Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov Fights the World’s Dictators
Garry Kasparov, often considered the greatest chess player of all time, sees life as a battle between opposites: good and evil, or freedom and totalitarianism.
Upon retiring from chess in 2005, Kasparov dedicated himself to an all-out war with whomever he considers as belonging to the “forces of evil”—for instance, totalitarian regimes like China, Iran, and North Korea, which threaten the “forces of good.”
In Kasparov’s view, the greatest enemy of the free world is Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the subject of his 2015 book, “Winter Is Coming.” From Kasparov’s perspective, there is no gray area: If you don’t belong to the good side, you must therefore belong to the “Dark Side.”
In 2011, Kasparov succeeded the late Vaclav Havel as head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. From that bastion, Kasparov looks to fight for the forces of freedom and human rights, bringing to the battle a strategic sense finely honed as a chess grandmaster and world chess champion.
The Dark Side of the Force
From an early age, Kasparov revealed his character as a battler.
At the age of 17, Kasparov joined a world competition tour with the Soviet Union chess team. During a stopover in Rome, while the rest of the team went for a tour of the Vatican, young Kasparov decided to go watch “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”
One scene in the film was etched in Kasparov’s memory, when master Yoda guides Luke Skywalker and tells him: “Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force.” This advice seemed to Kasparov to be futile and annoying. He thinks young Skywalker should have taken a different road: take uncompromising, aggressive initiative against Darth Vader, the enemy, in order to save his friends.
This, in a nutshell, is Kasparov’s philosophy in chess and life. “I believe, both in chess and in life, in what I call ‘the advantage of the attacker.’ To be aggressive and taking the battle to your opponent. This is a good thing not only because it usually works, but also because you then learn something when it doesn’t,” he told me.
“Losing passively teaches you very little about the situation or about yourself. You learn only by doing, by trying, by taking risks. How do you know if you can climb a mountain or start a new company or do anything unless you take the risk? What will you learn by not trying? Nothing.”
In chess, to be able to dictate the pace to his opponents, Kasparov subjected himself to a rigorous training regimen. He used to investigate deeply many openings of the game, and to always set new challenges for himself, so as not to stop making progress.
That training has given Kasparov the conceptual tools for thinking about politics.
Epoch Times: If you were playing chess against Putin, how would you describe his game-playing philosophy?
Garry Kasparov: “Putin isn’t a chess player at all. He’s a poker player. Chess is a completely transparent game—both players know all the information all the time. That’s not how Putin operates. He’s a KGB guy to his core, and keeps as much hidden as possible; just like in poker, most of the cards are secret and you can bluff even if you have a bad hand.
“Reading your opponent is no less important than calculating the odds of your success. The leaders of the free world have much better ‘cards’ than he–militarily and economically–but Putin bluffs with bad cards and gets them to fold.”
Kasparov claims that Putin is an “opportunistic tactician”—someone who jumps from place to place and causes trouble in order to advance his interests. Thus, for example he tried to interfere in Syria to cause a wave of migrants that would weaken the European Union—the main threat to his rule and influence, claimed Kasparov.
“The problem today is that the countries of the free world wait passively and react hastily to Putin’s moves, playing tactically as well, but slowly and weakly,” he said.
Discussing the free world’s passive tactics, Kasparov makes an analogy to the laws of physics. “Just like energy cannot be destroyed, power can also not be [destroyed]: Once the U.S. for example leaves [a certain region], others will enter and act there; like Putin, Assad, and Iran, who yearn to take the power in the Middle East that the U.S. has willingly given away.”
Epoch Times: Why do you think a passive strategy that “doesn’t take sides” is wrong?
Mr. Kasparov: “Some enemies are worth having. Staying neutral in a fight between good and evil means evil will win. We are seeing that very clearly today. The Global Freedom Index has declined for nine consecutive years, and a big part of that is because the former champion of global freedom and democracy, the United States, has declared itself to be a neutral party, a passive observer.
“Thus, aggressor states have quickly stepped into the power vacuum. Neutrality may keep your soldiers safer in the short run, but it will make the world far less safe in the long run. All the battles the free world is trying to avoid now, from Ukraine to Syria, will result in harder, more deadly battles later.
“In chess, we say that the side with the initiative is obliged to attack or the advantage will pass to the opponent. That is, you have to press your advantage or lose it. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the free world has had a huge initiative in every way—militarily, economically, culturally. But they decided to celebrate, instead of using that initiative to press the world’s remaining dictatorships to change. Now we are paying the price for that complacency.”
Epoch Times: As part of your battle against dictatorships, you’ve reached North Korea’s border and released a balloon with pamphlets that were meant to wake the North Koreans up to the reality of their situation. But it is a known fact that North Korea is only an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. Don’t you think that strategically, to resolve the North Korean problem from the root, one first has to deal with the Chinese Communist Party?
Mr. Kasparov: “My battle with North Korea is one battle in a larger war. It is always important to do whatever one can anyplace. Strategically, a frontal assault on your enemy’s strongest point only rarely succeeds. One must look for points of vulnerability and to press where one can. The fall of the cruel North Korean regime would be a painful loss to the communist rulers of China. I also see Hong Kong, a place with a tradition of democracy, as another potential point of vulnerability of the Chinese regime.”
In 2013, Kasparov was having lunch with David Keyes, then executive director of the NGO Advancing Human Rights, who was appointed this March as the prime minister of Israel’s spokesman to foreign media.
Keyes made it his mission to annoy the world’s dictatorial regimes. He has already had the privilege to star in angry Facebook posts by the Iranian foreign minister, after embarrassing him at a luncheon by asking him there about a political prisoner in Iran.
“Every crack counts. Each time I annoy a dictatorial regime a little bit, it is another crack, and then another,” Keyes said in an interview with the Epoch Times in November 2014. “I think the West is hesitant due to insecurity about the values of the free world, insecurity in our enormous might, and our lack of discernment between good and evil—democracy and dictatorship.”
An interesting idea came out of the meeting between Kasparov and Keyes. Kasparov reminded Keyes that in 1984 the name of the street in Washington, D.C., where the Soviet Embassy was located was changed to Sakharov Plaza, after human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Following this move, the Soviet Union permitted Sakharov and his wife to return to Moscow after many years of exile.
Keyes was enthusiastic, and together with Kasparov they published an article in The Wall Street Journal. “Every time the Soviets entered or left their embassy, they were reminded of the human cost of their tyranny,” they wrote. “This simple but inspired congressional measure helped put human rights at the center of the U.S.-Soviet relationship.”
At that meeting we “chose targets,” Keyes said during an interview with the Epoch Times. “We wanted to begin with the least democratic countries, like China, Russia, Syria, and Iran.” This led to a proposal to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to name the street where the Chinese Embassy is located after a Chinese dissident.
I ask Kasparov if he and Keyes have chosen additional targets. “The idea is to do it with every nondemocratic country that persecutes those who oppose it: Russia, China, Arab countries, and North African dictatorships,” Kasparov said. “Though this is only a symbolic act, symbolism is usually a very important thing in ideological wars.”
Epoch Times: Andrei Sakharov said that moral foreign policy also turns out to be the most effective. He claimed that preserving values and principles is an effective long-term policy, while selective and hypocritical application of morality and principles leads to confusion and poor results. What do you think about his position?
Mr. Kasparov: “This insight is as true today as it was in the Cold War. Sacrificing a moral position for political comity and realpolitik almost always turns out to be for temporary gains at best, to be a castle built on sand. If you have a strong and clear stance, your allies and your enemies know where you stand and what to expect. Hypocrisy and ‘flexibility’ in morality confuses allies and emboldens enemies. It also leads to inconsistent policy, swinging back and forth from one extreme to another without the guiding principles of national values and mission, as has happened in the West since the end of the Cold War.”
Epoch Times: Can you give an example?
Mr. Kasparov: “The best example of applying a moral foreign policy successfully was Ronald Reagan’s relationship with the Soviet Union. He openly criticized the Soviet leadership for human rights abuses and demanded change. Meanwhile, he sympathized with the Soviet people, supporting us morally against our rulers instead of demonizing us as enemies.
“Reagan would deal with Gorbachev as necessary but would not concede anything, and he never forgot to put the list of political prisoners on the table. This is what brought down the Iron Curtain and the USSR as much as economic stagnation. Had the West had leaders who were weaker, they would have made deals and compromises with Gorbachev in exchange for small concessions that would have extended the life of the USSR for years, maybe decades.”
I remind Kasparov that when he lost in chess to IBM’s Deep Blue, he said, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and began to develop variations of chess games for computers. I ask him in jest—if it’s such a good strategy, why not join Putin?
Kasparov doesn’t like the question. “This is a nonsensical comparison. Humans can compete against machines, and humans can work together with machines as tools. There is no moral factor in play here, only methods of work and performance.
“I invented ‘Advanced Chess’ in 1998 to see if humans playing together with computer assistance would play the best chess possible. It was a fascinating and educational experience that lasted for many years in the chess community, with revealing results for what I call ‘human + machine’ collaboration.
“But joining a dictator after ‘losing’ to him would simply be moral capitulation. There is no partnership with dictators, nothing to learn or to improve. Obviously simplifying, but ‘good’ is individual freedom and anything that infringes on it is ‘bad.’
“Democracy is sometimes messy, yes, and the free market inevitably produces some inequality. But both, in combination, provide the best path for peace and prosperity we have yet discovered.”
This article was originally published by Epoch Times Israel. It has been translated from Hebrew and edited for length and style.