Chess grandmaster Kasparov talks masterclass, Israel, Queen's Gambit

“It’s not simply me giving you tips. It’s presenting my best games.” * “It is far more, I would say, kosher, for Israel to deal with these Gulf countries than with Putin.”

Chessmaster Garry Kasparov. (photo credit: Kasparovchess.com)
Chessmaster Garry Kasparov.
(photo credit: Kasparovchess.com)

Garry Kasparov is considered to be one of the greatest chess players ever and in a recent wide-ranging interview with the Syrian-born American journalist Hayvi Bouzo and Benjamin Weinthal, Kasparov covered his new chess masterclass series, The Queen’s Gambit Netflix series, Israel and power politics across the Middle East and in Russia. These are edited extracts of that interview. 

HB: I want to start with the chess masterclass series that you began. It’s a new series. Tell us more about it and what makes this series different?  

GK: The masterclass was launched a couple of weeks ago. It’s a part of the Kasparovchess.com platform that I launched together with a leading French company in this area, [global media conglomerate] Vivendi.  

The idea of the platform is to focus on education helping people to learn about the game, and combining this with entertainment, with strong personal elements. There are many chess platforms, but we want to put our efforts into presenting chess from a different angle. There are more than a thousand lessons recorded by top players and coaches. There is a story behind each one and, of course, my masterclass is on the top of this pyramid.  

I did one masterclass nearly five years ago, but that was a very classical one. It’s still available online so you can look at the games. It was constructed as a teaching process: Garry Kasparov tells you what to do and what not to do, how to study chess. 

Chessmaster Garry Kasparov. (credit: Kasparovchess.com)Chessmaster Garry Kasparov. (credit: Kasparovchess.com)

This one is very different because it’s much more personal. It’s not simply me giving you tips. It’s telling you the story of my life, presenting my best games and even talking about general topics like how to make decisions and how this experience will help you analyze your decision-making process. And of course, it’s filled with chess advice. I hope it will attract a vast audience. An audience that was brought into the world of chess because of The Queen’s Gambit [Netflix miniseries]. A lot of people who knew about chess but never thought about playing the game, and all of the sudden they discovered it, and hopefully, my masterclass will make them even more interested in our beloved game. 

HB: You mentioned an important point about the generational question in regard to playing chess. What are the age groups that you are trying to attract to this masterclass?  

GK: I think it’s oriented to more grown-up players because of the personal elements. I think it’s for teenagers and adults and they can easily share it with their kids. There are nearly 10 hours of recordings, 55 episodes. There is no way you can exhaust the interest of the public in the game of chess in 10 hours of recording.  

HB: You were a consultant for Netflix’s hit series The Queen’s Gambit. Tell us more about your involvement and how much did they consult with you on the content of this series?   

GK:I was invited to meet [writer, director and executive producer] Scott Frank and his producer and Bruce Pandolfini, an American chess coach, a famous chess coach who was one of the consultants on the movie, at a restaurant on the Upper West Side, and originally they offered me to play the [fictitious] Russian [World] Chess Champion Vasily Borgov. It was tempting but it would have taken at least three months of my time. I couldn’t afford that, so maybe I made a mistake. 

I was there with my wife, Dasha, and to make the offer even sweeter, they offered to have her play Borgov’s wife in the movie. We looked at each other and said, ‘Sorry, Scott, we don’t think we can afford to carve out so much time.’ I was very upset, visibly upset, but then we talked about the series and about the book. 

An illustration photo shows the logo of Netflix, the American provider of on-demand internet streaming media. (credit: REUTERS)An illustration photo shows the logo of Netflix, the American provider of on-demand internet streaming media. (credit: REUTERS)

By the way, it’s a great book, Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit. And by the way, he was a great writer. I said, ‘Look, I can be very helpful if I become a consultant.’ I said I can try to actually compose games, because Scott had the idea of using very close shots to show chess. And I basically did the chess plot, including something I was very proud of, the last game. 

HB: One last point about your consultancy to the series, I read that you suggested a change to one of the scenes where the chess champion from the Soviet Union travels outside of the country with his family, and you made them change it.  

GK: The KGB agents in the series were not in the book. So this is something that I added to the script and I think that made it more realistic. Because for Soviet players to travel with family and leave the country – which was quite exceptional – was impossible without full KGB coverage. I also suggested the dialogue in the elevator – a very important scene – that Beth [Harmon, the miniseries’ protagonist] overheard because she knew some Russian. So she was in the back of the elevator and Borgov spoke to this KGB agent about her, and they were dismissive: “We will handle her in Moscow,” he said. “No, it’s not easy, because she is like us, she is an orphan. Losing is not an option.” It’s a whole scene that was composed by me. I discussed it with Scott. I said it’s very important to have this recognition by this top Soviet player about her ability to fight back. 

HB: If you allow me to jump into a different topic, Putin’s role in Syria; in 2013 you wrote in Time magazine that because Obama and other world leaders walked away from the table, Putin and Assad won the war and they will be ruling under the protection of the UN. You wrote this in 2013 and this exactly what ended up happening. How did you get to this conclusion very early on?    

GK: I know one rule: There is no vacuum. If democracies walk away, the bad guys come in. And I believe that the use of chemical weapons by [President Bashar] Assad in the early stages of the civil war in Syria was authorized by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and it was a test. A test that the free world failed… It’s an American responsibility; the free world always follows America and [president Barack] Obama’s decision to abandon his “red line” ultimatum was an open invitation to Putin. 

I said that this will have consequences beyond the Middle East, because dictators never ask “why,” they ask, “why not,” and for Putin it was just a demonstration of American weakness and lack of political will. 

By the way, back in 2008, when Putin attacked (well technically it was [then- president Dmitry] Medvedev, but for us it was clear that [then-prime minister] Putin was behind the scenes pulling the strings), and after Putin attacked Georgia, the Republic of Georgia, [in August 2008], I wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal saying that Ukraine will be next. People have often asked me: How did you predict that? 

I said it’s simple because I looked at the map. I knew that for Putin, the success of the first operation would embolden him. It will be too tempting not to go for a much bigger piece of the former Russian Empire, and obviously, Syria was a clear signal that America would not do anything. Look, if they ignore Syria, if they ignored Assad and it was an obvious case for American intervention, then why would they do something in Ukraine? 

The Crimean operation, the annexation of Crimea and then the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, came because of Putin’s newly acquired confidence that he could do whatever he wants without meeting a proper response. Sanctions, talk, lip service, he didn’t care, and unfortunately, he was right. He violated the council agreement and his own promises all the way through. As we know, Europe still depends on Russia’s gas − the German policy. And Germany is dominating [European policy]. And France joined them, so it’s all about appeasing Russia. They showed zero appetite to confront Russian aggression and now America is in total disarray. But it all started, unfortunately, with Obama’s willingness to find common ground with Putin. 

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russia President Vladimir Putin meeting, October 22, 2021.  (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russia President Vladimir Putin meeting, October 22, 2021. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

BW: On that note as you know Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was just in Russia and met with Putin. What is your assessment right now on that visit and Israel-Putin relations?  

GK: I hope that we are now moving to a new stage in Israel-Putin relations. I think it’s much better than the [Benjamin] Netanyahu-Putin relationship. I hope that it has no personal element because I think that Netanyahu’s reliance on Putin was detrimental. But I also understand that every Israeli politician, every Israeli prime minister, has very little choice but to find the best available tools to defend the State of Israel against numerous threats. Of course, Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran pose a threat that you have to deal with and the reality is that Putin is in Syria. 

The reality is that because of Obama’s foreign policy and I think because of Netanyahu’s reliance on Putin, Russian missiles control the skies of Syria and Lebanon and for the first time in history Israeli planes are no longer safe to attack terrorist targets there, and that’s why I understand why Bennett was in Sochi [to meet with Putin last month].

Again, I don’t like it, but as someone who wants Putin out of the region and someone who wants Putin out of power and knows that any international contact makes Putin stronger, [I am satisfied] as long as Bennett is not going to show up at Putin’s celebrations like Netanyahu did. As long as he is not extending this conversation into the areas that could add to Putin’s reputation both domestically and internationally, I fully understand why Bennett and [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid are playing this game, trying to secure Israel’s northern border. And I believe − though they haven’t mentioned it − that it’s about Israel’s right to continue to use force to downgrade the terrorist capabilities in the area. 

Putin is no one’s friend. As a dictator, he is much more comfortable with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Iranian mullahs and Assad, because they see no value in human rights. They don’t respect the fundamental rights that we believe every individual has. So if it suits him to work with Israel against Hezbollah today, he will do that. This is the way dictatorships survive because it’s all about today. There is no long-term strategic plan. No permanent friends. Look at the relationship between Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, it’s love-hate. They keep attacking each other but at the end of the day they know that they can’t expect much from their counterpart.  

Non-democratic countries always find a common interest in reducing the influence of democracy and eliminating any political opposition to their rule. So while Putin is happy to work with and to offer Israel some assistance, we should not forget that the KGB was, from the early days, behind the terrorist groups in the Middle East, and I don’t believe for a second that this relationship has been severed. 

BW: That leads me to Iran. You recently held a talk where you called for an end of the negotiations involving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). How do you see the Islamic Republic in the Middle East and its relationship with Russia? 

GK: I don’t know much about the Iranian relationship with Russia. I think it’s the same as before; it’s not rosy but they’re allies, natural allies. Because Iran wants to spread terror and chaos, and that’s what Putin needs. At the end of the day, Putin’s goal is chaos. He doesn’t have the same military capability that the Soviet Union had, but he has much more cash and he has bought more influence in every region of the world including in Western Europe and the United States, the influence that any chekist [Soviet secret police] operative could have understood a hundred years ago. 

Putin is not shy about using his money and influence to advance his agenda, and Iran is a natural partner for creating conflicts, never-ending conflicts, in the Middle East. I always remind people that the Iranian nuclear problem will not even be an issue if in 1995, Bill Clinton, then president of the United States, during his visit to Russia, would have used the bipartisan resolution of Congress that authorized him to threaten [President Boris] Yeltsin with cutting off American assistance, financial aid − which at the time was crucial for Russia − if Russia continued supplying Iran with nuclear material. Because that was the beginning of Russian-Iranian cooperation on the nuclear program, and Clinton could’ve killed it. Of course, he didn’t do that, he didn’t care. 

I think we’ve now reached the point where Iranian influence, whether we like it or not, keeps growing. Oil prices, thanks to [President Joe] Biden’s policy of promoting the Green New Deal mythology, oil prices are skyrocketing. And Iran is less affected by any sanctions because there are always buyers of Iranian oil, and China is one of them. 

So I think we are nearing the climax of this conflict because I don’t see how an Iranian nuclear bomb can be prevented unless there is a direct attack on their facilities. Iran doesn’t care about all these negotiations. They will do whatever they need to have a bomb. They clearly want a bomb. And I think they reached 60% enrichment, and from what I read they are a few months away from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. 

Dictators, especially ideological dictators like the Iranian mullahs, the Iranian theocracy will not hesitate to violate any agreement if they have a chance to have a bomb. The issue now is that the bomb is the first stage, they still need to mount the nuclear warhead on a missile. It could take a year or two, I don’t know, I’m not an expert. But let’s not forget we have North Korea that developed this technology with Russian assistance. Speaking about Putin’s role, I’m shocked that when people talk about the North Korean nuclear program they look everywhere, oh maybe they received them from Pakistan or God knows where. Well, no country other than Russia and America − I’m not sure about China, maybe also China, but China was definitely not playing that game − had the capability to build a nuclear missile that could go across the Pacific.  

When we understand how backward North Korea is, [we understand] that only Russia could be behind this technological miracle of building such a sophisticated weapon in this sort of country. Look at India, a country that spends tens of billions of dollars on nuclear programs and millions of engineers, and still, the Indians’ best test was about 5,000 km. North Korean missiles can travel at least twice as far. How did that happen?  

I don’t believe in miracles; I think there was a very rational explanation. Russia is behind this. It had an interest in spreading chaos in that part of the world, but that means this technology could end in the hands of the Iranian mullahs, dramatically reducing the time that they will need to equip their missiles with nuclear warheads, if they have the nukes. 

I’m quite pessimistic about the outcome because I think this [Biden] administration has the intention to renew the [nuclear] agreement and, judging from the previous experience, it will be done on Iranian terms because, unfortunately, it’s all about reaching “a deal,” not looking at the consequences. That will give the Iranian mullahs more time to regroup and to repair the damage that was caused to the Iranian economy by the sanctions and eventually end up with a bomb, a year or two. Unfortunately, I don’t see any other outcome for this story but Iran ending up with a nuclear bomb, unless its facilities are destroyed. 

BW: In Israel, the policy is that no country in the region should have a nuclear weapons program. But what you’re saying is that the alternative to the JCPOA would be a military strike to stop the atomic weapon? 

GK: I don’t believe any deal signed by dictators has any value. I have read enough history books and lived long enough to know how dictatorships respond to an opportunity to advance their agenda. The [nuclear] deal helped Iran buy time. And we all know that Iran is in a much stronger position than it was 10 years ago. That’s it, and since we are in 2021 we can cry over spilled milk, over mistakes made by the Obama administration. I just want to be realistic. I don’t see how at the current time, looking at oil prices and looking at the level of enriched uranium in Iran and at the lack of appetite in America and Europe to do anything dramatic, you can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, at the time of their choosing. Or at the time when they decide it’s safe enough to make this declaration. 

HB: Many Arab countries signed peace agreements with Israel, the Abraham Accords, and more countries are expected to join. What are your views on this historical development in the Middle East?   

GK: A historic development. We have all been waiting with great anticipation for the moment when Israel will be able to break the blockade, the joint Arab policy to strangle Israel. It failed. Because Israel proved to be more than resilient it thrived, even with the sanctions and all these policies and the massive antisemitic lobbies all over the world, maybe less in America, of course, but more in Europe. You can hardly find a country without prominent antisemites pushing this agenda, even in the US today. And I think the fact that the leading Arab countries accepted this reality, that Israel is here and that it should be a partner, not an enemy, that’s a big step forward. 

I hope that all Arab countries, eventually, will follow and it will be all normalization of relations and hopefully it will dry up the funding for terrorist groups that still rely on some Arab support, though unfortunately, we see that these terrorist groups, they always find new patrons. So they are not just relying on Saudi money or money from the Gulf. Now there is Iran and I would be surprised if they didn’t find other sources of funding to help these terrorist groups to continue their operations. But again I’m very excited to see the fruits of this cooperation. While I’m critical of the political regimes in the Gulf countries, it is far more, I would say, kosher, for Israel to deal with these countries than with Putin. 

Hayvi Bouzo is the creator and host of the talk show Middle East Rise. Follow Hayvi on Twitter @hayvibouzo.