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On Chess: The return of the king

Garry Kasparov at the first day of the Paris stop of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour
Lennart Ootes | Grand Chess Tour
Garry Kasparov at the first day of the Paris stop of the 2017 Grand Chess Tour

It was the fall of 1995, and I was on the top floor of the World Trade Center.  I watched on a TV monitor as two players concentrated intensely on a chessboard. Grand Master Viswanathan Anand, playing black, had a look of quiet serenity. While surely he was analyzing dozens of variations with a speed and accuracy that would make most people dizzy, there was no indication of that immense effort on his face.

The same could not be said of his opponent. Grand Master Garry Kasparov had the look of a man who was being chased by a tiger. This is not to say he looked scared, but his level of intensity seemed to be constantly ratcheted up to life or death levels. His eyes darted around the chessboard, his breathing was heavy, and you felt as if at any moment he might reach out and strangle Anand from across the chessboard. 

Although he was well known for his extraordinary opening preparation and feel for the initiative, Kasparov’s opponents also talked about the pressure that his presence puts on them, and that no other player had quite the same aura. I think as a spectator this is also true. As an eight year old at my first World Championship match, his demeanor made quite an impression on me. There is just nothing comparable to watching Kasparov play a game of chess.  

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. A blitz exhibition was held in St. Louis right after the U.S. Championship. Garry Kasparov was thrown into the ring with the triad of players who currently sit atop American chess:  Grand Masters Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. Kasparov had been retired for more than 10 years, and people were unsure of how he’d compete. I happened to be in St. Louis at the time and, while most of the games I viewed from a comfortable spot in the commentary room, I had to at least see one round live. 

From the back of a large group huddled against the railing, there is no way I could see the board, but I still got a good look at Kasparov. His hair was far whiter than I recalled. He wore a small pair of glasses. Despite a few physical changes, there is no way he could be mistaken for anyone else. His focus and confidence were as unwavering as ever. There might have been a few extra creases in his face, but that didn’t blunt the look of determination he always seemed to carry. His chess was topsy-turvy by his standards, though he still managed many fine wins, and he finished in third behind Nakamura and So. 

Despite his best years being behind him, it was clear he could still compete with today’s top dogs, and I didn’t find watching him play to be any less of a thrill.

It’s now the summer of 2017. A big announcement is made in early July: Garry Kasparov will come out of retirement and receive a wildcard to play in the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz, one of the stops on the Grand Chess Tour.  This will pit the former world champion against nine of the strongest players in the world in nine rounds of rapid and 18 of blitz. 

There is no doubt in my mind that last year’s exhibition stoked the fire in his belly somewhat and that spurred him to the decision to play in this event. Does this mean he’ll crush everyone and come out of retirement permanently? I doubt it. I do think he’ll compete well, and that he might decide to play a few events a year until he decides enough is enough. Whatever happens, I’ll certainly be following on grandchesstour.org as Kasparov sits at the chessboard. If you are in St. Louis from August 14-19, I suggest you visit the Chess Club and Scholastic Center to do the same.  

Josh Friedel began playing chess at the age of three and entered his first tournament at just six years old.  Friedel received the IM title at 18 and proceeded to earn the grand master title at 22. He is a three-time New Hampshire State Champion, as well as a two-time California State Champion. Friedel has played in six U.S. Championships and won the U.S. Open Championship is 2013. The Saint Louis Chess Club welcomes Friedel as a regular grand master in residence.