The last time an American challenged for the world chess championship it was seen as an almighty clash of civilisations: west versus east, capitalism against communism, a cold war by proxy fought over 64 squares between Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Boris Spassky.
The reigning world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, with Fabiano Caruana (right).
Chess has never been as cool or relevant since that epic contest in 1972. But at the launch of the 2018 world championship match between the Norwegian champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his US challenger, Fabiano Caruana – which begins in London on Friday – organisers promised that a global audience of millions would tune in for the most anticipated match in a generation.
“Chess stars are the boxing champions of the 21st century,” insisted the CEO of World Chess, Ilya Merenzon, which has a accrued a €1m prize fund for the event. “Smart is sexy, and for three weeks we’ll have an amazing experience watching the smartest people in the world battle it out for the title.”
Carlsen, the highest-rated chess player in history, has held the world title since 2013. Such is his popularity in Norway that all 12 matches in London will be shown live on prime-time TV. He has also modelled for the fashion company G-Star Raw and endorsed Omega watches and Porsche.
But the 27-year-old, who was such a childhood prodigy that he was described as the Mozart of chess, has been struggling to hit the highest notes recently. And among experts there is a sense that Caruana, one year his opponent’s junior, might just spring an upset.
“It is like a boxing bout,” admitted Caruana, who was wearing the fashionable US label Thom Browne at the press conference. “There’s unlikely to be a quick knockout, so the aim will be mainly to try and outlast my opponent.”
Inevitably, the prospect of psychological warfare on the board came up – understandable given that both players will be sitting barely a metre from each other for up to eight hours a day. During the 1951 world championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein, for instance, one onlooker noted that at the end of each game both men were “wreathed in beads of sweat, such was their toil”. While during the Moscow Marathon between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov – which lasted five months and 48 games – Karpov lost 10kg in weight.
“Psychology will play a huge part,” Caruana told the Guardian. “Part of Carlsen’s success is that he has a very stable psychological demeanour. He rarely gets rattled, and when he loses a game he brushes it aside. Of course, the fact this is his fourth world championships is also in his favour. I will have to learn on the fly, but I feel I am more than ready for the challenge.”
To prepare for the biggest challenge of his career, Caruana has been running most days and doing yoga in between intense bouts of study. The American is known for his deep opening preparation and finding theoretical novelties that have never been played before – the chess equivalent of a thunderous serve in tennis – as well as deep calculating ability. When Carlsen was asked to describe him in one word he instantly replied, “computer”.
The Norwegian, however, is still widely regarded as the favourite. However, in recent years he seems to have been afflicted by a dangerous search for ultra-perfection. Recently his sister Illen even suggested that, if he loses, “the chance of him retiring, short-term, is a real possibility”.
However, when Carlsen was asked whether he saw himself as the favourite or underdog, the alpha dog in him finally came out. “It has been a while since I have considered myself an underdog, to be honest,” he said, smiling. “If you have been the No1 ranked player in the world for seven years and have won three world titles in a row, then there is something seriously wrong with your psyche, I think.”
It makes for an intriguing contest, especially given Carlsen’s official rating of 2,838 is just three points ahead of his challenger, according to the sport’s governing body, Fide. Most observers expect a long and attritional battle, which is right up the Norwegian’s street given he is famous for suffocating his opponents to a slow death over several hours.
Not that he is taking anything for granted. “Fabiano is a tremendous player,” he said. “His results this year speak for themselves. I know if I have to continue to play in the same way I have been playing recently, I will probably not win, so I need to step it up. But I have great confidence in my powers to do exactly that.”
The players have played 33 times in a classical format in their careers, with Carlsen leading the head, with 10 wins to five and 18 draws. However, Caruana’s brilliant form in recent months makes him believe he can boldly tread in the footsteps of Fischer – and perhaps even become a breakout star in the US.
Indeed one of his managers, Eric Kuhn, who was previously a Hollywood talent spotter, told the Guardian that “American brands are at the forefront of the cutting edge and they are taking very atypical role models these days. Fabiano is perfect for now. Nerdy is the new sexy.”
For now, though, he has a battle over the board to win. “I feel like it is more or less 50/50 contest,” Caruana told the Guardian. “It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but in terms of playing strength we are so evenly matched in playing strength that is also fair.” Many agree with him. The next 19 days, however, will provide the ultimate test of mind and body.