AFP/St. Louis, United States
Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov owned the game for 15 years, gaining superstar status among fans before retiring and throwing himself into politics — but he just can’t seem to stay away from the chessboard.
The 54-year-old former world champion is coming out of retirement today to play in an official tournament in St. Louis, Missouri against nine top-notch players. Kasparov, known for an aggressive, high-energy attacking style, is widely considered one of the game’s greatest. And the so-called “Beast of Baku” — nicknamed after the capital of his native Azerbaijan — has nothing left to prove.
Still, here he comes, taking on much younger players in a return seen as reflecting a drive to enhance the cult-like status he earned through years of masterful play — and make up for a few setbacks he suffered along the way.
Kasparov was given a wild card entry in the tournament dubbed Rapid and Blitz, and will be the oldest among the field of 10 players when play starts today. “Ready to see if I remember how to move the pieces! Will I be able to announce my re-retirement afterward if not?!,” Kasparov tweeted last month when it was announced that he was coming out of retirement.
Born Garik Weinstein in Azerbaijan to an Armenian mother and Jewish father, Kasparov has been described as “a monster with 100 eyes, who sees all.” At age 12, he took on his mother’s surname and launched what became one of the longest and most grueling rivalries in the history of chess, against Soviet grandmaster Anatoli Karpov.
The icy, stone-faced Karpov was a symbol of the once mighty but then crumbling Soviet Union, while Kasparov was just a young pup from little Azerbaijan. In 1985, Kasparov beat Karpov and, at just 22, became the youngest world champion ever, kicking off an era of unprecedented dominance.
Kasparov held that crown for 15 years and set about breaking molds in the world of chess.
He was a show unto himself — a theatrical bundle of nerves who wanted to win at all costs, shunning draws in games and sometimes even speaking of himself in the third person.
Other players feared him. His bigger-than-life style earned him critics, too. Kasparov took the chess world into a new modern era, with endorsement deals, televised games and high technology. He pioneered using computer databases as a tool for practicing — a venture that would come back to sting him. Kasparov had declared haughtily that no machine could ever beat him at chess. He took on the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, beating it in 1996 but then losing to the machine a year later. He and the computer were tied at five games each in a match in which the first to reach six won. When Kasparov lost, he cried foul.
Three years later, Kasparov lost his world title to his former student, Vladimir Kramnik, and retired from competitive chess in 2005.
Kasparov never managed to cut ties with the game, even attempting in 2014 to become president of the World Chess Federation by dethroning its wealthy and well-connected leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. But Kasparov’s outspoken personality dogged his campaign and he lost after only securing 61 federation delegates votes out of 175. Ilyumzhinov, who was close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailed.
The young chess retiree took to politics, becoming fixated on a bid to checkmate Putin. After leaving the game in 2005, Kasparov founded the anti-Putin opposition movement Other Russia, accusing the president of returning the country to its dictatorial past.
He became a powerful political voice and even tried to win the Kremlin in the 2008 Russian presidential election. Kasparov took part in unprecedented anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and was arrested in 2012 after a rally in favour of the punk rock feminist group Pussy Riot. In 2013, he opted for life in exile, moving to New York to calculate his political moves at a distance. Now, after 12 years of jousting with the Kremlin, Kasparov has found the allure of his first love too great to resist — and his return to the board could grant him the chance to regain the crown.
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