Life After Chess

No one, ever, was a greater master of the chessboard than Garry Kasparov, whose 22-year reign as world champion set a standard for dominance. During his time at the top, Kasparov made his mark outside the competitive arena as well, working constantly to bolster the popularity of the game and especially arguing for its place in the computer era. (It was an act of bravery for him—and a net gain for chess—to take on IBM's Deep Blue machine in 1997, a match he lost. To this day, he contends that IBM gave its machine timely human guidance, a charge IBM has denied.) In retirement, Kasparov, now 44, is taking on an even more formidable foe in his native Russia: Vladimir Putin. Kasparov aborted his run for Russian president late last year, but remains one of the most vocal dissidents in the land. Recently the former champ, who retired in 2005, wrote "How Life Imitates Chess," a book that tries to apply the lessons of the game to business scenarios and other life situations. NEWSWEEK caught up with the chess legend—a gregarious, witty conversationalist who puts the lie to chess wizards as antisocial wonks—in a New York-to-Moscow Skype call.

Levy: Using chess terms, describe your current political situation.
Chess probably is not the best comparison, because in chess we are all playing by the rules. This regime refused to play by the rules for many years. The only good sign lately was that they had to make one legal move, which is to decide Putin's future, and this is the move that you cannot take back. [By law, Putin could not continue in his post and chose bureaucrat Dmitry Medvedev as his successor.] Putin was not ready to break up with the Constitution, because he has been paying attention to the Western reaction, and all the money of the ruling elite is in the West. No matter what you say and what you put on paper, it's real life, and if you put anybody in your position, this stooge, this nobody, becomes a big man. The chair makes you big. I mean, who was Putin eight years ago? Nobody. But the chair creates an aura of invincibility. His move creates a new situation, which might offer certain promising terms for us. Being chess-y about it, for more than a year we were playing with the threat of being mated in one, and managing to survive. We're still at the board. The game is not over. We think that in 2008 we can start thinking, not one move ahead but two moves ahead, we can have a luxury, because the regime shows a lot of cracks. If you travel around Russia, not staying in the center of Moscow only, you can definitely sense that things are not looking good.

He tried to dismiss your influence because you voiced your complaints to outsiders.
Putin mentions the name of only one of his opponents—mine. It doesn't make me a very happy man, but it shows that the concept of The Other Russia [an anti-Putin coalition], of the unified opposition, bothers him very much. He talked about Kasparov and about these bad guys who are trying to provoke the police and be arrested.

Do you believe that you're in danger?
We're all in danger. I think that the regime hasn't decided how they're going to deal with the challenges. I think there's a good chance that a balance will not be found and it may lead to quite a chaotic struggle.

In your book you suggest that chess can apply to real-life situations, notably business. But chess is a zero-sum game, and in business people seek win-win situations.
Any comparison is limited. But I think in chess, and in the book I used it to analyze the nature of the decision making. And I think that process is very similar, no matter what we're doing.

Your chess game was famously aggressive, but is constant aggression appropriate in business?
I think the aggressive approach offers you more options because you are more mobile. Time dictates that you be more mobile, and being more mobile means you are more aggressive. Defense in war today is obsolete, and it's the same in business, because you have to be very dynamic by shifting resources and coming up with new ideas. Things are changing so rapidly that trying to sit and capitalize on some of your advantages might be lethal.

You also urge people to act on intuition.
That was one of my greatest advantages at the chessboard. My intuition was wrong very few times. You have to rely on your intuition. It's like a muscle; you must use it. In fact, we are not doing it all the time. I believe that people, especially now when there is so much information available, are trying to find a very scientific way of resolving problems. But because everybody has access to this kind of information, you have to rely on your personal instincts rather than on information available to everybody on the Internet.

Your instincts led you to anticipate the fall of communism. So why did they let you down when it came to anticipating the dot-com bust, and losing on your investment in a big Web site branded with your name?
I think that it's quite understandable; because I grew up in the Soviet Union, I saw that the system was rotten from inside. I was more adapted to analyze this situation, but in the dot-com gold rush I was one of many in the crowd. My instincts were not trained in analyzing that situation.

In adjusting to life post-chess, what was the one thing you had to unlearn?
I took from chess my ability to analyze the decision-making pattern, and now I understand that I'm not in a very comfortable position of calling the shots. My chess style was very aggressive, but now I have to play to try to bite my opponent rather than to smash him. But it's not very difficult—I wouldn't have stayed on top for 20 years if I didn't learn [how to be objective] when I played chess.

Do you think you're the last chess champion to be well known so broadly?
I think it's probably a correct assessment, because chess has changed, you know. It's more like tennis, because the champions are changing too often. If somebody's No. 1, so what?

Do you think that we'll ever know the answer to whether IBM cheated in the Deep Blue match?
I think it's water under the bridge. I believe they cheated. I believe there was human interference. But it's "I say, they say." At the end of the day, who cares?