Chess ti­tle Ac­tor fluffs his cue as stars hit the board

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Sean In­gle

The open­ing match of a world chess cham­pi­onship is usu­ally a tense and twitchy af­fair. But as Fabi­ano Caru­ana and Mag­nus Carlsen sat down to play in Lon­don yes­ter­day, it was a Hol­ly­wood star who made the first blun­der.

As dozens of pho­tog­ra­phers hov­ered around the board be­fore the start, Woody Har­rel­son, who had been cho­sen to make the cer­e­mo­nial first move on be­half of Caru­ana, ac­ci­den­tally knocked over the white king.

To make mat­ters worse, Har­rel­son then mis­heard the Amer­i­can player and played his white queen’s pawn for­ward two squares rather than his king’s pawn – much to the amuse­ment of the Nor­we­gian Carlsen, 27, the world cham­pion, and the crowd who were blocked off from the play­ers by a gi­ant glass screen.

Very quickly, how­ever, things got se­ri­ous as the two best play­ers in the world headed for a sharp and un­usual Si­cil­ian po­si­tion with op­po­site-sided castling.

Caru­ana, 26, who hopes to be­come the first Amer­i­can since Bobby Fisher in 1972 to be world cham­pion, is renowned as an open­ing ex­pert. But de­spite hav­ing the ad­van­tage of the white pieces, he found him­self un­der pres­sure from the early stages - with Carlsen, who has held the world ti­tle since 2013, press­ing hard dur­ing the fourth hour of play af­ter riskily giv­ing up a pawn for a ven­omous at­tack.

Most had ex­pected a cau­tious start to the cham­pi­onship, which is due to con­tinue for two-and-a-half weeks, with few risks taken. In­stead there was fire on the board. Such is Carlsen’s pop­u­lar­ity in Nor­way, there are 15 jour­nal­ists in Lon­don to cover him. Ev­ery move of this 12-game match will also be shown live on NRK, the equiv­a­lent of BBC One in Nor­way.

Carlsen has long been a celebrity back home. By the age of five, when his fa­ther in­tro­duced him to chess, he could re­cite the pop­u­la­tions of all 422 Nor­we­gian mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and name all the world’s cap­i­tals. By 13 he was a grand­mas­ter and al­ready spo­ken of in hushed tones. Fide, chess’s gov­ern­ing body, says he is the high­est rated player in his­tory.

Yet Caru­ana, the world No 2, is a se­ri­ous chal­lenger. When he was young his par­ents es­ti­mate that they spent as much as $50,000 (£39,000) a year pay­ing for coaches and train­ing be­fore he started mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant money in his late teens.

That could look a wise in­vest­ment if the Amer­i­can claims the ¤600,000 (£525,000) win­ner’s prize – es­pe­cially given the en­dorse­ments that will also come his way if he tri­umphs. The loser, in­ci­den­tally, will walk away with ¤400,000.

Spec­ta­tors at the Col­lege in Hol­born were also able to en­joy live com­men­tary from Ju­dith Pol­gár, the best fe­male player in his­tory. Among those riv­eted by the ac­tion was the Os­car-nom­i­nated US film di­rec­tor Ben­nett Miller, who knows a thing or two about slow-burn­ing drama.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TRIS­TAN FEWINGS/ GETTY IM­AGES/ WORLD CHESS

Mag­nus Carlsen (left) and Fabi­ano Caru­ana at the Fide World Chess Cham­pi­onship in Lon­don yes­ter­day

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