When Magnus Carlsen walked into the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan nearly three weeks ago for the red-carpet opening of the world chess championship, he was in high spirits. The man who was about to challenge him for his title, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, was no doubt a tough opponent. But Karjakin had only ever managed to beat Carlsen once in their nearly two dozen encounters. Magnus had a fight ahead of him, sure. But like the rest of the chess world, he must have fancied his chances.
Things didn’t go as planned. Over the next few weeks, the champion’s attacks crashed against his challenger’s defenses like waves against a brick wall. In the first seven rounds neither player was able to draw blood. The games were frequently tense, complex, 6+ hour struggles but again and again they ended in draws. By this same point in his first title match against Viswanathan Anand of India in 2013, Carlsen was up by two wins to zero and appeared to be coasting to victory. In the rematch the following year, by game seven he was up by two wins to Anand’s one. In both cases the momentum was clearly on the Norwegian’s side.
But this time, to the shock of the chess world, Magnus cracked first. In game 8, Karjakin gained a small advantage and pressed it home for hours, with relentless accuracy. In the latter phase of the game, the “endgame”, the champion overestimated his position, a cardinal sin in chess. Carlsen went down.
He shocked chess fans again a few minutes later, when, flustered by his defeat, he stormed off the press-conference stage where the players are meant to talk to the press after each game. The press conferences are a contractual obligation for both players, and Magnus faces a potential 5-figure penalty for his tantrum. Agon Unlimited, the company putting on the championship, has been cagey about details, but they have revealed that Carlsen has appealed the fine.
Two rounds later, Magnus hit back to level the score. As the players prepare for the final game, it sits at an even 5.5 - 5.5. If Monday’s game is a draw, the match goes to rapid tie-breaks, the chess equivalent of penalty kicks. Magnus Carlsen, whom many had considered almost unbeatable, is confronting a brand new reality: he might lose the world championship.
Way back on November 12th, day two of the match, I spoke with a Spanish chess journalist named Leontxo García. Himself an accomplished chessmaster, García is a veteran of the world championship circuit; for 30+ years he’s covered the sport for his country’s biggest newspapers and for Spanish radio and television. I asked him if he felt the 26-year old Karjakin would be capable of challenging Carlsen more than the 44-year old Anand had.
“Probably he will,” García told me. “It’s a question of age. Anand is a genius - he’s a five-time world champion. But when he played Carlsen, he was already in decline as a chess player. Karjakin is at the height of his career. Energy is very important in a contest like this one.”
People often laugh when they hear about chess grandmasters engaging in physical fitness training or cross-country running. When the English player Nigel Short was preparing for his 1993 match against Garry Kasparov, he was chatting with a trainer about his weight-lifting regimen and the latter quipped, “Ha! Are the pieces that heavy?” But there’s a reason that the world chess champion tends to be between the ages of 22 and 35. Cardiovascular fitness and physical endurance have a direct effect on a player’s ability to sustain their concentration during the marathon-length games a world championship entails. Playing at the level of Carlsen or Karjakin takes a type of mental exertion that the average person can scarcely comprehend. When Carlsen played Anand, the crucial moments in the games often came after 5, 6 hours of play. The middle-aged Anand, pushed to his mental breaking point by the stress of endless concentration, would finally snap and make some terrible mistake. Then Carlsen would clean up.
When Magnus Carlsen first appeared on the international chess scene in the mid ’00s, it soon became conventional wisdom that the prodigy from Norway was a future world champion. Year after year he scored dazzling wins against the world’s most established and dominant players. In an earlier era, when Garry Kasparov dominated the game, there was a saying in the chess world. “When Garry plays in a tournament, the question is not who will come in first but rather who will come in second.” By 2010 it seemed that the same could be said of Magnus. And he was only 19.
Carlsen has faced challenges in his still-young chess career. He has faced losses - bitter ones, even. But the prospect he faces today - that one wrong move could cost him his coveted seat atop the chess world - is something entirely new. Today we’ll see whether this is a psychological disadvantage for the champion or whether it will provide him with the motivation he needs to play his best. “Magnus is known to like challenges,” Leontxo García had told me earlier in the match. “He doesn’t like lying low and being very cautious. He now sees that he’s facing a tough rival, but I don’t think he’s going to back off. He’s going to take risks.”
The are some chess players who simply can’t tolerate the thought of not being #1. When Garry Kasparov retired from competition in 2005, he still held the top spot in the world rankings. For thirty years, the name Kasparov had been synonymous with chess genius. His matches against Anatoly Karpov had become legend, the most intense and thrilling rivalry in the game’s history. His match against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997 captured the attention of the world unlike any previous chess event. It came as a surprise when Kasparov lost his title to a fellow Russian, Vladimir Kramnik, in 2000, but Garry retained his #1 ranking (as for the arcane distinction between being #1 and being world champion, for now let’s just say that they’re not the same). Five years later, he was still a top performer on the tournament circuit and could have continued to make a comfortable living from the game. So why’d he step aside? The simplest explanation is that Garry simply saw the writing on the wall; if he stuck around, he would soon be #2. After thirty years, Kasparov’s self-image was said to be so fundamentally wrapped-up in his status as #1 that the mere idea of being anything else just didn’t compute.
Then there’s the game’s most famous premature retiree: the American world champion Bobby Fischer. He won the championship from the Soviet Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, in the most famous championship match in chess history. Three years later, he abdicated rather than defend his title against a younger Soviet challenger, Anatoly Karpov. If you ever meet a chess player and you’ve got some time to kill, ask them why they think Fischer walked away. Everyone has their own theory. Personally, I wonder if Fischer just felt he had too much to lose.
It’s clear Carlsen wants very badly to remain champion. But how badly?
The first match between Karpov and Kasparov, in 1984, lasted 5 months and 48 games before it was abandoned out of fear for the players’ health. Leontxo García covered that match, early in his chess journalism career. When I talked to him after game two, I asked him for his predictions about how this month’s match might unfold. The rules have since been changed to prevent the games from dragging on endlessly, but twelve rounds at this level is still a marathon. “I think we’re going to see a much more even and exciting match than many thought, myself included,” he told me. Yesterday in the first game, Karjakin showed that he is extraordinarily well-prepared. [In game 2] he showed that he’s no longer afraid of Carlsen. Because today there were a few moments in which Karjakin could have simplified the position and forced an easy draw, but instead he invited Magnus to complicate the game. That’s very significant. It indicates that Karjakin has a lot of faith in himself.”
“You say he no longer fears Carlsen,” I asked García. “Do you think he used to?”
“I suppose so,” he said. “It’s a matter of numbers. If we look at their previous games, there have been four wins for Carlsen, one for Karjakin, and sixteen draws. Those numbers probably wouldn’t make one feel very confident.”
Yet during the match the Russian has showed supreme confidence. Very few players can resist Magnus in this kind of endurance format; his great strength is his ability to maintain a flawless standard of play late into the game when his opponent’s powers begin to fade from exhaustion. Many simply wilt before the Norwegian’s sheer presence and their fear of his reputation. Karjakin has done neither.
“I can’t be sure,” Leontxo García told me, “but probably during Karjakin’s training he’ll have had a psychologist, specialized in sports, who will have helped him in that regard… he has total support from Putin’s government, an army of Russian grandmasters that have helped him train, and a lot of money for his period of training and preparation.”
“And today he sent Carlsen a message,” García added. “Magnus, I’m not afraid of you.”