Gata Kamsky has had one of the most extraordinary career paths of any top chess player. Born in Siberia, he moved to the USA at 14 and stunned the chess world by breaking into the world top 10 as an untitled 16-year-old. He played a World Championship match at the age of 22, but then quit chess not of his own accord, but at the request of his father, as he explains in an interview with TVN.ru. Gata returned only 8 years later, but again rose to the top and blames favouritism of other US players for making his journey more difficult.
Gata Kamsky’s amazing surge to the very top of the chess world began after he defected from the USSR to live in the USA. He began a long two-part interview with Artur Khalilullov for Kazan-based TVN.ru by talking about how that move came about at the 1989 New York Open. We’ve translated highlights of the Russian interview (Part 1, Part 2) below:
We’re now going to return to that ancient history? I was 14 years old back then. A kid can’t take serious decisions at that age. Everything was decided for me by my dad - he planned that step in advance. In 1988 we played in the Junior Championship and my father was planning to meet with representatives of the American Chess Federation in order to get their invitation. Already back then my father was planning that escape to the West.
In the Soviet Union there was always a problem of extremely high competition. There were always plenty of phenomenal talents, and despite the fact I’d twice won the Russian Junior Championship I hadn’t managed to travel to international events. All the decisions in that area were taken by the State Sports Committee for Chess, which consisted of a narrow group of “our people”. That left huge power in their hands over everything chess-related in the USSR. They were the ones who decided the fate of chess players. If, for any reason at all, they didn’t like you, they could put a complete stop to your talent.
Once my father and I travelled to Kishinev for a tournament, but even there they told us that we couldn’t be accepted without the approval of the Sports Committee. They got in touch with Moscow, who replied: don’t enrol this person, we’re protecting his talent. After that my dad understood that it was going to be tough to fight against if we weren’t the favourites of someone, or if we weren’t in the Kasparov or Botvinnik School.
Kasparov’s favourite, meanwhile, was always Kramnik. It ended up quite ironic that Kasparov insisted that Kramnik was the one to get the chance to play a World Championship match against him, and ultimately lost to him. And after that Kramnik’s camp didn’t offer him a return match (laughs). Well, that’s also ancient history…
Let’s return to the “escape to the USA”?
They didn’t want to let us go, but we were invited to a tournament in New York. Our federation said back then: why should a small kid travel? Let’s send some famous Soviet grandmaster. My dad put up a furious fight. For the sake of that we even joined the Petersburg society “Dinamo” and we had a good acquaintance there, the lawyer Yury Sergeyevich Jakovlev. He’s still working, now 90 years old. In the end we somehow managed to reach an agreement that we could travel to the tournament.
Afterwards they told me that they understood perfectly well in the federation that my dad was desperate to go there and remain. But, so that no heads rolled, three influential officials all agreed on my trip together so that if someone was punished they’d have to punish three well-known people at the same time. They decided not to mess with my father, however, since he was disruptive. He could bring administrative troubles, complain somewhere. And by dividing the responsibility for the decision among the three of them, those people secured themselves from punishment.
And how did the situation go in the USA?
First we met with intermediaries, since the American Chess Federation couldn’t immediately grasp whether it was worth having dealings with us. In the end they somehow agreed.
As a result we were put in touch with the FBI. It was well-known that Soviet sportsmen were often sent with representatives of the USSR security services. Ultimately, on the last day of the tournament in New York, people from the FBI came into the hall and the moment my game ended they took me and my father to our hotel room and cordoned it off.
Then they loaded us and our belongings into a van and drove us to the main FBI building in New York. After that they subjected my father to a long interrogation, which 3-4 people took part in. My dad, of course, has a talent for talking and describing events in such a way that people are drawn in. The interrogation lasted 4-5 hours. In general, he painted a picture of it all for them in such a way that they gave us political asylum. My father managed to explain that I could bring America the Chess World Championship title.
The USA didn’t have its own chess players?
There was no-one like there is now. At the time the majority of chess players in America didn’t earn anything and played until university or for 2-3 years more, after which they switched to another professional activity, while I really could fight for the title of the strongest player on the planet under the US flag.
In general, that’s how it worked out. When I’d just arrived I was rated 2300 and something. And literally a year later, in 1990, my rating had climbed to 2650. Such a rise was considered unprecedented and there’s never been something like that in history – 300 points in one year. At that moment I was already 5-6th in the world. It’s curious that I became a grandmaster after skipping the step of becoming an international master.
A year later I reached the Candidates cycle for the World Chess Championship title. And in 1996 I played a title match against Karpov i.e. in 7 years in the USA I’d gone all that way. Of course if I stayed in Russia there wouldn’t have been anything like that, so such a step from my father’s side turned out to be absolutely justified, in a sporting sense.
You lived in the USA from 1989 onwards. Do you currently consider yourself an American or a Russian?
In fact I no longer live in America. I left there in 2015, and I’ve often been asked why I left America. The main reason is that I wasn’t helped at all in the USA when I was coming up to battles for the very highest titles. Despite the fact I’d become an American by passport, for the main sponsors and many influential people I remained a Russian. It’s funny that they gave much more support to a Japanese American Hikaru Nakamura.
And that’s despite the fact that I’d already lived in the country almost 20 years and taken part not only in the match against Karpov but been a step away from a second World Championship match when I lost to Topalov. There was exactly zero support. The main sponsors, who organised the famous chess club in Saint Louis, were still waiting for an American finally to appear, despite the fact that I was already a 4-time US Champion in the period from 2009 to 2015.
Hikaru was given huge support, even when he wasn’t a candidate for the World Championship matches, though I was. But they gave me exactly zero support. A Japanese player was considered a bigger American than I was, a Russian. Of course at the time the relations between America and Russia fundamentally changed and that was a big factor. In general, of course, I got sick and offended by that, but I tried to say nothing much… Now that it’s all no longer so important I can say that perhaps I was wrong, or I’m becoming like Bobby, paranoid (laughs).
I played so many years for America. I gave them the chance to win the World Team Championship for the first time in history. After that, they barely gave me any help travelling to Kazan for the Candidates Tournament – they put together $5,000, which wasn’t even enough to hire one of my coaches. I decided, enough, and stopped playing for the USA.
In the end Hikaru Nakamura never did reach a World Championship match, but a few years later Wesley So immigrates to Saint Louis from the Philippines and we have the return to his homeland of the Italian American Fabiano Caruana, who gets support that not even Nakamura saw, as a result of which Fabiano reaches a World Championship match against Magnus and everywhere, in all the newspapers and news, they trumpet that for the first time after Bobby Fischer an American is playing a match for the World Chess Championship title, of course forgetting about my match against Karpov. Any comment is superfluous when such words come from Fabiano himself.
Therefore you left the USA?
Yes, I thought, why am I living here? I wasn’t sure at first, but then I met my second wife, who’s from Russia. And we decided to try going back to Russia. At the end of 2015 I arrived in Russia. It ended up being funny. I was born in Siberia, then I moved to St. Petersburg with my father, then from there to America, and then again I returned to Siberia. My wife’s from there.
In 2017 we again moved to St. Petersburg. It is, after all, closer to chess tournaments, both in Europe and in Russia. And this year she enrolled in a French university and we moved there, literally in September.
Gata Kamsky and his wife WGM Vera Nebolsina
To be honest, chess is of course a large component of my life, but it’s not the main part. I’m not like Bobby Fischer, who said that for him chess is life. If it had been like that for me, I’d long since have gone mad, as Bobby did.
I understand him perfectly, that you can go mad. Every chess player has games which he can’t forget – either with horror or with joy. I’ve had both. For example, when I lost to Topalov in the 7th game (in 2009). That match was specially thought up by FIDE in order to take away my chance of playing for the title against Anand. And no-one could help me, since FIDE sympathised with Topalov. Ancient history, let’s not focus on it.
He got me into time trouble, and I first blundered away the win, and then the draw. I’d had a winning position, but I couldn’t correctly sense the moment – to move a rook or a pawn. I didn’t see a difference, but there was one, since there was a diabolic trap, but I didn’t figure it out and blundered. As a result, I lost the game, and then the whole match. Topalov then played for the World Championship title against Anand. That was after I’d won the 2007 World Cup. And there we go again, a huge part of it was about politics. But ok…
And the second moment was when I played the famous Candidates Matches in Kazan. That was a major event and the President of Tatarstan, Minnikhanov, greeted us. In the first round I got even with Topalov, beating him. And in the second round I played against Boris Gelfand. All of our classical games were drawn so we played tiebreaks, and in the third game I unexpectedly beat him with Black in rapid. And all I had to do was to make a draw in the fourth game in order to reach the final against Grischuk. The winner of that match would qualify to play a World Championship match, again against Anand.
My coaches back then were Sutovsky and our mutual friend Volokitin from Ukraine. I only needed a draw, and that means I needed something more solid. Emil said that I needed to play principled chess for a win. He’s my friend, but at the same time I understand that he’s from Israel, like Gelfand. So it ended up being a delicate situation (smiles). And I understand that my friend will have big problems in Israel if he helps me to beat his countryman (laughs).
Well I decided to play for a win with e4. I got a sharp Sicilian against Boris, who I also have very good relations with. I’ve know him since childhood, like Alisa and Ivanchuk. We’re all natives of Russia. Ultimately in that game we got a position where I saw a drawing line, but then I suffered some kind of blackout and forgot about the variation and lost the game. I was really upset. And I couldn’t understand why I saw the variation but didn’t go for it.
Those are the kind of psychological blackouts that happen to chess players. Naturally, Borya was inspired after such a win, while I couldn’t recover mentally. I lost two more blitz games, and the match. But still, it wasn’t as painful as losing to Topalov.
Also a tough question. You really could assume that I might have become World Champion if not for that pause and so on. But again, for me chess was never the main thing in life. Back then it was more important to get an education.
I also had a very complicated relationship with my father from early childhood on. He was born immediately after the war and those were very tough years, with the mentality of people who were born in those times very different from that of subsequent generations.
And I was brought up strictly, with the rigid setting of goals. We always had very complicated relations and I disagreed with my father on many things. According to the Tatar tradition that was instilled in me in my childhood, I had no right to speak at all. A son must unquestioningly obey his father, and that created even more problems.
Therefore people are mistaken when they say I quit chess. That was his decision. But, to be absolutely honest, I was glad that I wasn’t forced to play chess and travel with my father to tournaments. Finally I got some time for myself, I could go to college and live a normal life. If you’re not aware of it, many modern chess players have no education at all, or they’re students of the sports/PE faculties attached to universities.
But let’s go back to 1996.
In Elista, Karpov had a very strong team. Also the practice of adjourning games unexpectedly returned to chess. That factor really helped him in the match against me. In one of the games he saved a very bad position after the resumption of an adjourned game. And, in general, when it came to adjourned games, he really tricked us. Originally we’d agreed that there wouldn’t be any adjourned games in our match.
The main problem with them is the possibility of consulting with partners in your coaching team and you lose the spirit of a contest between two chess players at the chessboard. And later, with the appearance of powerful computers, that problem because even more serious. In 1996, Karpov’s strong team helped him in the adjourned games.
But overall, Anatoly played very well and his preparation was good. He was much more experienced. Karpov was able to prepare for all my strong sides and “nailed” all the weak ones. We didn’t have any contact with the world, meanwhile, and there was no internet. We didn’t even have the option to contact with someone by telephone during the adjourned games, as happened in that series about the chess player Harmon. If you recall, the whole US chess team helped her to win by telephone.Overall the match ended logically. I covered all the games in my book – I published a two-volume collection of my best games. In Russia, unfortunately, the book doesn’t exist as it was published in English. I hope there will somehow be a translation later.
And the decision to quit chess?
In actual fact, my father took it on the spur of the moment. After the match we stayed somewhere in Elista for another week, and my father was always more affected by my wins and losses than I was. For him it was as if he’d played himself. That’s really not very good, since I was forced to live as my father wanted to live.
People often asked me as a child: why do you have such a serious expression? But why rejoice if you realise that in case of a loss you’ll be very harshly criticised by your father, while you’re a kid and can’t argue with that. I felt absolutely defenceless.
Literally a year after Elista my father came to me with the proposal that I return to chess. And, of course, I said no. He couldn’t object, since he’d taken the decision about my finishing my career in Elista himself. And I didn’t want to play chess while my father was planning to travel with me.But when we went our separate ways and I finished law school I could calmly return to chess. I decided to play myself without the help of my father. And, almost immediately, I returned to my level. I qualified for the World Cup and got into the World Championship Candidates Tournament. And then I made a plan for myself: if I don’t become World Champion before I’m 40 I’ll quit.
You were close to the crown a second time.
Yes, in 2008 I felt ready. I won the World Cup. And back then the rule was that the champion of that tournament would immediately have the right to play a match for the World Championship title. But political and behind-the-scenes intrigue got involved. And, as a result, it was decided to organise an extra match with Topalov for the right to play against the champion. It’s very bad that chess players don’t have the right to speak within FIDE. People from the federation simply decided that it would be more interesting that way, and that nobody needing the sporting element and fair qualification.
Let’s return to the topic of your father. Looking back after all you’ve been through, your father has nevertheless lived a long time in the USA, and his mentality will have changed. Has he not approached you to say, son, in some things I was wrong. Perhaps he apologised?
Such people don’t change with age. On the contrary, he’s always looked at life from the point of view of achieving a result, no matter what the cost. He and I talk very rarely nowadays – once or twice a year. It’s simply impossible for him to say “sorry” to someone.
As for life in the USA, that’s actually changed him for the worse. There he feels complete permissiveness. Together with my brother and sister we’ve tried to make peace with my father, but it’s simply useless.
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