Grandmaster Garry

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Monday, November 29, 2010

For Garry Kasparov, life really does imitate chess. The top-ranked chess player in the world for nearly 22 years, Kasparov retired from international competition in 2005 and took on an even more challenging career. He entered Russian politics and became the leader of the opposition movement, playing democracy’s white against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s black.

In 1985, at age of 22, Kasparov became chess’s youngest world champion. One has to wonder whether the burgeoning young grandmaster ever envisioned a day, two decades later, when he’d be surrounded by his own bodyguards at protest rallies on the streets of Moscow.

Given the celebrity status Russia confers upon its top chess players, Kasparov’s career trajectory would be similar to someone like 1984-85 rookie of the year Michael Jordan leading picketers outside the White House after retiring from his game of choice.

Kasparov’s unique and compelling career trajectory makes his speaking engagement this Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library is a must-see occasion. This chess grandmaster turned political activist, business speaker, and author is appearing only twice in the United States this year. His free presentation this Wednesday, December 1, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch is co-sponsored by the Show-Me Institute and the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation. There is no charge for admission; please RSVP if you wish to attend.

Americans may best remember Kasparov for his highly publicized bouts with IBM’s Deep Blue, a computer that could analyze 50 billion chess moves in a matter of minutes. In 1996, Kasparov defeated the monstrous machine in Philadelphia, but in a rematch the following year, Deep Blue triumphed. Despite Kasparov’s quest for a tiebreaker, IBM dismantled the program.

The escapade was the inspiration for this darkly funny Pepsi commercial starring Kasparov.

Kasparov’s chess abilities are the stuff of legend, and he isn’t afraid to show them off when the situation calls for it. In live demonstrations, he frequently takes on more than 20 different players at once and beats them all – a trick that was parodied in this commercial for the once-popular search engine AltaVista.

Kasparov’s life isn’t all fun and games, however. After announcing his retirement from chess in 2005, he founded the Unified Civil Front, a coalition of diverse political groups united in their desire for fair and open elections, freedom of the press, and other liberties they believe the Russian government denies its citizens.

Kasparov’s opposition leadership is a dangerous calling. Even today, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, acts of violence are still perpetrated against those who criticize the Russian government.

In January 2009, journalist Anastasiya Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov were shot dead after a news conference in broad daylight within walking distance of the Kremlin. Baburova wasn’t the only journalist to be killed last year, either. The watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with 52 journalists killed since 1992.

Though no attempts have been made on Kasparov’s life, he has been arrested or detained on numerous occasions. As he tells British broadcaster David Frost in the interview below, “If you live in Russia and criticize Putin openly, you are always in danger.”

Did Kasparov’s chess career in any way prepare him for the stratagems and spoils of Russian politics? When 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft asked him the difference between chess and the Russian political system, Kasparov answered, “In chess, there are rules.”

Find out more about the life of this passionate dissident, world-class chess player, and engaging speaker when Garry Kasparov comes to the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch on Wednesday, December 1.

-- Jason Harper