Why Life Does Not Imitate Chess
Part 3: The Visionary
Followers of Garry Kasparov on Facebook will have noted that he has taken to styling himself as a ‘politician’. What’s his track record? All chess players will know about his campaign for FIDE president last year against the incumbent, Ilyumzhinov, who took over from Campomanes in 1996. Garry is probably disappointed with the outcome (he lost by 110 votes to 61).12 But winners have never been short of a monumental sense of entitlement: after the secession from FIDE he orchestrated in 1993, victory would have represented a remarkable turnaround.
Post Confederate defeat, did Jefferson Davis hope to win over the Unionist states and someday become President of the USA? Could Nigel Farage get elected head of the European Union? How about Martin Luther for Pope? Or Hannibal for a seat on the Roman senate? Did Kasparov really believe he deserved any more chance of becoming FIDE president?
Kasparov: gracious as ever in defeat after the 2014 FIDE Election
Less well known is that Kasparov’s first taste of election campaigning was in 2007 for President of the Russian Republic, running under the banner of ‘The Real Russia’. Wow! Leader of the largest country in the world: that’s a little ambitious for a newbie! No nonsense about ‘intermediate objectives’ for Kasparov: that’s just for the marks who buy his books!
So what happened? The campaign ended in fiasco. Russian law requires any political party to book a meeting hall where at least 500 of its supporters can assemble to endorse its candidacy in an election. And it seems that ‘The Real Russia’ did not make the required booking.13 Hmm: Kasparov wants to be political leader of the largest land mass on earth, yet is unable to organize a venue the size of my local village hall. Hardly a promising start.
Actually, lack of experience isn’t Kasparov greatest problem as a wannabe politician. Think of a democratic leader: think of someone who is able to negotiate, share plans, cut deals, and forge alliances: not just with friends, but also rivals, even adversaries. A democratic statesman is someone who is above petty point-scoring, can put aside unimportant differences, sometimes even major disagreements, to focus on what’s really important.
So what’s Kasparov like to deal with? Here’s how Karpov describes his experience of negotiating with him:k
‘I already wasted too much time talking about a match against Kasparov [in 1997]. At least two or three times he changed his mind. When we were about to sign in Las Palmas Kasparov made a declaration that this match was not so interesting, so there should not be so much prize-money … the only thing he wanted to say was that Karpov was not better than Anand.
If you have a common aim you must work together. If all the time you must expect something crazy, it’s very difficult and just a waste of time, energy and nerves. With other people you have a competition just when the competition starts. With Kasparov, there’s always competition even if you work together. Why?’ (p.26)
If ‘Kasparov the Politician’ lacks credibility, he needs to look no further for a makeover than a very British politician who has recently captured the headlines. In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a hitherto obscure and disregarded backbench MP, surprised almost everyone by becoming Leader of the Labour Party by a 59.5% landslide. Furthermore, Mr Corbyn’s candidacy appeared to spark renewed interest in the Labour Party, with Labour receiving more than 160,000 applications to vote in the leadership contest in the final 24 hours of registration. Even before winning the leadership election, Corbyn improved on one aspect of the dismal record of his immediate three predecessors. The most recent peak of Labour Party membership was 400,000 in 1998, but this had declined to just over 200,000 in 2014.14
So what magic ingredient has Jeremy got, that is clearly lacked by phoney Tony, boring Brown and evasive Ed? In a word: authenticity.
Jeremy Corbyn: can he supply the formula to revitalize Kasparov’s political career?
Cynics would say, unencumbered with the responsibilities of any major office (he has held neither ministerial nor shadow cabinet posts) Corbyn has had the luxury of holding consistent leftward stances on a range of issues throughout a career. His critics will say he is an unelectable Labour leader, that his policies are impractical, even naïve, that he would be a disaster for Britain if actually elected. And they might be right. But at least you know what he stands for: how many politicians can you say that of? He reminds me of nothing so much as those ubiquitous cans of Heinz soup which I used to survive on back in the 1980s, during my days as an impoverished philosophy student. Heavens, I never liked the stuff that much: but at least I knew what was in the can!
Take one example of policy: nuclear weapons. Unlike any other leader, past or present, of any major UK political party (Labour included) Mr Corbyn’s policy is unambiguous. He won’t use them in any circumstances. Furthermore if he is able to get the backing of his party he would gladly get rid of them completely. Why do we believe him? Well, he’s been trotting out the same stuff longer than anyone can remember. He’s been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) since 1966, even finding time since his election as head of the Labour Party to become vice-president.15 You can argue about the wisdom, and indeed the morality, of such a policy. But even a single Trident missile has the destructive capabilities of eight Hiroshimas.16 Let off even one of these fireworks and it’s game over for civilization. Everyone knows that. Right or wrong, you have to respect the simple humanitarian principles on which Corbyn’s stance is based.
Kasparov: The Exceptionalist
What chance of Kasparov acquiring a Corbyn-like authenticity to his political style? Kasparov’s own categorization of his genius perhaps provides the answer.l
‘When analysing anew the games of Karpov and Korchnoi … I began thinking about the role of intuition … It turns out that the great masters can be arbitrarily divided into 3 groups:
- Players with relatively poor intuition …: Steinitz, Botvinnik, Euwe, Fischer … But they had qualities which compensated for their somewhat straightforward play: erudition, logic, orderliness, iron will and an extraordinary capacity for work.
- Players with strong, at times, phenomenal strategic intuition: Capablanca, Smyslov, Petrosian, Spassky, Karpov … All of them would find the best places for their pieces with staggering ease and accuracy.
- Players with a strong specific intuition, operating in sharp situations where the material and positional equilibrium was disturbed: Lasker, Alekhine, Tal, Kasparov … And also Korchnoi who in the 1960s was called “Tal in reverse”.’
Tal could envision sacrifices to open up defences which others would have thought impregnable. Korchnoi could find resources against attacks which others would have given up as overwhelming. But Kasparov is the greatest exceptionalist because he could find unusual and strong moves in both these and any other type of sharp position.
Exceptionalists prefer dissonance to harmony: they don’t set out to play beautiful games. That’s for lazy state-funded stooges such as Capablanca and Karpov.m Exceptionalists play original, quirky, paradoxical, even disturbing games. They’re in their element when they can suspend the laws of logic. And they hate rules and convention: show a strategic precept to an exceptionalist and his natural reaction is to smash a brick through it.
Kasparov’s behaviour off the board – argumentative, unnecessarily aggressive, ultra-competitive, his intimidation, his lack of respect for established authority – is not a coincidence, but the direct manifestation of his on-the-board personae. There’s no denying the value of this mind-set to Kasparov as a chess player. The question is: what need of it has the extra-chess world?
In chess, intelligent and surprising variations of openings, style and approach can turn a strong player into a brilliant, terrifying opponent.
In life, this same unpredictability will make one an untrustworthy business partner, an unelectable politician, and a lousy human being.
Kasparov: The Diplomat
In a final twist to his abortive 2007 election campaign, Kasparov accused Putin’s cronies of applying pressure to deter anyone from renting him a meeting hall of the required size. Clearly Kasparov hates Putin – with a sustained intensity he has previously reserved only for Campomanes. Those with a taste for 100% proof vitriol will have probably have pre-ordered Kasparov latest book Winter is Coming.n But, independently of the Kasparov charge sheet, the allegations of human rights violations under Putin are stacking up.17 So on balance I’d side with Garry on this.
However, when the Kasparov reserve supply of bile is sufficiently tanked up, he’s happy to run it off against Obama. USA–Russia diplomatic relations have reached an uneasy impasse around Syria. Russia is committed to supporting the Assad regime, recently launching air strikes against a variety of groups opposed to the Syrian government.18 The position of the Obama administration is quite clearly anti-Assad, but focuses more on a diplomatic approach, condemning the Assad regime, calling for a negotiated settlement, and providing only limited military assistance to ‘moderate’ rebels.19
What a wimp, says Garry:h
‘ “… Obama has no plan.” His failure to take military action last year when Assad crossed a red line by using chemical weapons on his own people was a signal to every thug on the world stage … that at a push America would walk away.
What exactly should Obama have done to punish Assad? “Take him out of office at any cost …The only thing you learn from history is that no matter how costly the response is today, politically or otherwise, tomorrow it will be higher.”
What if removing Assad means a full-scale ground invasion? “Doesn’t matter … You are the president of the most powerful nation. You can’t throw words like “red line” without backing them up. It means that you will never be able to use them as a credible threat.” ’
This then is Garry’s genius solution to the Middle East conundrum: outright war with Syria. Which happens to be Russia’s staunchest ally in the region. Short of suggesting a direct attack by the USA on Russia, it’s hard to imagine a more irresponsible proposal. Unlike the 43rd President, Kasparov appears to have learnt nothing from six decades of failed US military intervention since the Second World War: Vietnam and Iraq are only the most pronounced examples.
You’re probably expecting me to deplore the fact that Kasparov was denied the chance to fight a free and fair election against Putin in 2008. But frankly, I’m just relieved. Can you think of anyone (Putin included) you would trust less to control the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world?
So Kasparov likes to see himself as a serious candidate for the second biggest job in world politics. What then does he stand for? From his recent comments on the Greek financial crisis, one gets an inkling of how good life would be in Kaspar-land. The reader will recollect that in July this year the Greek nation was all but bankrupt: Greece was unable to fund existing debt repayment commitments; a new repayment schedule with its principal creditor (the European Central Bank) could not be agreed. Greek banks started to close and vital imports – of commodities, medical supplies, even foods – were suspended.20
Tough luck, says Gazza (Facebook 6 July):
‘For capitalism to work, there must be consequences for bad decisions. No company, no nation, can be “too big to fail” or there is no reason to make wise decisions. Indeed, it punishes those who did make wise decisions in the first place …
Greece arrived at the Euro buffet and filled its plate with every dish and then came back for dessert. Twice! Then they found out the meal wasn’t free and that they didn’t have the money to pay the check. So they borrowed and borrowed some more and still didn’t leave the buffet until dragged away. It was a very poor investment by the lenders and a criminally stupid series of decisions by the borrowers. Both deserve the punishment capitalism metes out for such gluttony …
No one wants anyone to suffer. But bad decisions, lies, and delays are the real cause of suffering, not austerity. To make a more prosperous world we need a functioning system, not one that says free money can solve all our problems … Easy money requires discipline and we are seeing what happens when that discipline fails … There will be many more such catastrophes as long as we follow these fake values that tell us that self-control, sacrifice, and risk-taking are obsolete.’
And so what if the Greeks suffer? It’ll do them good! (Facebook 7 July 2015):
‘… the best way to reduce this suffering … is to have a functioning system that makes it clear that bad investments and bad borrowing have serious and rapid consequences for the crooks and cowards who perform them. If the suffering can always be postponed until the next generation or the next election or the next CEO, there is no incentive to do it right and many incentives to pass the buck and to make things worse for your successors, as has happened in Europe.’
So Greece troughed out at the Euro buffet, wouldn’t and couldn’t foot the bill, and then needed to learn the harsh lesson that ‘no nation is “too big to fail”’! What a profound analysis of the Greece crisis.
But, didn’t the Greek GDP treble between 2001 (when it entered the Euro) and 2008? Based on the (then) positive outlook for Greece (with an annual growth rate of 4.2%) didn’t the European Commission and ECB encourage Greece to a take out a number of loans in the mid-2000s, mainly to fund infrastructure projects? And wouldn’t Greece have been able to meet these commitments had it not been for the Global Financial Crisis in 2007–8 (which in fairness was hardly Greece’s fault)?21 Of course with the wisdom of ten+ years of hindsight, a lot of these decisions (and subsequent ones to try to head off the crisis) look questionable.
The first thing that is clear, however, is that the question of blame and accountability cannot be reduced to the simple morality tale of loafing Greeks gormandizing from the Euro banquet. And the second is that, whoever actually is to blame, the people who would suffer from the harsh sentence passed by ‘Dr’ Kasparov are not to be the villains of the piece (the politicians and bankers) but ordinary Greek citizens.
If economics is looked at as an extension of chess, Kasparov makes total sense. Suppose the White player sacrifices a piece unsoundly. Ten moves later it’s clear he has no compensation. Should the arbiter then step in and award White another piece? How unfair: not even Campomanes would do that! And what incentive would White then have to calculate his combinations correctly? But this is exactly how economics is not like chess.
In chess, the rules must remain static no matter how the game is proceeding: it’s the job of the players to think creatively within an absolutely rigidly defined set of rules.
In life, governments and other monetary authorities have an obligation to intervene to prevent and correct bad outcomes, even if the competitors are ‘playing by the rules’.
How else can we avoid the snake-pit which Global Capitalism reliably falls into every five years or so?
The direct consequences of Kasparnomics on the Greek crisis would have been, in the short term, famine and medical emergencies and, in the long term, destruction of the economic capabilities of the Greek sovereign nation: a humanitarian disaster in the cradle of Western civilization. Europe is fortunate to have wiser and kinder leaders.
Want these guys in town? Vote Kasparov!
‘I’m Your No 1 Fan’
The reader might detect an element of anti-Kasparov bias in the above. Isn’t the author a Putin troll? Or a resentful Karpov supporter, unable even now to come to terms with his idol’s dethronement some three decades earlier?
So let’s get this straight. I am a 100% hard-core, card-carrying Kasparov fan. More than any other single player, Kasparov has inspired my games (feeble imitator that I am). It’s hard to imagine what a relief it was at that time, but I celebrated 9 November 1985 as a second French Revolution. Heaven only knows what I would have done had Karpov retained his title for another tedious decade!
So why attack Kasparov for his writings on business strategy, politics or economics? Why not write about the ‘My Great Predecessors’ series, which has won almost universal critical acclaim? But that is precisely the point: ‘My Great Predecessors’ is about chess!
Kasparov’s mastery of chess exceeds that of almost any other person: past, present or future.
However, his contribution to other fields are mediocre, substituting the depth and precision for which his chess is justly famed with shallow platitudes and uninformed arrogance.
Did you think that Kasparov actually wrote ‘My Great Predecessors’? I suspect that most of the spade work was done by his sidekick, Dmitry Plitsetsky, backed up with a crack team of collaborators (including outstanding authors such as Nikitin and Dvoretsky who, to be fair, are acknowledged in the prefaces). Never mind. Who cares who wrote ‘Shakespeare’s plays’? What matters is whether they are any good. ‘My Great Predecessors’ is a massive contribution to chess literature; and, whatever his exact role in the project, bears enough of the Kasparov imprint to be a fitting monument to his legacy.
Mig Greengard: needs to have a quiet word with the boss (photo: www.kasparov.com)
In contrast, How Life Imitates Chess is nothing more than a shabby money-spinner. Journalist Mig Greengard could hardly have written less than 90% of this book, albeit with the benefit of some ‘inspirational’ Kasparov brain-storming sessions. What’s the worst thing about this book? It’s faux-Kasparov. Genuine Kasparov-speak is always quotable and engaging. When it’s about chess, it’s always perceptive and sometimes brilliant. When it’s about any other subject, it’s sometimes so hilariously wide of the mark it’s beyond parody. How Life Imitates Chess is not smart enough to be like Kasparov’s writings on chess: yet not dumb enough to be like his writings on anything else.
I surmise that when Mig did his first write-ups, he realized that no sane publisher would accept the book, and so watered down the undistilled Kasparov with his own ideas. How he must have laboured to turn Kasparov’s rant-fest into workable prose! Yet the outcome is a book which at its best approaches the passable. No chess player or corporate strategist needs to read this book.
Kasparov: The Shoemaker
Pliny the Elder records that a shoemaker once approached the painter Apelles of Kos to point out a defect in the artist’s rendition of a sandal, which Apelles duly corrected. Encouraged by this, the shoemaker then began to expand on other defects he considered present in the painting.
At that point, Apelles softly dismissed the shoemaker’s pretensions to artistic criticism with the timeless withering phrase: ‘Sutor, ne ultra crepidum’ (‘Shoemaker, not above the sandal’).22
Likewise, Team Kasparov needs to have a quiet word with the boss: but will any of them have the courage?
Grandmaster, not above the chessboard!
Unless you want to make a prize fool of yourself!
Acknowledgement and Disclaimer
Satire transcends verification.
About the Author
Andy Lewis first shot to fame in the chess world in 1975 winning the Essex U15 Championship with a devastating 6 out of 6, his victims including the editor of Kingpin. That’s how you know that every word in this article is true. So there!
© Andy Lewis 2015