Friday, September 25, 2009

History Repeated, History Repeating?

Gary Kasparov defeats Karpov -- can he defeat Putin?

For reasons that often seen entirely obvious, the world of professional Chess doesn't attract the same devotion that other sports do.

There are no raucus chants like in soccer, no big hits or long-bomb passes like in football, and no swift transition game like in hockey.

The failure of the United States to develop a competitive chess program was a concern for many Americans during the Cold War. With the world's two nuclear superpowers glaring standoffishly across the North Pole at one another a great deal of rhetorical primacy rested on the World Chess Championship.

Whichever country possessed the championship within its grasp held a key propaganda point. After all, when the world is continually sitting on the brink of nuclear annhiliation the idea that either country possessed the world's best strategic and tactical minds could help give the population of either country the notion -- however hollow -- that they could win a nuclear exchange with their rivals.

The Soviet Union held the advantage in this particular category hands-down. The only American to win the World Chess Championship was Bobby Fischer, who defeated Boris Spassky for the championship in 1972.

He would disappoint his country by refusing to defend his championship, and eventually emerged as a very public conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite.

But the Soviet Union would have a disappointing World Chess Champion of its own: Gary Kasparov.

Anatoly Karpov had won the tournament that decided the challenger to the championship, but won the title by forfeit after Fischer and the International Chess Federation couldn't agree on the rules for the match. Karpov (who didn't actually expect to defeat Fischer in 1975) would hold onto the title until 1985, when Kasparov defeated him.

The first Kasparov-Karpov encounter ran an astounding 48 games, and was called over without result with Karpov leading 5-3 in a match in which the first player to win six games would be victorious.

A rematch was scheduled for 1985. It would be a best of 24. There would be no draws this time (there were an incredible 50 draws in their 1984 encounter), as Kasparov claimed the championship with a 13-11 win.

The two faced each other in a contractually-stipulated rematch in 1986 (Kasparov won narrlowly, 12.5 to 11.5) and again in 1986 (this time they drew, 12-12).

The most ingriguing encounter between Kasparov and Karpov was the fifth confrontation, in 1990. History marks this as a time of great change within the USSR, and nowhere did the conflicts raging within the Soviet Union seem as apparent as in the World Championship match.

Karpov was widely known as a favourite of the Communist party elite. Like many Soviet competitors who were elevated to top-level competition, Karpov showed all the appropriate loyalties to the Communist regime.

Kasparov was an entirely different matter. While he had once been a member of the Communist party, he left it in 1990 and was involved in organizing the Democratic Party of Russia, even as he defended the World Championship against Karpov. It was widely known that Kasparov distrusted and opposed Mikhail Gorbachev.

For a World Chess Champion representing (on paper at least) the Soviet Union -- Kasparov had, in 1990, requested to represent Russia under its pre-Soviet flag -- to so resoundingly oppose the Communist regime was dispiriting to many Communist party members. It earned Kasparov many enemies in the Soviet Union.

Then again, Kasparov was accustomed to having enemies. His contemporaries in professional Chess were known to widely fear and dislike Kasparov. Often, they would cheer when he lost, even in minor tournaments.

Although Boris Yeltsin would eventually disappoint Kasparov, the World Chess Champion's opposition to Gorbachev was seen as a factor in his political downfall.

More recently, Kasparov has been involved in organizing broader opposition to Russian Prime Minister (some say shadow President, despite recent dissent by Dmitri Medvedev). Most recently Kasparov has been a key figure in the organizing of Solidarnost, the opposition's alternative to Putin's United Russia party.

In 1990, Gary Kasparov became a key figure in the eventual downfall of Mikhail Gorbachev, the end of Communism in the Soviet Union, and the eventual dissolution of the regime.

Nearly 20 years later, Gary Kasparov has played a high-profile chess match against Anatoly Karpov once again. As in 1990, he's also organizing against an entrenched political regime.

In Kasparov's defeat of Karpov, history has repeated. As the world looks ahead to what lies in the future for Russia, many can only wonder: can Gary Kasparov finally help engineer the defeat of Vladimir Putin and bring a second round of democratic reform to Russia?

Only time will tell.

From the archives:

May 23, 2009 - "Fighting the Cold War Over a Chess Board"

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