Kasparov's Political Gambit
Grandmaster Calculates How to Checkmate Putin

By Anton Troianovski
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 20, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Life imitates chess, except when it doesn't.

Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest players the game has seen, swings through the United States this month to promote his new book on how to apply strategies from the world of chess to personal decision-making.

"How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves -- From the Board to the Boardroom" is sprinkled with bits of the grandmaster's biography, simplified musings on his key games and a copious dose of pithy quotations from the likes of Emerson, Edison and Picasso. Kasparov argues that by trusting one's intuition, understanding one's strengths and weaknesses, and calmly surveying the big picture, one can make better decisions -- or, as he put it to a hushed audience near Harvard Square this week, "create your own unique formula of success."

But as he shuttles from Cambridge to Capitol Hill to the New York set of "The Colbert Report," the 44-year-old Kasparov is also pushing a lesson drawn from his new role as the leader of Russia's political opposition and a presidential candidate: In the game of politics, at least in Russia, strategy can get you only so far.

"It's not exactly a chess game anymore," he admitted in an interview. "It's more like a game of chance."

Kasparov, who says he intends to dismantle the "regime" of President Vladimir Putin, is waiting for an opening that may be long in coming.

He insists he is making good use of the clock, trying to consolidate a core opposition movement drawn from across the ideological spectrum. But for now, the five-time world champion who became famous for an aggressive, explosive style of chess can do little but apply steady pressure and bide his time.

"I think that four more years of this regime and Russia as a political entity will simply fall apart," he said. "But I can't force this time to come; I can only work so that when this X-hour comes, I will be in the right place. I don't have the resources to play the game on my own."

Kasparov speaks Russian with an arrhythmic intensity and a slight accent that evokes his roots in the Caucasus. His English is almost perfect, if sometimes lacking definite articles. Over lunch with his wife, Daria Tarasova, and his ghostwriter, Mig Greengard, he occasionally broke into English to describe concepts, such as the word "challenge."

In Russia, Kasparov constantly fends off accusations that he has a U.S. passport or that he is an agent of shadowy Western interests. His wife gave birth to their first daughter in a New York hospital just over a year ago because, Kasparov said, they were concerned about the baby's security.

But when he appears abroad, insisting that democratic leaders should treat Putin as a dictator rather than as one of their own, Kasparov says he runs into a different problem. "The thing is that in America as well as in Western Europe, it is very hard for an established democracy to understand the atmosphere in which resistance to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes happens," he said.

In the Q&A session after Kasparov's speech here, an older man asked, "Why don't you run for mayor of Moscow to establish a political beachhead or something?" Kasparov appeared flustered and said that few people understood the state of Russian politics today. He did not even mention that Moscow's mayor no longer is elected, but rather appointed by the Russian president.

His frustration underscored the strange new position in which Kasparov, a world-renowned chess player since his teens, finds himself as the most prominent voice among what the pro-Kremlin press calls Russia's "illegal" opposition -- those who challenge the legitimacy of the reigning political system.

Kasparov famously unseated world champion Anatoly Karpov, a favorite of the Soviet establishment, in 1985; but by 1999, when he unveiled an online chess portal bearing his name, he writes in the new book, "I could no longer pretend I was the rebel fighting the establishment." Now, the tables have turned yet again, and Kasparov is trying to win over a public surrounded by a reassuring state-controlled media and the warm gush of petrodollars.

But as Kasparov puts it in his new book, "most disadvantages -- like clouds -- come with a silver lining." (Stylistically straightforward, "How Life Imitates Chess" is geared toward a general audience for self-help books rather than those seeking insight into Kasparov's chess career or the political scene in Russia. The Russian version of the book, Kasparov noted, has more philosophy and more autobiography.)

Kasparov's own doctrine, according to "How Life Imitates Chess," centers on "crisis points" or points of no return -- captured in the chess maxim that "pawns can't move backward." In politics, he is gambling that a successful opposition in today's Russia will be united by its dislike of Putin rather than by ideology. That group will be ready to swing into action when Russia's underlying problems -- Kasparov says they include a growing gap between rich and poor, deteriorating infrastructure and a precarious banking system -- explode into crisis.

"I believe that saving Russia as a political entity is extremely important for all of humanity," he said. "I see for myself many interesting ideas in life, but for now I expect that this will be the most time-consuming," he went on, switching to English for the last few words.

Kasparov retired from professional chess in 2005 but still plays recreationally, to "rest my soul," as he put it. From the beginning of his decades-long career, Kasparov's contemporaries saw him as an ambassador of the sport. One of his first books, "My Games," came out in English in 1983, the year Kasparov turned 20. An introduction by his teacher Mikhail Botvinnik quotes the 19th-century Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov:

"You don't have to be a poet, but you are obliged to be a citizen."

"Garry Kasparov is a poet of chess," Botvinnik wrote, "so he bears a double duty to be a citizen as well."

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