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Eight-on-one is incredible odds--but not for Gary Kasparov.
Kasparov, the world chess champion, simultaneously played seven "masters" and one computer at a Harvard tournament this weekend. And even though he had only 15 minutes to devote to each game, he defeated them all.
Chess' biggest persona since Bobby Fisher, the 26-year old Soviet citizen strutted around Sanders Theater Saturday, moving pieces on different boards in no apparent order. He started at the boards for a moment, moved a piece and stopped his time clock--all in a jiffy.
He paused in front of one game, then moved a piece on another board. And sometimes he would just watch, waiting for his opponent's next move before progressing to another board.
"I felt handled," says world champion backgammon player William G. Robertie '68. "He was on top of things and infallible."
Issa N. Youssef '90, says that being in Kasparov's grip is akin to battling a boxing champ. "In boxing the stronger and faster person wins. In chess the better player wins. There is no luck involved, and there is no one to blame if you lose."
And, he adds, as in boxing, "When you lose, you feel like shit."
In fact, all of Kasparov's opponents describe their experience as daunting--a brush with the "awesome and godly," the "infallible," the "genius."
"He knew he was going to win even before I realized I was in trouble," says Andrew H. Serrota '91, one of three undergraduates who competed against Kasparov. The last of the eight challengers to be defeated, Serotta says he was impressed by Kasparov's steady, calculated manner. "He makes nice solid moves, not flashy. When he's got you, he finishes you off."
Still, even if you lose, "it's easier to play a better player because you can follow their logic," says Noam D. Elkies.
And that's exactly where Kasparov undid him. Elkies says he was expecting the chess champion to make a specific opening move, and when he didn't, his concentration was undermined. So the game suffered from "bad opening moves," he says.
Douglas M. Myers '68 described his game with the champion as a learning experience--both for himself and for the onlookers.
"It didn't feel too different from an ordinary game," Douglas says. "He outplayed me without too much effort, but I think I put up some resistance and it made an interesting game."
Myers took two days off from work to review that last 30 games Kasparov had played. But even careful study was not enough to beat the champion, who at the end of the day could easily recall the moves in all eight games when the audience queried him on his moves.
He compared moves used by one opponent--Vivek V. Rao '92--to a game he played years ago in Seville against former world champion Anatoly Karpov.
"When Karpov made that move, I thought about how to respond for 85 minutes," Kasparov said.
Rao, the national high school chess champion in 1986 and 1987, last lost to Kasparov in New York two years ago. At that tournament, Kasparov played six junior chess champions, beating three, tying two and losing to one. Experts who evaluated those games labelled Rao's the most interesting, theoretically played game.
Rao says that because Kasparov played eight opponents at once, his style was different this time. "The simul[taneous matches] didn't hurt his game, but he played more conservatively," he says.
Of course, there was no need for conservatism with at least one of Saturday's opponent's--IBM's Sargon IV chess program. "It was not a game," the chess champion describes the match. "It was a joke."
Last week in New York, Kasparov played another computer, known as Deep Thought and touted as the best computer chess player ever made.
But Deep Thought was no match for the Soviet wonderkind. "Computers lack common sense and logic." he says, adding, "I still have energy to defend the human race."
"But it is not a question of humans versus computers, it's grandmaster versus machine coached by humans."
And since computers can only be programmed while humans can "create something new," Kasparov predicts he will be able to outwit computers "for at least another 10 years." "I can create something new."
But infallible as he has been called, Kasparov may have made a mistake in his estimate. "Kasparov is just a stronger player," says Feng Hsiung, who helped develop the machine. But he says that Deep Thought can already play chess better than the computer analysts who programmed it. The computer can review 700,000 moves per second.
As Rao points out, "It is illegal for a human chess player to consult any reference during a game, but a computer's memory can refer to a chess dictionary, and immediately access every game played in the past."
Yet even if Kasparov is right about how long it will be before a computer can make mincemeat of him, his confidence in other areas is clearly misguided.
He says a computer would a better chance of beating him than a woman because "they can't concentrate on the game.
Women, he said in an interview in Playboy, just don't have the aggressive drive to be world champion chess players.
But, says Rao, "We try to encourage women to play." He says Kasparov's comments Saturday may have angered women, and adds that even if she could not beat him, the strongest player in this weekend's tournament was Anna Akhsharumova, the 1988 U.S. women's champion.
The youngest chess champion in history, Kasparov has no illusions about how long he will hold his title. At a brunch yesterday in Dunster House, he predicted that he would go the way of past champions.
"I have about five or six years, and then--," he said, making downward gesture with his hand. Asked if the inevitability of losing the title was depressing, he looked up to the sky, saying "It happens."
But when it happens Kasparov should be in good shape. Unlike many American athletes who live on their laurels after they leave professional sports, Kasparov may have a career in politics looming ahead.
The Azerbaijan native is already a saavy and outspoken critic of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and he sits on the Azerbaijan Central Committee.
He joined the Communist Party in 1984, though not for ideological reasons. "It was necessary to show loyalty to the state to become champion," he says. And he adds, "I was only 21, Since that time I have changed my mind a bit."
Still, the decision to join the Party probably was a smart one for his career, as many experts say he may owe his title to his allegiance.
His success in a widely publicized game against the more conservative Karpov in 1985 at the age of 22, they say, had a political edge.
As Gabriel Schoenfeld--then a graduate fellow at the Russian Research Center--pointed out in The New York Times in 1984, the succession battle imminent at the time would be one between Karpov, a political "today, and the more individualistic Kasparov. And while Schoenfeld predicted that the Soviet government would back Karpov, Kasparov's success and the very openness with which he criticizes Gorbachev today are a political sign in themselves.
Perestroika has not significantly improved life in the Soviet Union, Kasparov says, calling Gorbachev "the man who has now become a dictator." And he gets in a few digs at Karpov, as well, labelling him "a symbol of the Soviet system."
He says that the Soviets would invade Hungary if they could, but they are having internal problems with nationlist groups in Latvia, Armenia, the Ukraine and even his native Azerbaijan that prevent them.
And at the brunch, the chess champion predicted that the one-party system would last "not long, much less than it has been [in existence]." He added, "You can't change anything with a one-party dictatorship."
"I was astounded by how outspoken he was." says Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center, of a speech Kasparov gave at the center of Friday. "I wasn't prepared for his charm and candor."
But Goldman warns that Kasparov's criticism of the Soviet regime may not be as candid as they appear.
"Kasparov is a critic of the Soviet Union," he says, "but everyone there is a critic [nowadays], including Gorbachev, Ligachev, Yeltsin, and Shevarnadze."
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