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Kasparov at 50 (Article)

Kasparov at 50 by Mig

Kasparov and Mig in Buenos Aires, enjoying free ice-cream. Photo © Mig Greengard

Kasparov and Mig in Buenos Aires, enjoying free ice-cream. Photo © Mig Greengard |

Mig Greengard wrote regular chess pieces which appeared on the TWIC website in the 1990s, then he met Garry Kasparov. Mig is now Kasparov’s aide and editor and in this piece on the occasion of Kasparov's 50th birthday (born 13 April 1963) Mig talks about Kasparov's retirement from chess, internet projects, politics, their work together and what Kasparov is doing now. Mig runs and can be contacted at:

Kasparov at 50 by Mig

Until 1998, I knew Garry Kasparov much like the rest of the world knew him: a world champion and chess idol, dynamic and opinionated and relentless on and off the chessboard. Since then only the first of those descriptors has changed, but many more have been added. Human rights leader, politician, lecturer and author on decision-making, leadership, strategy, technology, and education. The Kasparov Chess Foundation did not even exist in 1998, but its rapidly expanding efforts to promote chess in schools worldwide may yet turn out to be Garry’s greatest legacy. And of course he’s also a retiree, having left professional chess in 2005 still ranked number one in the world.

15 years ago, few of these biographical additions would have seemed unrealistic. Garry was already outspoken politically and was a veteran of years of fights in the Soviet sports world and with the international chess federation. He was also a keen big picture thinker who relished theorizing in history, politics, and business about underlying causes, surprising connections, and outlandish conspiracies. In fact, it often seemed like he enjoyed these intellectual and competitive diversions more than talking about or playing chess. So it should not have come as such a surprise when, in 2005, he launched himself into acquiring a new title, an unofficial one, that we can call "greatest ex-chess champion." Or perhaps it is better seen as another challenge for this most competitive of individuals, a competition with himself to make Kasparov the human rights activist, author, and lecturer as relevant and fulfilled as Kasparov the chess champion.

It takes an incredible amount of energy just to contemplate such a dramatic change in status and stature. (Just imagine doing it yourself. At forty-one, leaving behind the activity that defined you not only to yourself, but to the entire world.) The unavoidable chess analogies flew: the king of chess becomes a pawn in politics; the Kremlin changes the rules of the game; Kasparov tries to put Putin in check. Many predicted it wouldn't last, that Garry would soon run back to the sixty-four squares that had fixed the borders of his life for decades. After all, Michael Jordan, another paragon of competitive fire, had done something similar. Exhausted and seeking new challenges after winning his third consecutive NBA championship, the best basketball player in history quit to play baseball, surely with little motivation beyond wanting to prove that he could. He couldn't, and quickly returned to win three more NBA titles, much to the relief of basketball (and baseball) fans around the world.

There was a similar outcry in the chess world when Garry hung up his famous glare. Was it fair we were going to be cheated out of even one more brilliant Kasparov game so he could gallop off to tilt at Putin's windmills? In hindsight, this admittedly selfish take was unfair both to Garry and to chess. In just the year or two after he retired he accomplished a great deal in helping to create a broad coalition for free and fair elections in Russia. Always a divisive figure in the chess world, Kasparov surprised everyone (and angered some) by becoming, gasp, a uniter. And while Kasparov's name and game are far from forgotten in the chess world – and he occasionally inserts himself via commentary and analysis – there are plenty of great players and great games today. We can argue endlessly how to compare Magnus Carlsen as LeBron and Kasparov as Jordan, but what cannot be disputed is that the idol of a new generation never erases that of another.

My selection of 1998 as a reference point may seem arbitrary, and to anyone but Garry and me it probably is. But that was the year this California-born chess writer, programmer, tech consultant, and English teacher met Kasparov in Buenos Aires, where I had been living for nearly seven years. After a whirlwind few days as his impromptu tourist guide and interpreter, I would like to say we hit it off. We probably spent as much time talking about the future of the internet and the lettering on the mausoleums in La Recoleta Cemetery as chess, although my extensive interview with him became something of a sensation as, at the time, if I recall correctly, he had something of a media boycott going. (Or maybe that’s just my rose-colored view of how it went, and the ever-calculating Kasparov found my online platform and me useful instead of charming and brilliant, but I prefer the other version so please indulge my illusions.)

Of course he was my chess hero, and I duly arrived with a printed game score in hopes of an autograph. But I expected our initial meeting to be awkward since I had just written a scathing column at The Week In Chess attacking Kasparov for seeking a world championship match with Anand (later Kramnik, oops) when Alexei Shirov was the rightful challenger. I was impressed by how Garry practically ignored this during our interviews, especially since I had been forewarned by a mutual friend that he had been outraged by it. Instead of blasting me, he and his agent showed me faxes (remember those?) and other documents showing how hard they had worked to find sponsorship for the Shirov match. And while I will go to my grave secure in the knowledge that Shirov Got Screwed, I admit that Garry won me over to his side pretty easily. We've come a long way since 1998, when we both seemed impressed that the guy at the Freddo's ice-cream parlor in Buenos Aires wouldn't accept our money since he’d seen Kasparov's picture on the cover of Clarín that morning.

I imagine there are many people who say things about how a chance meeting with a celebrity or author or personal hero changed their life. For me, this was literally the case. Less than a year later I found myself in Herzliya, Israel, editor-in-chief of a website that didn't exist yet. At the start of 2000, we opened an office in New York City, a place I'd never even visited before and where I still live today. The dotcom bubble burst and soon took with it the site I’d slaved over when we couldn't figure out what the strange new word "revenue" meant. After the site went under, Garry had chess, battles with FIDE, and a new fiance. I had credit card debt, two cats, and a really weird CV. I did some tech and web consulting, started my own chess site, and moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

Eventually, gravity was not to be denied and our orbits crossed and then synced. Garry was in demand as a speaker and columnist and that put me in demand as a writer. Researching and collaborating on lectures for companies, human rights groups, and political audiences is fascinating, especially since Garry insists on never giving the same speech twice. His retirement from chess added the new world of Russian politics (and the equally lovely and infernal Russian language, argh) to my portfolio. Plus working on daily communications, regular chess columns, a little web design, the infrequent trip as entourage, the occasional body to bury. Then came a book, "How Life Imitates Chess," a publishing ordeal that would make an interesting book in its own right and, more importantly, allowed me to meet Stephen Colbert backstage. (It’s been translated into over twenty languages now and I judge the moral character of entire populaces based on whether or not their edition preserved my little italicized name on the title page. I'm looking at you, Finland.)

In the past few years there has been yet another Kasparov evolution, more descriptors added to the long list. He has raided Silicon Valley for some of its brightest minds and become an important and original technology critic and advocate. The latest book project we’re working on has stimulated intense debate from Oxford to Menlo Park. His staunch and vocal defense of individual freedom and the rule of law has transcended the borders of Russia and garnered him a long list of awards and appearances. And, at the risk of breaching the public/personal firewall, it has been wonderful to watch my good friend make up for lost time as the father and husband he had no chance to be when the chess world was still in need of daily subjugation. As a man who has always been very much his remarkable mother’s son, that he has found happiness married to a strong woman and raising a strong daughter is the most natural thing in the world. Garry has also mellowed ever so slightly every year since leaving competitive chess, by now perhaps dropping from a ten out of ten on the scale of explosive energy to a nine, maybe a nine and a half when he’s reading the news.

After nearly 15 years of observation, my guess is that the constant Kasparov "upgrade" process is a consequence of his relentless pursuit of really smart people to argue with. There is little he likes more than to challenge an expert with a contrarian theory. Often these challenges are backed up with logical leaps and a startlingly broad recall of facts; other times they are simply startling. But he always learns something, always takes something away to ponder, even when he’s insisting his friend/victim is completely wrong. Speaking for myself and most other humans I know, I enjoy forgetting some things. I enjoy some mental downtime. I have enough trouble keeping up with Garry and what I need to know and do every day. Garry never stops analyzing, never stops looking for connections among all the new pieces of information he takes in and everything else that is stored in his most unusual brain. For him, and therefore for me, no two days are ever alike. Every morning (and every late, late night) involves thinking about at least one new thing, exploring at least one new angle, trying to solve at least one new problem. It is a unique and privileged life, even if it takes me ten minutes to answer the questions, "so what do you do?" And I am grateful to Garry for this exceptional existence, even if the sound of my Skype ring occasionally gives me a headache.

Today Garry turns 50, still young enough to surprise people who feel he’s been around forever. Becoming an international star at 22 will do that. His second act is already well on its way to becoming more intriguing than his first. I'm sure his next year, and his next decade, will be full of new challenges and a few big surprises – and I'm supposed to be the one keeping track of his schedule. But whatever Garry Kasparov does, or says, it is sure to be interesting, original, and something that no one else can do, or that no one else would say. Happy Birthday, Garry Kimovich!

Mig Greengard is Garry Kasparov's aide and editor. He lives in Brooklyn, no longer in his Argentine mountain retreat.

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