ST. LOUIS: Twelve years after trading chess for politics, Garry Kasparov proved on Monday (Aug 14) that time hadn't dulled his edge as he battled to a draw with a fellow Russian half his age in the opening game of a hotly anticipated comeback.
The 54-year-old Kasparov, whose genius has left a wide mark on the history of chess, has briefly come out of retirement "kicking and fighting" to compete this week at the Rapid and Blitz tournament in St. Louis.
It remains to be seen whether he can beat a new generation of players or if he will instead pass the torch.
In a fitting turn of events, his first match against compatriot Sergey Karjakin had shades of Kasparov's own breakthrough moment in 1985 when, aged 22, he defeated the legendary Russian grandmaster Anatoli Karpov to become the youngest champion in history.
This time around, it was Kasparov who represented the old guard against Karjakin the young pretender, who narrowly lost last year's world championship to Magnus Carlsen, the top-ranked player who is not in St Louis this week.
CENTRE OF ATTENTION
Since his March 2005 withdrawal from a tournament in Linares, Spain, Kasparov's absence from the game has left many chess fanatics feeling orphaned.
So there was considerable surprise when he agreed to play in the event in St Louis, which follows closely after the annual Sinquefield Cup competition, a major stop on the world tour, in the same city on the Mississippi River.
The years have grayed his temples, but Kasparov still exudes the aura of a winner - and the trademark gestures that defined his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s were all present on Monday.
He took off his watch, placing it to the left of the board. He placed his pieces on the board, one by one, in a meticulous and deliberate manner. The death stare was there too - Karjakin got one from Kasparov before the battle began.
Despite making clear the tournament represents a five-day "hiatus" from his political career, Kasparov said he wasn't taking it lightly.
"I realize that it's serious. I will be the most desirable prey in the history of chess," he said in a Facebook post on Sunday.
In a clear sign that Kasparov remained the center of attention, most of the 10 other competitors took a few seconds off from their games to come and see the man once dubbed the "Beast of Baku" in action.
"It was one of my dreams to play against him," Karjakin said before their match, praising Kasparov as "one of the greatest players ever."
Kasparov's long and "unparalleled" dominance of the chess world made him "a cultural icon," said Alejandro Ramirez, a US Open champion who coaches the chess team at Saint Louis University.
"His contribution to chess theory and our understanding of the game resonate still today," said Ramirez.
Kasparov is nevertheless not expected to win the tournament, which includes four of the world's top 10 players, according to French world number two Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who beat Carlsen last week at the Sinquefield Cup.
The high-pressure, speed-chess format of the St Louis tournament, where players are forced to make their moves far more rapidly than during normal competitions, could be tough on the graying Kasparov, as he takes on much younger players who specialise in that approach.
The man himself sought to "manage expectations," quipping in his Facebook post Sunday that "at the age of 54 I would have as much hope of returning to my chess form of age 40 as to my hairline of age 20!"
Still, it would be foolhardy to write him off, said Vachier-Lagrave, who played Kasparov in a friendly match - an encounter won by the Russian - and remembers "his willingness to fight on every turn."
Though the winner's purse in St Louis is a not-too-shabby US$150,000, Kasparov said he would donate any winnings to promote chess in Africa.