Garry Kasparov: King without a Crown

Toppled from his throne, the former World Chess Champion is hungry for a rematch. Ian Davies meets a self-declared genius who sees it all in black and white
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The Independent Online

Garry Kasparov is a king without a crown – and now he wants his crown back. Kasparov, 38, is the hirsute, eloquent (he speaks 15 languages) brooding genius who dominated chess for 15 years before losing his world title to Vladimir Kramnik, a former pupil, at the Riverside Studios in London, last autumn. Kasparov remains the world number one, but speaking at the Home House Hotel at Portman Square, London, it is clear that the loss of his crown haunts him, along with a growing bitterness towards Kramnik, who is now seeking to avoid a rematch.

"It is the duty of the world champion to defend his title against the most dangerous opponent," Kasparov says. "Kramnik must prove to the world he is 'real' by facing me."

Kasparov is arguably the best player in the history of the game. Nicknamed "the Beast of Baku", the stockily built, bushy-eyebrowed Kasparov scaled chess's greasy pole fast and has stayed at the top, thanks to a combination of often chaotic but invariably outstanding aggression at the board and a repertoire of psychological tactics that are as alarming for his opponents to endure as they are amusing for spectators to watch.

Kasparov now lives in the United States with his wife and young son, but was born in Baku, Azerbaidzhan in 1963. He learned to play chess from his father, who died in a road accident when Garry was seven. He was Soviet champion at 18 and in 1984, aged 21, he challenged Anatoly Karpov for the World Championship, at the Hall of Columns in Moscow. It was to be one of the most infamous chess matches in history. It went on for six months and eventually had to be abandoned when Karpov, who had lost 20lb since the beginning of the match, looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Florencio Campomanes, president of chess's ruling body, the Fédération Internationale des Eschecs (Fide) flew in and cancelled the match. Kasparov, furious, has never forgiven Fide since.

However, later that year Kasparov, 22, became the youngest World Champion ever. Playing in a best of 24 format, Kasparov beat Karpov 13-11. Kasparov cemented this grip on his title. He kept Karpov at bay on further occasions and in 1993, at the Savoy in London, Kasparov outclassed Britain's Nigel Short. Then, in 1995, playing Visawathan Anand in New York, Kasparov produced one of his most spectacular victories, coming back from a game down with a devastating four-wins-in-five-games spell (including two playing "away" with the disadvantgeous black pieces) to totally demoralise the normally flamboyant Indian.

When Kasparov lost his title last year, it seemed that Kramnik, a former pupil who had been on Kasparov's team when he beat Short in 1993, knew Kasparov inside out and had the "whammy" on him. Kramnik, dubbed "the Steve Davis of chess", employed a cautious approach with which the chaotic Kasparov could not deal. Kramnik awaited his chances and ruthlessly took the two that came, while Kasparov failed to break down Kramnik's variation of the Berlin defence.

"He made new discoveries and pushed chess towards new horizons," Kasparov says. "It was not the most attractive style, but that does not matter. He came up with a strategy that took me by surprise and it is important for the development of chess that I was forced to make corrections to my style. I had been winning too many tournaments. You can't learn from your wins, only your defeats. It was a very painful defeat, but I deserved it because it taught me that I needed to change. It took a long time for me to do this – and I am still in the process of doing this – but I am winning while learning."

To those who reckon that time has caught up with him, Kasparov, says, "Intelligence is always with us. It is more about determination, energy and passion for what you're doing. I'm still passionate, and full of energy and determined to prove that I'll be back. It is important I keep my form for the next two years because, within that period I am going to win my title back."

Since his defeat, Kasparov has been in great form, winning three major tournaments. However, the view that Kramnik had his number was reinforced when he beat Kasparov again in a 25-minute rapid play match in Zurich earlier this year. It was, therefore, a relief to Kasparov that recently, in a tournament in Kazakhstan, Kasparov turned the tables. "All my claims for a rematch and that I was the best player would have been weakened had I failed win," he says. "Kramnik should play me anyway, but my victory sent out a very important message. I finally broke down the 'Berlin Wall'."

Kasparov is now driven by his belief that Kramnik owes him a world title rematch. "I believe it is the duty of the world champion to defend his title against the most dangerous opponent. When I beat Karpov in 1985 I was forced to defend my title against him within eight months. The organisers and the public believed that Kramnik was the most dangerous opponent, so I had to play him – I had no choice. Kramnik knows this and now he is champion he must prove to the world he is 'real', by facing his most dangerous opponent – me.

"In the last six months I have proved I am still the world number one and I beat Kramnik recently. But now Kramnik, who was not made to win a qualifier to play me, implies that I must qualify to play him. I don't want to diminish the importance of his victory. He deserved to win. But it is Kramnik's turn to prove Kasparov didn't go mad in London. The public need another match to prove Kramnik is the real thing."

Kasparov feels handicapped by the lack of love for him within the game. "It is difficult to be world champion for 15 years and remain popular with the players you are continually beating. I've been there for too long, people hate it. Most of the other players hate me because I beat them regularly – most of them have a devastatingly bad record against me."

Kasparov reckons the chess press won't back his claim for a rematch. "They are more scared of upsetting chess professionals – a tiny minority – rather than campaigning for what the wider world wants – a rematch."

Indeed, he believes chess should be more mainstream. "Chess has to widen its audience. The image of the game needs to change from that of a gloomy, smoke-filled corner of a café where some crazy people are playing, to the one I promote of a physically fit guy who plays chess, but might also play for the local soccer team. We also need organisation. When I played Nigel Short it was at the Savoy - now that's a real place. When I played Anand, it was at the World Trade Centre. Where did I play Kramnik? At the Riverside Studios – a lousy place."

Watching Kasparov play is sheer theatre. Immaculately attired, his most eye-catching accoutrement is the Rolex watch he takes off and places next to the board at the start of each match, pyschologically making himself at home while leaving his opponent with the impression that this is an away fixture conducted in Kasparov's sitting room.

Kasparov is no poker player. When winning he is a man possessed, when losing he looks suicidal. And it is not for nothing that Kasparov is "the Beast of Baku". Over the years, hapless opponents have been subjected to eye-balling, successions of unsettling exits from the playing hall, the disturbing sight of Kasparov jumping down off the stage and pacing up and down menacingly before tearing back to the table to make an instant move after his rival had pondered for upwards of half an hour. Opponents witness Kasparov rolling up his sleeves and rubbing his hands together as he moves in for the kill, invasions of body space as Kasparov towers over the board and, worst of all, harsh, derisive, laughter from Kasparov in response to moves that evidently fail to impress him. It is all great entertainment and Kasparov knows it. "I am on stage. I have to give a performance. It is about style. I believe I have to play in style, win in style and lose in style."

The US chess legend Bobby Fischer is regarded by some as the greatest player the game has ever seen after his victory over the Russian Boris Spassky in the Icelandic capital, Reykyavik, in 1972, in a legendary match that took place at the height of the Cold War. But Fischer retired soon afterwards and his Fide rating of 2,780 is lower than Kasparov's at 2,827.

So does that make Kasparov the best chess player in history? Oblivious of his immodesty, Kasparov replies: "I don't like comparing players of different times. How can you compare Einstein and Newton – they were both geniuses. Fischer was a genius, I am a genius. But on balance – though there is an element of inflation in Fide's rating – yes, I am the best ever."