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
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