There will never be another like him

SO Garry Kasparov will never play another game of competitive chess again. Imagine that.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

AP

SO Garry Kasparov will never play another game of competitive chess again. Imagine that.

Imagine that Gabriel Garcia Marques will never write another novel again. Imagine that Paul McCartney will never create another song again. Imagine that Roman Polanski will never make another movie again.

It's difficult to imagine creative people calling it a day in their prime. In sport, yes, that you have to retire one day is perhaps the only thing you will know for certain when you begin your career. A day will come when the body will refuse to obey the mind. But chess is different from other sports. You don't have to be as fit as a Matthew Hayden to play it. And the fact is, chess players hardly retire. Viktor Korchnoi is 74 and he probably still fancies his chances in the next World championship.

Kasparov is only 41. And, as he proved in the last tournament he played, he is still the world's best player. That was why the world was stunned when the king abdicated his throne at Linares, shortly after winning what is considered as the Wimbledon of chess. The cream of world chess — barring Vladimir Kramnik — was there in the Spanish city and Kasparov was playing in a tournament like it after quite a while. Nobody except his close friends knew it would be his last.

Ironically, the great Russian lost his final game, to Veselin Topalov, the Bulgarian whom he defeated at Wijk aan Zee (Holland) in 1999 in what is regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. At Linares, Kasparov could have drawn without too much trouble, but he was overcome by the occasion. Maybe he was destined to end his career like this. For, life cannot be perfect. Wasn't Don Bradman out for a duck in his final innings? Didn't Pete Sampras lose in the second round of what turned out to be his last Wimbledon (after lifting the singles titles on seven occasions on the world's most famous Centre Court)? Mahatma Gandhi didn't win the Nobel Prize; neither did Robert Frost (and he coveted it more than anybody ever did). Martin Scorsese might never win an Oscar.

Kasparov's announcement at Linares was as unexpected as a twist in an Alfred Hitchcock film. "I couldn't believe it initially," says Viswanathan Anand, one of his most formidable rivals. "Only the next day when he confirmed it at the closing ceremony did it really sink in," says the Indian who is likely to be the new World No. 1.

Kasparov's decision was shocking because at Linares he showed that his chess is just as sharp as ever. His performance in the seven-player double round-robin league was so good that he could still be the champion though he lost that final game and had to tie for the first place on points with Topalov. The tie-breaker had to favour him. How could he finish as the second best in his comeback — and last — tournament? It wouldn't be the ideal way to end what has undoubtedly been the most remarkable career in chess, a career, which probably has no parallel in any sport. How many people have been No. 1 in their sport for 21 consecutive years?

It's a record that could remain as unsurpassable as Bradman's Test average. Surely, there will never be another Kasparov.

"Absolutely," says Mumbai-based veteran Grandmaster Praveen Thipsay. "There will never be another player like him. I would say his retirement is the greatest loss to the game ever; yes, a greater loss than Bobby Fischer's self-imposed exile."

Krishnan Sasikiran, who played against Kasparov at the Chess Olympiad in Slovenia in 2002, feels the game will sorely miss the imaginative skills of the Russian. "You just have to look at that rook sacrifice he made against Topalav in 1999 Wijk aan Zee to realise the importance of imagination in chess. Only Kasparov could have found that move," says the best Indian player after Anand.

Only Kasparov could have played so well for so long. His arch-rival and compatriot Anatoly Karpov has had a much longer career, but he could never fully recover from his loss in the World championship final to Kasparov in 1985.

Kasparov was only 22 when he won that famous match in Moscow and broke Mikhail Tal's record as the youngest World champion. It was a title he earned the hard way; in fact, nobody had to work harder to win a World title. In one of the greatest fightbacks in sporting history, he came back from the dead and brought a new life to international chess.

He was trailing 0-4 after just nine games in the World title match in 1984 and was only two games away from defeat.

But he hung on, and drew the next 17 games before losing yet again in the 27th game. The score was 5-0 in Karpov's favour and he needed just one more win to defend his crown.

But what followed was an amazing comeback, the kind of which makes sport so compelling to watch. Kasparov posted his first win in the 32nd game and won again in the 47th and 48th games.

Suddenly, he was the favourite, against a tired Karpov. But, FIDE stopped the match after 48 games, saying that the marathon match had taken its toll on the health of the players.

Kasparov of course wasn't happy with that decision, and he never forgave the world chess governing body. A year later, though, he did dethrone Karpov. A truly global superstar was born on a chilly November night in Moscow in 1985. Then in the 1990's he staged his own World championships, outside FIDE, and won them. In 2000 though, he lost the title he held for 15 years, to his own protege, Vladimir Kramnik.

His loss in the Braingames World title match in London was his first ever in a match to a human; it was to remain the only one.

In 2003, he patched up with FIDE and signed the Prague treaty, in the hope of staging a unified World championship. Its collapse frustrated him and he found that there was little to play for him now.

Maybe Kasparov's decision to leave is not surprising. He wanted to leave when he was the best; his self-respect never would have allowed him to play on when he wasn't the best in the world.

Very few in sport have been able to end their careers in such glory. Is he the best ever? The answer would be yes from the majority of the chess world. No one has dominated the sport like he did for over two decades. No one has been feared more. No one has analysed a game better. And no one has brought as many sponsors to this non-spectator sport.

He now wants to spend more time on his writing and he is nursing political ambitions as well. He says he may play some chess for fun, but not as a professional.

We will miss you, Garry.