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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beast of Baku Has Found His Match

LONDON — In his 15 years as world champion, Garry Kasparov has cultivated a fearsome reputation as the chess-playing equivalent of a trash-talking basketball player. He glares, he swaggers, he makes exaggerated sighs of disdain in the faces of his opponents. And he always wins.

That is why his behavior at the world chess championship here this month seems so perverse and so baffling. Kasparov, 37, is not playing like the man everyone is used to — the arrogant fighter whose style of attack was once described as "bombardment by thought waves." Confronted with Vladimir Kramnik, a fellow Russian who now leads 8 points to 6 and is a whisker away from the title, Kasparov has been acting as if he has lost his nerve and maybe even his will to win.

"The big question is, why has Kasparov seemingly collapsed psychologically?" said Ray Keene, a British grandmaster, who is director of the championship match.

If that is indeed what Kasparov is doing, he is doing it very publicly. On Sunday, he asked for a draw after just 14 lackluster moves and less than an hour of play, saying afterward that he felt "tired and depressed." In Tuesday's match, which ended with another draw, Kasparov huffed and puffed and jiggled his feet nervously. He buried his head in his hands and looked unhappily at the ceiling. While Kramnik, 25, strode casually on and off the stage between moves, Kasparov occasionally took more than 30 minutes to make moves that would ordinarily have taken no time at all.

"This position is hardly the most unusual in the world," scolded Dan King, a British grandmaster and a member of the commentary team at the match, watching in exasperation at one point as Kasparov gazed on and on at the board in search of his next move. "Just look at his body language. Look at his posture. He looks like a crumpled sock."

Kasparov rallied in the second half of the game, evincing his old verve and even flashing the familiar proud glint in his eye that has helped earn him the nickname "the beast of Baku," in a reference to his hometown in Azerbaijan. But though he fought hard, he still failed to pull off a victory.

To keep his title, Kasparov would have to win the two final games of the 16-game tournament, on Thursday and Saturday, a development that "now looks impossible," he said Tuesday night. If Kramnik holds him to a draw in either game, the challenger will gain enough points to take the championship and the $1.33 million prize (the loser gets $670,000).

No one at the tournament, which is teeming with chess experts and world-class players, seems to know what sort of strange malaise has overcome Kasparov. "Search me," said Larry Evans, an American grandmaster. But the champion himself has alluded several times to "many personal reasons" behind his poor performance, and promised that after the match was over he would reveal what they were.

If Kasparov's apparent meltdown has been Topic No. 1 at the match, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, the unflappable play of Kramnik, a former Kasparov prot?g?, has been a close second. Kramnik quit smoking and lost 10 kilograms in preparation for the match and brought along a group of European grandmasters to help him prepare between games. (By contrast, Keene said, Kasparov's preparation was not so rigorous and the members of his entourage are "not nearly as high-ranking — quite feeble, really.")

Kramnik also has the advantage of having studied with Kasparov since the age of 11 and of having served on his backup team, a position that allowed him to examine closely the champion's game and way of thinking. In addition, he came to the match with a strong record against Kasparov: In 23 games, each had won three times, with 17 games ending in draws.

Kasparov, with his aggressive play, brilliant technique and well-practiced psych-out strategies, has not lost a match to a person in 15 years.

But in 1997, he lost a match to Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer built by IBM. Afterward, he accused the computer of getting unfair human help, provoking counteraccusations from members of the snippy chess fraternity, who complained that he had an unsportsmanlike attitude.