Long bat­tle ex­pected as world’s top two meet

Or­gan­is­ers hope for large global au­di­ence as Carlsen plays Caru­ana

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Si­mon In­gle in London

The last time an Amer­i­can chal­lenged for the world chess cham­pi­onship it was seen as an almighty clash of civil­i­sa­tions: west ver­sus east, cap­i­tal­ism against com­mu­nism, a proxy cold war fought over 64 squares be­tween the Amer­i­can Bobby Fis­cher and the Russian Boris Spassky.

Chess has never been as cool or rel­e­vant since that epic con­test in 1972. But at the launch of the 2018 world cham­pi­onship match be­tween the Nor­we­gian cham­pion, Mag­nus Carlsen, and his Amer­i­can chal­lenger, Fabi­ano Caru­ana – which be­gan in London yes­ter­day – or­gan­is­ers promised that a global au­di­ence of mil­lions would tune in for the most an­tic­i­pated match in a gen­er­a­tion.

“Chess stars are the box­ing cham­pi­ons of the 21st cen­tury,” in­sists the chief ex­ec­u­tive of World Chess, Ilya Meren­zon, which has a ac­crued a ¤1 mil­lion prize fund for the event. “Smart is sexy, and for three weeks we’ll have an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence watch­ing the smartest peo­ple in the world bat­tle it out for the ti­tle.”

Carlsen, the high­est-rated chess player in his­tory, has held the world ti­tle since 2013. Such is his pop­u­lar­ity in Nor­way that all 12 matches in London will be shown live there on prime-time TV. He has also mod­elled for the fash­ion com­pany G-Star Raw and en­dorsed Omega watches and Porsche.

But the 27-year-old, who was such a child­hood prodigy that he was de­scribed as the Mozart of chess, has been strug­gling to hit the high­est notes re­cently. And among ex­perts there is a sense that Caru­ana, one year his op­po­nent’s ju­nior, might just spring an up­set.

“It is like a box­ing bout,” said Caru­ana, wear­ing the fash­ion­able US la­bel Thom Browne at the press con­fer­ence. “There’s un­likely to be a quick knock­out, so the aim will be mainly to try and out­last my op­po­nent.”

Psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare

Inevitably the prospect of psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare on the board came up – un­der­stand­able given that both play­ers will be sit­ting barely a me­tre from each other for up to eight hours a day. Dur­ing the 1951 world cham­pi­onship match be­tween Mikhail Botvin­nik and David Bron­stein, for in­stance, one on­looker noted that at the end of each game both men were “wreathed in beads of sweat, such was their toil”; while dur­ing the Moscow Marathon be­tween Ana­toly Kar­pov and Garry Kas­parov – which lasted five months and 48 games – Kar­pov lost 10kg in weight.

“Psy­chol­ogy will play a huge part,” Caru­ana said. “Part of Carlsen’s suc­cess is that he has a very sta­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal de­meanour. He rarely gets rat­tled, and when he loses a game he brushes it aside. Of course, the fact this is his fourth world cham­pi­onships is also in his favour. I will have to learn on the fly, but I feel I am more than ready for the chal­lenge.”

To prepare for the big­gest chal­lenge of his ca­reer, Caru­ana has been run­ning most days and do­ing yoga in be­tween in­tense bouts of study. The Amer­i­can is known for his deep open­ing prepa­ra­tion and find­ing the­o­ret­i­cal nov­el­ties that have never been played be­fore – the chess equiv­a­lent of a thun­der­ous serve in ten­nis – as well as deep cal­cu­lat­ing abil­ity. When Carlsen was asked to de­scribe him in one word he in­stantly replied, “com­puter”.

Favourite

The Nor­we­gian, how­ever, is still widely re­garded as the favourite. How­ever, in re­cent years he seems to have been af­flicted by a dan­ger­ous search for ultra-per­fec­tion. Re­cently his sis­ter Illen even sug­gested that, if he loses, “the chance of him re­tir­ing, short-term, is a real pos­si­bil­ity”.

How­ever, when Carlsen was asked whether he saw him­self as the favourite or un­der­dog, the al­pha dog in him fi­nally came out. “It has been a while since I have con­sid­ered my­self an un­der­dog, to be hon­est,” he said, smil­ing. “If you have been the No 1 ranked player in the world for seven years and have won three world ti­tles in a row, then there is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong with your psy­che, I think.”

It makes for an in­trigu­ing con­test, es­pe­cially given Carlsen’s of­fi­cial rat­ing of 2,838 is just three points ahead of his chal­lenger, ac­cord­ing to the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, Fide. Most ob­servers ex­pect a long and at­tri­tional bat­tle, which is right up the Nor­we­gian’s street given he is fa­mous for suf­fo­cat­ing his op­po­nents to a slow death over sev­eral hours.

‘Tremen­dous’

Not that he is tak­ing any­thing for granted. “Fabi­ano is a tremen­dous player,” he said. “His re­sults this year speak for them­selves. I know if I have to con­tinue to play in the same way I have been play­ing re­cently, I will prob­a­bly not win, so I need to step it up. But I have great con­fi­dence in my pow­ers to do ex­actly that.”

The play­ers have played 33 times in a clas­si­cal for­mat in their ca­reers, with Carlsen lead­ing the head, with 10 wins to five and 18 draws. How­ever, Caru­ana’s bril­liant form in re­cent months makes him be­lieve he can boldly tread in the foot­steps of Fis­cher – and per­haps even be­come a break­out star in the US.

In­deed one of his man­agers, Eric Kuhn, who was pre­vi­ously a Hol­ly­wood tal­ent spot­ter, said “Amer­i­can brands are at the fore­front of the cut­ting edge and they are tak­ing very atyp­i­cal role mod­els these days. Fabi­ano is per­fect for now. Nerdy is the new sexy.”

For now, though, he has a bat­tle over the board to win. “I feel like it is more or less 50-50 con­test,” Caru­ana said. “It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but in terms of play­ing strength we are so evenly matched that is also fair.” Many agree with him. The next 19 days, how­ever, will pro­vide the ul­ti­mate test of mind and body.

– Guardian

PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL CHILDS/REUTERS

Fabi­ano Caru­ana (left) shakes hands with Mag­nus Carlsen (right) be­fore the start of their first match in London yes­ter­day.

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