Time has grayed his hair, but he still exudes the aura of a winner.
Garry Kasparov, whose genius has left a wide mark on the history of chess, comes out of retirement Monday, either to beat a new generation of players or to pass the torch.
Twelve years after trading the game for political combat with President Vladimir Putin, the Russian legend, his jaw clenched, said he will be “kicking and fighting” in the five-day Rapid and Blitz tournament in St Louis, Missouri, which begins at 1:00 pm (1800 GMT).
“I realize that it’s serious. I will be the most desirable prey in the history of chess,” he said.
Kasparov utterly dominated the sport from 1985 to 2000. Since his withdrawal from a tournament in Linares, Spain in March 2005, the Russian’s absence has left many chess fanatics feeling orphaned.
So there was considerable surprise when he agreed to play in the event in St Louis, which follows closely after the annual Sinquefield Cup competition, a major stop on the world tour, in the same city on the Mississippi River.
Kasparov, who became the youngest world champion ever at age 22 in 1985, is now 54, more than a decade past the age when professional chess players typically retire.
Indeed, in a Facebook posting Sunday, he made clear that the tournament represents “not an end to my retirement from chess, only a five-day hiatus.”
He added, “I have no plans to play after this event.”
From Monday to Saturday, the Russian will play against some of chess’s big guns, like fellow Russian Sergey Karjakin.
“It was one of my dreams to play against him,” said Karjakin, praising Kasparov as “one of the greatest players ever.”
The world’s current number one player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, will not be there, however.
Still, the return to competition of the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov — a man once dubbed the “Beast of Baku,” whose epic clashes with Anatoli Karpov are part of chess legend — has had an explosive impact in the game, particularly in St Louis.
– ‘To see this dude play’ –
“Everyone is talking about it,” American chess grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez told AFP. “People are flying from India and China to see this dude play.”
Kasparov’s long and “unparalleled” dominance of the chess world made him “a cultural icon,” said Ramirez, a US Open champion who coaches the chess team at Saint Louis University.
“His contribution to chess theory and our understanding of the game resonate still today,” said Ramirez.
But what are Kasparov’s realistic chances after so many years away from the grueling grind of professional competition?
“Garry Kasparov has always had a fighting spirit second to none, and he is extremely competitive,” Ramirez said. “But he is still going to be facing very stiff competition,” including “some of the best of the best of the world.”
The man himself sought to “manage expectations,” quipping in his Facebook post Sunday that “at the age of 54 I would have as much hope of returning to my chess form of age 40 as to my hairline of age 20!”
The high-pressure, speed-chess format of the St Louis tournament, where players are forced to make their moves far more rapidly than during normal competitions, could be tough on the graying Kasparov, as he takes on much younger players who specialize in that approach.
“I expect him to be fighting for the top spots, but I would be surprised if he wins it all,” said Ramirez, 29, who became a grandmaster at age 15.
– His ‘incredible aura’ –
But in a tournament that will include four of the world’s top 10 players, Kasparov is not expected to be a pushover, said Sylvain Ravot of France, who has a master rating.
“His sense of the game, his passion for winning, his experience and his reflexes should all help him do well, perhaps even land in the top three, even if it will be much harder for him,” Ravot said in an interview, while emphasizing Kasparov’s “incredible aura.”
Kasparov would appear to be motivated more by love of the game than anything else. Though the winner’s purse in St Louis is a not-too-shabby $150,000, the grandmaster said he would donate any winnings to promote chess in Africa.
Kasparov did in fact return to the game once before, though only in an informal way. In 2015, he played a friendly match against Nigel Short — 10 years after formally bowing out of professional competition.
Kasparov did not appear to have lost a step: He crushed his British opponent, 8 to 1.