Jennifer Blogs on Kasparov's Philly Visit Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
October 25, 2007
Kasparov at Philadelphia's Free Library. Photo J Shahade
The most prominent theme of Garry's Kasparov's new book, How Life Imitates Chess is that leaving your comfort zone is crucial to success and constant development. This explains in part why Kasparov had to leave chess: he couldn't find his way out of a comfort zone. 
 Despite his legendarily ego, Kasparov's current tone in both writing and speaking is more about reaching the audience than in outlining his own successes. Sometimes it feels like he is restraining himself. On October 19, I heard Kasparov talk about his book at the Free Library in Philadelphia. He was introduced by an area chess coach who mispronounced his last name so badly (something like Kasnara) that eyes widened and jaws dropped throughout the room. Garry came up to the stage and didn't mention it: "It's always funny to get introduced and hear some new things about my biography." He added charitably, "But this one was good actually."

Kasparov gives some advice before his book talk.

Kasparov talked and wrote about how polarizing hard work and talent into two distinct categories is wrong. In Garry's view, the ability to work hard is a talent. I recall that Susan Polgar said something very similar in a 2004 Women's Olympic chess training session. However, I do believe that there are aspects of chess talent that cannot be reduced to dilligence, and when Kasparov tries to describe these, he's not as successful. For instance, on his amazing Queen sacrifice against Alexei Shirov in Tilburg 1997, he writes:

Position after 26.Rh4

Before I resigned myself to the seemingly inevitable queen move, I took a deep breath and surveyed the rest of the board. As with so many fantasy moves, this one started with a mental, 'Wouldn't it be nice if…'... So instead of picking up my queen, my hand lifted my king and moved it a single square toward the center of the board… Fantasy must be backed up by sober evaluation and calculation or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

As much as I love the incredible move Kasparov played in the position above (Ke7!!, allowing Rc4), I can't say I find the above explanation very enlightening.

Some of my favorite chapters were "Strategy and Tactics at Work", in which Kasparov analyzes some of Churchill's major military decisions and underlines the importance of confidence in your own thought process. In "Exchanges and Imbalances," Kasparov analyzes the Microsoft/Netscape battles, the aol/Time Warner merge and admits that launching the PCA in 1993 was a mistake.

 On the importance of failure on the road to success, Kasparov pointed out that even he is fallible: "I've won hundreds of games in my career, but I've also lost dozens." I thought this was a brilliant way to be modest and immodest in the same sentence. Not many of us can claim such a ratio, unless we've been limiting ourselves to tournaments against players rated 500 points lower.
My main gripe is that at 200 pages, How Life Imitates Chess felt even shorter because I usually skipped or skimmed layman's descriptions of chess terms as well as familiar stories or anecdotes. I was particularly craving more personal material in the chapter on the "Crisis Point," in which Kasparov analyzes the oft-quoted story about how JFK observed that the Chinese character for Crisis includes characters for Danger and Opportunity.

Kasparov explained in his talk that the British, Russian and American versions of How Life Imitates Chess were all very different. Countries around the world chose from the three editions.  For instance, Japan chose the American and most Eastern European countries picked the Russian edition. The Russian version contained the most historical information, while the American was shorter and more focused on self-help. The British version, which I now wish I had read instead of the American, was somewhere in between.

Kasparov is hard to catch off-guard when it comes to politics. In the Q+A portion of his Philadelphia talk, Kasparov was asked about everything from Gorbachev, to the U.S. Congress's position on Turkey's reluctance to admit that the atrocities of 1915 constituted a genocide to how he could spread his democratic message to the masses in Russia, without the help of a free press.   On these and other questions, Kasparov was well prepared, eloquent and energetic.  He even treated the crowd to a concrete prediction: In 2015, Kasparov said that Turkey would become a member of the European Union and recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915. 

Despite my gripes on its length and occasional glibness, I do recommend How Life Imitates Chess. Learning to live and work better from Kasparov is different than learning from a friend, therapist or 19th century philosopher. If you're a huge Kasparov fan like me, you'll get familiar advice packaged from one of your great intellectual heroes, which will make you more likely to follow it. 

Kasparov with Mig Greengard of, who helped Garry write How Life Imitates Chess