THE BLOG
11/12/2016 03:27 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2017

Even The World Chess Champion Can't Escape The Spectre Of Donald Trump

Woody Harrelson watches the opening moves of the world chess championship in New York
Zach Young
Woody Harrelson watches the opening moves of the world chess championship in New York

As he now does in all things, Donald Trump reared his head yesterday in the first round of the World Chess Championship in New York.

Things started normally. A celebrity guest, actor Woody Harrelson, played the ceremonial first move (a tradition akin to the first pitch in a baseball game). The move, chosen by Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen beforehand, was the reliable pawn-to-d4, one of the two most common opening moves. But after the reply from his opponent, Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin, Carlsen advanced his bishop in such a manner as to enter a line known by the chess cognoscenti as the “Trompowsky attack”.

“Do you think he did this because of what happened earlier this week, with Trump?” asked one of the live commentators. “I think that is giving Trump a little too much credit,” replied another.

The opening is one that Carlsen has played in the past, including in a game against the venerable ex-champion Vladimir Kramnik, so it seems safe to say that cheeky political commentary was not his intention. But the commentators had at least some reason to speculate; in October, the chess community became the latest victim of the president-elect’s talent for stirring up ill-will among groups normally untouched by presidential politics. At a rally in Ambridge Pennsylvania, while lamenting the difficulty of navigating America’s complex international trade pacts, Trump had opined, “you have to be like a grand chess master. And we don’t have any of them.”

The comment sparked bemused rebuttal from a number of prominent players, like former world champion Garry Kasparov:

… and US #3 Hikaru Nakamura (himself a bona-fide American “grand chess master”):

Although it seems unlikely that Trump was referring literally to chess players, the statement got graded by Politifact as “pants on fire.

The venue was the Fulton Market Building in lower Manhattan, where a modest crowd had assembled for the first game of the 2016 world chess championship, which has returned to the US (and to NYC) for the first time in 21 years.

Zach Young

Although it seems unlikely that Trump was referring literally to chess players, the statement got graded by Politifact as “pants on fire.

The venue was the Fulton Market Building in lower Manhattan, where a modest crowd had assembled for the first game of the 2016 world chess championship, which has returned to the US (and to NYC) for the first time in 21 years. The occasional bad Trump joke notwithstanding, the focus was squarely on the game. The first round of a world championship game is normally a quiet affair; the players are feeling each other out, probing like boxers circling one another in the ring, fists raised, for some hint of the other’s intentions. By 3 hours into the game it seemed clear that it was headed for a draw; Carlsen and Karjakin had a reached a stagnant position, with few pieces left on the board, and with few chances remaining to stir things up. Yet chess commentators have learned from hard experience never to prematurely declare a draw when Magnus is involved; his greatest talent as a player is in finding ways to preserve tension, to set his opponent little challenges that force them to keep thinking even in a seemingly lifeless position. The champion has won countless games by relentlessly grinding on long past the point when experts agreed that hope was lost, until his opponent, in the grips of the most intense mental fatigue known to man, makes some horrible blunder. That’s when Magnus pounces.

Carlsen tried this approach on Friday, but he is up against an incredibly well-prepared opponent. Karjakin is renowned as a consummate master of defense, one of the most difficult players in the world to beat. Carlsen has nonetheless had promising results against him in the past; at their last encounter in Bilbao, Spain in July, Carlsen crushed Karjakin after the Russian made a few subtle errors. One intimidating display of attacking skill later, and Magnus had taken the lead in the tournament.

One way in which a world championship chess game is not at all like a boxing match is the relationship between player and spectator. Avoiding distraction is absolutely crucial to playing in top form, and so the competitors are scrupulously insulated from the bustle of media and chess fans in the playing venue. The organizers of the 2016 match have taken this to a whole new level; the playing room is separated from the rest of the venue not only by a layer of glass, but by a long, pitch-black corridor and a set of thick blackout curtains. Walking down it feels like entering an exotic aquarium exhibit featuring a rare deep-sea creature that must be maintained in perfect silence and near-darkness. The attendees stood there in eerily dim light, peering through glass at the players. It resembled nothing if not scientists conducting some sinister behavioral experiment behind a one-way mirror.

Meanwhile on the other side of that glass, Magnus Carlsen was wracking his brains to find a way of preserving his hopes of victory. By the end of the fourth hour, they looked all but gone. Tenacious defence by the challenger had reduced the position to a lifeless equilibrium. After a perfunctory handshake, it was all over.

At the post-game press conference, FIDE press officer Anastasiya Karlovich asked the players what they thought of their isolation chamber-esque setting. “How did it feel to play in this black dark room? Do you actually feel that you were on another planet?”

“We could still hear some sounds from outside,” said Carlsen. “hoping it will be even further from this planet the next time.” The crowd laughed. In a slightly embarrassing moment, Karlovich asked the players what they thought of having Woody Harrelson make the first move. From their answers it was clear neither knew who he was.

And then came the inevitable Trompowsky question. “Can you talk a bit about your opening?” asked one reporter. “There was some speculation that it was typical Magnus humor.”

“I talked a bit about that already,” said the champion, sounding annoyed. He changed the subject. A few minutes later, another reporter, presumably a late arrival, piped up: “You played the Trompowsky,” he asked. “Was there some connection with the election?”

As a chorus of laughter spread throughout the room, Magnus gave a frustrated smile. “If I’d known how many of these questions I’d get about it I would’ve played something else,” he said.

Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin at their first post-game press conference
Zach Young
Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin at their first post-game press conference

That morning, as I and the rest of the chess press were waiting to be let into the Fulton Market Building where the game would take place, a pair of twenty-something New Yorkers passing by noticed the signs for the championship and stopped to gawk. When they saw the text denoting the length of the event (“November 11-30”) they burst out laughing. “That is SO long!”

By historical standards, though, it’s not really so long; under the arcane rules of the time, the 1984 match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov lasted for 48 games and 5 months before it was abandoned without result out of concern for the health of the players. The modern system allows for a maximum of 12 games, and in the event of a 6-6 tie, a rapid play tie-break round. That still means that the match could last until after Thanksgiving. As a championship match wears on, the players’ mental and physical stamina frays, and mistakes become more likely. The most exciting games often come later in the match, when some disastrous error brought on by mental exhaustion leads to swift punishment. We’ll see how Carlsen and Karjakin manage as the contest continues.

Check back tomorrow for coverage of game 2.

A cheerful Sergey Karjakin is interviewed after the first game
Zach Young
A cheerful Sergey Karjakin is interviewed after the first game
A young chess fan is interviewed by Russian media
Zach Young
A young chess fan is interviewed by Russian media
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