John Watson Book Review (41)
Kasparov's Story: A Video Biography
IM John Watson - Thursday 24th May 2001
#41 Kasparov's Story: A Video Biography
My Story; Garry Kasparov, moderated by James Plaskett; a 5-tape video series (VHS); GMVideo 2000
Once again I've given myself the luxury of reviewing a product that I can unreservedly recommend. It's remarkable that I somehow missed the existence of these videotapes, considering that they were apparently released at the end of last year. Since friends of mine in the U.S. are also ignorant of their existence, this review, however late, may prove useful.
In my view, the very most important thing about this series is that we get an extensive and close up look at a world champion, taking us through his development as a player, analysing his own games, conversing about great players, speculating on the nature of chess theory, and more. Ignoring everything else, such a project has immense historical value. Surprisingly few films present world champions in any kind of depth, and none of them even approaching such a lengthy biographical presentation. We treasure our still photos and printed interviews with the early greats, have to be satisfied with the briefest film appearances of the Lasker/Capablanca/Alekhine generation, and as far as I know lack truly extended footage covering the above areas for more recent champions such as Botvinnik, Smyslov, Spassky, Petrosian, and even Fischer. Here we have 8 hours and 22 minutes(!) to gain a solid impression of Kasparov's personality, opinions, and even ways of thinking.
This is a review column, so at the risk of going far afield, I want to draw the reader's attention to another product that has contained such material in limited form for several years now, namely, ChessBase Magazine (see other reviews for a general description). CBM has a once-per-issue 'multimedia' video section with interviews with champions such as Karpov, Kasparov, Anand, and Kramnik, as well as conversations with other top players and chess personalities. Naturally these interviews are brief, often conducted in, e.g., several segments of 2-5 minutes length. Bu I find them highly enjoyable and as I've said before, CBM is in general well worth the investment.
Returning to Kasparov: 'My Story' deals with his career from his years as youthful prodigy to the 1985 rematch with Karpov in which he won the world championship. I'll concentrate at Videotape #1 as more or less typical of the series. It has a great deal of autobiographical material that is not evident from a listing of results and in particular, the context and significance of both individual events and games, coupled with personal accounts of Kasparov's expectations and fears. This lends a human and dramatic touch to the presentation. On a lighter note, I can't help mentioning the brief opening story in urban-legend style, where 5-year-old Kasparov gives the solution to a chess problem that the adults have been mulling over, although he has never been taught the rules. This is straight from Capablanca mythology, and I feel as though I've heard the same story about a few other players as well.
Of course, chess is the thing and 7 games are presented and analysed on this tape. Kasparov shows a game versus Kengis (not in any of my databases) from the 1977 Soviet Junior Championship (he had already won this event in 1976, at 13 years of age!). These championships were no easy affairs: Kasparov had to beat 6 future GMs on his way to an astonishing 8.5-.5 result. A more interesting game, and one showing us Kasparov's legendary aggressiveness, is that versus Roizman from Minsk 1978, the tournament where he achieved his Soviet Master's title at 14. The game features a paradoxical, risky kingside attack with some surprising and entertaining tactical ideas. Kasparov scored a mere +9 at that event. At Daugavpils 1978, Kasparov's game with Palatnik illustrates his 'pawns as pieces' attacking philosophy, and his 1980 Olympiad game in Skara versus Pribyl (well-known but very pretty and always worth another look) exemplifies the attacking theme of 'cutting the position in two', one that Kasparov emphasizes throughout the tapes. These ideas are discussed below. Two games later, both of them are put to the test in his astonishing and speculative sacrifice versus Akesson in Dortmund 1980. Finally, his quick demolition of Marjanovic's position in Malta 1980 has always been a favorite of mine because I have used it and other Kasparov games to impress my students with the value of a knight on f5. Indeed, Kasparov states (with a touch of hyperbole) that 'a knight on f5 just about every time justifies a pawn sacrifice'!
Other videotapes in 'My Story' tend to have more general commentary and somewhat fewer games, but ones that are extremely thoroughly analysed. Just a few highpoints from the others include: (a) the famous Benoni Defence game versus Korchnoi in 1982 (with the piece sacrifice ...Nh5 and ...Nxg3), analysed in fascinating detail; (b) the paradoxical, 'against-the-rules' win over Romanishin in Moscow 1981; (c) key games from his Candidates Matches versus Belyavsky, Korchnoi, and Smyslov in 1983 and 1984; and (d) by far the most detailed analysis of the decisive 24th game from the 1985 Karpov match. I never realized how outrageously complicated this game was behind the scenes, nor what nice moves both players came up with under such pressure, nor how both sides missed real opportunities. Tremendous analysis of a tremendous game.
Throughout these tapes, Kasparov gives many opinions about the nature of chess, both from his own viewpoint and comparing his own and earlier times. To me, his historical and philosophic views are of great interest. In order to make a coherent presentation, I will give an overview of them at this point, more or less in the order presented in the 5 videos.
Kasparov likes to comment upon changes in chess throughout his own lifetime. Regarding the late 70s, he says 'I don't think openings meant a lot. It was not so worked out', emphasizing the importance of middlegame styles at that time. He says that in the 50s and 60s, there was an illusion that openings were worked out, but if you compare the 60s with the 70s, and the early 80s with the 90s, 'it's a laughing stock.' Discussing Petrosian and Smyslov, Kasparov considers Smyslov the better positional player of the two; but this thought seems to be relative to their times, since he believes that Petrosian 'was fighting against better opposition', the 60s being 'more advanced than the 50s in terms of positional technique'. He also thinks that such technique has advanced with every decade. In Kasparov's opinion, some of the older greats such as Petrosian had difficulty accepting that a bishop was better than a knight, and he points out that Smyslov happily conceded the bishop pair 4 times in their Candidates Match. In a playful response to moderator Jim Plaskett's story that Khalifman had claimed the bishop superior than a knight in a position where the bishop was miserably bad, Kasparov says 'the bishop is always better than the knight'. He doesn't really mean it, but he wants to emphasize the extent of the shift that has taken place.
Kasparov also believes that the new generation of the 90s plays a different kind of chess than that of the 80s, believing that 'initiative can be worth material'. This is of course shorthand for a qualitative change in attitude. Tal was important in this regard, although 'obviously, in today's world, most of [his] combinations would be refuted by top grandmasters because the defensive technique is on an absolutely different level.' Nevertheless, Tal 'enriched chess with new ideas' and put a dent in the ideas of 'the Classical School of Botvinnik and Smyslov'. It was up to Kasparov himself to define and demonstrate the truth of dynamic compensation for material for a wide number of positions, ones that previous players would never have considered subject to such treatment. I think that this is a valid claim. Finally, regarding the reason that some top grandmasters have reached the world's elite and others have fallen short (mentioning a few specific names), Kasparov thinks that the very best players 'offer more resistance', citing Petrosian, Karpov, and Kramnik as examples.
In the realm of middlegame theory, Kasparov feels that advanced (and supported) pawns must be counted as attacking pieces when assessing an assault in terms of concentration of forces on one wing. He often returns often to this idea, and explains that a kingside piece sacrifice to achieve such powerful pawns actually "increases he 'material advantage' on the kingside". Even more prevalent are Kasparov's comments and examples pertaining to 'dividing the board in two', even at the cost of a piece sacrifice, thus leaving a greater effective concentration of attacking forces on the relevant wing. This theme is graphically illustrated in game after game where a very strong opponent's pieces are suddenly bunched on the queenside and unable to support their king against an attack. This concept is in my opinion a real contribution; Kasparov's attacking games in the 1980s were indeed unlike those of any previous champions. Not that something similar hasn't ever been played or described in isolated situations, but that Kasparov's energetic and far-sighted ways of achieving such positions and assessing their worth are extraordinary and in a class by their own. Almost magically, this theme of a pawn or piece sacrifice to 'cut the board in two' arises from all sorts of openings and positions on these tapes: not only in the 3 games mentioned above, in games versus Csom (Baku 1980), Sunya (Graz 1981; featuring some pretty tactics), Akesson (Dortmund 1980), and Korchnoi (in two different games). A further and very beautiful example is his game against Portisch (Niksic 1983), when after a Bxg7 sacrifice, the simple move Ne5 serves the same purpose. This Bxg7 sacrifice he calls 'a Kasparov idea' and 'a totally different style'. I think that he's got good reason to say so (okay, 'totally' is a bit strong, but...).
I suppose that something should be said about the chess-political views and personal characterizations made in 'My Story'. Although the section introductions (written by Jonathan Tisdall) are overblown and stereotypical in this respect, and a few of moderator James Plaskett's questions are provocative, I think that Kasparov deserves credit for downplaying this side of things. Overall, he evinces great respect for his opponents and prefers not to say bad things about them or their play, even when given the opportunity. This is not to say that Kasparov's hostility towards Karpov is not evident from time to time; in fact, he exhibits paranoia about what he sees as Karpov's manipulations against him during his career (all speculative and unsubstantiated, as far as I can see). Nevertheless, he gives Karpov high praise for his chess understanding and fighting qualities, and largely confines himself to descriptions of his great opponent's style and weaknesses. He entirely avoids the history of his break from FIDE and his machinations thereafter, probably considering these tapes to be more part of his chess legacy than of his 'political' one. I admire this restraint and think it advances the quality of the project. Of course, someone like Edward Winter might legitimately would challenge some of Kasparov's characterizations, perhaps those about his own lack of support in the USSR or, say, his interpretation of the cancelled 1984 match and aftermath. But I just don't see this whole area as a significant aspect of the project requiring detailed arguments. After all, 'My Story' is a mix of autobiography and biography, and a valid option in that genre is to show the subject in a favourable light and leave criticism to others.
Of course, political discussion can't be avoided entirely. There are some eye-raising moments, e.g., when Kasparov talks about the 'hysterical' Soviet attack on Fischer (re the 1975 world championship) and the Western Europeans' votes at that time: Kasparov apparently sees them as treacherous, saying that we see through them 'who was on what side'. As a whole, his negative remarks about the politics and corruption of Soviet chess are pointed and convincing, although without being too enlightening about the political clout that ultimately assisted him all the way to the top (and, e.g., to be allowed onto the USSR Olympiad team without having a GM title!). He contributes some new and damning material about the oppressive influence of the KGB and chess bureaucrats during that era, a subject that is key to a complete understanding of Soviet chess.
At another point, ironically, Kasparov argues against a rematch clause in the world championship: 'Personally, I'm not in favour of a rematch...if the challenger wins, that's it.' Of course, he's on the other side of the coin right now, talking about Kramnik's duty to give him a rematch. I suppose that Kasparov could argue that he is the best player in the world at this point (certainly the case), whereas Karpov (who demanded and got a rematch clause) was only the second best after his defeat in 1985. This is all very complicated; anyway, there's a fair amount here for those who like chess politics.
My only serious criticism of this video series, although it shouldn't interfere with one's desire to have a copy, concerns the role of moderator Jim Plaskett. Plaskett is excellent when reciting Jonathan Tisdall's brief introductions; and I recall that he was an effective narrator/author in, for example, the 'English Defence' video and others for this same company. Unfortunately, I find him alternately awkward, artificial and remote in the company of Kasparov. He avoids eye contact, only occasionally daring a look and usually with downcast lids; in fact, there is little personal interaction of any kind in spite of Kasparov's best efforts. When not appearing bored or keeping his head down, Plaskett interjects what often seem like canned comments and questions that interrupt both Kasparov's thought and the flow of the presentation. These comments are sometimes irritatingly self-referential (I kept thinking to myself: 'Who cares?'), and sometimes out-of-place irrelevancies (e.g., asking Kasparov why we shouldn't change the rules and allow kings that have moved to still castle!). At other times he is rashly dismissive of the play of very strong grandmasters or of the positions that Kasparov wants to show us (e.g., just because an attack is clearly promising doesn't mean that Kasparov isn't interested in showing beautiful lines or discussing the nature of the attack). On repeated occasions, he interrupts Kasparov, who is enthusiastically showing a game with very much of it still to be presented, with comments such as 'I should be surprised if Black [K's opponent] is on the board', 'The game is over', 'Oh no,no,no' [about a plausible plan that Kasparov is trying to demonstrate], 'You don't have to sell me on this position', and 'It doesn't surprise me', in these cases and others missing the point of why and for whom the video is being made. He also underestimates the problems that Kasparov has to find his way through in order to win some of these brilliant games, many of them problems that I seriously doubt Plaskett himself would solve over the board.
To be fair, it's not as though there is nothing good about Plaskett's presentation. During games in which he shows genuine interest, his expressions convey that, and he shows a genuine appreciation not only with verbal expressions ('Ah, it's a nice move', 'Good Lord', etc.), but also with expressive facial expressions reflecting surprise, confusion, admiration, and the like. His contributions and questions can hit the mark, and sometimes (especially towards the beginning of the series) he engages Kasparov in a speculative conversation that the latter clearly enjoys. I should also emphasize that my own impressions are purely subjective, and that somebody else may find Plaskett's role to be inoffensive or even a strong point. Speaking as a video critic, however, I would have to give him an overall thumbs down.
By contrast, it's hard to find much to object to in Kasparov's performance. His command of English is truly impressive for someone who didn't learn the language very early on (as I assume, for example, that Anand did). He makes the kind of minor grammatical mistakes that are typically Russian and reflect late acquisition, but he also finds extraordinarily sophisticated and apt words to describe complex ideas. [In a recent ChessBase Magazine, by the way, Kasparov dispels the myth that he speaks 15 languages(!). It turns out that Russian and English are the only two.] I was also very impressed with Kasparov's demeanour. In various situations throughout his career, he has sometimes been seen as abrasive and/or arrogant ('brash' is the nice word), and on one occasion I was witness to that side of him. But more often he is enthusiastic, forthcoming, and obliging to the countless journalists and fans he has to deal with. Given Kasparov's narrowly-focused upbringing as a chessplayer, I think that he is reasonably open and communicative, qualities that most of our leading players today fortunately exhibit. In the setting of these videos, he also reveals a kind of reflective quietness that I find very engaging. Reviewing his games and career, Kasparov seems to be at ease with himself and sometimes even amused. He clearly loves looking at games and variations; and in the way that almost all great players do, he takes spontaneous delight in even 'elementary' tactics that exhibit a nice geometry or paradoxical nature. This is really fun to see. Naturally we are talking about a lifelong fighter here, with a famously aggressive nature. So it's not as though there isn't an edge, but I found that his unpretentious interest in presenting both his games and his opinions made the tapes easy and enjoyable to view.
Congratulations to Chris White of GMVideo for his excellent production. The studio atmosphere was perfect for this format, allowing Kasparov to be both casual and expressive. For the section introductions, various outside scenes are used, including the spectacular opening scene which has Plaskett speaking amidst the background of giant chess pieces. Of course, there's little visual variety otherwise, as might be expected. So those who require action and special effects from their videos, or those who simply don't like learning via this media, probably won't want this product. Then there are players who are not particularly interested in Kasparov, e.g., a young student of mine who pays no attention to top players and just wants to compete. But I'm sure that the vast majority of chessplayers will very much enjoy watching a great champion analyzing brilliant games and discussing his ideas on the game. I've watched all of 'My Story' twice and will probably do so again. Very highly recommended.
[This series is available from the London Chess Center, sponsor of this site. For further information enquire to firstname.lastname@example.org]