Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, put his head down, hunched his shoulders and walked hurriedly down the carpeted corridor of the Sands Cotai Central, a labyrinthine new complex on reclaimed land in Macau. Downstairs were two of the world’s most lucrative casinos and retailers like Saint Laurent Paris and Fabio Caviglia. There were restaurants, spas and an array of theme-park attractions from DreamWorks, including a daily parade through the lobby with characters from “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Here on the fourth floor, though, hundreds of boys and girls from across Asia had just wrapped up their matches in a chess tournament. Spilling into the corridor, many of them gaped at Kasparov barreling by, as if Shrek himself had wandered up to the wrong floor. That was why he was rushing, he explained, when I managed to catch up to him as he turned toward a bank of elevators. “If you stop,” he said, “you’ll be there for 30 minutes.” He did not sound angry, just matter of fact. “Everyone circles around. They want pictures.”
Kasparov, who at 51 wears his increasingly gray hair cropped short, had just left a luncheon in a smaller room nearby. In attendance were V.I.P.’s representing numerous national chess federations. On Aug. 11, they and others will gather in Tromso, Norway, to elect the president of the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or FIDE (pronounced FEE-day). Kasparov, who surprised the chess world when he announced his candidacy last fall, is an intense man, impatient and not inclined to waste his time with anything extraneous, but his allies are encouraging him to ease up in this regard, now that he is trying to win over those who view him as a polarizing figure. Kasparov circled the luncheon room like a politician on the rubber-chicken circuit, skipping his own lunch and stopping at the round tables to greet individual delegates. Once everyone else had left, he sat down and tallied the votes he thought he could count on — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan — and those he could not. “Russia, India, China,” he went on. “You can see how it is.”
Chess at the international level is populated with men and women of genius and outsize egos. As a result, this year’s quadrennial exercise to elect the leader of FIDE has become as bitter as only a fight inside an arcane international organization can be. There are 181 countries or territories that have their own chess federations, and 176 of them are eligible to vote in Tromso when it hosts the biennial Chess Olympiad (an event mired in controversy because of a dispute with FIDE over the qualification of, among others, Russia’s women’s team). The campaign for those votes has provoked accusations of deceit and bribery. It has also revived decades-old personal feuds and controversies over everything from how the federation is governed to the murder of a journalist in 1998 and the wisdom of playing chess with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. “The elections, I think, are the dirtiest we’ll ever see,” Ignatius Leong, an influential figure in Asian chess, told me in Macau.
The campaign has become something much larger too — in large part because of Kasparov’s candidacy. Kasparov is a voluble and articulate critic of the country he considered home until he chose self-exile last year, and his campaign has turned into a new battleground for two old rivals, one who once dominated chess and another, Vladimir Putin, who now dominates Russia. Putin’s government has thrown its diplomatic resources against Kasparov and in support of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, FIDE’s incumbent president. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and the downing last month of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the fight over FIDE’s leadership has become a proxy for a broader debate over freedom and democracy, over the future of chess and over the place of Putin’s Russia in the international order.
Kasparov’s retreat through the hotel corridor had an unforeseen tactical flaw: He had to wait for an elevator. A boy from Vietnam had followed him and, pen in hand, shyly asked in broken English if Kasparov would sign his red team jersey. Kasparov demurred, saying the boy’s pen was not the kind that would work on the cloth. Mine did, so I handed it to him. He huffed but finally scribbled his name below the jersey’s team logo. The elevator doors opened just as a few more players had gathered, precisely as he warned would happen. The one lucky kid bounded away ecstatically.
“Garry Kasparov is a threat to the unity of chess,” Kirsan Ilyumzhinov told me in June when I met him in his office, located amid drab Soviet apartment blocks in southeastern Moscow. His office is sparse compared with those of most Russian officials, who tend to favor expensive furniture and ostentatious displays of gifts, awards and political fealty in the form of photographs featuring Vladimir Putin. Instead, Ilyumzhinov has photographs of Kalmykia, the remote, sparsely populated Russian republic where he served as president from 1993 until 2010, and of the Dalai Lama — Kalmykia being the only Buddhist region in Europe. Ilyumzhinov, who is a year older than Kasparov, is handsome, soft-spoken and inordinately polite to a visitor. He seems, in person, not nearly as eccentric as the reputation that precedes him, one based largely on his repeated accounts of what happened to him one night in September 1997.
It was a Wednesday, and he sensed a spectral presence on the balcony of his apartment in Moscow (almost all regional leaders in Russia keep a home in the capital). When he went to investigate, aliens in yellow bodysuits transported him to an enormous spaceship and then to another planet. They did not talk much, but he emphasized that he needed to get back soon, because he had a flight to Kalmykia the next day. They assured him not to worry; there was plenty of time. In Ilyumzhinov’s various retellings, his tale remains remarkably consistent, and he has stood by it, despite skeptical and amused questioning from journalists. Over the years, he has expounded on his views of extraterrestrial life, comparing them to the belief in Jesus Christ or Buddha. He also has opined that chess itself comes from a higher plane, either God or outer space: It certainly is not of this world.
Like Kasparov, Ilyumzhinov was a chess prodigy, becoming Kalmykia’s champion when he was 14, but he never reached similar heights in international competition. After high school, he worked in a factory until he was conscripted by the Red Army. Following his time in the military, he returned to a factory job before gaining acceptance to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the university that prepped the Soviet Union’s diplomats and provided him with business-world contacts. When the country fell apart, Ilyumzhinov ended up the owner of a network of businesses and a very rich man, though as is the case with many of Russia’s oligarchs, the exact source and size of his wealth is opaque. Ilyumzhinov was elected Kalmykia’s president in the heady years of Russia’s new democracy, running on the argument that, as a rich man, he would not succumb to corruption. In fact, as many regional leaders in Russia in the 1990s did, he treated his homeland as his personal fief, neutering the local legislature and controlling the media. In 1998, one of his aides was convicted in the murder of an opposition journalist and political activist, Larisa Yudina. Earlier this year Sergei Mitrokhin, the chairman of the Yabloko Party, the biggest liberal party in the 1990s, cited the murder as a reason to oppose Ilyumzhinov’s re-election to FIDE, describing his Kalmykia presidency as “a disgusting merger of authoritarian rule, corruption and crime.”
Ilyumzhinov has presided over FIDE since 1995. After an internal revolt following a congress in Moscow — at one point during the assembly, the former world champion Anatoly Karpov was supposedly threatened with having his legs broken — Ilyumzhinov emerged as a compromise choice to take over the presidency. He was backed by Karpov then and has been re-elected ever since, despite what his many critics say is an erratic, even scandalous tenure that has undermined the sport’s international prestige. Ilyumzhinov blurred the lines between the presidencies of Kalmykia and FIDE, traveling the world to promote chess and the republic simultaneously. He befriended Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, for example, and one of his first acts as FIDE’s president was to schedule the 1996 world championship in Baghdad at a time when Iraq faced punishing international sanctions. The United States warned one contestant, Gata Kamsky, then a resident, that playing a match there might lead to civil and criminal charges against him. Under enormous pressure, Ilyumzhinov moved the match to Kalmykia’s small capital, Elista. Envisioning a new era of international attention for Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov then built a Chess City on Elista’s outskirts, including a glass-domed palace intended as a venue for matches and tournaments that he had almost solitary power to organize.
Ilyumzhinov’s forays into international affairs as FIDE’s president — and his contacts with some of the world’s most reviled leaders in times of crisis — have raised the question of whether he serves as an envoy for the Kremlin. In June 2011, he arrived unexpectedly in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and met Qaddafi nearly three months into the NATO air war there. (In 2004, he placed FIDE’s championship in Tripoli, where he introduced a controversial new knockout format; only five of the world’s top 20 players attended.) The two men sat down for a game of chess, broadcast on state television as evidence that Qaddafi was still in charge. Ilyumzhinov offered him a draw. He told me that Qaddafi asked him to deliver messages to Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and other leaders of NATO nations, offering to hold a constitutional referendum as a compromise to end the war. It was Qaddafi’s last public appearance before he was captured by rebels and killed in October 2011.
“Everybody who supports chess is my friend,” Ilyumzhinov said, showing me photographs to make his point: the Dalai Lama and the pope, as well as Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, whom he visited in May 2012, in the midst of the country’s civil war. According to Ilyumzhinov, he and Assad opened a chess school together that was later bombed by the Syrian rebels. “Chess is beyond politics,” he said, not very convincingly. That, he added, “is why Kasparov is so dangerous. This is why it’s necessary to fight him. This is what the chess world was afraid of: Kasparov started mixing chess with politics.”
In the world of chess — and it is bigger than you might think, with an estimated 600 million regular players, according to a survey commissioned by FIDE — Kasparov is a living legend, whose fame eclipses that of the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen. I heard him repeatedly referred to in this way by players, delegates and even Ilyumzhinov. Kasparov became the sport’s youngest world champion in 1985, when he was 22 (a mark that has since been lowered), a woolly-haired challenger up against the Soviet Union’s chess establishment and its reigning champion for the previous decade, Anatoly Karpov. Among those watching the tense finale on Soviet television on Nov. 9, 1985, was Vladimir Putin, a young major in the K.G.B., stationed in a small intelligence outpost in the East German city of Dresden. According to a memoir written by one of Putin’s colleagues, the entire cadre of Soviet agents and military men stationed there rooted for Karpov, thinking even then that Kasparov was “an extremely impudent upstart,” which was exactly how the propaganda machine of the Soviet Union described him. The author thought Putin showed “dangerous sympathy” for Kasparov. Times have changed, clearly.
Chess has always occupied a disproportionate place in the Russian psyche — as much as any other game or sport, it forms part of the national identity. The Bolsheviks, who overthrew the last czar in 1917, initially disparaged the game as bourgeois, but some were ardent players, Lenin among them. According to “The Immortal Game,” by David Shenk, the Soviets saw the political and ideological value of the sport, “turning the popular but ragtag nature of public chess play into one of the self-identifying marks of emerging Soviet culture.” The Soviets created a system of academies that resulted in their domination of international chess for the second half of the 20th century. Only Bobby Fischer’s upset victory over Boris Spassky in 1972 — a televised Cold War drama — interrupted the Soviet Union’s reign until the state itself collapsed, and the sport, like nearly everything else in Russia, lurched through a decade of crises.
Kasparov was a product of the Soviet sports machine and, almost from the beginning, a rebel against it. He began playing seriously at 7 at the Young Pioneers Palace in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. By the time he was 13, he was already traveling abroad, representing the Soviet Union internationally. In his memoirs — and he is a prolific author of autobiographies and books on chess — Kasparov describes his rise through the chess ranks as a series of struggles against a sclerotic Soviet chess bureaucracy and against FIDE, which, he wrote in “Unlimited Challenge,” published in the United States in 1990, had “legalized tyranny in the world of chess.” He was convinced that the Soviet chess federation conspired with FIDE to block his ultimately successful challenge against Karpov, whom he described as “just the man for a system which elevated to the skies everything that helped to affirm its own ideological fetishes, even in sport.”
Admired in Russia not just as an intellectual but also as an athlete, whose sturdy build has diminished only slightly over time, Kasparov had the kind of fame that allowed him to immerse himself in the roiling politics of the time. He strongly, and publicly, backed Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to open the Soviet Union in the 1980s — and then later criticized him for backsliding. After the abortive coup in August 1991 hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kasparov threw his support behind Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s new generation of democrats. By 1996, though, he had broken with Yeltsin and, at least early on, supported one of his challengers in that year’s election.
Three years earlier, he did something similar in chess, splitting from FIDE at a time when he was its greatest champion. Kasparov organized a championship match in London against the British grandmaster Nigel Short under the auspices of a new organization called the Professional Chess Association, which raised the $2.5 million prize fund through sponsorships. Kasparov won, but FIDE promptly expelled him, and the chess world endured an unseemly rift until Ilyumzhinov brokered a reunification match in 2006. Many have never forgiven Kasparov for going his own way. “I told him that there will be people out there who will say you destroyed FIDE,” Ignatius Leong told me. When he joined Kasparov’s campaign, he advised him that he must not “run away” from the allegations against him. “Just admit that those were mistakes. And then people will forget it. If you try to defend, you will run into more problems.”
Kasparov seemed to have Leong’s advice in mind the night he arrived in Macau. When he spoke to an invitation-only group at a buffet dinner at the Sands Cotai Central, he sounded contrite, humbled, honored to present himself as a candidate. He told a story of once being questioned by a skeptical chess official about his scant travels to Africa — a battleground in the current election. Back then, he told the attendees, he had been only to Morocco, but “now I can say I’ve been to 22 African countries.” He also verged toward acknowledging his role in the chess world’s split. “Many things have been discussed in the past. I made mistakes. Everybody made mistakes. At the end of the day, it’s about the future. And everybody knows now that chess needs reform.”
Kasparov sponsored the chess tournament in Macau through the Kasparov Chess Foundation, which he created in the United States in 2002 to promote chess as an educational tool. He has since established branches in Africa, Asia and, most recently, Mexico. After the tournament ended, Kasparov spent six hours at an awards ceremony held in the convention center on Macau’s thoroughly unauthentic Fisherman’s Wharf. (As Jose Silveirinha, a ponytailed Portuguese poet who is president of Macau’s chess federation, told me: “Macau is an illusion, like what happens in the desert when you are dying of thirst. What do you call it? Hallucinations.”) Kasparov sat at the head table, rising to make brief remarks before he handed out medal after medal to the winners, dozens of them.
During breaks in the ceremonies, he retreated with his aides to a side room for the real purpose of his visit: to meet privately with the various chess delegates who will vote in Norway. More than two dozen of them were in Macau, and not all had declared for Kasparov; some remained in Ilyumzhinov’s camp. Kasparov and his aides kept a tally of prospective votes, like whips in the United States Congress, noting each public pledge of support — the public nature of those endorsements being essential to create the impression that Ilyumzhinov’s victory is not presumptive. Kasparov and his aides say Ilyumzhinov and the Russian government have exerted extraordinary pressure on federations, especially those that have come out in Kasparov’s favor. One delegate who did in Macau, Mahmood Hanif of Afghanistan, was promptly removed from the FIDE website because of that support, as he and Kasparov’s camp claim.
Kasparov is a stubborn idealist in a country deeply cynical about politics. After he retired from chess in 2005, he brought the same intensity and aggression with which he played to the quixotic goal of ousting Putin from power. He organized protests and barnstormed around Russia to try to ignite political activism in a populace that, during the economic boom of those years, remained resolutely comfortable, apathetic or both. Kasparov had once seen hope in Putin’s unexpected rise, referring to him in print as a “young pragmatic leader” who would “strengthen democracy inside Russia” and “level the curves” of Yeltsin’s erratic policy, but soon enough he dismissed his earlier enthusiasm as “wishful thinking.” In late 2007, he announced that he would run for president himself, challenging Putin’s handpicked successor, but as happens to most Kremlin opponents, his campaign was easily suffocated at its inception, just as he and his supporters expected it would be. He could not even meet the legal requirement to hold a nominating convention with 500 participants, because no venue in Moscow would rent him a space large enough. Just ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections that winter, Kasparov was arrested during a protest and sentenced to five days in jail. Behind bars, he said, he received an unexpected gesture from his former archrival, Anatoly Karpov, who applied to visit him in jail — a sign that the Kremlin’s increasingly repressive tactics were worrying the country’s elite. “He was not allowed, by the way, but the very fact is he tried,” Kasparov explained to me. “It was very human of him.”
The improvement in their relations — after five world-championship matches and blistering verbal assaults against each other — ultimately led Kasparov back into chess politics. In 2010, during FIDE’s last presidential election, Karpov challenged Ilyumzhinov, saying he had done lasting damage to chess. Kasparov threw his support behind Karpov, who briefly won the backing of a majority of the Russian Chess Federation, but then security officers raided the federation’s headquarters in Moscow and temporarily expelled its members. The ostensible reason was that an audit had turned up “financial irregularities,” a tactic Putin’s critics have experienced with some frequency. The federation promptly reversed its endorsement. When FIDE’s delegates gathered four months later in Khanty-Mansiysk, an oil town deep in Siberia, Ilyumzhinov was re-elected again.
“The very fact that Karpov failed to actually get support in Russia should tell you about the strength of Ilyumzhinov’s support in certain quarters,” Kasparov told me. “Because Anatoly Karpov is a” — he searched for the term — “a local national hero. And Ilyumzhinov by every account should not be able to beat him in the power game. But he did.”
Kasparov, unlike Karpov, is widely viewed as a foreigner in his home country — in part because he is half-Jewish, half-Armenian, born in Azerbaijan, in part because of his outspoken rebellions against the “chess mafia” and the Kremlin, in part because of the company he keeps abroad, including prominent conservatives in the United States. When Kasparov blurted out something in English as he was being arrested in 2007, Putin ridiculed him in an interview with Time magazine, which had just named Putin Person of the Year. “Why did Mr. Kasparov, when arrested, speak out in English rather than Russian? Just think about it. The whole thrust of this thing was directed toward other countries rather than the Russian people, and when a politician works the crowd of other nations rather than the Russian nation, it tells you something. If you aspire to be a leader of your own country, you must speak your own language, for God’s sake.”
In February, Kasparov acquired a passport from Croatia — after an application for one in Latvia became politically contentious — because he feared that his expiring Russian passport would not be renewed in the midst of the campaign, thus curtailing his travel.
Ilyumzhinov brought up the matter of Kasparov’s passport with me. In today’s Russia, association with a decadent West is tantamount to treason (even if many officials and businessmen have property abroad and send their children to elite boarding schools outside the country). “I am a patriot of Russia,” Ilyumzhinov told me, adding that he had offered financial support to Kasparov and his business ventures in the past. “I love my country. Kasparov, who grew up in this country, received an education here, became a champion here, who was receiving money here, from my own hands — he is praised for struggling against Russia and its people. Isn’t it crazy?”
Kasparov’s career has always made him something of an itinerant. He traveled widely for chess, of course, and then later to promote his books and give lectures. He and his third wife, Daria, have lived mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan since they married in 2005. (Their daughter, Aida, his third child, now 8, attends Dalton.) Still, he told me that he considered Russia his home, an essential part of him. When there, he lived with his mother, Klara, at an apartment in the center of Moscow. In February 2013, however, his mother received a telephone call from the Investigative Committee, known in Russia as sledcom, which was created in 2011 as the principal federal investigatory organ, responsible directly to the president. Since then, the committee has functioned as the Kremlin’s legal instrument for suppressing anyone viewed as a threat to Putin’s rule. In today’s Russia, a telephone call from sledcom has, for many, the same resonance that the “knock on the door” by K.G.B. officers in the dark of night once did. It could only end badly. Kasparov was abroad at the time of the call, but his mother was told that he was wanted as a witness in a new investigation of two other opposition activists. “I asked Navalny,” Kasparov told me, referring to the anticorruption blogger Aleksey Navalny, now under house arrest, “and he said, ‘You can enter the building as a witness, and you can leave it as a suspect.’ I didn’t see any reason for me to come back.”
The essence of Kasparov’s campaign platform is that FIDE has become like Russia: an opaque, top-down, deeply corrupted organization that stifles the enormous popular and commercial potential of the sport. He said that Ilyumzhinov’s leadership — the coziness to the Kremlin, the meetings with dictators, the murkiness of FIDE’s decisions and finances — has spooked sponsors and failed to seize the opportunity presented by the Internet and social media to attract more players and spectators. He had made that case in meetings with delegates from Europe to Africa, Latin America to Asia. And yet even to Kasparov’s supporters, the campaigning can feel less like a reasoned argument than a shameless bidding war. Peter Long, a Malaysian who holds the chess rank of FIDE master and is one of Kasparov’s campaign supporters in Asia, complained to me that the eagerness of some delegates to get financial support for their federations overrode their concern for the health of the sport. Long finds the craven appeals appalling. “It disgusts me,” he said.
More troubling still, Kasparov now stands accused of using the same tactics as Ilyumzhinov to buy delegates’ support. Ignatius Leong, who is from Singapore, joined Kasparov’s campaign last year in what Ilyumzhinov has called a personal betrayal. Leong had served as the secretary general of FIDE, effectively making him one of Ilyumzhinov’s deputies, though the two men have long had stormy relations. A lawyer who advises Kasparov’s campaign, Morten Sand, drafted a contract to put Leong’s support in writing. In that draft, which was leaked to The New York Times, the campaign offered to pay Leong $500,000 and to pay $250,000 a year for four years to the Asean Chess Academy, an organization Leong helped create to teach the game, specifying that Leong would be responsible for delivering 11 votes from his region and also make “the effort to deliver 15 votes (not counting China).”
Sand, who also used to work for FIDE under Ilyumzhinov, told me in Macau that the leaked contract must have been extracted unlawfully from Leong’s FIDE email account and that the agreement was never intended to pay for the votes. As The Times subsequently reported, Kasparov’s campaign published a final draft three days later that deleted the personal payment to Leong and stated that all the money would be paid to organizations, not to individuals. Leong, who is a veteran organizer and referee at tournaments, dismissed the suggestion that the votes could be bought, saying the controversy over his agreement was a smear campaign by Ilyumzhinov’s camp. In an open letter to the chess federations, Leong charged that Ilyumzhinov’s intermediaries had offered him as much as $2 million for his support. “Garry warned me,” he went on, referring to his decision to support Kasparov. “He said once this is declared, I will be a main target. I said, ‘O.K., so be it.’ ” In a legalistic report to FIDE’s executive board in May, Ilyumzhinov accused both men of breaching FIDE’s code of ethics and possibly American and Singaporean laws and recommended ousting Leong from his post.
“Do you want to question our integrity?” Kasparov asked, though not antagonistically, when I brought up the contract. By now we were in his hotel suite after his escape from the autograph seekers. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s a fair call, because we are helping federations, and we do it openly, and we are not hiding our intentions.” Still, he sounded like a player who had not foreseen the hidden flaw in an aggressive move and was scrambling to regain the advantage. “I don’t see any violations of the law in this case,” he said. “FIDE has been complaining loud about it, but when it is complaining about bribes and corruption, it’s like Putin complaining about unrestricted use of force against peaceful citizens.”
Putin himself has not openly declared support for Ilyumzhinov, but his position is not in doubt. In June, he met Ilyumzhinov at the opening of an annual tournament involving Russian schools. As is his wont, Putin used the event, which was held in Sochi, the site of the Winter Olympics in February, to trumpet the revival of another Soviet tradition that would return Russia to its proper place among world powers. “We see that chess is developing ever more actively in Russia,” Putin said, with Ilyumzhinov at his side. “This is deservedly so. First of all, Russia has a very rich chess-playing tradition. Second, chess is a sport that develops the individual, the most intellectual sport, and we were always at the top of international ratings in this sport.” Putin then advised Ilyumzhinov as he made the ceremonial first move of the first match: e2-e4, the most common chess opening. “Your mission is completed,” Ilyumzhinov told him, after which the two men retreated to a private meeting.
Ilyumzhinov told me that he and Putin discussed only the expansion of chess in schools, not the FIDE campaign. The following week, however, Ilyumzhinov made a surprise announcement that the next world championship, a rematch between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand of India, would be held in November in Sochi. The decision to hold it there — Russia has been desperate to recoup some of the $51 billion spent to redevelop the region for the Olympics — has only added to the impression of Ilyumzhinov’s critics that FIDE is simply another servant of Putin’s global ambitions, especially given the international furor over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Russia’s foreign ministry has also showed unusual interest in the campaign, and its ambassadors have met with or written to officials in several countries to influence the outcome. Prospero Pichay Jr., the head of the Philippines federation and the country’s delegate to the election, said his country’s vice president contacted him after a meeting with the Russian ambassador. “I said: ‘Mr. Vice President, I’m sorry. I’m taken.’ ” Pichay, who goes by Butch, was one of the few I met who did not see the election as a larger geopolitical struggle. “It’s a personal grudge between Putin and Garry,” he said. “Putin is a vindictive guy, and he doesn’t want Garry in FIDE. It has nothing to do with Putin and the West. It’s personal.”
During the ceremony in Macau, as a pop band called Casa de Portugal performed, I noticed Kasparov sitting alone at the head table. He was deep in thought, his hands crossed over his nose. He seemed startled when someone came by with a box of his books for him to sign. When the ceremony finally ended, I accompanied him in his van back to the Sands Cotai Central. He was exhausted, nodding off as we rode through the sweltering night.
When Kasparov retired from chess in 2005, he told me at the time that he was done with the sport — except for the occasional anonymous game online. But since then, even before his unexpected return to the sport as a FIDE candidate, he has continued to promote and write books about chess, to work with children and rising stars like Carlsen and even to compete in the occasional exhibition. “Somehow chess always played a role in my life,” he told me.”I cannot separate myself from Garry Kasparov as the champion.” And somehow Kasparov’s chess has always been inseparable from his politics.
Kasparov’s FIDE campaign — its outcome still uncertain on the eve of the vote — seems like the latest game in a grudge match he has been playing for decades now, against what he has viewed as Soviet and then Russian repression. Putin’s approval rating, meantime, is hovering above 80 percent. “Even in political speeches,” Kasparov told me, “people always ask you chess questions. You can’t escape from that. The question I always received at almost any performance, any lecture, any appearance: Does chess help you in your political activities?” Kasparov then parsed the question, taking it apart like a difficult position, correcting each flawed premise and formulating a countermove. “I say, first of all, it was not political but more like human rights,” he said. “But the answer to your question is no, since in chess we have fixed rules and unpredictable results. And in Russia, it is exactly the opposite.”
Correction: August 10, 2014
Because of an editing error, an article on Page 32 this weekend about Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, refers incompletely to his ethnicity. He was born in Azerbaijan and is half-Armenian and half-Jewish.
Steven Lee Myers is a foreign correspondent for The Times. He is working on a biography of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Editor: Dean Robinson