2013 – Cherwell – ‘Coffee with Kasparov’: an interview with Garry Kasparov on chess, Science/Tech stagnation, and Russia

“All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”

Below is an interview conducted in April 2013 and printed in the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper. It was in part this interview that began the Orion project. It was part of the visit to Oxford in which he gave a talk on innovation.

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Garry Kasparov is widely considered to be the strongest chess player of all time. The youngest world champion in history when only twenty-two, he lost just a single match against a human in his twenty-five-year career. Now retired, he is a leader in the Russian opposition movement and a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.

One of the first things you notice about Kasparov is his intensity: he walks rapidly, and when in conversation his whole body seems to focus, confronting the questions I pose. Life, then, mirrors chess, where Kasparov was renowned as much for his compelling chess style as his results. It is a style that he describes as “very dynamic, aggressive chess, dominant chess”, contrasting with the more “pure”, “long-term” approach of the current #1 ranked player Magnus Carlsen.

He speaks quickly, jumping between sentences. This energy is important. For him chess consisted in intense encounters that required mental but also physical preparation, with championship matches lasting months. “Exercise was a very important part of my overall preparation” he says, “to be in the perfect shape before the match you have to work out the combination of your body and your mind, so feeling strong and being in excellent shape physically always helped to generate more energy.”

His memory is extraordinary. Kasparov reputedly could remember every professional game of chess that he had ever played, so I printed out two chess positions, selected randomly from a huge online database of his games. As soon as he glimpsed them, he told me when and where the games were played and named his opponent. He even knew which round of the tournament the games were from, the subsequent moves, and the improvements that he should have made. It was a surprising start to an interview, yet Kasparov merely looked indifferent. “But these are my own games…” he said, his voice trailing off. “You could have made that a lot harder”, added his aide, laughing.

For Kasparov, analysing one’s mistakes is crucial to success. “When playing chess I learnt that every decision requires post-mortem analysis… There is no such thing as a perfect game.” Optimising his performance was a matter of finding a unique approach: you have to “build your own — which is only your own — decision making formula to maximise the effect of your strengths, and to minimise, obviously, the negative effect of your weaknesses.”

In early 2005, after being the number one ranked grandmaster for more than twenty years, he retired from chess to shift his energy toward restoring democracy in his home country, Russia. A constant critic of the regime, he was recently detained and beaten whilst at the Pussy Riot trial rallies. 

Does Kasparov still hope to overthrow Putin? “I think that things are heating up, but this is not a linear process. its like a volcano, you have all the signs about eruption, but you can’t say its going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” The man who predicted the fall of communism does not have strong predictions for Russia’s future. “I believe that Mr Putin under no circumstances will survive his six-year term. In the next two/three years maximum we will see a major explosion in Russia. I’m not saying it will bring us positive results, but I think the status quo, the current status quo in Russia, is doomed and is about to expire.”

It was the global economic stagnation that drew Kasparov to Oxford: he visited the Oxford Martin School to meet with academics and students from Oxford University to continue to develop his view of the crisis, which he has formed along with Paypal innovators Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. From Kasparov there is no talk of restructuring debt, or of yearly growth targets. To him, the crisis results from the “virus of risk-averse society”, where innovation has stagnated and short-term thinking has triumphed.

In his event at the Oxford Martin School, Kasparov contrasted the mid-twentieth century and today, pointing to the rapid development of antibiotics, rocket technology, nuclear technology and more. Even the internet has its origins in the 1960s. And today? Our planes travel at the same speed they did in the 1950s. Our major recent technological developments, mobile technology and computers, are actually advances from the mid-twentieth century. Our satellites are launched in a similar manner to Sputnik. Growth comes not from technological advance but from the housing market. We are even running out of antibiotics.

What went wrong? He points to the emergence of a safe, ‘milestone driven’ approach to progress. ‘Nobody wants to take a risk, and it reflects very much the over-cautious nature of the publicly or privately funded science today’. He points to the present lack of big, blue-sky projects, such as the Apollo missions.

To Kasparov, this shift began in the “late sixties”, but was only visible much later. “We had such a huge pile of innovations allocated over decades, so that’s why you didn’t even feel it in the seventies or eighties. I think the first time where we actually could feel the heat was the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The existential threat for the free world has disappeared, and it helped to expose the public appetite for a safe, comfortable life.”

Kasparov sees Fukuyama’s End of History as symptomatic of this shift, the view that society has reached an endpoint. “So the world reached the end of history, so now we can afford, you know, to enjoy the life we inherited from our parents and grandparents.” He hits the table, emphasising the point. “No more sacrifices, the ideal of sacrifice has disappeared from the public, private and social agenda.

“Now its time to recognise that the notion that the next generation will have a better life than the previous one may not work, actually, it will not work.” So can we do anything? “Of course we can… At the end of the day its about public pressure… If the public wanted a Mars expedition, Americans would be landing on Mars in this decade.”

Kasparov admits there is “no immediate solution.” The answer lies in creating opportunities. “All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”

Update: links on Kasparov w/Putin


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A few years ago, the exalted Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov came to dinner at my house in New York. It was a memorably intense evening. As we dug into our desserts, Kasparov regaled the assembled group of American policymakers and financiers with his views on Russia, a country he had fled in 2013 after challenging President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov warned that Putin was becoming increasingly authoritarian, isolated from the west and, as a result, likely to lash out at neighbours such as Ukraine in a dangerous way. When the rest of the table rowdily dismissed his catastrophising, Kasparov became heated and, as the wine flowed, the conversation grew so animated that I started to worry that guests would walk out. So, despite sharing many of Kasparov’s fears, I decided to keep the peace by changing the subject to chess instead. It was one of several occasions when I saw Kasparov correctly predict impending disaster only to be rebuffed. When we caught up by phone last week, he recalled that night, lamenting, “I was stunned by the unwillingness of people [in the west] to hear these warnings, because I grew up in the Soviet Union and knew all about the historical events of the 20th century. I knew that you could have stopped Hitler in 1935 and 1936 and 1937 and didn’t. But I had so much outright rejection of what I have been saying.” Why were westerners so dismissive of Kasparov’s analysis? It is an important question given that many observers have reacted with complete shock to events in Ukraine. Among the biggest culprits have been the western elites with businesses in Russia. “Nobody I knew expected Putin would actually invade!” I was told last weekend by an expatriate former director of a Russian commodities company, who has now resigned. “We are all just in disbelief.” Kasparov thinks the issue is a tendency to presume that everyone else shares your innate world view. The key here is western ideas of motive and rationality. Western culture is soaked in a capitalist ethos, underpinned by a widespread assumption that the profit motive rules supreme in terms of shaping political calculations, and that it’s “the economy, stupid” that drives decision-making in Russia and elsewhere. The collapse of the USSR reinforced this view, since it seemed that market principles and global business interests had triumphed. Recommended World Garry Kasparov not returning to Russia out of fear of prosecution As a consequence, western leaders and business groups generally turned a blind eye when Putin gave speeches that clearly demonstrated his nationalist, expansionist agenda and then annexed Crimea. Worse, they failed to appreciate how isolated Putin had become. Instead, as Russian oligarchs became a fixture of global business, Putin was seen as an extrapolation of this group. The idea that he might be so hell-bent on the destruction of democracy and the expansion of Russia that he would be willing to accept deep economic pain wasn’t taken seriously. “It’s not like his actions were done in the darkness; it all happened in plain sight,” Kasparov tells me. “But after the end of the cold war there was some kind of allergy for any warnings about repetition of events. There was this assumption that Putin would never destroy business because it seemed irrational for him to do that.” Recommended War in Ukraine: free to read Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in maps — latest updates Given Kasparov’s acuity in predicting current events, I ask what he thinks might happen next. He believes Putin has “already lost” the battle, in the sense that his key objective of swiftly annexing Ukraine has failed. “I don’t think that a Ukrainian leader can accept anything less than the return of land [in Crimea]. This war will end with the Ukrainian flag on Sevastopol.” But he points out that “what price the Ukrainians will pay for this is unclear”, since it would be foolish to expect Putin to back down quickly merely because of economic pain. The one tool that might force a rapid positive conclusion, he thinks, is Nato backing a “no-fly” zone or getting directly involved. “Putin only respects strength.” Could a coup be another ending? Kasparov does not expect this right now, but pressure is building. “From history we know that one [of the] most important ingredients [for a coup] is geopolitical military defeat. That would send a powerful message to all layers of Russian society that the big boss has failed, and the mafia boss can afford many things except showing he is weak and lost.” But a fear of looking weak could also cause Putin to lash out. Thus, argues Kasparov, one of the biggest questions now is “whether Russian officials would actually carry out the orders” if Putin tried to conduct a nuclear strike. He doubts it. “The moment one Russian warship fires a tactical nuclear missile, Nato will respond, and there is unlikely to be the same fanaticism for Putin as there was in Germany with Hitler. I don’t believe that we have kamikaze Russian pilots.” Is this reassuring? Not necessarily: a stalemate threatens yet more suffering and destruction in Ukraine. Either way, as the tragedy unfolds, it is a powerful rebuke to the west on the perils of blinkered thinking and assuming that everyone looks at the world through the prism of a balance sheet. The next time an unpopular idea sparks a row at my dinner table, I will let it run. Sometimes, there are more important things at stake than being polite.

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