Grandmaster clash: Wall Street glued to chess duel
Published: Wednesday, 6 Nov 2013 | 11:06 AM ET
By: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera | CNBC Chief International Correspondent 

Some of Wall Street’s biggest names are focused on India this week, but it’s not the country’s current account deficit that’s catching their attention. It’s a chess tournament—one of the most highly anticipated in decades.

Harvard professor and author of “This Time Is Different” Ken Rogoff, financier Chris Flowers and hedge fund manager Doug Hirsch of Seneca Capital, just to name a few, are all chess aficionados and focused on the World Chess Championship 2013, the first game of which takes place on Saturday in Chennai, India.

Reigning champion Viswanathan Anand, age 43, faces off against 22-year-old upstart Magnus Carlsen of Norway—nicknamed the “Mozart of Chess” because of his meteoric rise at such a young age.

“Many people regard the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen as the greatest chess talent to come along since perhaps Bobby Fischer,” Rogoff told CNBC.

According to British betting house Ladbrokes, Carlsen is the odds-on heavy favorite. Hirsch is in that camp—he has a bet on the Norwegian winning the title. Hirsch knows Carlsen personally and traveled to see him play last month in St Louis at the Sinquefield Cup.

Hedge fund manager Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital, who gained renown for being on the other (winning) side of the JPMorgan “London Whale” trade, told CNBC that he thinks “Magnus Carlsen will win handily, despite Anand’s home-field advantage.”

Defending champion Anand grew up in Chennai.

But Rogoff isn’t convinced of Carlsen’s invicibility. “He’s not nearly the prohibitive favorite that many of his followers think. He doesn’t have the experience of playing these matches. Anand has seen it all. It’s always hard for the person who’s trying to win the first time. It’s much easier for the person trying to win the fifth or sixth time.”

Flowers sees it as a game for the ages—literally.

“We have youthful energy and exuberance from one of the greatest chess prodigies of all time pitted against age and experience. Since I am considerably older than the defending world champion, there is a part of me who wouldn’t mind seeing age and experience do OK,” said Flowers, who is 56.

Besides being so far apart in age, the competitors are also far apart in style. Rogoff used a tennis analogy to compare the two.

“Anand has the bigger serve, and Carlsen is more of the baseline, persistent player,” he said. “Carlsen in particular just has an indomitable will to win. He aims for quiet positions where nothing seems to be going on and says, ‘Well, nothing’s going on, but you’re going to lose.’ Whereas Anand sparkles at everything, but particularly in very complicated positions, and he’ll try to steer Carlsen into these messier things, where Carlsen maybe has less of an edge than in simpler positions.”

Thanks to the Internet, the promoters of the event say it will be the most watched chess match in history. Hirsch told CNBC that he will watch online.

“Chess is a very Internet-friendly game,” Rogoff said. “You not only see the game, but you get commentary, see people’s views, what’s going on. You see pictures of the players. It’s as good as if you were standing in the next room. Chess is actually pretty advanced when it comes to the Internet, so indeed people all over the world will be following this.”

—By CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera


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