Life’s Work: An Interview with Garry Kasparov | Harvard Business Review


Garry Kasparov was the world’s top chess player for 20 years. Trained in the Soviet system, he’s become a mentor to younger players, an ardent promoter of the sport, and a vocal critic of corruption in both the World Chess Federation and the Russian government.

What can people in business learn from the best chess players?

In chess, soccer, baseball, business, politics—God forbid, war—we make decisions. Some are good, some not so good. The way to improve is to look back and analyze them. Many people think that if something worked yesterday and is still working today, it will work tomorrow. That’s wrong, because people on the losing side will come up with a new strategy. I stayed on top for 20 years because I knew that even if you win, there are things to learn. There’s no such thing as a perfect game. Not resting on your laurels is a very important lesson.

How do you analyze your opponents?

In chess, it’s easy. You look at their games in the same way you do your own: He does this, he does that, he likes this, he doesn’t like that. Even if two champions are roughly at the same level, there are certain positions where one feels more comfortable. So you use your opening strategy to push your opponent into uncomfortable territory.

What has helped you more—natural aptitude or practice and preparation?

Without natural aptitude, you wouldn’t go anywhere. But working hard is also part of talent. Always trying to be at the cutting edge of chess was important to me. I wanted not just to win the game or impress my opponent but also to make sure I was learning something.

How did your early rivalry with Anatoly Karpov help you?

To discover what you’re capable of, you need strong—or even better—opponents. It’s like an iron in the fire: When pressed at a very high temperature, it either breaks or turns into steel. The first match with Karpov wasn’t just long. I was trailing five to nil, so he needed only one game to finish me off. I survived, and eventually it was five to three. Karpov got really exhausted psychologically, so they stopped the match. I demonstrated to myself and to others that I had huge resources. I learned that everything was in my hands.

What advice do you give the people you coach?

There’s this conventional wisdom that it’s possible to give universal advice—a tip. But we’re all different. Your decision-making process is as unique as your fingerprints or your DNA. Something that works for you may be counterproductive for me. So you have to look inside. Some of us are more aggressive; some of us are more defensive. Some tennis players prefer to stay on the back line; some have a very powerful serve and rush the net. Both can be number one. You have to understand who you are, know what you’re capable of and what you’re not, and then try to construct a game—or a deal or a campaign—in which your superior qualities will be factors and your disadvantages will not be displayed. Remember that no matter how much time you spend in preparation, at the end of the day your key decisions will be made under time pressure, which means you’ll act on your gut feelings. If you’re defensive, you won’t be able to make an attacking move. At the climax you don’t go against your nature. So make sure to play your own game. The person who’s more skillful in creating the right environment will be triumphant.

How do you decide whom to coach?

The first was Magnus Carlsen. As he was on the rise, I was quite impressed by his abilities. It was a joy to work with him, because his playing style is more like Karpov’s. He’s a more intuitive, strategic player, while I’m more tactical and aggressive. It was good for him, because he learned how to look at the position through my eyes. I also worked with Hikaru Nakamura, the best American player, for a year—that was fun—and twice a year I do sessions through my foundation with the best U.S. kids ages 10 to 16. In the Soviet Chess School I benefited from lessons from Mikhail Botvinnik, and I think it’s still important for young players to hear from great players of the past. You can’t learn by just looking at a computer screen and pushing buttons or moving the mouse. You also need to hear a human explanation of the nature of the game, the rationale of certain openings, the ideas behind the moves. Everybody has access to the same computers. So if you want to be at the cutting edge, you have to use your human qualities.

After your loss to IBM’s Deep Blue, you tried computer-assisted chess. What did those games teach you about effective collaboration between man and machine?

The brute force of calculation isn’t enough—human intuition is an integral part of successful decision making. Chess provides an ideal field for this experiment. You can play many, many games to figure out the best form of cooperation.

You retired at the height of your chess career. Why?

It was all about making a difference. What else could I do for the game of chess? Win a few more tournaments? Play for a few more years? There were many changes in my life at the time—I got married, we were starting a new life, I’d been building my career as a speaker, I had a book coming out—so for me it was like a global transition. I felt my energy could be used more productively on something other than simply playing chess.

Your opposition to Vladimir Putin has left you in exile. Why do you persist?

I’m critical of any dictatorship, and his is the most dangerous: one man who wants to stay in power forever, has nuclear weapons, and is staking his popularity on foreign aggression. There isn’t the balanced bureaucratic cushion you see in China, where there’s an interest against very dramatic policy shifts. I had no choice but to leave Russia in 2013. House arrest was probably the best scenario I could have hoped for. But I believe I can do a lot by publishing articles, speaking out, giving interviews. Putin is no longer a Russian problem. He’s a global problem.

Turning to a different kind of politics, you recently lost a bid to become president of the World Chess Federation. What did you learn from that experience?

Unfortunately, we cannot depart from Putin, because right now the Kremlin controls the Federation. The institution has 182 national branches and leaders that act like emissaries—visiting world leaders, talking about some chess projects, but at the end of the day, doing something for Putin. I thought that we could reform the organization, depoliticize and decentralize it, and make it more of a giant social network, with chess for education as its key project. But fighting Putin’s machine was an uphill battle. Officials from every Russian embassy were mobilized to court votes against me. I tried because I believe that chess deserves better leadership.

Original Article

Alison Beard is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.


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