On March 10, 2005, I played my last game of competitive chess after three decades as a professional. The announcement of my retirement was a bit theatrical, delivered without warning at the end of a Spanish tournament in Linares I'd just won for the ninth time. In one day I went from the top of the chess world to a politician in Russia's struggling pro-democracy movement.
There was no dramatic moment of judgment, no single incident that told me the time was right. Nor was it a spontaneous move. Every decision we make is the product of our entire life up to that point—all our knowledge, experience, intuition and calculation. I've spent considerable time since my retirement writing a book on exactly this topic: the decision-making process. The result, "How Life Imitates Chess," represents a careful analysis of my own development as a decision maker, and my leap from chess to politics is detailed. The book itself was one of the things I wanted to dedicate myself to after retiring; as a professional chess player I'd never had the time.
My feelings about chess itself were the least significant element in my decision to quit. Chess had been my life for many years (I started playing at 6), and it will always be important to me. Far more important, however, was the need to make a difference. I had achieved everything that could be achieved in the chess world. Forty-one years old when I retired, I could have continued fighting to keep my No. 1 spot for another five years. But I increasingly felt my role in the chess world was no longer an essential one. I was ready for new challenges.
At the same time, my country was descending into crisis. The authoritarian nature of President Vladimir Putin's regime had become increasingly obvious, and the government was threatening to become a full-blown dictatorship. The kleptocratic police state established by Putin and his gang had revived many of the Soviet ways and means: control of the media, a puppet judiciary, stage-managed elections. The glimmer of democracy that existed during the messy Yeltsin years was being entirely extinguished. The simple corruption of that era was being surpassed by a government in which the politicians, the oligarchs and the crooks were one and the same.
Meanwhile, Russia's opposition forces had fallen into total disarray and needed help from anyone who was able. Even as a chess player I had always been active in politics on various levels, trying to set an example and inspire others to become involved. Eventually I realized I would not be able to have a real impact in such a one-sided fight without making it a full-time job. To make a difference I would have to make politics my life; there was no middle ground. Currently my job is leader of United Civic Front and a moderator and organizer for a broad, nonideological coalition of opposition groups called The Other Russia.
Apart from the natural desire to fight on the side of human rights and democracy, there was a more personal impetus behind my decision. I grew up under the methodical oppression of the U.S.S.R., coping and fighting inside and outside the system for much of my life. The thought of my son, Vadim, born and raised in Moscow and now 10 years old, having to suffer similar treatment still sends chills down my spine.
Now, after two years in the political arena, I am often asked how it feels to go from top dog to underdog so quickly. Others ask about my personal safety. On April 14, en route to one of our peaceful marches, I was arrested along with many others. Unlike many of my companions, however, I was not brutally assaulted by the security forces. Having inspired such an overreaction can be seen as a victory for us, albeit a painful one. To paraphrase a quote from Gandhi, they might fight us, but they can no longer ignore us.
I was fully aware from the start that our chances for success were terribly slim, and that I was one of the few Russians who could run away from the dangers. It has never been my style, on the chessboard or in life, to back down from challenges when the odds are against me or when there is a safer option. When there is a moral imperative at stake, you don't calculate the odds. It may sound strange coming from a chess player, but some decisions we don't make with our heads. We make them with our hearts.