When Garry Kasparov sat down to play his old rival Anatoly Karpov in Valencia last night, more than 100 journalists turned up to witness two chess giants stepping back into the ring.

Twenty five years after Kasparov and Karpov had fought the first of an epic series of five world championship contests, the first lasting five months, the great rivals were at it again. Yet no one seemed to wonder why the Valencia matches between the two Russians would last just three days.

In fact, what the world has been watching is the chess version of cricket dragging legendary figures such as Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist out of retirement to play some well remunerated 20/20 games. (Oh, that’s already happened?)

The Valencia match turns out to be made up of four one-hour games — chess’ equivalent of one-day cricket — and eight blitz (10-minute) games — chess’ version of 20/20.

The Guardian has been liveblogging the events.

Logically, the 2009 anniversary contest would have been held in Moscow — the venue for the first K-K match — but Kasparov’s position as an opposition leader in Russia ensured that no sponsor or venue would dare upset the ruling regime and promote such an event. (Even now, parts of the Russian press is using the Valencia match against Kasparov, implying that he is a dilettante politician who could return to chess any time.)

To compensate for the lack of consequence of the 2009 contest — in which, as expected, Kasparov has dominated to date — reporters are regaling readers with stories about the good old days, when Kasparov and Karpov were kings.

And, as usual when general reporters try their hand at covering chess and chess specialists try to explain chess’ political significance, facts tend go out of the window.

Yes, Kasparov and Karpov were two of the best players of all time and their five world title matches, running from 1984 until 1990, featured great imagination, plus extraordinary determination and stamina. Add to that the series of close finishes and theirs was ultimately recognised as one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time.

And yes, there was a political dimension, especially in the later contests, with Karpov having the support of the old communist hierarchy in the Soviet Union, while the young and brash Kasparov, hailing from Baku, Azerbaijan, was seen as something of an outsider.

However, that is no excuse for the London Times’ chess columnist Raymond Keene writing that in 1984, at the time of the first K-K match, “the 21-year-old title aspirant was an open advocate of the new theories of perestroika [restructuring] and glasnost [openness] which ultimately led to the reform of Russia and the break-up of the Soviet Empire”.

Unfortunately for Keene, the 1984 match was controversially terminated in late January 1985 after five months and 48 games, four weeks before the death of President Konstantin Chernenko ushered in the Mikhail Gorbachev era — and the word perestroika almost certainly didn’t feature in Gorbachev’s first address to the Politburo.

Reuters managed to make an even greater hash of the story, explaining that it had taken 25 years to bring Kasparov and Karpov together after the aborted 1984 match — somehow forgetting about the 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1990 world title matches, let alone a 2002 exhibition match.

Enjoying the first two games last night, including a spectacular finish by Kasparov in his second victory, I feel as if am watching a band such as the Rolling Stones live. Much as it is fun to see legends going through their paces, one can only look back to the time and remember when they could really rock and roll …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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