Chess Championship: black and white, mad all over

The World Chess Championship offered a glimpse into a sport that’s weird and wonderful as Norway’s Magnus Carlsen came up against Fabiano Caruana from the US.

A tiny white speck gleams out of the grey of Fabiano Caruana’s jacket where his left biceps might have been. His sleeve embraces, mostly, rumpled emptiness. On the available evidence, Caruana doesn’t have any biceps. But he doesn’t need them to move 16 small objects around the 64 squares on a board atop a table just more than a metre long and not quite a metre wide.

Miami-born, Brooklyn-raised Caruana, a chess grandmaster for the last dozen of his 26 years, could be the product of what happens on a backseat in the sludgy hours after a horny gecko walks into a bar to find, all alone and lonely, Woody Allen. Happily, Caruana is better looking than the old man. Alas, he is nerdier.

Across the table is Magnus Carlsen, bearing up under a glacier of a fringe. Ever wondered what Matt Damon would look like fronting a boy band? Wonder no longer. Carlsen, a Norwegian, is the kind of man you want to reach out to and swat for thinking it’s okay to still be a brat mere days away from your 28th birthday.

His offerings at press conferences are loosely connected spits of “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”, and when Russian chess grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik question his tactics, they are summarily swept aside and entitled to their “stupid opinions”.

Asked who their favourite players are, Caruana goes for Bobby Fischer, the mad genius and the last American to win the world chess title, in 1972. Carlsen? “Probably myself, like, three or four years ago.”

Maybe that’s what happens when you are anointed a grandmaster at 13, become the youngest world No. 1 at 19, win the world championship at 22, and are proclaimed, by those who know, the best exponent yet of a 1 500-year-old pursuit.

Weird world of the chess championship

Caruana and Carlsen are contesting the World Chess Championship, and not in 26 years of writing about sport for a living have I encountered anything as weird. The odd couple are in the soundless sterility of what amounts to a vast fish tank. On the other side of the double glazing, the audience skulks in the darkness as though in a cinema, but sans popcorn or anything else that might make the slightest noise.

I’m acutely conscious of the sound my pencil makes in my notebook, in which I will scrawl 82 incredulous pages before the afternoon is out. Twice I wear the lead down to the wood, so twice I have to sharpen the damn thing.

As I do so, I can feel, on the back of my neck, the jellied eyes of giants. They are Men in Black. Two descend on a spectator who sneaks out a phone to snap a picture. One reads him the riot act in a shattering whisper. The other uses a massive hand to blot anything the phone might do while its jittery owner turns it off again.

A bearded behemoth swivels his railway sleeper of a brow, pivots on his heel and, nostrils flared, freezes when a jug-eared eight-year-old in the front row does the unthinkable and waves at his own reflection in the plate-glass window. The skinny arm drops and the hovering goon loses interest. The kid doesn’t know how close he’s come to years of night terrors.

Someone sneezes. The sound rips through the room like a fart at a funeral.

How the hell did we get here? The stone-walled, marble-lined, glass-domed facade of 12 Southampton Row, Holborn, London, makes for a grand Victorian pretence that all is ordinary on this dull, autumnal weekday afternoon. Inside, madness is afoot.

Our bags are subjected to near forensic searches. We agree to hand in our phones or turn them off – properly, not just set them to silent – and put them in sealable plastic bags and out of sight. Flashing wristbands trudge along blacked out tunnels. And we’re the press, who get in for free. On the last day, tickets sell online for the equivalent of R2 190.

A marathon of draws

It’s 3pm. Caruana scuttles buggishly to the chair facing the white pieces. Carlsen saunters in, begrudges a handshake. We’re off. The first 11 games of the match, which started on 9 November, have been drawn. If there’s a winner today, it’s over.

A pattern is established. Caruana sits forward, elbows on the table, chin and cheeks in hands, gaze firmly down, like a boy watching ants, agonising for an aeon over each move. Carlsen’s ants are in his pants. His reactions to Caruana’s actions are swift. He is usually not in his chair and not even in view. He removes his jacket with a matador’s flourish, hangs it over his chair and strides out of the scene. He returns, flicks his cuffs away from his wrists with an expansive jerk of his arms, makes his move, bolts upright, exits. When he spends longer than a moment seated, he shapeshifts between scowling and frowning.

In the space of a few seconds, he sits forward, elbows plonked on table, hands on temples, moves one hand to his lap and uses the other to cover his mouth, leans back, crosses an ankle over a knee, uncrosses his legs and puts the other ankle over the other knee, undoes all that, leans forward and low, hands in his lap, chin close to his pieces, sits up straight, twiddles a pawn a square forward, gets up, lurches away.

Through all that, Caruana sits forward, elbows on table, chin and cheeks in hands, gaze firmly down, perfectly still and somehow sad. “The World is Watching,” is printed in a wispy cursive font on the side of the table. What, exactly, is there to watch? After two hours, 57 minutes and 40 seconds, we don’t have an answer. But we do have another draw.

That prompts a tiebreaker of 25-minute games two days later, which Carlsen wins three-zip. After 20 days, 773 moves and 51 hours of play, a champion arises. He earns the equivalent of R8.5 million, and smiles and waves his trophy. He looks a little less punchable than at the press conference after game 12, where he glared with contempt at the notion that he should have to beat someone to prove his obvious superiority.

Caruana doesn’t do badly, earning R6.9 million. You got the feeling, watching him at the previous presser, he would apologise to Carlsen for being alive. Good thing, probably, he doesn’t know that, on the sleeve of his jacket, where his biceps might be, a white speck gleams still. 

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