Knight Vision

RUSSIA’S INVASION OF UKRAINE has been a boon for American oil and gas companies, Russian bond traders at Goldman Sachs, and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. The former world champion and staunch critic of Putin has become a regular guest on prime-time cable news slots. He’s penned op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. His 2015 book, Winter Is Coming, which predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine beyond its eastern regions, has rocketed to the top of Amazon’s charts and journalists’ recommended-reading lists. Kasparov is quoted by the press as though he were an oracle. Grandmasters, the saying goes, can see twenty moves into the future.

Does mastery of the chessboard confer geopolitical wisdom? Kasparov retired from competitive chess in 2005. To many, his entry into politics was the logical next move. Chess, with its pieces shaped like tiny soldiers, has always been conceived as a skills-building exercise for warlords and diplomats: the seventh-century caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab used chess to train war strategists; Benjamin Franklin thought of chess as a moral whetstone that could improve one’s foresight, circumspection, and sense of caution. During the Cold War, the US and USSR saw the game as another proving ground for their dueling economic systems. The Soviets viewed chess, as Kasparov likes to say in interviews, as a “powerful tool to prove the superiority of the communist regime over the decadent West.” On the board, the invisible hand was often outmatched. Americans saw the Soviets’ success as further evidence that communism was evil: they abused their players into becoming geniuses.

John Hrehov, Height & Depth (detail), 1998, oil on canvas over panel, 37 1/4 x 30 1/4". Courtesy Denise Bibro Fine Art, NYC.
John Hrehov, Height & Depth (detail), 1998, oil on canvas over panel, 37 1/4 x 30 1/4". Courtesy Denise Bibro Fine Art, NYC.

At his peak, Kasparov was one of the strongest chess players in the history of the game. His knowledge of opening theory, depth of analysis, and intuition were unmatched. Unlike his archrival, current Duma member Anatoly Karpov, whose stoicism and grinding positional mastery made him the darling of the Soviet chess system, Kasparov was known for launching wildcat attacking combinations. This was best demonstrated in his 1999 “Immortal Game” against Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov, when Kasparov sacrificed his rook for one of Topalov’s pawns and initiated a twenty-move king hunt that forced his opponent to resign. Kasparov later claimed that he had calculated the astonishing sequence in its entirety. His artistry and omniscience made him the top-rated player in the world for two decades.

As a political activist and commentator, Kasparov has proven to be a less adroit strategist. In his role as chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, he’s overseen the organization’s bizarre pivot to boosting Bitcoin as a democratizing force for good. Since 2017, as founder and leader of the Renew Democracy Initiative, Kasparov has dedicated himself to building liberal democracies around the world. Still, his personal track record in elections is checkered. The New York Times Magazine reported that while Kasparov was running for president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) in 2014, he offered a FIDE official a $1.5 million bribe in exchange for eleven votes. In global affairs, he sees the West’s military power as a cure-all for authoritarianism: in early March, after Russian tanks entered the Ukrainian regional capital Kherson, Kasparov implored NATO on Twitter to impose a no-fly zone over the country. Foresight, circumspection, and caution are not Kasparov’s strong suits.

Politics, as Kasparov has admitted, is nothing like chess. “In chess, we have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said in 2015. “In Putin’s Russia, it’s exactly the opposite.” He’s learned another difference, too: making blunders is bad for a grandmaster’s career, but off the board, failing up is often the quickest way to the top.

Will Tavlin is a writer based in New York.