Champion Magnus Carlsen became a grandmaster at 13 and has held the world title since 2013, having shown an almost otherworldly ability for chess that once saw him play 10 people at once and beating them, writes Dan Buckley
Chess aficionados in New York still salivate over the moment a Brooklyn-bred grandmaster, Robert James Fischer, stunned the world champion Boris Spassky and took his title in 1972.
The Americans are banking on Fabiano Caruana, another chess prodigy who also grew up in Brooklyn, to be the new Fischer and take the crown from World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen from Norway.
Starting today in London, Caruana will become the first American to challenge for the championship since Fischer last did in 1975. He will take on Carlsen in a $1m, 12-game match played over three weeks at The College, a 10,000sq ft venue in Holborn.
Carlsen is 27 years old, and has held the title since 2013 when he defeated then world champion Viswanathan Anand of India. Regarded internationally as one of the greatest chess talents who ever lived, he became a grandmaster at the age of 13 years, four months and 27 days and continues to reign supreme in a sport played by more than 500m people.
Carlsen and Caruana have a lot in common. The American earned the right to challenge the world champion by winning the World Chess Federation tournament (known by its French acronym FIDE) in March of this year in Berlin. He is 26 and earned the grandmaster title when he was aged 14 years, 11 months and 20 days.
Many people don’t regard chess as a sport, because there are no vigorous bodily movements by the players but, as anyone who plays it at high level will tell you, it is more duel than game and can be more brutal than boxing, in effect a martial art of the mind. That is because, at championship level, the objective is not only to win but to demolish and even humiliate your opponent. That can take longer than a game of cricket, without the tea breaks.
The best players need extraordinary endurance, so most are young. Of the top 20 players in the world, only four are older than 40. The youngest is 20.
Chess has changed over the last four or five decades. Today, smart boards and smart pieces are equipped with digital technology that streams live the pieces’ location on the board at every moment, and tournament announcers use computer algorithms to analyse the moves as they are made. The YouTube channel for FIDE shows hundreds of videos with titles such as “25 minutes of Sergey Karjakin thinking”.
Carlsen, the youngest No 1 ever, another child prodigy who has displayed mental agility that seems out of this world, prompting the Washington Post to dub him the “Mozart of Chess”.
That sense of other-worldliness was captured by the American news channel CBS in 2012 when they filmed him, at the age of 21, playing against 10 people simultaneously. In chess grandmaster terms, that is not unusual. What was unusual about this particular bout was that Magnus played all 10 with his back to the board, forcing him to keep track, while effectively blind, of the positions of 320 pieces and an infinite number of possible moves. He came out on top.
He repeated that stunt at Harvard Law School and afterwards, instead of an autograph, he gave one of his beaten opponents a move-by-move account of the whole bout, written from memory.
Whether myth or not, it is part of the Carlsen legend that at the age of four he could focus on Lego for six hours at a stretch. He could also recite the populations of all 422 Norwegian municipalities and name every capital city in the world.
He is also something of a chess history buff. During the 2016 world championship he was asked which was his favourite Bobby Fischer game. He picked a game from the 1964 US championships which Fischer won with an 11 out of 11 score. That contest attracted huge interest in the US, even among those who had never seen a chess board, let alone played one.
American Alejandro De Jesus still remembers it.
“It was played back in the ballroom of the Henry Hudson Hotel at 353 West 57th Street in New York City,” he recalls in a YouTube reflection. “I was 20 and working as a bellboy in that hotel and didn’t know who Bobby Fischer was, nor anything about chess.”
It wasn’t until he was drafted to Vietnam the following year that De Jesus learned to play chess.
“I didn’t take it seriously until I was in college in 1972 during the Bobby Fischer great performance.”
That “great performance” was when Fischer won the World Chess Championship, defeating Boris Spassky of the USSR in a match held in Reykjavík, Iceland. Publicised as a Cold War confrontation between the US and the USSR, it attracted more worldwide interest than any chess championship before or since.
Today’s contest in London is unlikely to have such geopolitical connotations, yet the outcome will be looked at on both sides of the Atlantic with more than passing interest. It will see two different personalities at play. Caruana is a studious, borderline nerd, Carlsen has a swaggering, bad-boy demeanour. They also exhibit different approaches to the game.
Carlsen said about his opponent in a recent interview: “His playing style is very concrete. He calculates very, very well and deep. He is well prepared and he loves the centre. Caruana often sacrifices pawns, gives his opponents passed pawns, accepts attacks towards his king in order to achieve control of the centre. So, in terms of chess understanding, this is what I would assess that we are the most different on. He values the centre a lot.”
The American challenger views the upcoming contest in more martial terms. “It’s sort of like boxing or mixed martial arts,” Caruana told Time magazine.
“It will be a fight that is blow for blow, with each of us trying to get the upper hand, trying to impose our will on the other guy. It’s not a physical sport, but if people are into these one-on-one duels, chess is in a way similar to that.”
For online access to the world championship series, go to worldchess.com. It costs $20 (€17.55). Other chess websites will provide free viewing, with a likely delay in move transmission.
The history of chess can be traced back around 1,500 years, starting in the north of India, spreading throughout Asia and Arabia and on to Europe.
An ancient legend suggests it began with an encounter between a tyrannical Indian king, Shihram, and a wise man in his kingdom. The wise man wanted to convince Shihram of the importance of each one of his subjects so he invented a game to represent the kingdom consisting of the king himself, his queen, rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns. The king liked the game very much and understood that the game was just like real life. So, he ordered everybody in his kingdom to play chess.
Another ancient tale puts its origin in China. The legend says that chess was invented around 200BC by a commander, Hán Xin, who invented the game to represent a battle he had fought.
Chess made its way via the expanding Islamic Arabian empire to Europe.
The rules of chess changed numerous times until the 1880s, the so-called romantic era of chess.
The first official World Chess Championship was hosted in 1886. The late 20th century revolutionised chess with the invention of databases and chess engines.
In 1997 world champion Gary Kasparov lost a sixgame match to IBM’s computer, Deep Blue. From the early 2000s chess websites and online games have been bringing it to a worldwide audience.