While many were enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with their families and good friends, two young, brilliant men were in the last rounds of an intense bout for the title of world chess champion. Mild-mannered American Fabiano “Fabi” Caruana challenged the incredible Norwegian chess monster and defending world champion Magnus Carlsen in a 12-game match. Their playing arena was a soundproof glass cube at The College, in London. Game 12 was this past Monday and a tiebreak match occurred this past Wednesday.
Can I say it was the most thrilling chess event in the last three decades? Can I say that it had every chess fanatic on the edges of their seats, that it was a series of changing fortunes, crushing blows, impossible recoveries and vicious counter attacks? I wish I could. I really wish I could. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a good match during which some of the best chess on earth was played — it just wasn’t “good TV.”
It also wasn’t on the average American’s radar. When Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, it was a sensation in the United States. Dubbed the “Match of the Century,” this 21-game showdown changed the landscape of chess. It ended 24 years of Soviet dominance and it propelled the popularity of the game in this country. The PBS broadcast of the 1972 World Championship match is still the most popular TV chess show in history.
The game experienced a steady decline in popularity for a long while after the famous match. In 1972, The New York Times published 241 articles on chess — about three a week. The same publication ran only 28 chess stories in 2011. But chess is beginning to gain in popularity again due to its seamless integration into the digital age. It’s estimated that there are now more games played daily online than there are played with pieces and a board.
There’s also more chess in schools than ever. Parents and teachers are recognizing the benefits the game has on children, including higher test scores in both math and reading, longer attention spans, better problem solving skills and improved behavior. On top of that there is a big push for chess in America by influential people from billionaire orphan Rex Sinquefield to former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov to the first African-American Grandmaster Maurice Ashley.
If chess isn’t as popular as it was 40 years ago, certainly the strength of the players in America has increased greatly. The number of grandmasters in this country has exploded since the ’70s — just last year the U.S. had three players ranking in the top seven in the world. The best of the three is Fabiano, currently rated No. 2 in the world.
Even so, your average American was not following the world championship. Maybe if we were in a cold war with Norway things would be different.
So what can I say about this match between two chess geniuses, both of which were child prodigies earning the title of grandmaster before the age of 15? It was, for lack of a better word, drawish. Following the match was a little disappointing as day after day the ties added up. Many of the draws were hard-earned, like the seven-hour, 115-move first game of the match. Some were exciting, like the draw that occurred after Caruana beautifully defended a strong kingside attack from Carlsen in Game 10. The final draw was a strategic move in itself. Carlsen offered the draw in game 12 after achieving a superior position. Caruana, who was in a worse position and down on time, accepted. This final draw set a record. Never before has there been a world championship match without a single decisive game.
This draw also led the players into the tiebreak round which consisted of a rapid playoff of four games. If this playoff didn’t resolve the match then a blitz playoff was to follow. Not only is Carlsen a better rapid player that Caruana, he is also a much better blitz player. So, Carlsen’s draw offer in game 12 was a solid stratagem, and one that paid off. His domination in the rapid playoff was as expected. He won 3-0.
I have to say that I was really excited about the idea of a boy from Brooklyn, the home of Bobby Fischer, winning the world title. Fabi listens to hip-hop, practices yoga and is friends with people I’ve actually met. I had to root for him. But if someone were to ask me whose chess I enjoy more I would have to say Carlsen’s without hesitation.
Carlsen helped move the chess world from the memorization of impossibly long opening lines (like the Sicilian Najdorf whose lines go beyond 20 moves) to the use of opening systems where you only have to learn a few moves to play a decent game (like the London System). Instead of relying on deep, sharp opening lines, he often played something basic but solid and then used his natural talent and experience to outplay his opponent in the middle game. This is a more human chess, a chess that emphasizes imagination.
Carlsen relies on his intuition to determine many of his moves. This allows him to make good decisions faster. He might not always pick the objectively best move but he will usually pick a very good one. Caruana doesn’t trust his intuition as much and instead relies on his incredible calculation ability. He calculates what would happen as the result of making any one of a set of “candidate moves” that he has chosen. Every chess player has to do this at some point but stronger players can often avoid it by recognizing patterns in the position. Calculation is more precise than pattern recognition and intuition but it takes much more time. In a rapid game, the intuitive player is usually at the advantage — and so it was on Wednesday.
With this last performance Magnus Carlsen, has made his case for being the best of all time a bit more obvious. He has achieved the highest rating in history, and has been world champion since 2013. He has successfully defended his title three times, which is incredibly hard to do these days with so many strong grandmasters in the world. In 2014, besides winning the Chess World Championship he also won the World Rapid Championship and World Blitz Championship, making him the first and only player to simultaneously hold all three titles. But whether or not Carlsen is the best of all time, he has certainly proven himself to be the best of our time.
Rick Holland is an utterly average chess player, but displays an above-average enthusiasm for the game.