Over the course of his unprecedented career, Garry Kasparov dominated the chess world with astonishing creativity and explosive passion. In this unforgettable work of reportage, author Fred Waitzkin “captures better than anyone—including Kasparov himself in his own memoir—the various sides of this elusive genius” (The Observer).
Waitzkin had intimate access to his subject during Kasparov’s gripping 1990 matches against his sworn enemy, Anatoly Karpov. As the world chess champion defends his title, Waitzkin analyzes the match play with verve and depth that will delight lay readers and aspiring grandmasters alike.
Against this backdrop, Waitzkin assembles a fascinating portrait of a complicated man who is both a generational talent and an outspoken advocate of Russian democracy, brilliant and volcanic, tenacious and charismatic, despairing one moment and exuberant the next.
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The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov
By Fred Waitzkin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Fred Waitzkin
All rights reserved.
In late September, 1990, world chess champion Garry Kasparov and I were walking along the broad South Beach of Martha's Vineyard Island off the coast of Massachusetts. It was a sunny morning that was both warm and chilly, depending on the blustery ocean breeze, and the air was so clear that Noman's Island, nine miles to the south, seemed to be sitting just off the beach. Kasparov, on the short side of medium height, shirtless and muscular, walked along the water's edge at a pace that was nearly a run. He had been smiling for the past few minutes, enjoying an idea.
"I'm going to crush him this time," he said.
In ten days the world champion would begin a three-month intellectual and emotional battle against a man he considered morally and politically evil, "a symbol of the communist system." He pronounced the name slowly, rolling the "r," "K-A-R-R-R-P-O-V," so that it dripped with disgust, as if the challenger, one of the great players in chess history, were something vile and foul-smelling. "He is a creature of darkness," Kasparov said, with Miltonic distaste.
The fifth title match between these two chess giants would begin in New York in ten days and would conclude in Lyon, France, at Christmastime. Kasparov's strategy going in was rather simple: "I want to kill him immediately." To this end, Kasparov was planning to begin the match with "a blitzkrieg," a first-round knockout. In the early games he intended to use several lethal new opening ideas that he had developed on Martha's Vineyard; chess players call them "novelties." After overwhelming Karpov, a former world champion and defensive genius, in two or three of the early games, the champion predicted that the challenger would be unable to recover psychologically. "K-A-R-P-O-V." He repeated the name with disdain, but this time flashed a mischievous smile.
As I struggled to keep up with him on the soft sand, Kasparov savored his victory as if it were a fait accompli and Karpov were already squashed like a roach, once and for all out of his life. Sea gulls wheeled overhead, yapping and diving for sand eels. Kasparov waved at them like a heedless child and then inhaled the sea air deeply and theatrically as if it were great French food. This past month on Martha's Vineyard, the hard work and island living had brought a feeling of renewal and confidence. For the last few weeks, he had been saying to close friends that he would win by a lopsided margin. But, privately, his friends were uneasy about the match.
Political changes in the Soviet Union had distracted Kasparov from chess and he had not trained nearly as much as he had planned. Objectively, there was no reason to expect that the match would be easy. Kasparov had been unable to overwhelm Anatoly Karpov in their previous four championship bouts, each of them exhausting and very competitive, which in aggregate encompassed 120 games, about 600 hours of play — if you can call it play to plot the demise of another man's spiritual and psychological well-being. In 120 games, Kasparov had managed to win only a single game more than Karpov. Incredible. There had never been such a competition in all of professional sports: so many encounters, so many hours, so much on the line, so much hatred seeping from a game into life and then back into a game.
On Martha's Vineyard, it seemed to Kasparov that he had spent half of his twenty-seven years and sacrificed much of his life's joy trying to rid himself of this sallow, physically frail man who stuck to him like a shadow. Half a lifetime sitting across from Karpov, whom he loathed, toes practically touching, conceiving his finest ideas — which chess players would surely revere 100 years from today — while smelling Karpov's smells, listening to his digestion or to the incanting sound of Karpov's counting while he calculated variations, glimpsing the quivering of Karpov's stretched, nerve-wracked face when he was losing, or his preening, apple-cheeked self-admiration when he was winning. Half a lifetime watching closely for Karpov's mood swings as crucial clues to the game and to Kasparov's own well-being, for if Kasparov won he would feel like a god afterwards, and if he lost, his dejection, the blackness and rage closing upon him, would resist all forms of consolation from his friends, his wife, his mother. Such depths of despair and humiliation! After losing a game, Kasparov seemed to shrink in size. Then, as he wrestled with self-doubt, he would be vulnerable in the next game. Karpov would know this, of course, and would be ready to pounce.
In ten days, the fifth world championship match between them would begin, and Kasparov would strain to sense the meaning of Karpov's body English, the blankness of his face, his twitches and devious relaxations. For five hours in the evening, these two men would feel each other's hidden meanings as keenly as any two lovers while all the while hating one another, but not so loudly that it might interfere with the flow of ideas.
Eight months before coming to this island, Kasparov, whose father was Jewish and mother was Armenian, had been forced to flee from his training camp in Baku, the city where he had been born and raised, when Azerbaijani hooligans had begun systematically slaughtering Armenians. He had experienced this nightmare not merely as the loss of home and training camp but as the loss of his heritage, part of himself. The event had shaken him, at least for a time dislodging the fundamental order in his life. When he had returned to Moscow, feeling, as he put it, "like a refugee," chess hardly seemed important anymore. This game which had made him wealthy and powerful, which had been at the center of his life for twenty years and at which he had become arguably greater than any other man in history, had suddenly felt trivial to him.
In Moscow, with the match growing closer, there had been a choice to make each day: to study openings in preparation for Karpov, or to attend a political rally or an organizational meeting for a new political party, or to debate the policies of Gorbachev with visiting Western journalists. Chess was never his choice. According to his closest friends, prior to the loss of his home, his interest in the politics of his country, his anticommunist bias, had been somewhat cerebral and theoretical. But in January of 1990 the new Russian revolution had taken possession of his imagination. Soviet history was suddenly evolving at the speed of light after decades of bleak, punishing stasis. It was thrilling to Kasparov, who sensed that the end of communism was close. He told this to skeptical Western journalists and warned that support of Gorbachev's reactionary politics could force a bloody civil war. He felt most purposeful when writing political columns for Soviet and Western newspapers or giving rousing speeches in front of large crowds. When he thought about it, it seemed odd that he wasn't nervous before his speeches, though he wasn't exactly sure what he would say until he began. This life came easily to him, as though he had spent his years in the political trenches instead of leaning over a chessboard quietly calculating variations. In the fight against communism he felt connected with his passionately anticommunist father, who had died when he was seven, and found himself thinking back twenty years to nightly political discussions at the dinner table with his grandfather, who had been a staunch Party member for nearly fifty years.
But the winter and spring of 1990, a year before the fall of communism, was an injudicious time for the world champion to be plunging into frontline Moscow politics. Each political meeting, each interview, pushed him a little farther from chess. "Chess is not important now," he had said to friends and to his nervous manager, Andrew Page, who wanted him to begin his training for Karpov. It was a confusing and emotional time. Turning his back on chess was both liberating and frightening. Kasparov felt depressed, homeless, and yet he was wholly committed.
To distance himself, finally, from what he considered the charade of perestroika, from the daily heart-rending sight of Armenian refugees wandering Moscow streets, from the constant snare of his telephone and from the intoxication over what he sensed were the dying days of communism, Kasparov had chosen Martha's Vineyard for the final month of preparation for the world championship match.
"This time it will be easy," Kasparov said to friends who visited him on the island. Andrew Page, Kasparov's closest friend in the West, grimaced and bit his tongue when Garry boasted that he would destroy Karpov. Page worried that Garry was putting additional pressure on himself and that if he couldn't live up to his inflated claims, he might fall apart altogether. Page had his fingers crossed that Garry could eke out a win against the former world champion, who had been training for months without distraction.
On the beach, Kasparov tried to put Karpov out of his mind: thinking about his enduring enemy was a blight on this postcard-perfect morning. The ocean air was clear, the sky wonderfully blue, and just offshore fishing boats slowly dragged their nets. As we walked at his furious pace, we began talking about his grand plans for the chess world after he won the match. "The public must come to see that chess is a violent sport," he said. "The stakes are very high in an important chess game. When you beat your opponent you destroy his ego; for a time you make him lose confidence in himself as a person. If the general public understood that chess players were plotting to crush one another, don't you think they'd be interested? In this match you'll feel it. The two greatest intellects in the chess world trying to destroy one another. People in the theater will be shivering."
Piqued by the gorgeous day, and the closeness of the match, ideas gushed out of him. We must do away with dry, technical games between grandmasters, he argued, gesturing with his hands as if before an audience. Grandmasters must play on the edge, risk defeat in order to create masterpieces. We were both sweating from our long walk and from the conversation, which held a sense of urgency and importance, but which also seemed a little absurd to me. Yes, yes, I nodded, as if I were an ambitious young grandmaster. No more dry grandmaster games. This must be changed. "Look," Garry insisted, "This is the way I play. I always search for the best move, but this way there is a chance to lose. A chance for greatness and a chance for disaster."
A chance for greatness and a chance for disaster. This is the kind of chess I love as well. It reminds me of the great basketball in the NCAA tournament, when players dive and bleed for each point. It is the kind of uncompromising chess that I wanted my thirteen-year-old son Joshua to play, though I could not begin to play it myself. Likewise, I have always believed that great writing involves taking risks. I was about to say this, but Kasparov's mind had suddenly moved somewhere else — maybe he was thinking about Gorbachev, maybe about a novelty in the King's Indian defense.
When I talk to Kasparov about chess, there are moments when I cannot get past the hilarity of my situation. I think, isn't our dialogue at least as farfetched as if I were chatting about encyclicals with the pope or about military strategy with Norman Schwarzkopf? Yet, since we met in the fall of 1989, there have been many afternoons when Kasparov and I have sat at the chess board and he has shown me all the variations that he might have played in games cherished around the world: attacks, intricate parries, chessic paradoxes, wondrous possibilities that chess lovers will never see. I have felt fretful, even guilty, while he showed me his magnificent ideas. I have wanted to write them down for the world, but his delicate fingers moved much too quickly and the pieces squirted around the board like animated characters. They rushed ahead, demonstrating an attack that failed, then a slightly different attack. "Better," he said quietly, and nodded his head. Better, but why was it better? I could not begin to figure it out. Maybe if I had a month. Once while I was trying to understand one position, he set up another and asked absently if I recalled this from a game in 1968. I grunted. I felt like an idiot. Clearly, everyone should remember this position from '68. "Fred, this is really incredible," and the pieces squirted around. Somehow I could feel that it was incredible.
While trying to follow Kasparov's moves, I have caught myself marveling at the wild and unexpected turn my life had taken. I am not a tournament player myself, and relative to a chess professional, I know little about the game, but in the last half-dozen years, chess has come to dominate my life. I love to watch chess more than almost anything and to talk about exciting games and the quirky habits and hang-ups of players during evening walks around Washington Square Park with my patzer friends, but mostly I love to talk chess with my son, who is a chess master, and with the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who knows that I understand very little about grandmaster-level tactics and modern opening theory but doesn't seem bothered by it. To the contrary, attempting to transform deep and often highly technical ideas into ordinary language seems to engage his imagination. Sometimes Garry calls my apartment from Europe to tell me about a tournament or some game he has just played against Ivanchuk or Anand. He is a good storyteller, and I feel as if I am in his skin, sweating, plunging ahead into a promising but dangerous position. My chess life is very rich.
In the summer of 1972, like many Americans, I fell under the spell of the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky match for the chess world championship. Several times a week, my friends and I sat glued to my television, as national master Shelby Lyman duplicated the moves that Fischer and Spassky were making in Reykjavik, Iceland. I hardly knew how to move the chess pieces, but Shelby Lyman had a gift for simplifying the game's complex strategies and tactics. With boyish charm, he convinced millions of chess-apathetic Americans that, by trying a little, not only could they appreciate Bobby and Boris's games, but — who knows? — within weeks they might be playing such masterpieces themselves.
After a few of Shelby's shows, everyone I knew wanted to play like Bobby Fischer, who spoke of the game as intellectual warfare and said shyly that he loved to crush his opponent's ego. Almost overnight, chess clubs began cropping up across America, Little League kids were pleading for chess sets, young men were deciding to forgo college for careers as chess masters. Bobby was a role model, a chess player loved for his smile, his secret power, for moves that were thrilling and sexy. There were chess groupies who craved Bobby but settled for sallow preoccupied masters who spent their days poring over dense books in clubs and coffee shops. It was the time of Muhammed Ali, Joe Namath, the Beatles and Bobby Fischer. Imagine, a chess genius holding the land in thrall like a rock star. Bobby was on the cover of Time, Life and Newsweek. Commercial sponsors were lined up to give him millions. He had single-handedly taken on the Soviet chess establishment, which during the Cold War seemed like taking on the Soviet Union itself. The Central Sports Committee had virtually all of the top chess minds in the Soviet Union working on plans to help Spassky defeat Fischer, who worked by himself at night in his room in Iceland and matter-of-factly told the world that he would win. ... Bobby, the chess monk who once refused a hotel room with a scenic view because it might distract him from his work. Bobby thrilled us with ideas we could never understand, with a chess victory that felt like a political and moral triumph.
Bobby. Poor Bobby. In a few years he would be standing on street corners in Pasadena, disguised by a beard, wearing a shabby overcoat and the same shoes he had worn in the brilliant 1971 candidates match against Tigran Petrosian, handing out anti-Semitic literature. After deciding not to defend his title against the young Anatoly Karpov, Fischer went underground for two decades, living in grimy rooming houses in Pasadena and Los Angeles. The grandmaster Pal Benko, who visited him in one of his hideouts, said that he believed Bobby was afraid that if he had defended against Karpov in 1975, the Russians would have had him murdered. Fischer showed Benko, who had spent more than a year in a Nazi labor camp in Hungary, his treasured color photograph of Adolf Hitler. To his close friends, who were directed never to discuss him with the press, he expounded upon the illusion of the Holocaust. It was the Jews who had driven him out of chess, he claimed to one friend, who kept hoping Fischer would rid himself of this obsession and return to chess. Bobby dressed in disguises and cursed the Jews in buses and cheap Chinese restaurants, and sought out the newest anti-Semitic classics as he had once accumulated volumes on the chess openings.
Excerpted from Mortal Games by Fred Waitzkin. Copyright © 1993 Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Title page
- 1 BEGINNINGS
- 2 CHESS TRAINING AND GENOCIDE
- 3 A TROUBLEMAKER AND A TROUBLED SOUL
- 4 IMMOPAR TROPHÉE
- 5 GATA AND RUSTAM—FOOTSTEPS
- 6 MIND GAMES
- 7 NEW YORK
- 8 LYON
- 9 THE TRAVELING CHESS SALESMAN
- 10 LINARES
- PREVIEW: DEEP WATER BLUES
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR