The Struggles of Garry Kasparov

In 1986, when Jack Nicklaus won the Masters golf tournament at age 46, it was hard for us to understand what all the fuss was about. Sure, he made history, becoming the oldest player to win one of the four “majors.” But he was a lifelong athlete doing what he did best. Golf is a non-contact sport. Why couldn’t he triumph over much younger, less experienced competitors?

We were in our twenties then, and the inevitable indignities of aging had yet to take residence in our consciousness.

Flash-forward more than 30 years. Last week, the Greatest Chess Player of All Time, Mr. Garry Kasparov, whose World Championship pedigree and decades-long #1 ranking are unrivaled, came out of retirement after 12 years to play in a professional tournament in St. Louis, against some of the strongest Grandmasters in the world. The games were rapid (25 minutes per player) and blitz (5 minutes per player), formats popularized and conquered by younger generations raised on computers and video games. The classical game is normally 100 minutes or more. Speculation abounded: Why did Garry choose this format, this event to make his dramatic return to competition? Turns out he has a new online class he’s selling. In the promo, he can be seen telling a student fretting over a move, “time is precious.”

He’s right. And he proved it.

Garry Kasparov still possesses the intense stare  and radiant charisma that for more than 20 years cowed opponents before a single move was made. He still knows more about chess than almost any human in history. He’s still the boss.

But he’s also 54. And out of practice. And playing against fellows 30 years his junior who do almost nothing but play and study chess, sometimes in games as short as 1 minute.

Many of us in the 50+ demographic — and many outside of it — were rooting hard for Garry to transcend his age and rust, to transform himself into “The Beast from Baku.” Alas: time.

Game after game, Garry Kasparov sat at the board and thought while his clock ticked. In many games, when a clear position was finally reached after the opening, Garry had less than a minute to play the rest of his moves while the other guy often had more than three or four. He played beautifully, powerfully. But too slowly.

He finished 8th in the 10-player field.  (The second-oldest player, former World Champion Vishy Anand, 47, finished 9th.) He swore this tournament was a one-off anomaly, a lark. He stressed that he wasn’t returning to competitive professional chess. “Almost every game I had a moment of paralysis, a blind spot,” he explained. “Too much pressure. Too much to learn.” He stressed that this was not an official comeback, merely a way to help bring attention to the Grand Chess Tour, and the city of St. Louis (and his online class).

“Please come back, Garry!” the fans cheered. Kasparov smiled and shook his head. He already was back.

Just older.

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