Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The Tsar's Opponent" in The New Yorker

For those who wonder about the status of Garry Kasparov's campaign for the Russian presidency, David Remnick's "The Tsar's Opponent: Garry Kasparov takes aim at the power of Vladimir Putin" (The New Yorker, October 1, 2007) makes an excellent and informative read. I am always intrigued by the way that chess becomes conflated with politics (see here, here, and here for instance), and Remnick's analysis is often quite astute in this regard. I was especially struck by the following aside about the way that chess championship matches are always mapped onto concurrent political situations in the public imagination:
Like heavyweight championship bouts, matches for the world chess championship have a way of taking on political meaning. Bobby Fischer’s psychodramatic match with Boris Spassky in Iceland, thirty-five years ago, was a Cold War epic (of a particularly neurotic type). In the popular press, it was not enough to say that Spassky failed to contend with Fischer’s brilliant and unpredictable openings; more comprehensibly, it was a triumph of American ingenuity over a sclerotic Soviet bureaucracy.

In 1984, when Kasparov made his first bid for the world title, the political drama was purely Soviet. The regime was in its last year before perestroika. Konstantin Chernenko, a career apparatchik, directed the imperium from his sickroom. His senescence was a symbol of the regime. The market stalls and store shelves were bare. The technological age had arrived—but not in the Soviet Union. Karpov, the world champion, was an exemplar of the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko “era of stagnation,” an obedient member of the nomenklatura. As a player, he was a defensive artist, whose style, like Kutuzov’s in war, was to absorb and smother attacks and then destroy his confounded opponent. Like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, he was a living symbol of official Soviet achievement.

Kasparov represented a new generation. At twenty-one, he was ironic, full of barely disguised disdain for the regime. He was a member of the Communist Party until 1990—his chess ambitions required it—but no one saw him as subservient. Rather, he was cast, in his challenge to Karpov, as a champion of the young and of the outsiders. His chess style was swift, imaginative, daring—sometimes to the point of recklessness. Karpov painted academic still-lifes; Kasparov was an Abstract Expressionist.

The full text of this wonderful article is available online at The New Yorker's website along with a 22-minute audio clip ("His Next Move") from Remnick's interview with the former chess champion.

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