Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mortal Games

The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov

The author of Searching for Bobby Fischer pals around with Kasparov during his world championship match in 1990, and provides an intimate portrait of him at age 27: charming, intense, moody, flamboyant, abrasive, haughty, impatient, intimidating, and filled with prodigious energy.

Kasparov's opponent was Anatoly Karpov, whom he made no secret of his dislike, calling him "a creature of darkness" due to his close ties with the KGB and the communist party. Kasparov had been traumatized by the massacre of Armenians in his home town of Baku earlier that year, and from which he had barely escaped with his life. He claimed the pogrom was instigated by the KGB with the full knowledge of Gorbachev.

The 24-game match began in New York and ended in Lyon. There are no accompanying diagrams, only brief but exciting accounts of the games. The author is more interested in the human side of the struggle, focusing on personalities. Of Kasparov he writes:

He is beautiful when he plays, a wild creature. His body is tense, his face taut, punishing, at times fierce, as if he is about to physically attack. I have seen top grandmasters wither from his fury, becoming dishevelled, alarmed...

Both he and Karpov played brilliantly at times, sometimes arriving at positions so complex that other GMs were unable to say who had the advantage.

"These games are like Hitchcock mysteries," said Mikhail Tal, sitting in the pressroom. "No one knows what will happen next." ... In his prime he had been known as a player able to impose complications that his opponent simply could not figure out in the allotted time, but now Tal made it clear that the depth and abstraction of games 3 and 4 were beyond anything he had ever seen before in championship play. "But for all the complications, at times these games remind me of ice hockey," he said, "fast, hard, brutal."

Yet both players also committed blunders, and after 15 games each had won only a single game. Karpov was the underdog, and Kasparov's popularity had waned recently.

A large majority of the players favored Karpov in the match, and several days before, when he had won game 17, a group of them stood and cheered. In 1984, Karpov had been much hated in the chess world, but grandmasters in Lyon were calling the new Karpov "a regular guy" and "a gentleman," claiming that when you got to know him. "he was very kind."

Still, not everyone was satisfied with the course that some games took, and during game 18 Boris Spassky put on a comical show for reporters:

...he was pompous, theatrical, funny. He imitated the high nasal voice of Karpov. Mimicking Kasparov, he lumbered around like a gorilla on speed. He grabbed his nose with his hand to signal that there was something rotten about how Karpov and Kasparov were playing, but teasingly refused to elaborate. Then he crossed his fingers to signal that the game would be a draw. "They do not want to fight." His melodic voice dripped with disgust.

When Kasparov finally came away with a one-point victory, he sold the trophy he won in order to fund a relief program for Armenian refugees.

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of a reporter named Manny Topol. His father had walked out of Poland during the lead-up to WWII and survived by hustling chess for money. Eventually he wound up in America but was never able to get his son interested in the game. Now, covering this match, Manny finally saw its beauty and uttered one of the most poignant lines I have ever heard:

"Oh, what I wouldn't give to have one more chess game with my father."