Garry Kasparov: ‘The thing about prison is the noise when they lock the door’ | life and style

My mother was Armenian, my Jewish father. My father died when I was seven and my mother never remarried. She lived the rest of her 50s for me. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me – I had a mother who dedicated her whole life to her only son.

I grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the deep south of the USSR. Everyone spoke Russian because it was an imperial city. When I was 10, I was sent to the Palace of Young Pioneers in Baku to learn how to play chess. It didn’t take me long to see the gap between reality and propaganda.

I was the first of my class to take a trip abroad, to France, when I was 13 years old. Traveling was big business, even within the Soviet Union. Traveling to other capitalist countries was unheard of.

Whether you spell Garry with a G or an H in Russian, you always pronounce it with a strong G. I was named after President Truman – Harry – whom my father admired for taking a strong stand against communism. It was a rare name in Russia, until Harry Potter came along.

I stayed on top for 20 years because of my desire to be at the forefront – it was a never-ending process of exploration. It was my mother’s wisdom: as long as you challenge your own excellence, you will never run out of opponents.

Was it painful to lose vs [super-computer] Deep blue? I had never lost before, so I was furious. But 25 years later, I would say it was a blessing. I became a pioneer. Although now more people know me as a consultant for The Queen’s Bet than the man who lost against the IBM machine.

The thing about jail what stays in my memory is the sound when they lock the door. You understand that you are alone then, in a cage. I was lucky to have been arrested during what we now call Putin’s “vegetarian” era, when people ended up in jail for five or ten days. For the same peaceful protest against Putin’s dictatorship, you could now find yourself in prison for five or 10 years.

Run for president in 2007 was just a message. I was trying to demonstrate that the official Russian countryside was under the control of criminals. Putin is a dictator with blood on his hands.

I am retired, but I’m probably the strongest amateur chess player in the world. I still feel responsible. Chess gave me so much – world fame, publicity – and it helped build my character. Giving back to chess is kind of my duty.

Failures always take about 25% of my time. I live in New York with my wife and two of my children. For me, relaxation goes through the displacement of intellectual activities. My 15-year-old daughter is very interested in literature – I help her with her discussion topics. I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle with my six-year-old son: 600 pieces – a big one.

When was the last time I cried? It’s simple: December 25, 2020, when my mother died.

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov is now available in paperback from Penguin. Buy it for £10.99 at

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