Gary Kasparov: people are always fascinated by things they don't understand

Since retiring from professional chess in 2005, Garry Kasparov has been festering like a thorn in the Kremlin's side. His is the strategy behind Other Russia, a coalition of disparate political groups bent on securing fair elections in an increasingly centralised state. At a St Petersburg rally last month, one of the biggest against president Vladimir Putin's administration, 130 of Kasparov's colleagues were detained for disrupting the peace. Further demonstrations – though officially banned – are expected this weekend. The former world number one, for his part, has been denounced on state television as a CIA spy. After decades of intense preparation, aggressive match play and thorough analysis, he has entered a new, and unexpected, game.

"People are always fascinated by things they don't understand," he says, brushing a hair from his lapel. He has arrived for our meeting late, well-dressed and intense to breaking point. After cursory introductions, he begins riffing on his new book, How Life Imitates Chess, his first foray into mainstream writing. Part self-help guide, part memoir, it offers his life and its challenges as a series of examples to be learned from. Winston Churchill, Napoleon and other strategists feature heavily, as do Kasparov's own pearls of wisdom.

"You always have to be comfortable that you're doing the right thing," he says. "It might look dangerous but if you feel you're on the right track, just go for it. Intuition is like a muscle and if you don't train it, you don't improve. You need courage to make decisions and discover the qualities that are sleeping inside."

So far, 19 editions of the book are planned, in 17 languages, each tweaked by Kasparov to be relevant to the given audience. In the US edition, the book's philosophy will be replaced with a straight business message. In Russia, the political sections will be revised. All eyes will be on him at home as the mastermind behind Other Russia.

"I looked at the available options and came up with a strategy of unifying right and left," he says. "We are fighting for the restoration of democratic institutions, which requires a lot of diplomatic skills. I talked to liberals, die-hard communists and nationalists. I anticipated this would be the best way to confront the Kremlin's ruthless policy of destroying democracy in Russia."

It is not a break from his past, he says, but a continuation. Born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Kasparov has long walked the line between national hero and misfit. His two decades at the top of the royal game spanned the Cold War, glasnost and perestroika. Barring Bobby Fischer – the American who, in 1972, became the first non-Russian to wrest the crown from the Soviets since 1948 – the game has long been the preserve of the Russian grandmasters and a hot political pawn.

As the challenger in 1984 to reigning champion Anatoly Karpov, 22-year-old Kasparov was seen as promising, if unlikely, cannon fodder. But after five months and 48 games with no winner, he had gained a strong momentum, clawing his deficit back to 3-5. The international chess federation, FIDE, at the behest of the Soviet sports authorities, stepped in to cancel the match. It would be another year before Kasparov faced Karpov again to take the world title.

"Karpov's still the regime's favourite," he says. "He was always a conformist and felt comfortable being part of the government. At that time, I wasn't dreaming about becoming a political dissident, but I think people could sense something unusual about me. Not only that I was half-Armenian, half-Jewish, but that I was some sort of alien. I have always had my own moral set-up and don't want to obey rules if I don't like them."

Kasparov first played chess seriously at the age of seven, spurred on by his Jewish father Kim, who died shortly afterwards of leukaemia.Hegrewupsurroundedby uncles, his mother Klara and a healthy degree of scepticism.

"I learned a lot from both branches of my family," he says. "Genetics have a lot to do with it. I got Jewish creativity and the rebel spirit from my father. My stubbornness, strength of character and steady hand came from my mother."

As a teenager, local chess competitions soon became national, then international. His ambitions were fulfilled easily but at a cost. "You have to abandon certain joys of childhood," he says. "You can't take thingsaseasilyasother teenagers because you think about your next game and your opponents. It dulls your lifestyle and you have to confront issues that normally don't affect people until much later in life. It makes you more serious."

That seriousness is patent. At only two points during our interview does Kasparov smile. The first is when someone brings in a pot of tea and Kasparov relaxes his eyebrows. He looks at the tea cosy for a while before wondering aloud what could be underneath it. Unfortunately, neither of us can think of anything witty, beyond saying that it's probably tea, and he proves us both right with a grunt.

One of his biggest blunders was when he broke away from FIDE in 1993 to play the British challenger Nigel Short under the newly-formed Professional Chess Association (PCA). The support he had counted on from other grandmasters didn't materialise, causing a 13-year rift in the chess world. Karpov was installed as FIDE's world champion and Kasparov as the PCA's. He calls it "a fight against the ills of the system", and realises in hindsight that it was a mistake, althoughhisdiagnosisthatFIDEwas corrupt "was not wrong".

He says that throughout his career, he was pushed hard by the Soviet authorities todefect,leavingKarpovasthesole national chess hero. And yet he represented his country at eight separate Olympiads, contributing in every one to the team's consecutive gold medals. I wonder whether that ever grated, whether he played at heart for personal or national glory,and whether he ever resented the hypocrisy. The question seems to trouble him.

"I always had a lot of pride for my country," he says after a long pause. "I believe people like Karpov had a political agenda that was detrimental for the future of the Soviet Union, and now Russia, but I never felt any discomfort defending the national colours."

His decision to grant a rematch to Deep Blue in 1997 – the IBM supercomputer he had defeated just a year earlier – was a personal low. Prior to the event in New York, the software company employed the services of several grandmasters to boost the machine's capability, which already stood at around 200 million calculations per second.

Kasparov took the first game easily but in the second something changed. Convinced the machine had made a move only a human could have prompted, Kasparov sensed a conspiracy. By game six he was broken. For the world's media, it was the triumph of machine over man, generating publicity and soaring profits for IBM. At the news conference, Kasparov said the "hand of God" had played a part and bemoaned the fact that the machine had been dismantled immediately afterwards and that his calls for a third and deciding match were ignored.

The defeat ended what many had seen as Kasparov's invincibility, pre-empting the temporary loss of his world title to his former student Vladimir Kramnik in 2000. When I suggest a rematch with Deep Blue, should IBM ever offer it, he reminds me that he has retired and that his endgame now is quite different.

As well as Other Russia, he formed his own pressure group, the United Civil Front, in 2005 to promote political activism, which he thinks is dying out in Russia. He points out that the combined fortune of the 100 wealthiest Russians is $340 billion, "which is 30% more than the country's combined revenue for 2006". For the 120 million people on the other side of the economic fence, things are ever bleaker.

A supporter of Gorbachev's reforms to liberalise Russia in the 1980s, Kasparov says the country's elections have been rigged since 1996. Like the rest of his coalition, he has been discredited and labelled as "non-approved" opposition.

"In Russia, extremism and terrorism are separated only by a comma," he says. "With a certain dexterity of hands, you can always present Garry Kasparov as part of a terrorist conspiracy." He doesn't see Putin as being directly behind the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in Moscow last year, nor that of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in London, but thinks the president is still complicit.

"Let's not forget that these people have noallergy for blood," he says. "We all remember the storming of the Nord-Ost Theatre in Moscow in 2002, and the Beslan school siege, where kids were burned alive. The regime is getting scared that if they lose power they might be held responsible for such acts. That concerns them and people with so much power and panic can act irrationally."

As a consequence, he is not taking his own safety for granted. His third child Aida, to his third wife Dasha, was recently born in New York rather than Russia because of concern over possible attacks. He says he thinks twice before flying with Russia's national airline Aeroflot or tasting food, and employs a team of bodyguards for himself and his family in Moscow. And yet he continues to run the gauntlet.

"I fear for my own safety," he says. "But I live in a country where people are always fearful for their safety. There are thousands of activists and opposition groups facing KGB harassment almost on a daily basis. I feel a bit guilty that I have money to hire bodyguards and that if something goes wrong with me it will be known worldwide within a very short period of time. Many people don't have that luxury so I don't think fear should override my sense of duty."

As it stands, Other Russia has no access to television and little access to print or radio.WhatitdoeshaveisKasparov's cachet as a national celebrity. To the left, he's still the Soviet champion; to the nationalists, he's the intellectual pride of Mother Russia. A right-leaning liberal, he says the main strategic goal of the coalition is survival first, then disruption. "If you have to dismantle the regime, you will use the screw or the stick of dynamite," he explains, "anything that is available."

Under the Russian constitution, Putin will stand down as president next year. If possible, Other Russia will field a candidate to stand against his chosen successor at the Kremlin. Hard hitters in the coalition include former prime minister and People's Democratic Union leader Mikhail Kasyanov, and National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov. Kasparov insists it's not about winning the elections, but simply running them in a fair and transparent way. Mass rallying will be needed, he predicts, maybe more. Not until I ask whether he will stand as the party's candidate does he break into his second smile of the day.

Share article "We'll find out," he says. "I'm not pushing for it. The coalition's choice should represent different elements of Soviet Russian history and should appeal to the older generation as well. I think that, in 2008, Garry Kasparov might still be too radical for those who have to support us. But I live in peace with myself now because I know I'm doing the right thing."


First published in The Sunday Herald, 2007.