Kamsky: ‘People are mistaken when they say I quit chess’
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
On defecting to the USA
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
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
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
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.
On deciding to leave the USA
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
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
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
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.
On why he “quit” chess while still a real World Championship
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
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
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
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.
On his return to chess
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
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
On the chances of reconciling with his father
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.