It figures that the biggest chess story of recent memory would happen while I'm away.
Gary Kasparov has announced his retirement from professional chess at the age of 41. He made the announcement at the conclusion of the annual tournament in Linares, Spain.
The Linares tournament is generally considered the most prestigious tournament of the year. It is also frequenly one of the most boring as the top players, afraid of losing, play very cautiously against one another and make a lot of draws.
This year, however, Kasparov was very motivated. Until the last round he played superb chess, reminiscent of his glory days, to tie for first in the tournament. Coming on the heels of his impressive victory in the Russian Championship last November, he showed conlcusively that he is still the best player in the world. He is definitely going out on top.
The Linares tournament was significant for another reason: The Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov tied for first with Kasparov. Topalov has been among the world's best for years, but this is a real breakthrough for him. He did it in grand style too, winning his last two games to catch up to the seemingly uncatchable Kasparov. In fact, he dealt Kasparov his only defeat of the tournament in the final round. Beating Kasparov in his final professional game provides a small measure of revenge for Topalov. Several years ago he lost to Kasparov in a game most people consider to be one of the most brilliant attacking games of all time.
The other news of the tournament was the poor performance of Peter Leko. He scored twelve straight draws to finish in the middle of the pack. Leko has been playing well lately, tying his match with Kramnik and winning the strong tournament at Wijk Aan Zee earlier this year. A strong performance here would have cemented his place among the world's elite. Now he must once again deal with accusations that he is, basically, a wimp at the board.
The final standings in the tournament are available here.
But we really ought to give the final word to Kasparov. The British newspaper The Guardian interviewed him here. It seems he's interested in entering Russian politics.
His decision to quit after Linares seemed bizarre because he had been back to his very best. So why, at 41, has he decided to retire? “I made a conscious decision well before the tournament,” he says. “These kind of decisions you don't make overnight. It takes time before you decide to quit one of the most successful careers in the history of any sport. I grew up with chess, built up my character with chess, won everything at the chessboard, gained recognition as the best chess player. So for me every aspect of life was related to chess. In your early 40s in chess you don't feel like retiring, especially if you are still the No1-rated player in the world. But I had to find a new target. My nature is that I have to excite myself with a big challenge.”
That challenge is Russian politics. Except that Kasparov says the very term “Russian politics” is a misnomer. “I wouldn't say that I'm entering Russian politics, because politics doesn't exist in Russia in the terms you use here,” he explains. “I will be trying to help Russia to get back into normal political life and to make sure my country lives in a civilised way.”
Kasparov is already a leading figure in a pro-democracy organisation called Committee 2008: Free Choice, which was formed last year. Now he has decided that the threat to freedom of expression in Russia is so great that he needs to devote himself to campaigning full time.
He has been talked of as a possible presidential rival to Vladimir Putin in 2008, and he doesn't rule out standing for office at some stage, but his real concern is that there will be no election to stand in. “People say to me, 'Garry, are you planning to run in 2008?' I say, 'Run for what?' The trend in Russia is very clear: Putin is abandoning democracy as an institution. He doesn't want there to be an election. There will be an appointed parliament that will then appoint the president. It will be like a perpetuum mobile.”
Also interesting was this quote:
“On the American political scale I would probably be somewhere near Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says. “Economically conservative but socially liberal, definitely pro-choice, non-religious. I don't qualify as a new Republican. But on the other side I will be for lowering taxes and reducing the size of the state.” In any case, he says, because Russia has no conventional politics, terms such as left and right are redundant. “That's why we can work with strange bedfellows. You just have to find a number of vital elements that people can agree on. It's about wrecking the nomenklatura state and bringing law back to Russia.”