov, considered close to the communist establishment in the USSR while Kasparov stood for individual opposition to the state.
That stand is no longer metaphorical. In 2005, he formed the United Civil Front movement and joined The Other Russia, a coalition opposing the policies and administration of Vladimir Putin.
In many ways, it was inevitable. To take on the formidable Russian president requires commitment, courage, and intelligence.
It would be hard to find a man in Russia who has more of all three than Garry Kasparov.
What has been a surprise, however, is his sheer magnetism as an activist and political campaigner. He is passionate, articulate, and blunt. âPutin has taken off the flimsy mask of democracy to reveal himself in full as the would-be KGB dictator he has always been,â he wrote in an op-ed recently. âThe phase of attempting to create popular outrage by going through the motions of sham elections is over. Everyone knows the system is a cruel joke, but this knowledge is not in itself sufficient to get millions of people to risk their safety and freedom against a well-armed police state.â
Heâs no armchair activist â in 2007, he organised two of the largest anti-Putin protests in St Petersburg, and was later detained and released with a warning. He was arrested again later that year for leading an âillegal protestâ and spent 5 days in jail. He announced his intention of standing for the Russian presidency but was thwarted by official machinery that went into overdrive to prevent him meeting the conditions set out in the election process.
That hasnât slowed him down, though â he has courted arrest and been physically attacked in public when he turned out to support Pussy Riot last August. More recently, after credible reports of threat to him if he remained in Russia, he has temporarily moved base to the US where he is on the board of the Human Rights Foundation and a vocal pro-justice voice.
His opposition to Putin isnât all that drives his activism â a passionate advocate of using chess in education to teach, among other things, strategy, discipline and innovation â he runs the Kasparov Chess Foundation that runs programs in 5000 schools across America. He speaks selectively at think tanks around the world, talks technology with futurists, plays exhibition matches with hand-picked opponents, writes newspaper columns, and has authored two books of which How Life Imitates Chess has won massive acclaim.
But then this is a man who played a chess match that lasted 6 months; a match in which he was trailing so significantly that his first win came 93 days into the match; a match that was finally called off because his opponent, the legendary Anatoly Karpov, was close to a nervous breakdown.
That match may have ended inconclusively. Kasparovâs life and career, though, have been anything but.