Ghost of Bobby Fischer haunts chess ri­vals

Caru­ana and Carlsen dress to im­press ahead of their gru­elling world ti­tle bat­tle in Lon­don, says Si­mon Briggs

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

On Thurs­day af­ter­noon, 150-odd peo­ple crowded into the back of a dark room in cen­tral Lon­don. Up on the dais sat Mag­nus Carlsen and Fabi­ano Caru­ana – a pair of well-groomed twen­tysome­things, who last night be­gan a gru­elling bat­tle for the World Chess Cham­pi­onship.

The press con­fer­ence had been go­ing for around 15 min­utes when the in­evitable ques­tion ar­rived. “Fabi­ano, are you the new Bobby Fischer?” About half the at­ten­dees – the ones who have never pos­sessed a World Chess Fed­er­a­tion (FIDE) rat­ing – perked up at once. The rest, mostly grand­mas­ters, ei­ther rolled their eyes or tut­ted.

“We haven’t had a world cham­pion who has gone crazy for 43 years,” groaned Mal­colm Pein,

The Daily Tele­graph chess colum­nist. “Yeah, there should be some statute of lim­i­ta­tions,” chimed a col­league. The prob­lem for Pein and co is that Fischer’s no­to­ri­ous ma­nia – he had his fill­ings re­moved, be­liev­ing that the Sovi­ets were beam­ing ra­dio sig­nals into his head – fits pub­lic per­cep­tion of chess play­ers.

The abil­ity to think half a dozen moves ahead feels like magic to or­di­nary mor­tals, so we see wild-haired ec­centrics – Gan­dalf, per­haps, or Al­bus Dum­ble­dore – in our mind’s eye. Yet the re­al­ity is that it takes stamina to con­cen­trate so in­tensely for six or seven hours. As a re­sult, most top play­ers are trim and ath­letic.

From a glance, you may have imag­ined th­ese two to be foot­ballers, or the lead­ing man and side­kick from a Hol­ly­wood rom­com. Carlsen – who has mod­elled for G-star and Omega watches – ar­rived prep­pily dressed in a jacket and open­necked shirt. Caru­ana opted for the col­lar-free styling of US brand Thom Browne. And not a tin­foil hat to be seen.

Born into a fam­ily of Ital­ian-amer­i­can im­mi­grants, Caru­ana’s most ob­vi­ous link to Fischer is that they both grew up in Brook­lyn. He ad­mires Fischer’s ma­cho style, de­scrib­ing his more fa­mous fore­bear – who used to steam­roll op­po­nents like some cog­ni­tive Mike Tyson – as “the one player who has al­ways blown me away and in­spired me”. But when Thurs­day’s ques­tion came in, he de­flected it with typ­i­cal poise. “It’s very flat­ter­ing but, in the course of our life cy­cle, I don’t think the com­par­i­son is quite true.”

You can see why the world finds it so dif­fi­cult to let Fischer go. His bat­tles with Boris Spassky and Ana­toly Kar­pov boiled the Cold War down to one neat vis­ual metaphor: a pair of chess su­per­pow­ers, fight­ing over a stylised map.

But those days can­not be re­cap­tured, any more than ten­nis can re­gain the raw pas­sion of the John Mcen­roe-jimmy Con­nors era. Ev­ery sport has be­come more cor­po­rate since the un­fil­tered 1970s. Fans have learned to adapt, re­al­is­ing that im­proved lev­els of skill and pro­fes­sion­al­ism can make up for the de­cline in open hos­til­ity.

Per­haps we should try a dif­fer­ent ten­nis par­al­lel. Carlsen, with his ef­fort­less play­ing style and su­per-con­fi­dent man­ner, has been de­scribed as chess’s an­swer to Roger Fed­erer. While Caru­ana, who has a quiet in­ten­sity, could be com­pared to No­vak Djokovic: the chal­lenger back­ing him­self to de­throne the game’s great­est cham­pion. (This is true in sta­tis­ti­cal terms, at least, as Carlsen achieved a record FIDE rat­ing of 2,882 in 2014.)

What­ever hap­pens, the com­ing days rep­re­sent the big­gest event in British chess since Nigel Short chal­lenged Garry Kas­parov for the world ti­tle in 1993. Carlsen – Nor­way’s favourite son

– is look­ing for his fourth straight vic­tory at this level. But Caru­ana, who would be­come the first Amer­i­can world cham­pion since 1975, is play­ing for some­thing even grander: the chance to lay Fischer’s rest­less ghost.

‘Fischer is the one player who has al­ways blown me away and in­spired me’

First move: Caru­ana (left) and Carlsen pre­pare to play

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