Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1995 (3.3)
Pages 30, 67

The World's Chess Champion

by Anne Kressler
Photos: Courtesy Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov

Photo: Garry Kasparov, who grew up playing chess in Baku. In 1984, he became the World Chess Champion at age 22. In September 1995, he will defend his title against Anand of India at the World Trade Building in New York City.

Chess has strong roots in Azerbaijan. Some claim it dates back to the sixth century, perhaps even earlier. References to chess have been made by poets of the region in twelfth century works. During the Soviet period (after a shaky beginning when chess was nearly banned because it was perceived as a game for the bourgeoisie), the USSR became known for producing the world's best players. The image of the chess player came to epitomize the ideal Soviet man-possessed with logic, will, and decisiveness: man as the perfect synthesis of thought and action.

Therefore, to focus on "Leisure and Play in Azerbaijan" without discussing the game of chess would be like trying to cover American sports without discussing football or baseball. And to highlight chess without featuring Garry Kasparov would be like setting up a chess board without a King.

We found Garry in Croatia. Though extremely occupied with preparing for the upcoming World Champion Games, he very willingly assisted us with this article.

Left: Garry, 3, plays his uncle at backgammon while his father watches on.
In Baku, 1966.

It's been ten years that Garry Kasparov has held his title as World Chess Champion. This September, he will be defending his position again, this time against Vishwanathan Anand from India. The 20-game match will take place on the top floor of the World Trade Center in New York City and is scheduled to last from September 11 to October 13. The game's purse is $1.5 million.

Garry Kasparov grew up in Baku. In his (English) autobiography ("Child of Change" with Donald Trelford, Hutchinson: 1987), he included a full page of city views of Baku, calling it "my native city". "My roots are in Baku," he wrote. "That knowledge gives me strength when I go off to conquer other worlds. It gives me solace when I return." Baku fascinated him as a city of wide-ranging contrasts: black vs. gold (as producer of petroleum and cotton); modern vs. ancient; secular vs. religious. Even the weather brought violent contrasts with its hot summers and blistering winter winds.

But it was the "warmth and human scale" of Baku that other cities lacked that always impressed him. At the time, he considered his closest friends to be Azerbaijanis. Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's President, on several occasions back in the 1980s, used his position in the Soviet Politburo, to assist Garry in getting a fair chance to play international competitions when Muscovites tried to block his participation.

No Longer in Baku
Since 1990, however, Garry no longer lives in Azerbaijan-not because he considered Baku too small for him after he won the world championship. Nor because he had been an outspoken critic of Soviet policy during Gorbachev's perostroika. Looking back on that period, he says, "If I kept silent, who would speak? Who would encourage democratic forces. I couldn't just leave the country. I didn't want to emigrate."

Today, he lives in Moscow as a refugee-another victim-another statistic of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, albeit, possibly the richest one. He's among the 250,000 estimated Armenians and the 1.1 million Azerbaijanis who have been severed from their homes, friends, communities, lands and livelihoods because of the war that has been going on between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over possession of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory which during the Soviet Period had the status of being an Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan.

Though an estimated 14,000-18,000 Armenians (mostly women married to Azerbaijanis) are said to still be living in Azerbaijan today, the majority of Armenians have fled, many to Moscow.

Garry has been extremely vocal and outspoken in placing the blame on Gorbachev. In 1990, when Azerbaijanis massed in the streets insisting on national independence, tension broke out between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Many, including Garry, suspect the hostilities were calculated and provoked to stir up as much internal confusion as possible so that the republics would be weakened in their efforts to break off from the Soviet Union. Regardless of its origin, Soviet troops did absolutely nothing to stop the attacks and carnage that resulted, first against the Armenians and then, a few weeks later, against Azerbaijanis. It's a period that Azerbaijanis now refer to as "Black January". (See AI, Spring 1995, "The Russian Bear's Voracious Appetite").

Pain Doesn't Go Away
Five years later, Garry's wounds, like those of hundreds of thousands of other refugees, have not healed. His psychological sense of place has still not be replaced. It doesn't matter that he was well-off enough to charter his own plane to leave Baku with 60 of his friends and relatives "and eight more of the weakest looking people in the airport trying to get out." Nor does it matter that he lives, what many might consider a glamorous life, flying off to chess competitions all over the world.

To be suddenly plucked from his roots, from the security of places and the compassion of faces that were an integral part of his life, has been like grieving a thousand deaths. This, despite the fact that Garry admits that he never felt threatened personally. In fact, the story is told how Azerbaijanis protected his grandmother's house from attack.

Garry's mother is Armenian. Her family had lived in Baku for generations. His father was Jewish-Weinstein, by name, whose family was thought to have come to Baku from Germany at the time of the great oil rush in the 19th century. But little is known with certainty. His father, died of leukemia at the age of 39 when Garry was only seven. "People say I'm just like my father when I talk on the phone or when I make gestures. Like me, he tended to explode about things, then get over them quickly. As they say in Azerbaijan, he 'never kept a stone hidden inside his clothes'. Like me, too, he could not bring himself to say things he did not mean, just for the effect they would create."

Garry's mom was considered precocious at chess even when she was only six years old. But with World War II, she had no chance to pursue her interests, as everyone had to concentrate on just surviving.

Early Beginnings
The story of how Garry got involved with chess as a young child has almost become legendary. At age six, he amazed his family by solving a chess puzzle in the newspaper that had stumped his family. The year before, his father had taught him the chess moves. When his father realized his son's analytical prowess, he decided that "since Garry knows how the game ends, we ought to teach him how it begins."

And that was the start of a long journey that would take him to the peaks of the chess world. At seven, Garry started training at Baku's Children's Pioneer Palace (which during the Soviet period was named after the space hero, Yuri Gagarin). Young people still pore over the chess boards there today. Some of Garry's coaches still proudly show (and autograph) the first book he ever wrote about Chess Moves (1981).

Climb to Kingmanship
At nine, he stunned Baku by reaching the final round in the city's Lightning Championship. At ten, he earned the title of Candidate Master in Baku, the youngest ever. He then was admitted to the Botvinnik School, run by the great Soviet Grandmaster himself who was former world champion. At 12, he won the USSR Junior (under 18) Championship at Tblisi, Georgia. At 13, he started going abroad to play chess tournaments. and played in the World Junior Championship in France. No one that young had ever represented the USSR. At 14, he realized that chess would come to dominate his whole life. At 15, he qualified for the top league of the Soviet Union.

At 17, he became a Grand Master although he had been competing as such in tournaments the year before. He also became the World Junior Champion (under 20) in Dortmund, West Germany, as the Soviet Union's representative. Soon after, he earned his International Master (IM) status although he had been playing IMs before he even had an FIDE rating-something unheard of. In 1985 at 22, he won the World Championship, again the youngest in history.

To take the world title away from Anatoly Karpov, who himself had been the champion for ten years, involved playing 120 championship games in four matches. It was the longest struggle in history to gain the World title. Blame it on politics-both within the chess world and the Soviet Union. Kasparov estimates that he has sat across the chessboard from Karpov more than 600 hours in his life. In 1990, Kasparov became the highest rated player in chess history (at 2800), surpassing Bobby Fischer's old record of 2785.

Concentration is Key
Chess style is really a reflection of personality and character. For Garry , concentration is everything. "Concentration is the only way to discover something new and unusual at the chessboard, the only way to create surprise with fresh ideas. When some people see my head in my hand and a fixed look in my eyes, they think it's a big show designed to frighten or intimidate my opponent, like the famous glare of Tal, World Champion of the past. But it isn't true. Maybe, it has that effect on weak or impressionable players. But it helps me to cut out the distractions and force myself to dig deep inside my mind for the right combinations. You can't allow your thoughts to scatter when you're under pressure."

Garry sees playing chess as an ever-evolving process. "To be creative, to be adventurous, to exhibit flair, is no excuse for not studying hard. The truth is exactly the opposite. You have to work constantly at your game, at your openings and endings. A deep analysis is necessary. Chess is not a fixed or static body of knowledge. It's dynamic. Even the books I've written on chess and the annotations I've made on my own matches, are not set in stone. I keep updating them. There must be a constant questioning of old ideas, even one's own."

Garry, the Man
Known for his straightforwardness and honesty, Garry confesses, "I'm really an ordinary guy. I make mistakes. It kills me when I do. But I'm willing to talk about my mistakes in the analysis afterwards. I don't hide anything. I've always loved this game from childhood. I've loved studying chess. I've loved the life around chess-the new friends, the atmosphere, the struggle."

And these are the reasons he continues to hold the respect and admiration of hundreds of thousands of people in Baku. "Garry is deeply loved in this city," said one Bakui recently. "Everybody knows him. He's one of the few people that we can count on one hand that everybody is so proud of-even today. We still consider him part of us," said a fellow student who had attended the Institute of Foreign Languages and studied English with Garry.

World Championship Title
When Garry was 24 (in 1987), he predicted that he might be able to hold on to the world championship until he was 30, giving him "six more years at the top". Garry is 32 now and still holds the title. It gives him great satisfaction that chess enthusiasts and professionals might know and be challenged by his games "for, maybe, two hundred years" and give him a sort of immortality. And, unlike other world champions who seem to have descended the Mt. Olympus of chess, Garry couldn't visualize any fall. "I see only new peaks before me and no descent."

But it goes without saying that chess champions cannot go on for ever. Because of his character, it's likely that when the time comes that he no longer is number one, he will still be extremely active in strengthening world interest in chess, getting involved with politics, maybe business, or even in the literary world. Deep down, he believes he has the gift of a poet at heart, a man of instinct and feeling. He already has written numerous chess books.

As a youth, he used to have a motto on his wall. It read, "If not you, who else?" He used to take it with him wherever he went to remind him that if he didn't take responsibility for his own life, no one else would. It's the kind of slogan that is likely to propel him into the future, no matter what happens at the chessboard in September, February or in the months and years to come.

He has always felt compelled to act in order to change things for the better, both for today, and for future generations that follow. "We must act in response to the high calling of the human race. We must always do the best we can."

From Azerbaijan International (3.3) Autumn 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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