In Mexico, chess champ Kasparov hails Putin’s poker skills: ‘He’s very good at bluffing’

McClatchy Foreign StaffApril 2, 2014 

— Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster who is an opposition activist in his native Russia, said Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin may not be great at chess but has remarkable poker instincts.

“He’s very good at raising the stakes all the time,” Kasparov said of Putin. “I believe he has a very weak hand, but he’s very good at bluffing.”

Kasparov, the most renowned chess player of the past century, said he was not very comfortable with the West’s initial response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea. He spoke at a news conference to launch a regional branch of the Kasparov Chess Foundation.

The United States and the European Union may find themselves facing a much higher tab to halt Putin in the future if stronger steps are not taken now, he said.

“I hope that eventually his bluff will be called,” Kasparov said, noting that the comparison with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany “is too obvious.”

“The rule in dealing with these kind of people is very simple: The sooner you stop them, the less the price you will pay,” Kasparov said.

A handler tried to rein in Kasparov several times, referring to unspoken “rules” about his visit to Mexico. But the 50-year-old Kasparov launched into lengthy answers about his views anyway, opining on the crisis in Ukraine, whether Putin has an endgame in Crimea, and the coterie of oligarchs surrounding the Russian leader.

Kasparov also voiced disdain at the state of global chess, saying the international chess federation (known by its French initials, FIDE) was in terrible hands with its current president, a Russian multimillionaire who believes he was once abducted by aliens. Kasparov said he would do better as FIDE’s president by bringing in global corporate sponsorship.

Wearing a dark blue suit and crisp tie, Kasparov opened the 45-minute session saying he believed questions might range beyond chess to geopolitics. As camera shutters clicked, he opened the floor.

“Your move,” he said in English.

He scoffed at those who say chess is not a sport and pointed to some activities at the Olympic Games.

“Are you telling me that curling requires more physical exercise than chess?” he said of a sport that features players propelling a circular weight down a sheet of ice while others try to influence its path by rubbing the ice with what look like sponge mops.

Unlike games that involve luck, such as poker or dice, chess involves equal conditions for both players throughout the game, he said. And with that came a question about whether Putin was playing Russian roulette. It was not a hard segue into geopolitics.

“The prime task of the international community is to make sure that Mr. Putin will be forced to play chess because in chess, we have rules. And it seems that he doesn’t want to play by the rules which are universal for all players,” he said.

“I’ve always compared his game not with Russian roulette but with poker,” Kasparov said.

Chess metaphors surfaced anyway, which might be expected of someone who became the youngest ever undisputed world chess champion at age 22 in 1985.

“For Putin, there is no endgame in Crimea or even in east Ukraine. He made it very clear in his speeches that he would feel comfortable to go anywhere where he believes Russian-speaking minorities are in danger. That’s exactly what triggered World War II. That was Adolf Hitler’s belief, to cross any border to protect German-speaking minorities,” Kasparov said.

The West must use a chess player’s logic and far-sightedness to resolve the crisis without further bloodshed, he suggested.

“The ability of a chess player I treasure most and that (which) actually always helps me in my political calculations is the ability to see the big picture,” Kasparov said. “If you do something on one side of the board, what will be the effect on the other side? All your moves are connected. If you don’t make moves as part of a plan, you are doomed to lose.”

Kasparov offered approval for U.S. economic sanctions on some of Putin’s closest allies but said the penalties don’t go far enough.

“Putin’s ruling elite doesn’t keep money in Russian banks,” he said, adding that pressure should be tightened on those figures, not the Russian leader.

“Forget about Putin. He’s a lost cause. He burned all the bridges. He will move forward as long as we allow him to do so,” Kasparov said, adding that some of those around him “are not willing to go that far.”

Instead, Kasparov said, the United States and G-7 countries should make very clear that if Russian soldiers cross the Ukrainian border in the east or south, all state assets of the Russian Federation abroad should be frozen.

“This is not a desired scenario because it is sort of a nuclear financial option,” he said. “But in my view, America and Europe must use every credible threat to prevent the loss of human life.”

Kasparov said that the outcome of the crisis is “not a game played by street rules. This is a game of political will.”

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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