Chess: Ex-champions meet again, but the stakes have changed

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What a piece of Cold War nostalgia! Fused together by their similar names, through four marathon matches over four years, they were like Siamese twins. Karpov and Kasparov. Kasparov and Karpov. So for a schoolboy of the 1980s, to see their names paired again in Spain—where they played their final world championship match in 1987—was a Proustian experience.

The match they played this past week to mark the 25th anniversary of their first world-title bout was the highlight of a chess conference in the city of Valencia. The two Russians played 12 games of speed chess over three days. And just as he did in the '80s, Garry Kasparov emerged victorious, winning 9-3.

Before the match he told the Spanish newspaper El País that the quality of the chess was unlikely to equal that of the five month, 48-game struggle of 25 years ago. "In this case," he said, "nostalgia will be a positive thing, and the duel will serve to put a spotlight on chess again." Some things never change, though—both players grumbled about the lighting in the hall.

Chess in the second half of the 20th century was overwhelmingly a Soviet phenomenon. But the Soviet Union is gone, Spain far more prosperous, and players' fees denominated in euros. As for the players, Anatoly Karpov is scarcely recognizable—the ax-faced and hungry master of 25 years ago is now a well-fed elder statesman. He's still an active pro, if in steep decline. (He worked hard for this one, though, spending weeks training with a team of grandmasters and a supercomputer.)

Mr. Kasparov hasn't played professionally for years, devoting himself instead to Russian politics. To prepare for this match he spent time with the Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen—the next great champion of the game, Mr. Kasparov says. (It will be at least two years before Mr. Carlsen gets his chance to prove that.) With the Soviet monopoly ended, chess has largely shed its political import.

Chess never mattered that much in the past. In 1809 Vienna Napoleon lost to the "Turk"—ostensibly an early chess-playing machine but in fact a man in a box, operating levers to move the painted effigy's wooden hands. The emperor swept the pieces from the board and shouted "Bagatelle!"—a trifle. Only in exile on St. Helena did he take chess seriously.

In 1920, a more accomplished amateur—Lenin—founded the Soviet Chess School, overruling those of his party who thought the game a luxurious and aristocratic pastime, and started the Soviet obsession with chess. Nikolai Krylenko, who headed the Soviet chess program, may have been odious—he's otherwise best known for his part in Stalin's show trials—but he was spectacularly successful in putting the Soviet Union at the forefront of world chess. For 4½ decades after World War II, with only one short interruption, the world champion was a citizen of the Soviet Union...

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