Thank you everyone. My thanks to President Pestello for having me here, the first commencement for both of us. It is an honor to be speaking to you all, and to receive my honorary doctorate from Saint Louis University. That is especially true considering the two other honorees here today, Anita Lyons Bond and Gene Kranz. There could be no better examples of the power of dreams, values, and courage that I am here to talk about. And thank you, Rex [Sinquefield], for that flattering introduction. However, he omitted one
important fact about me; that I was born in the Deep South, right next to Georgia. That is, in the Deep South of the Soviet Union, at the shores of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, right next to the Republic of Georgia. I hope you can understand my Southern accent!
I also hope you have read about the USSR in history books. It is an odd feeling to think that most of you were not yet alive when the country I was born in ceased to exist in 1991. It’s always difficult to explain what it was like to be born and raised in a totalitarian country to those who have enjoyed the fruits of freedom and democracy from birth. To make a modern metaphor, I would say it was like being the only kid on the block whose family doesn’t have internet or television and your parents keep telling you how lucky you are not to have those things.
I have been visiting St. Louis frequently in recent years, as the city has become the world capital of chess, leading the way in education and at the competitive level. This is actually restoring an old tradition. You might not know that St. Louis hosted the first official world chess championship, back in 1886. It’s a great pleasure to be here for today’s special occasion, and to finally find out what a Billiken is.
When I was a little boy, growing up in Baku, my mother told me I could become the world chess champion someday. I don’t know if anyone else believed her, but I believed her. Years later, the sports authorities in the Soviet Union told me that I was a troublemaker, and that I could not become the world chess champion. Well, in 1985 I did become world champion, and this taught me the first important lesson I wish to share with you all today: listen to your mother!
Six years after that, the Soviet Union and all of its sports authorities ceased to exist while my mother is still going strong. And she is still telling me what I am capable of – and to eat my vegetables. Everyone will tell you to believe in yourself, and this of course is true. Only you can decide your course and only you can make it happen. But you must also listen to those who believe in you and to take strength from their love and from their support. Often they remind us to aim high, higher than you might aim on your own, especially when you are young. I am quite sure that if you all accomplish what your mothers believe you can accomplish, that this will be the most successful graduating class in the history of the world.
And for those of you who lost a parent or parents at a young age, as I lost my father when I was seven, your achievement here today reflects a special kind of strength. We are all shaped by absence as well as by presence.
By the way, as soon as this is over I have to hurry to New York for the graduation of my eldest daughter, Polina. And so, congratulations as well to all my fellow parents of graduates. Well done, parents! We did it!
When I won the world championship in 1985 I was 22 years old and it was the greatest day of my life. I imagine today is a similar feeling for many of you. You are young, you are strong, and you have a long-time goal in your hands.
On that day in 1985, a strange thing happened. I was standing there on the stage, still with my flowers and my medal, the happiest person in the world, when I was approached by Rona Petrosian, the widow of a former world chess champion from the 60s, Tigran Petrosian. I was expecting another warm congratulations, but she had something else in mind. “Young man,” she said, “I feel sorry for you.” What? Sorry for me? Sorry for me? The youngest world champion in history, on top of the world? “I feel sorry for you,” she continued, “because the happiest day of your life is over.”