Checking in with Garry Kasparov

The outspoken human rights activist and chess grandmaster takes stock of the political landscape

Garry Kasparov, the outspoken political activist and chess grandmaster, has long argued that President Donald Trump is an aspiring dictator whose actions are reminiscent of authoritarian strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin. That Trump is now refusing to concede the election as he makes baseless claims about voter fraud only appears to have further validated Kasparov’s instincts.

Not that he’s gloating about it. “Since the end of the Cold War, we have been complacent and have failed to make a strong case for liberal democracy,” the Russian-born Kasparov, who lived under Soviet rule and now resides in New York, told Jewish Insider. “That has to end now.”

Kasparov, 57, has been busy lately working to ensure that he can help usher in a more peaceful era in American politics after Trump’s term ends, writing opinion pieces and maintaining his lively and combative Twitter feed. The chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Renew Democracy Initiative has also found time for lighter pursuits, having served as a special consultant on the popular new Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.” In acknowledgement of his dedication to human rights, the Anti-Defamation League will present Kasparov with its International Leadership Award tonight during a virtual summit on antisemitism.

In a recent email exchange, Kasparov discussed some of the issues that he has focused on over the past few decades, including antisemitism, the state of American politics, Putin, Trump and chess. The interview has been lightly edited.

Jewish Insider: What do you make of Trump’s efforts to discount the results of the election? 

Garry Kasparov: Unfortunately, I am not surprised by them. When he lost the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz, he claimed it was rigged. When Hillary won more votes than he did, he claimed they were fake. Even when his show, “The Apprentice,” failed to win an Emmy, he claimed the Emmys were rigged. But taking a step back for a moment, one of the things I’ve frequently said is that wannabe authoritarian leaders never ask “why” they should do something. They only ever ask “why not.” Therefore, because Republican leaders have failed to rein him in and express what we all know to be true, Trump has been empowered to question the integrity of the election with no supporting evidence. 

JI: Do you think Trump will ever concede?

Kasparov: Of course not. On January 20, he will leave the White House, if he doesn’t before, but he will never concede. 

JI: Are you optimistic that President-elect Joe Biden will usher in a more civil era in American politics?

Kasparov: A lot depends on what we do over the coming years. Ensuring a more peaceful and more productive era in American politics is no small task, but it is the very reason we founded the Renew Democracy Initiative. We believe that in order to move forward, we need to move past the old left-right divides, empower moderate voices and work together to come up with creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Since the end of the Cold War, we have been complacent and have failed to make a strong case for liberal democracy. That has to end now. One of my top priorities will be working with our team at RDI to educate people about the importance of key constitutional principles and using my experience as a dissident in my authoritarian home country to help Americans avoid that future in my adoptive one. 

JI: Are you concerned about the rise of antisemitism? If so, what do you think can be done to counteract it?

Kasparov: Yes, absolutely I am. And unfortunately antisemitism isn’t limited to any one group. In the U.S., it’s resurgent on both the left and the right. There are two ways we can combat it. The first and most important one is education. We need to make sure that all Americans know what antisemitism is and how to recognize it: Holocaust education should be universal. Second, we need to call attention to antisemitism wherever it rears its head. So whether a politician engages in antisemitic dog whistles or a Hollywood star like Ice Cube promotes antisemitic caricatures, we should be ready to call attention to it. And we need to make sure that antisemitic acts remain beyond the pale. We can all agree that Holocaust denial isn’t welcome in polite society, but we should ensure that more “mild” antisemitism also carries a heavy price for its instigators. 

JI: What do you make of the news that Putin may retire soon? Do you think it’s legitimate?

Kasparov: This isn’t news yet. So far it’s just a rumor spread by a dictatorship, so I am not taking it at face value. 

JI: You’ve previously been critical of Kanye West for his controversial 2013 performance in Kazakhstan. What did you think of his presidential run?

Kasparov: As the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, I have been critical of any Western star performing in a dictatorship. On HRF’s website, you can find many of the letters that we’ve signed calling upon performers not to accept money from dictatorial regimes. As for his presidential run, I didn’t make much of it since it was little more than a joke. 

JI: Do you think there is anything politicians can learn from chess?

Kasparov: The ability to analyze the big picture doesn’t hurt. Politicians are frequently purely reactive and lack the strategic vision that chess players have had to develop over years of practice. 

JI: What do you do to pass the time during the pandemic? Do you play chess?

Kasparov: I am as busy as I’ve ever been — from media appearances to online conferences to publishing articles to working on the Renew Democracy Initiative. You can also look at the Kasparov.com newsletter. 

JI: Do you have a favorite chess movie?

Kasparov: “Queen’s Gambit.”

JI: Do you have a favorite chess piece?

Kasparov: The best chess piece is the most useful one at the moment. It needs to be in the right place at the right time — whether it’s a pawn or a queen. As in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

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