ACJ Extra

Checkmate for a Champion

Christopher Chabris

Garry Kasparov, widely regarded as the greatest chess player of all time, lost his world champion's title last week to 25-year-old challenger Vladimir Kramnik.

Mr. Kasparov's accession to the championship came in 1985 when he was only 22 years old, and was the culmination of a series of events that had as much significance for Soviet politics as they did for chess history. Mr. Kasparov's first title match against then-champion Anatoly Karpov began in 1984 and lasted a record-shattering 48 games and 160 days before being aborted by order of Florencio Campomanes, an ethically challenged Filipino who led the international chess federation (FIDE).

Suspiciously, Mr. Kasparov, half-Jewish and somewhat of an outsider, had just won two games in a row, and the frail Mr. Karpov, a favorite of the Communist Party establishment, was believed to be near physical collapse from the stress of the long contest. But despite seven months to recuperate, Mr. Karpov lost a fresh match to Mr. Kasparov. The two played again in 1986, 1987, and 1990, with Mr. Kasparov holding his title each time.

In the next decade Mr. Kasparov dominated the chess world, winning two championship matches and numerous tournaments of the world's top grandmasters. (He also became a contributing editor to The Wall Street Journal.) His presence at the board was not only intellectually but emotionally and even physically intimidating. But these qualities, valuable assets in the psychological warfare of professional chess, only undermined his abilities in a series of matches against computers that culminated in his celebrated encounter with IBM's Deep Blue in 1997. After five tense games and a week of accusing IBM of cheating, Mr. Kasparov mysteriously imploded in the final game, losing in 19 moves and storming off.

By the start of the 16-game match with Mr. Kramnik in London last month, Mr. Kasparov had not faced a human challenger for the world title in five years -- but not for lack of trying. After justifiably abandoning FIDE and its vote-for-sale politics in 1993, he attempted several times, with limited success, to create alternative organizations to control the world championship title and arrange commercial sponsorship.

In this year's long-awaited encounter, Mr. Kasparov quickly fell behind Mr. Kramnik by losing the second game, was lucky to escape losses in games four and six, and collapsed in game 10, his worst loss since the final Deep Blue game. He squandered two of his opportunities with the white pieces by offering draws in less than 15 moves (eliciting gasps from the audience), and found it impossible to penetrate Mr. Kramnik's solid defense. Throughout the match Mr. Kasparov was unrecognizable to his fans, not only in his moves on the board, but in his appearance and demeanor as well.

This "new Kasparov" was the main topic of speculation during the match. Predictable rumors and conspiracy theories abounded, but the Russian mafia and mysterious illnesses are not needed to explain what happened.

Although no world championship match is easy, Mr. Kasparov's last two contests were comfortable wins compared to the five nail-biting, down-to-the-wire struggles with Mr. Karpov. At age 37 he is, in chess terms, an old man. His hair is graying, he wears grandfatherly sweater vests under his suits, and he no longer strides confidently to and from the board. When before he would stare menacingly at his opponent, he now shakes his head, sighs, and appears tired and bewildered at times. And Mr. Kasparov's prolonged status as the world No. 1 may have eroded his ability to cope with a stiff challenge. Signs of this were already evident in his behavior during the Deep Blue match, where after resigning a game that he could have drawn, he focused on his own fallibility and his suspicions of his opponent's infallibility, to the detriment of his play.

This time, as always, there were plenty of distractions off the board for Mr. Kasparov. In particular, he has been relentlessly criticized by chess elites for handpicking Mr. Kramnik as his opponent rather than Alexei Shirov, who defeated Mr. Kramnik in a 1998 match. However, just as the dynamic Mr. Kasparov was the perfect challenger to Mr. Karpov, the super-solid Mr. Kramnik in fact was the most dangerous opponent Mr. Kasparov could have chosen. He was the only top grandmaster without a losing record against the world champion, he had recently gone undefeated in 82 consecutive international tournament games over 18 months, and he was in the prime of his career.

Most importantly, Mr. Kramnik was Mr. Kasparov's student in the 1980s, his assistant in the 1990s, and now the logical heir to his supremely rigorous approach. Mr. Kasparov had predicted years ago that Mr. Kramnik would succeed him. After suffering that fate last week, Mr. Kasparov was not bitter at all. He pointed to Mr. Kramnik's superior prematch preparation, but by all appearances Mr. Kasparov's acceptance for the first time that he could lose a world championship match contributed as much to the outcome.

What is Mr. Kasparov's legacy? He strove mightily to transform world chess from an arena of Cold War battles and Soviet propaganda into a commercially viable sport, sometimes at the expense of his own reputation among his peers. In this effort he was the indispensable man: Only a player with his style, charisma, and ego could even have made a serious attempt.

Efforts at profiting from top-level chess have a mixed record because the game is simply not popular enough in Western countries; neither Intel nor IBM would sponsor events for more than a few years. FIDE is trying to commercialize its own parallel world championship series, which, without Mr. Kasparov or Mr. Kramnik, has no legitimacy except among those attracted by legalistic arguments. The organizers of the present match, Brain Games Network, want to create an Internet-based company to promote world championships in all the "mind sports," including checkers and chinese chess. This business model has a better chance to succeed, but it will be a struggle.

As for Mr. Kasparov's contribution to the art of chess itself, he was, is and will remain one of its greatest creative geniuses. Now we'll see whether his new status as underdog challenger instead of haughty champion will rejuvenate this old young man.

Christopher Chabris was Editor in Chief of American Chess Journal. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2000.

This page last modified on 28 April 2018.
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