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Garry Kasparov grew up knowing that coming second was not good enough. This will to win was one of the crucial factors behind the 22-year-old Soviet chess player becoming the youngest-ever World Chess Champion in 1985. He retained his title for 15 years. The ambitious, outspoken youth was seen by the West as the new face of Russian chess — and, more importantly, of the country that was ready for the first time in 70 years to say good-bye to communism and start moving towards democracy. The Cold War, both on and off the chessboard, was over. Kasparov and his fellow players no longer had to be part of it and could concentrate on the game in which they excelled.

Or so it seemed in the heady days when Gorbachev's reforms awoke a sense of elation in many. That was not to last long. Immediately after retiring from professional chess, Kasparov returned to action — this time on a political battleground. He formed the United Civil Front, a pro-democracy movement, and took an active part in creating The Other Russia, an anti-Putin coalition. After Kasparov's plans to stand as a candidate for the 2008 Russian presidential race were disrupted — no one was willing to rent him a hall large enough to hold his supporters so he wasn't allowed to be a candidate — he remained the leader of the UCF, organising an online "Putin must go" campaign. 

Held in check: Garry Kasparov is arrested by Russian riot police in 2007; he was briefly imprisoned (Getty Images)

However, it was not in his capacity as a political opposition leader that Kasparov visited Britain in September. He came to support his former rival, Anatoly Karpov, from whom he wrested the World Champion title a quarter of a century ago. It was the illegal arrest of Kasparov at a Moscow demonstration in 2007 that brought the two old foes back together: Karpov tried to visit his former rival in prison to lend Kasparov what support he could.

I meet Kasparov after the press conference held in London last month to promote Karpov's campaign for the FIDE (World Chess Federation) presidency. The incumbent, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has just lost his main political asset — the presidency of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia. When one of the journalists talks about it as "resignation", Kasparov is quick to correct him: "People don't resign in Russia. He was kicked out." 

The eccentric Ilyumzhinov, who claims to have been abducted by aliens at one point, has led FIDE since 1993. During his reign, chess lost a lot of its glamour. Indeed, the championships are now held in places that, to quote Kasparov, "you need to be a very good student of geography to find on the map." Desperate to be re-elected, Ilyumzhinov made exorbitant promises to national chess federations, of the type he would have to be "at least Russian president to fulfil", as Karpov noted in his speech at the conference. There are, however, indications that Ilyumzhinov's popularity is fading, both in Russia and worldwide. 

When the event ends, Kasparov is torn between signing books, being photographed and giving advice to chess players. I start our conversation by apologising for returning to Russian politics now that his mind is busy with FIDE and related problems. "Not busy," he interrupts, "I am absolutely immersed in this. We have to win." However, he is soon talking about issues with which he has been out of touch for the last four months: his comrades-in-arms supported his decision to take a sabbatical. As for his enemies: "They are probably grateful to Karpov — he managed to take me out of the game for a while, after all."

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