Garry Kasparov – My Story”
Reviewed by Steve Lopez Whether you like him or hate him, you must admit that Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chessplayer in history. His meteoric rise stunned the chess world while simultaneously his playing style electrified and invigorated it. His place is chess history was assured in 1985 when he became the thirteenth world champion. Kasparov is easily the most public of the world champions. He seems to thrive on being in the public eye; he’s constantly giving interviews, making media appearances, playing charity simuls. In light of this, one initially wonders what the new video series Garry Kasparov – My Story could possibly offer that’s not available anywhere else. It’s a valid question, to which the surprising answer is “plenty”.
The title of this five dvd series leads one to believe that it’s a sort of “chess documentary”, full of still pictures, grainy old home movies, and a Kasparov voiceover done in the familiar “PBS” style. But this series is actually a video version of a “best games” collection, considerably spiced up by Garry’s commentaries on his opponents, events of his chess life, and some general observations on the game of chess. The dvds are very professionally produced; there are minor sound problems in a couple of places but nothing that should deter you from viewing the series. GM James Plaskett is your host. Each section of the dvds starts with a brief introduction by Plaskett, after which we cut to a table at which Kasparov and Plaskett are seated side-by-side facing a wall projection of a computer chessboard (which happens to be ChessBase 7, by the way). Garry controls the movement of the pieces as he recounts his ideas and analysis in key games from his career, while Plaskett asks the questions. The dvd shows the chessboard on the rightmost two-thirds of the screen, while an insert in the upper left corner shows the commentators. Three cameras are used for the commentators, so you’re not seeing a single static view of two men sitting at a table. Each commentator has a closeup cam, with the third camera being reserved for a view of both players. There are also a few archival photos and a couple of video clips included as well, but the focus of these videos is on Kasparov’s chess analysis and observations (rather than his personal life), placed in a chronological context.
The analysis comes fast and furious, so keep your finger poised over that rewind button. Some of it went shooting over the head of this average player, but I found most of the chess to be perfectly understandable after listening to Kasparov’s clear (although sometimes rapid fire) explanations. Plaskett keeps the questions coming and there are frequent asides; the analysis pauses while Kasparov stops to address a question, tell a relevant story, or offer an observation on the chess world.
In fact, the true value and appeal of these videos is not in the chess instruction offered, but in just listening to Kasparov speak out on a variety of subjects. He’s often asked for his opinion and it’s very rare for him to fail to give an answer. That’s where the fun lies in these videos: when the analysis stops and Garry sounds off on a range of chess topics.
The first dvd in the series is titled Teenage Prodigy and covers Kasparov’s early years on the Soviet national scene and his first efforts on the international stage. It contains a game or two from his teen years that have never been published in the West (despite the fact that these were top level games in major Soviet events, much of that material has never made it out beyond the former Iron Curtain). Among the highlights of the tape are Kasparov’s observations on the current state of opening theory versus that of the 1970s and his strong assertion that pawns can often be counted as attacking pieces (he backs up this claim with a couple of illustrative games).
The second dvd, Joining the Elite, takes the story into the early 1980’s when Kasparov was making a name for himself in the world arena. Several games are analyzed and among the discussions is an analysis of Mikhail Tal’s playing style.
Dvd Three, Rebels and Renegades, continues the story into the Interzonals. Here we see Kasparov taking some risks in bucking the Soviet establishment while still mowing down every player in his path on his quest for the World Championship. Along the way, we’re also treated to some interesting observations about Bobby Fischer.
For my money, the most interesting commentary appears on the last two videos in the series.
Volume Four, Hitting the Wall, covers Kasparov’s candidates matches against Korchnoi and Smyslov, as well as his first “marathon” world championship match against Anatoly Karpov. Kasparov makes the assertion that a bishop is almost always better than a knight, except in very rare cases (which often includes “bad” bishops or endgames in which there are pawns on just one side of the board). He also makes the interesting statement, “I won every decisive game of my career”. I immediately thought of the second match with Deep Blue and smiled, realizing that my objection would likely be qualified by the counterstatement that he was not talking about exhibition matches and was only referring to matches and tournaments in which everything was riding on the result of a final game.
The fifth dvd, Rite of Passage, tells the story of the second match with Karpov in 1985 and ends with Kasparov’s winning the world title. In addition to game analysis, we get Kasparov’s opinions on many other topics, including rematches for world championships and his opinion of Karpov and Timman as analysts.
It was during the viewing of the fourth and fifth dvds that I was struck by just how good James Plaskett is as a commentator/facilitator. I’ve seen many interviews in which Kasparov’s analysis and opinions are accepted without question, in which the interviewer asks only “softball” questions and seems intimidated by Kasparov. But Plaskett dares to argue with the world champion, debating key points in the analysis and questioning Kasparov’s opinions. This approach adds a great deal to the overall quality of the series; many of Plaskett’s questions draw further elaboration from Kasparov and clarify a few points. Kasparov’s annoyance with some of Plaskett’s questions and arguments is quite evident in a few places, but at the end of the day I’m sure he realizes that they add value and clarity to the dvds. In any case, Plaskett is a real treasure and he knows exactly how to draw extra information from Kasparov.
As to the instructional quality of the games, one must keep in mind that this series is not necessarily intended as a tutorial but more as a showcase for some of Kasparov’s finest games. Even an average class-level player can learn a few things from these games (if one can keep up with the analysis, which is a real challenge at times). The main lesson for the viewer is the value of “thinking outside the box”, learning to look at moves that might initially seem implausible but (after deeper analysis) turn out to be perfectly valid. As an example, here’s a position (Kasparov – White – to move) from one of the games on the videos (one which happened to be a favorite of mine even before I viewed the tapes):
Kasparov’s challenge in this position was to find a way to centralize the White knight without blocking the b2-bishop. His solution will not only surprise but amaze you. Hopefully it will also inspire you to look for unorthodox solutions to problems you encounter in your own games
In the final analysis, Garry Kasparov – My Story is a very difficult series to classify. It’s really neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a tutorial series, although one will certainly be able to improve one’s chess by careful study of the games presented. It’s not a biography, although the chronological approach and use of archival photos lends a biographical flair to the tapes. It’s not strictly a best games collection; there’s far too much qualified material available that can’t possibly be included in the span of five 86 to 113 minute dvds. And it’s not an interview series, although the most enjoyable aspects of the tapes are the frequent discussions between Kasparov and Plaskett about events and players. I can’t easily pigeonhole these tapes into a neat classification, but I can confidently assert that these are dvds you’ll watch again and again. You can’t possibly absorb all of the analysis in a single viewing and the discussion segments are certainly worth viewing more than once. I plan on coming back to these tapes many times in the years to come and I’m sure that you will, too.
A comment made by Plaskett at the end of the fifth tape leads me to believe that the series is not yet complete, that more dvds are on the way and will extend the story into the 1990s. I certainly hope that’s the case; Garry Kasparov’s story isn’t finished yet and I very much hope to see more of his chess exploits presented in this lively and highly entertaining manner.