Political undertones still lurk at World Chess Championships
Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin are engaged in fierce competition in New York
Bryan Armen Graham in New York
Chess has dropped almost completely from the public eye in the four decades since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky waged their Cold War proxy battle in Reykjavik. This month’s world chess championship match in New York City will do little to reverse that course despite the organizers’ best intentions, but early returns suggest the taut showdown between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin may not be as straightforward as initially suspected.
It marks the first time New York has played host to a world title match since 1995, when Garry Kasparov retained his title against Viswanathan Anand on the 107th-floor observatory deck in the south tower of the World Trade Center. For the past week Carlsen and Karjakin have faced off in a sound-proof studio within a sleek purpose-built arena on the third floor of the Fulton Market Building, only four blocks east from where the towers once stood. A one-way mirror allows spectators to watch the players in action, by themselves save for two silent arbiters, lending a terrarium-like feel to the spectacle. Prices range from $75 for general admission to $1,200 for VIP lounge access, where ticket-holders can suck down vodka cocktails and rub elbows with grandmasters, financiers and the odd celebrity. Woody Harrelson, an avid player himself, spent most of the first two days taking challenges from passers-by on the outdoor balcony overlooking the East River while Carlsen and Karjakin faced off inside.
The best-of-12-games match began last Friday Friday, with each contestant awarded one point for a win and a half-point for a draw. So far Carlsen and Karjakin have drawn all five games they’ve played and enter Friday’s sixth meeting deadlocked at 2 and a half-all. Whoever reaches six and a half points first will be declared the champion, earning the winner’s share of a roughly $1.1m prize fund.
Carlsen, who is 25, was already regarded as the world’s best player even before he saw off Anand for the championship in Chennai three years ago and is the closest thing to a star in the sport today. He’s done ads for Porsche, modeled for G-Star Raw alongside Liv Tyler and Lily Cole and enjoys a massive presence in his native Norway, where NRK is broadcasting the games in prime time. He is handsome and media trained, perhaps overly so, giving off the air of an unthreatening playboy. His peak rating of 2882 is the highest in history, a point frequently cited by those who have called him the greatest player ever.
Karjakin, 26, earned the right to challenge for the title in March by making it through the Candidates Tournament in Moscow, where he defeated a series of higher-ranked opponents, among them Brooklyn’s Fabiano Caruana. He was born in Ukraine, where he became an international grandmaster at 12 years old (a record that still stands), but adopted Russian citizenship in 2009. He is married with a son, an avowed supporter of Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Crimea, and speaks with a stutter that surfaces more in English than his native tongue. He is ranked ninth in the world.
Karjakin is a player in the classical mold known for his resilience. Carlsen is known for his adaptability, which enables a flair for the unpredictable not commonly seen among top players. “[Carlsen] has practically no weaknesses,” the Russian said at last week’s pre-match press conference before more than one hundred credentialed media.
Any expectations of the political intrigue and paranoia associated with the sport’s golden age were not disappointed. Israel Gelfer, the vice president of the world chess federation, spoke on behalf of the governing body only because Fide president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was barred from entering the country due to his ties to the Syrian government and the Central Bank of Syria. At one point Carlsen fielded a question over the rumors that he’d enlisted Microsoft for cybersecurity consultation over concerns Karjakin’s team were trying to hack his preparations. No fewer than two questions were posed about Fischer-Spassky, never mind that Carlsen and Karjakin were years away from being born when the Match of the Century took place.
This time around in New York, the chess eventually went off, no doubt to the organizers’ relief, and it didn’t take long for the first surprise. Carlsen, handling the white pieces, played the seldom-used Trompowsky Attack in Friday’s first game, a seldom-used opening he’d later confess was at least partially inspired by the name of America’s newly minted president-elect. The Norwegian played fast and it seemed like he’d outprepared his rival, but Karjakin managed to scratch back to force a mostly forgettable draw after 42 moves. Karjakin played the far more familiar Ruy Lopez in Saturday’s second game, prompting a Morphy Defense from Carlsen. That also ended in a draw, this time on the 33rd move.
After Sunday’s rest day the players reconvened for Game 3, a white-knuckler of a contest that saw Karjakin recover from a misstep on his 30th move before defending brilliantly as Carlsen tried to press his advantage and draw first blood. But after seven tense, excruciating hours, Karjakin managed to salvage a draw when the champion missed a move in the endgame that would have assured checkmate.
Moments later, they agreed to a draw after 78 moves. That left a short turnaround for the following day’s game, where Karjakin recovered yet again to force a 94-move marathon that ended in another draw and kept the match level.