The Battle of London

Magnus Carlsen og Fabiano Caruana på pressekonferansen i London i dag. Foto: World ChessMagnus Carlsen og Fabiano Caruana på pressekonferansen i London i dag. Foto: World Chess

Fabiano Luigi Caruana, chess world champion, 2018. It’s a thought that presumably gives the reigning champion nightmares.

by Morten Fosse.

Maybe Magnus Carlsen should grow a moustache and wear a big, puffy red hat with an “M” on the front, to be sure Luigi makes no mistake recognizing that his superior, Mario, is sitting on the opposite side of the table. Of course, Mario isn’t Luigi’s antagonist, rather, he is his big brother and accomplice in the hunt for Bowser, a master of his trade, and perhaps it is fitting that these two, Magnus and Luigi, having risen together to the elite level of world chess, sits down by the board as brothers and go hunting; not for Bowser’s head and princess Peaches favour, rather, there’s a goddess favour they’re chasing, the one of Caïssa.

MAGNUS THE FIGHTER

Chess has some funny phrases, like when it is said that two strong players in a chess game “discuss” an opening or a position over the board. It sounds like they sit and explicitly converse about the position in front of them, but this of course isn’t the case. In fact, such a conversation is not allowed. Not a word is uttered during a game. Rather, the conversation is expressed through the moves on the board, where the players explore whether the position is in fact as one earlier has thought, or whether there are unknown possibilities for either player to be found.

In all cases, I imagine this phrase tells us something about a part of the chess culture: chess experts have indicated many top players lay down their arms if they find themselves in a position that seems even and clarified, especially a few years ago. Herein lies something civilized and diplomatic, in accordance with what one might imagine – from the choice of wording – peaceful conversations over the board.

It was in this culture Magnus rose to the top – but he wasn’t here to converse – he was here to fight. His style has become known as fighting chess in Norwegian. To play out a position that seems even is of course not new. Even so, Magnus has made this his style.

Another thing that adds to the mix, is how Magnus fights. His fighting are no blitz attacks, at least, not usually. He gets the game underway, seemingly almost indifferent, effortlessly moving a few pieces to get the formalities over and done with. As the game evolves, his moves are subtle, but not harmless. He operates like a python, slowly squeezing the opponent, gradually making life cramped, scary and paranoid with a sense of looming danger.

Sometimes even Magnus must accept offers to draw, but not if he sees the slightest chance of winning. This is not news to Caruana, however. And Caruana too goes for the jugular if he can smell blood miles away. Both of them will know that the slightest misstep will certainly result in hours of blood and sweat defending an inferior position.

HEAVYWEIGHTS

“Fabi” Luigi Caruana has a mild presence. In interviews he comes across as soft spoken, sympathetic, patient and reflected, a gentleman hard to dislike. However, mistaking these favourable traits as a sign of weakness, is a potential trap for which Magnus will not fall. Caruana has the third highest chess rating ever achieved, only exceeded by the towering Garry Kasparov and of course Carlsen. 2844 was Caruana’s peak this far, after his brilliant 3104 tournament rating performance in Sinquefield Cup 2014.

However, the numbers are clear. It is Magnus that has shown a most impressive stability at the very top of the rating chart (even though he recently was very close to handing the top spot over if he had lost his last game). It is Magnus that has the positive score in games between the two. Still, Magnus is no Floyd Mayweather Jr. in this duel; these are two heavyweights that have both delivered and received fatal blows against each other. There are not many who has five victories to show for against this world champion in classical games, albeit against Magnus’ nine the other way around.

The intelligent Caruana has an aura of tenacity about him. He is, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter described detective Will Graham, “purposeful looking.” As a fourteen-year-old, Caruana was asked by the New York Times what his long-term goal was. He replied: “I guess I want to be world champion.” His cautious choice of words says more about his humble demeanour (and perhaps young age at the time) than of his drive to be the best. Caruana lets his chess moves do the talking, and very elegantly so. And he knows that the numbers and ratings doesn’t matter. The only thing that matter is the chess moves, in November, guided by the players skills, intuition and experience.

Now there’s less than one day left till they are seated on stage in silence, with their minds racing with complicated ideas and combinations, over a board which will creak under the weight of complicated, even positions, full of strategic and tactical motives, bonds and threats. In the end, Caïssa will make the judgement and settle the score, which she will do when the first player reaches 6 ½ points. Either Magnus will expand his dominance, or we will have the first American champion since Robert Fischer beat Spassky and figuratively the whole Soviet Union, bare handed, in 1972.

Sources:
Sjakkgeniene. Historien om verdensmesterne, Atle Grønn og Hans Olav Lahlum, 2018. (Not published in english yet, roughly translated “The Chess Geniuses: The story about the world champions,” by authors Atle Grønn and Hans Olav Lahlum, 2018.)
The New York Times

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