An Interview with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov

13th February 2017

Garry Kasparov became the the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985, at the age of 22. Now a prominent activist for more democracy in Russia, he is also the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

Do you think that NATO is obsolete now that the Cold War is over?
Absolutely not, and keep in mind the Cold War ended over 25 years ago. But NATO is more relevant today than it’s been in a long time. Even before Putin became a clear and present military threat when he invaded Ukraine in 2014, NATO was important on a practical basis and a symbolic one. Even without the existential enemy of the USSR, fighting terror, for example, is done far better collectively, sharing information and coordinating action the way NATO can do so well thanks to so many decades of collaboration. Note that Putin presses on NATOs borders, in Ukraine, in Syria next to NATO member Turkey, to put stress on the weakest links in NATO and to attempt to discredit it.

What is your opinion of Trump’s Russian ties? How do you think they could influence foreign policy?
What we know for sure is very troubling, that many of his advisors have had contact with Russian officials and then lied about it repeatedly, and that the one area where Trump has been consistent is his defense of Putin. But the biggest problem is what we don’t know, especially because Trump won’t release his taxes. Without knowing the extent of his empire’s financial connections to Russia, we don’t know if he’s compromised, enriching himself, anything. This means we don’t know to what degree US foreign policy is also compromised. We can only watch very carefully to see if all this leads to policy, such as lifting sanctions against Putin for annexing Crimea. Obviously it’s distressing that so many of the key people working in US foreign policy have extensive connections with Putin and his oligarchs, including Secretary of State Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
[See also Mr Karsparov’s Daily News op-ed:]

Do you think that the international community’s response to Russian aggression has been proportional?
In a way, yes, but this is a problem. It has been slow and well below the level required to actually deter Putin. That’s really the point, that deterrence isn’t about responding proportionately after the fact. The idea, which worked for decades in preventing a major conflict between the US and USSR, is to make it clear that aggression will be met with a severe, disproportionately severe, response. If the aggressor can make a calculation that it’s worth it, as Putin has done repeatedly, you end up in a cycle of perpetual escalation.

Do you see Syria as a possible flashpoint for conflict between Russia and the West?
It already is, in how Putin and Assad have weaponized the flow of refugees against Europe and also the US. It shows very well how problems can escalate and have unintended consequences even if you refuse to act. Especially if you refuse to act, in fact. Direct military confrontations aren’t the only way to have a serious, even deadly, conflict, as the disinformation war, cyberwarfare, etc. show us.

For how long do you think Putin will remain as President of Russia?
Until he can no longer guarantee the fortunes of the people around him. That has always been the equation. As soon as they think they have more to gain by removing him, despite the risk, they will.

How much do you think the skills one learns playing chess are transferable to politics?
[From the Vox interview with Mr Kasparov:] I used to joke that chess was terrible preparation for politics in Putin’s Russia because in chess we have fixed rules and uncertain results, but in Putin’s elections it’s exactly the opposite. But for personal development, chess developed my ability to plan, to look for connections, to find weak spots, to see the big picture.

Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
Don’t limit yourself by your age! Read what you enjoy, what interests you and inspires you, not what adults say you should read, or expect you to read. Read broadly to increase the chance of finding new things you enjoy. Locking in on one genre or author or category is bad, both for kids and adults. This doesn’t mean only reading difficult things, or “serious” books like non-fiction at all. Fiction is just as capable of opening our minds to the ways the world works as any non-fiction.

What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
Life is about finding new challenges and making difference. If you aren’t learning something new every day, having your ideas challenged every day, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.

What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
I was already one of the top players in the world while still a teen, so my experience wasn’t exactly normal. But when I was young I was taught the importance of discipline and work ethic, and how closely correlated they are to success. Brilliance is a gift, but so is the ability to keep at something, to outwork everyone else.

Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
I didn’t really have a stereotypical childhood, but this isn’t something I lament. I don’t feel cheated or like I grew up distorted because I was playing in the Soviet championship instead of goofing off with friends. I had very rare opportunities for a Soviet youth; to travel, especially. But there were also far fewer opportunities for diversion for a teenager in Baku in 1979 than in 2017 London!

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met, and why?
I’ve been privileged to have met with many fascinating people, from world leaders to sports stars, celebrities, authors, philosophers, and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. And there are many other individuals I have met who I admire for their moral or intellectual capacity, such as Natan Sharansky. But of course accomplishments do not always make someone interesting, which you can define as sparking your humor, curiosity and respect. And in this there is no contest, it is my wife, Dasha!

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