Conversations with Rustam

I promised to tell a story this week about the time Rustam Kamsky invited me to live and train with him and Gata in Europe. It is a short story; there really isn’t much to tell. In March 1994, I happened to be spectating at the famous annual tournament in Linares, Spain. The first Category XVIII tournament ever held, Linares 1994 was also notable for two other reasons, one good and one bad. It was perhaps Anatoly Karpov’s most remarkable victory in his long career of many victories. As Norwegian journalist Haakon Strand wrote recently at chessgames.com, “The field at Linares 1994 was one of the strongest ever, and Kasparov prior to the event commented that the winner could call himself ‘world champion of tournament chess.’ He [would] regret having said that. Karpov smashed the world elite to bits and pieces with an amazing score of 11/13 (+9=4) and a record performance rating of 2985, after having won his first six games and left Kasparov and Shirov 2.5 points behind. This was arguably the greatest achievement in the history of tournament chess.”

Not only did Kasparov trail his famous rival badly, he was also accused of behaving badly at the board. In a tricky position and in time pressure against Judit Polgar, he seemed to move a piece, let go of it, and then move it to a different square. The “corrected” move was essential to his win in the game. Polgar was stunned but did not lodge an official protest. Later she said, “I was playing the world champion. I did not like to cause a scene,” or words to that effect. The games were videotaped. Organizer Luis Rentero, after viewing the frames of the slowed-down videotape, confirmed to me himself that Kasparov had let go of the piece before moving it again. Whether Kasparov, one of the most ferocious chess competitors of all time, realized what he had done is, of course, debatable; everyone can form his own opinion. What is certain is that he was unhappy at that time about many things: his own play in the event of course, but perhaps even more so the confused status of the world championship title. When Kasparov realized I was an editor of the since-defunct American Chess Journal, he gladly dined with me alone one evening and shared his detailed views on the contemporary world chess scene. I taped our long conversation and took many photos but have never published the conversation or photos.

I had one long meal with Kasparov, but shared several meals with the famously truculent Rustam Kamsky, who was accompanying his son Gata as usual. For some reason we hit it off; perhaps I seemed to him one of the few people in Linares who was not a threat of some sort. Everyone needs a friend, someone to relax with. With his guard down, Rustam was an engaging man, pleasant and conversable. We talked about many things, including my family estate in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. Rustam assured me, from my description of the property, that it had mushrooms well worth gathering, if one knew when and where to look. Russians love their mushrooms; I do, too! We made tentative plans for them to visit me in the Adirondacks when we were all back in the U.S. Rustam gave me his downstate New York address and phone number.

Rustam also consulted me anxiously for my views on Gata’s future. I thought Gata was doing pretty well as a chessplayer and should keep playing chess, but Rustam said, “There is no future in chess. He cannot make enough money. Gata needs to learn a profession. Something he can do for his whole life. But should he become a doctor? An accountant?” The chess world saw in Rustam only a difficult and quarrelsome person. I glimpsed the father whose first concern was to establish his only son securely in life, and who worried that he had already led him far astray. By the end of the Linares tournament, we were on such good terms that Rustam invited me to travel with them to Barcelona, where Gata would train for his next tournament. Rustam said, “We have a pension [apartment] there, I know where to buy good food in the market, you can stay with us for free.” Gata’s next tournament was Las Palmas 1994, a Category XVII event which he would win with an undefeated score of +4=5, ahead of Karpov, Topalov, Lautier, Polgar, Adams, Shirov, and others. It has been called Kamsky’s greatest tournament achievement. But that was two long months in the future. I was visiting Linares on my two-week vacation. I had a job and young family waiting for me at home. Maybe it wasn’t much of a job, but without it, how would I pay my bills and support my wife and our young son? Like many young families, we were living paycheck to paycheck. I was sorely tempted to go to Barcelona, but sensibly and sadly declined Rustam’s offer. Even now, almost two decades later, I wonder whether I made the right choice. The people who dare to say yes to such opportunities open themselves up to a world of possibilities. The people who say no sink into the oblivion they deserve.

Talk about a chance to spend time in the chess culture! In early 1994 Gata was approaching the peak of his chess career. Over the next two years—his anni mirabiles, if you will—he would win world championship candidates matches in both the FIDE and PCA cycles, against van der Sterren, Anand, Salov, Kramnik, and Short. I had a more-than-golden opportunity to live with the Kamskys and observe Gata’s training at his peak, as he prepared to meet and defeat several of the best players in the world. But I returned home to the U.S. Not wishing to presume on our brief acquaintance in Linares, I never called Rustam’s phone number and never saw him again. There was another factor in my reluctance, too. I have met many famous chessplayers, and a number of other prominent people in my life, but I have always had a horror of being a hanger-on, a coattail-rider, someone who gets a false feeling of importance by hanging around other people who truly are important.

My conversations with Rustam in Linares foreshadowed Gata’s fate. After losing to Karpov in the FIDE world championship match in 1996, Gata quit chess for eight years. He attended medical school for one year, then graduated from law school. However, after spending his youth traveling to exotic locales and fighting for chess prizes, apparently he felt little attraction to the workaday world. In 2004 he returned to chess, still a high-level player in spite of his long layoff, but the heart of his chess career had been cut out.