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"Yeah, I want to make a short statement," Garry Kasparov began last week. "I think it could be sort of surprise for many of you." Whereupon possibly the best chess player in history revealed he was retiring from the game aged 41. Kasparov said that among other things he wanted to help make Russia a democracy.
In fact the statement wasn't "sort of surprise". Eighteen months ago, when I interviewed Kasparov in London, he was already a political junkie who knew his chess mind was waning.
We started badly that day when I tripped him on The Strand. Though it was an accident, he glared at me over his flat boxer's nose. You did not want to be across a chessboard from this guy. Later we settled on the sofas of Home House, a mansion on Portman Square, where Kasparov drank Earl Grey tea and talked in a rapid-fire English marred only by a Russian tendency to mislay articles.
He told me his mental powers were waning. "Absolutely! Obviously you're losing concentration with age." It didn't seem to bother him. Already he was turning his energies elsewhere. While remaining the world's number one in chess, Kasparov followed politics so minutely that he could profile individual Moldovan politicians.
But when talking politics, he kept using the phrase "the big picture". Chess helped him see the big picture, he said. "In chess if you make the wrong assessment of the big picture you are wiped out." Most politicians, though, couldn't see the big picture. They got distracted by detail.
What exactly did Kasparov mean by "big picture"? "The big picture is the Middle East conflict, European constitution, Russia. It's not Africa."
Further probing revealed that "the big picture" entailed seeing the world as a sort of chessboard. The issue wasn't losing the odd pawn. It was winning the game. "The freedom", as Kasparov called it, played with white. Facing it across the board was dictatorship: communism, fascism, Islamic fundamentalism. To win, you had to crunch lots of data, as in chess.
In short, Kasparov sounded like a neo-conservative. He said: "I am a scientist, a political scientist. I cannot be a politician because I am not flexible." And, he might have added, because he struggles to hide his impatience with us humans.
I asked how growing up in Baku had shaped his thinking. "Everything I learned from my relatives was very non-complimentary for communism, and I had very lively brains. I could absorb the information. So I was already involved in political debate, but at very passive level, because I had to fight for my chess survival, I had to be officially a good boy, and I had some strange views that eventually Russia could change."
Did he still believe that? The problem now, he said, was that Vladimir Putin's people couldn't leave the Kremlin because they had used it to enrich themselves. If they lost power, they would lose their businesses.
Soon after this interview Kasparov helped found the liberal Free Choice 2008 committee, which aims to oust Putin's people in the next elections. Despite being a half-Jewish Armenian born in Azerbaijan, he had wedded himself to Russia's future.
"Look, it's still my house," he sighed. "I'm not a big fan of Moscow climate, I was born on the seaside. But you don't select your country. If you have any hopes of having impact on the life of your country, you must stay there. At some point I established the principle: I will leave the country only if I'm forced."
The question is how much impact a mere chess genius can have in contemporary Russia. A Mexican soap star might do better. Do Muscovites still play chess in the park? "No, it's definitely not a national habit any more, because country's busy. People are busy making money. Now there's too much information available, so it's: 'Who cares?' It's no longer Kasparov playing Karpov. It's no longer the match of utmost importance."
At the end we talked chess. What had been Kasparov's zenith? "Probably my best day was this second simultaneous match against the Israeli national team. I beat them 4-0. Four very strong grandmasters, and each game I played off my original strengths. So I would assume that this day was the day of my greatness. The masterpiece, you know, needs hand of God. I remember certain games I played in my life, great games, and I was very, very ecstatic before the game. I sensed that there's a great energy. Unfortunately it was some time ago."
He said he hoped people would remember him. They will, but probably only for his chess.
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