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The new website is a portal for all things chess, whose popularity has been juiced by the popular Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, for which Kasparov is a consultant. The former World Champion Chess Master is launching the site today with all kinds of content for chess lovers of all skill levels. It includes thousands of chess puzzles, online matches, in-depth strategic and tactical tutorials, articles, documentaries, and an exclusive Master Class with Kasparov himself.
The platform was built as a way for chess-lovers to get immersed in the legacy of Kasparov so that they can, in turn, create their own legacy of living life through the lens of chess. It provides the building blocks for casual players to become more confident in the game while providing content for the most dedicated enthusiast and pros so they can perfect their game.
Kasparov became the youngest ever undisputed World Chess Champion in 1985 at age 22, and he continued to be a dominant figure in the game until his retirement in 2005. He made a chess website a long time ago, but it didn’t turn out to be a success. Now he is returning to it with a much bigger effort in conjunction with Vivendi.
Kasparovchess.com is a subscription-based platform that provides a wide breadth of content as well as a community of chess players, enthusiasts, and pros for a monthly fee of $14 a month. Subscription features include articles, documentaries, matches, lessons, puzzles, and post-game analysis tools. There are also several free features, including an exclusive podcast by Garry Kasparov that dives in deep on topics like The Queen’s Gambit and high-profile matches in which he dissects move-by-move.
I spoke with Kasparov about this. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I’m interested to hear about this content platform. I wondered if this opportunity had been here for a long time. What makes the timing right?
Garry Kasparov: You never know what’s the best time. You can only find out. I had my first try more than 20 years ago with Kasparovchess, and that was not a success. I don’t know whether the timing was wrong, or maybe mistakes were made. Maybe because I lost my title in 2000. All those factors contributed to the demise of the venture. My guess is that the technology was not there. The audience wasn’t big enough. Some ambitious ideas we had just couldn’t be sustained.
This project has quite a long history. It started with our Grand Chess Tour events being offered at a venue in Paris. The venue wanted to become a sponsor of one of the events. With a few people on top of the venue being chess fans, it led to an expansion. Several years we spoke about next steps, and a platform came into mind. It’s this mega-conglomerate that has interests in entertainment and the internet. They’re expanding their businesses, and they were very friendly.
It took time. We would have been ready a year earlier if not for the pandemic. We had plans to launch in the beginning of the summer last year. But we had to correct our plans, of course. I couldn’t go to Paris last March. Now, the timing has proved to be perfect. The positional factors, the regular increase of the chess audience. We have a factor of multiplication due to The Queen’s Gambit. All of a sudden, chess became far more popular. That helped us, naturally. The fact that I was a consultant on the show worked in our favor.
Even if we put aside the latest hype with the game of chess, though, people are now, because of the pandemic, looking for a reorganization of many of our activities online. One of them is connected to education. We know that we have to start rethinking many of the traditional practices of the past. Chess is an ideal tool to be both a part of education but also intellectual entertainment. We concentrated from the very beginning on the educational parts and, as I said, the intellectually entertaining parts of the platform.
You have many chess projects online, obviously. You have two major websites, Chess.com and Chess24, which is led by Magnus Carlsen, the world champion. Competing means you have to bring something. You don’t have to be totally new, but you need something of superior quality to bring the public to your platform. We believe that when you look at the quality of our intellectual entertainment, the quality of the lessons, and the way the platform is structured, it could be very appealing to a general audience.
We have a few relatively new things. If they’re not revolutionarily new, they’re of very high quality. When you look at our video materials, they’re produced in a professional studio. We took that influence from Netflix, to try to make it similar to entertainment, to the image of chess in Queen’s Gambit. Also, the platform ranges from beginners to masters. We have eight different categories for players. One of the key elements is that you can learn, you can be entertained, you can do whatever you want with respect to your own playing strengths and skills.
GamesBeat: How much of it is split between this educational side versus just playing the game?
Kasparov: You cannot do without the gameplay. We’re building our play zone, adding elements to that. But that’s not what will make the site successful. You can play the game everywhere. You can add this or that element, but the biggest chunk of the crowd is looking for a way to learn, a way to be entertained. They want to get something more than simply moving pieces. That’s why we’ll always try to connect these elements.
For instance, we have lessons, more than 700 lessons already. We have puzzles, more than 52,000, and we’ll keep adding them. We’ve connected lessons to the puzzles, which I think is new. You learn something in your lessons, and you can immediately go into the puzzles that will help you to digest that material. Also, it always keeps you at the level that you selected.
What we also believe is important is what we call the community spirit. The success of any platform today depends on the interactive factor. If you can build a community that is devoted to the site and finds this place a unique location for whatever they’re looking for. One thing we’ll guarantee is there will be regular contact that will allow the community to make suggestions. It goes to improving the play zone, but also to expand our menu based on the preferences of our customers.
GamesBeat: Did you enjoy consulting on The Queen’s Gambit? What was your insider’s view of that?
Kasparov: It was almost accidental. I got a call from Bruce Pandolfini, the famous American player who’s consulted on many movies, chess movies. He suggested that I meet Scott Frank and his team. I had no expectations. We just went to lunch on the Upper West Side. We had a conversation, and his original plan was to have me play a part as the Soviet chess champion. Unfortunately, I had to turn that down. It was just too time-consuming. It would have taken two or three months for me. But then we agreed that I would offer my consulting services, and that was very interesting.
I came up with a number of games. Some of them were real games, while some of them were games where I added moves by using a computer to make sure that the chess — the chess plays a very important role in the show. It’s not just something remote. From the very beginning, they wanted to show the game, the moves, to give the atmosphere. We all knew that unless we had very precise moves on the board, we’d be harshly criticized for just doing another Hollywood fake.
Walter Tevis, being a chess amateur, a very strong chess amateur, he described many of these games in great detail. It was challenging because I had to make sure that we didn’t go too far away from his descriptions. But at the same time, the quality of the games would have to be sufficient for a world championship match, a game at the very top. Tevis’s qualification was not good enough to make sure that his description, his language, would fit the expected strength and quality of the game. I came up with a number of games, especially the last one, the big one, the best climax game possible. It worked out very nicely.
Another part of it was simply helping the players to feel the atmosphere. They act very naturally. I know from working with Marcin Dorociński, the Polish actor, he spent hours watching me playing on video, to make sure that all his body movements and the look were re-created. I also made a few suggestions regarding the Soviet elements of the series, like having the KGB agents following him. I knew that no champion in the ‘60s and ‘70s was allowed out of the Soviet Union without being accompanied by KGB guys. Some of the short dialogues, like the one in the elevator, were my suggestions. It was a lot of fun. While I thought the series would be a big success, nobody imagined that it would become the kind of best-seller it was.
GamesBeat: It must make you feel good that chess is having this revival, and the show is part of that.
Kasparov: It’s felt good, yes. It’s crossing this separation. For so many years, even decades, I’ve been struggling with this negative image of the game, this idea that it’s a nexus of human intelligence and creativity, these ideas about the high IQ of players. It’s accepted that people associate chess with high intellectual capabilities. I used to say that the aptitude for playing chess is nothing more than the aptitude for playing chess. It’s always flattering to hear these stories about the game of chess, but at the same time, you have the idea that it’s potentially damaging for mental stability. Look at Bobby Fischer and other stories. We had to struggle with these images. If you look at the most famous books about chess, like Nabokov’s Luzhin Defense, or Stefan Zweig’s Royal Game, these aren’t books that inspire any confidence that the game could actually help people, especially children, to improve their cognitive abilities and their character.
All of a sudden we got this very popular media product that shows the opposite. It’s not that chess destroyed the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy. It helped Beth Harmon to overcome her dependence on pills and alcohol. It strengthened her character. That’s valuable. It’s helping us already to eliminate many barriers that parents would put in front of their kids who express interest in the game.
I’ve always argued the case for chess. More than a decade ago I wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books on Fischer’s biography. My main point was that chess didn’t make him crazy. Chess helped him stay afloat, stay sane for many years. But again, that was just my word. The series, the images on the screen, the whole story, had a much bigger effect.
GamesBeat: It seems like chess keeping people sane is a good message at a time when we’re all under so much pressure.
Kasparov: Exactly. With the whole crisis, and everything helping us elevate the image of the game, hopefully — I’ve no doubt that some of this interest will go down. But still, many more people will stay there. I don’t think we’ll be fighting with the same problems, with that negative image of the game, as we did before.
GamesBeat: What do you think about humans versus computers in chess these days?
Kasparov: It’s no longer funny. Machines are so much better. It’s not just a chess problem. Every game now is dominated by machines, whether it’s go or shogi or any video game. People talk about Dota or StarCraft. Even Texas Hold ’em Poker. Anything that we can describe as a closed system — and every game is a closed system, a human-designed framework that has fixed rules — it’s a domain for machines to dominate.
It’s not just because machines can calculate everything to the very end. The number of legal moves in the game of chess is 10 to the 46th power. It’s not about seeing every move from A to Z, or whatever the alphabet of the universe is. It’s about making fewer mistakes. Whatever game we look at now, machines are dominating because they make fewer mistakes, and they have very strong pattern recognition algorithms. That’s why all of these games, one after another, fell under that brute force and the ability of the machines to operate in a closed environment. The gap between chess engines — and I’m not even talking about AlphaZero and supercomputers, but the average chess engine you can download to your laptop — and Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, it’s about the same as between Usain Bolt and Sarah. It’s fun to watch maybe the first hundred meters, but the game is over.
On the other hand, while the competition doesn’t make much sense, we saw the benefits outweigh the negatives. Yes, the machine is dominant, big deal. People still play chess to understand who is the better player. There’s a psychological factor. It creates challenges in the openings because typically you have to avoid some very sharp openings. The game can be well prepared in advance. We see some preparations that go to move 20 or 25. That’s why a very popular version of the game now is what’s called 960, where you reshuffle the pieces to random positions. All that being said, the benefit comes from the general public. All of a sudden you have millions, tens of millions, potentially hundreds of millions of people that don’t need to be told what’s happening on the board. They look at the screen. They can follow the game.
That was one of the biggest challenges before. The game was so complicated that you had to know how to play, you needed commentators, and commentators were very reluctant to criticize the big guys. When I played Karpov for the world championship matches, the commentators, even top grandmasters, would see that we had made mistakes, but they would try to downplay it. It was like it was something sacred. It was a temple and we were the high priests. They didn’t want to offend us. Now they’re laughing out loud. People look at the screen and the indications and they can see, “Wow! Big mistake!” You don’t need a grandmaster to tell you that anymore.
In some ways it’s still a bit annoying for me. When I watch my colleagues play, I can see amateurs shouting, “Ah, a mistake!” But at the same time, it adds more than it subtracts. Computers are helping to eliminate the barrier between the top of professional chess and the amateur base.
GamesBeat: I would think humans can still be much better at teaching chess than computers.
Kasparov: Yes, absolutely. One of the pieces of that, it’s what I said about closed systems. Machines are unable, at least for the foreseeable future, to transfer data from a closed system to another closed system. Even if you have the AlphaZero algorithm destroying a human opponent in one of the versions of StarCraft, the problem is that the machine builds its own pattern system and refines the best way to proceed on that map. The moment you change the map or change the rules, it has to start from scratch. The machine can’t transfer that information automatically. It still has to do all the iterations again.
That’s where humans still have an upper hand, and that’s why teaching, which is a process of shifting information from one source to another, remains our domain. Of course we use computers to help with that, though.
GamesBeat: If you’re a good chess player, could that make you a good video game player as well?
Kasparov: No, absolutely not. Certainly from my experience with video games, anyway. Some of the concepts — I know the limits of my ignorance. While I enjoy many of them very much, I know that I shouldn’t boast of my ability. In my book, How Life Imitates Chess, I talked about a story that happened to me ages ago, in the ‘80s in Germany. I visited there for a while with a friend who was one of the founders of ChessBase. I was very proud, because I probably had the first computer in the city of Baku, where I was born. I bought it in late 1983 after playing my semifinal match against Korchnoi in London. I’m not sure you would recall the name, but an Acorn?
GamesBeat: Oh yeah, I know that one.
Kasparov: An Acorn computer, right. There’s not much you can do with that. But I had a computer and a monitor, and I had a few games. One of them was called Hopper. I believed I was a great player, because I was the only one who was good at it among my friends. I visited my friend in Germany, and we talked about this game. I thought I was pretty good, because I had whatever score, a few thousand points.
He said, “That’s not bad, but in our family it doesn’t fly.” I said, “What, you can beat me?” He said no. I looked at his son, who was 10, and I said, “Him?” He said, “No, no, not him.” I said, “Come on, who is it?” His other son was just turning four. Then we had a competition and I was crushed completely. That taught me that computer games were for future generations.
GamesBeat: I know you’re politically active, too. Does any of that mix in with what you’re doing with the site, or do you keep that separate?
Kasparov: No, no. I wear many hats, but I know exactly where one activity ends and another begins. I don’t hide my views. Ask me questions and I answer. I’m not only active in opposing Putin’s dictatorship, but I’m also, with my charitable foundation, I’m working with dissidents and activists around the world. But here it’s about chess. I’m not going to compromise my principles, but my political views and affiliations have no influence on business decisions around the venture. Except the fact that the capital for the company and the future development, as I’ve made very clear, will not have any money from compromised sources, anything that could affect my other activities. There’s certain money that I won’t touch. That’s the only limitation that’s imposed.
GamesBeat: On August 30 you have a Master Class. Are there any other dates coming up related to this?
Kasparov: The master class will be the kind of crown jewel of the teaching side, the lessons. On my own, I did a master class four years ago, and it was an enormous success. But by my standards it was not a well-prepared product. I didn’t know how to make a concise presentation for such a broad audience. You had beginners. You had players in the middle, club players. You had some very strong players. I did my best, and I was surprised by the success of the product. But now we’re learning from that. We’ll be doing the master class in a way that will best address the audience, so we’re not spreading too thin. There will be three major sections that will guarantee that people of certain strengths enjoy it. I’m planning for a week of recording in Paris in June. It will be very professional.
I’m also doing, in parallel, a podcast. The quality of the podcast is not perfect, and I wish we could make some improvements. We’re planning to add technology to make sure that the podcast, which is now quite popular, because I’m talking about my early years–but again, the master class is something that will be done with the highest quality. People should hopefully appreciate that. There will be some reminders of Queen’s Gambit. The key is that I will be in a position to tell many stories, share many lessons. All the lectures there will fit those three major categories of our customers to maximize the learning effect and the intellectual entertainment.
GamesBeat: It sounds like a very satisfying effort for you.
Kasparov: I have plenty of experience in the game of chess. I know I can’t compete with Magnus or young players at the boards. I play chess occasionally as entertainment, exhibition games. But I know to share my experience. I know how to communicate a message to the general public. I think those qualities might be very important. The title comes and goes. The sad thing about being the world champion is that you eventually become an ex-world champion. But now people are looking not just to play the game, but for someone to explain, someone to entertain them, someone to communicate with them and give them a sense of community. I think we can do that, and build the site around my legacy.
GamesBeat: Is it live now, or is it going live at a later date?
Kasparov: This next week we’ll have a grand opening. Right now we have more than 10,000 people already registered and showing up. We have elements of the site. It’s the end of the beta version. It’s functional now. People can play and look at some of the segments. But the big opening is next week. We’ll have all of the key elements in place. Then we’ll start adding things, more lessons and puzzles.
It’s a typical freemium model. It’s not rocket science. We offer quite a substantial package for free, if you just register, and then for premium members we have the full package. Compared to the prices of our competitors, it will be very attractive — $40 a month or $120 a year for the full package, including every element, from master class to all the puzzles. But even the free package I think will attract a lot of people. It includes eight puzzles a day, all the news sites, and of course the playing zone.
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