Russia’s Grandest Master: A Conversation with Garry Kasparov

[Editors' note: Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was among some 30 people arrested this morning outside the court where Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison. Kasparov, now a leader of the opposition movement against President Vladimir Putin, was cornered by policemen as he gave an interview, bundled into a van, beaten, and jailed.

In our summer issue of World Policy Journal, we sat down with Kasparov and discussed the nexus of games and politics. In our Conversation, the Russian chess grandmaster analyzes the role of social media in popular uprisings and predicts a quick and bitter end for President Vladimir Putin.]


WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Let’s start off by talking about chess. It’s one of the most universal games. Tell us what you see as the role of such universal activities in terms of bringing people together as a bonding mechanism. You’ve been a chess master, but you’ve also been a political figure. We’re interested in the nexus of these two concepts.  

GARRY KASPAROV: Let’s start with chess as a bonding mechanism. It has its universal values, and it’s quite a unique game. It’s a game that fits the Internet era, because you can play it online. You can follow the game’s great players, and you can analyze it through computer engines, which is very helpful for amateurs. To some extent, there is no longer a cloak of secrecy covering the game. You may have two of the world’s greatest players competing, and any amateur can immediately see the blunder. It’s very different from when I started.

It is no longer the old-fashioned game, when two big champions play the game and one is smoking a cigar while the other one is drinking coffee, and they look at the board, and it takes ages to make a move. Every move is like an enigma for those who do not belong to this temple of ultimate chess truths. Now they just look at the computer screen, push a button, move the mouse, touch the screen, and the machine can give you quite an objective evaluation. If it’s a bad move, the machine will show that it’s a bad move. The machines don’t know everything, but you can no longer hide behind the authority of the player who made the move.

I also think that chess can play a very important role in changing modern education. That’s what I’ve been doing in recent years. For most of the last eight months, I’ve been traveling the world, meeting different education authorities under the auspices of the Kasparov Foundation in the United States.

WPJ: What mechanism would make chess an important educational tool?

KASPAROV: It has been taught in thousands of schools in this country and around the world. It teaches concentration, which is very important—and to see the big picture. It’s a first experience with a legal framework. You have to respect the rules. You can’t do whatever you want. It also teaches responsibility, because there is no one else to blame. It also has a very positive impact in improving social attitudes, because chess doesn’t belong to a certain social group.

You can have competition between kids from very different social backgrounds—from very expensive private schools to schools in Harlem or the Bronx or inner city schools in the suburbs of Detroit. They play each other, and they can actually see that the winner is someone who works hard and who can apply his or her intellect. Just because you were born in an unprivileged environment doesn’t preclude you from being successful. We saw a huge positive social impact in places like the slums of Sao Paulo and deprived black townships near Johannesburg. This social element makes chess quite a unique link or educational tool because it boosts kids’ confidence.

It’s also inexpensive. You don’t have to build a stadium, or a court, or a swimming pool. I met educational authorities in Brazil,
Argentina, France, the UK, Turkey, South Africa, and of course, we also had a lot of activities in this country. It’s beyond any doubt that chess helps kids.

That’s one side of the story, and another one is that chess is related to modern technologies. We are now entering a world where the educational system is failing, because we are seeing the iPad generation.
The iPad generation does not take information which goes one way. It must be interactive. The traditional classroom was always based on the authority of the teacher, who was the ultimate source of information.
You can ask questions, but you cannot challenge. But now, chess can serve as a link to build these connections between the traditional way of teaching and a new modernized classroom.


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[Illustration: Miguel Jiron]

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