The event of the year draws ever closer – on 11/11 the world title match between Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin kicks off. Unsurprisingly, news tidbits are now coming thick and fast as various factions start to ratchet up the excitement. Here is an overview of the latest developments by Grandmaster Jonathan Tisdall.
Norwegian news front
First, some news from the champion’s home country. Matt & Patt had the scoop on TV 2 reporter Kaja Snare being snapped up by Agon. The organizers have since announced that Judit Polgar will be heading the commentary team a story that is far easier to find if you are on their mailing list than from visiting their site.
Norwegian daily Dagbladet unveiled more coverage glamor, announcing that Entourage star Adrien Grenier is the latest Agon attraction for the event. The actor will lead the match’s opening ceremony. The newspaper cites Carlsen manager Espen Agdestein saying that both of them are fans of the show.
A public announcement of a change in the Carlsen team also made Norwegian news headlines. The champ’s long-time pal and team coordinator Jon Ludvig Hammer has chosen alternative employment for this cycle, preferring to be part of newspaper VG’s match coverage team.
In an interview with Dagbladet, Hammer confessed that he had been captivated by the idea that the VG studio coverage would be done in New York, but this had proved to be prohibitively expensive. The Norwegian number two admitted that he had turned down an offer to once again manage Carlsen’s opening preparations for the match, and said he didn’t know how Magnus had taken it.
«Is there any bad blood between you after this decision?» Dagbladet asked. «I hope not,» was Hammer’s terse reply.
Exactly who is working for Carlsen remains a well-kept secret, with only chief second Peter Heine Nielsen publicly acknowledging his continued service. The Carlsen second guessing game is a tough one, since he has had all sorts of guest assistants and has never been fully forthcoming about his entire team.
Besides his usual busy schedule of promotional activities, Magnus has been shifting his focus to match preparation. Still, a hugely public display of online blitz formats is not a traditional way to warm up for a title match. If there was anything to take away from scrutinizing Carlsen’s lightning games it is that he has absolutely uncanny endgame prowess, particularly under pressure.
One thing Magnus did say, when questioned by Chess.com after their BlitzBattle final between him and speed king Hikaru Nakamura, was «I’m in the Caribbean, and I’m definitely preparing for the World Championship.»
Scrutiny at home
As most of the chess world has heard by now, fever for the game has reached startling heights in Norway thanks to having a world champion. The first match vs Anand in Chennai caused chess sets to sell out across the country, and made the game prime time viewing fought over by state and commercial TV, as well as various news and online organizations.
With Carlsen’s third match around the corner, there has been plenty of fascination and speculation about the local hero meeting a contemporary, and a Russian.
A month before the match Team Carlsen began to implement ‘the bubble’, withdrawing from public view, shielding Magnus from distractions, and implementing a policy of silence. According to VG, approaches from major outlets including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Al-Jazeera have been turned down as preparation reached the crunch stage.
This in turn means that coverage at home has had to get more creative, with everything from Carlsen retrospectives to quizzing political commentators for new angles. With typical Norwegian calm, Dagbladet’s specialist in Russian politics Morten Strand rebuffed any attempts to give the clash a geopolitical spin.
«Yes, the match is taking place on American soil. And a Russian is taking part. Of course it will be a little feather in Putin’s cap if Sergey Karjakin beats Magnus Carlsen in New York – but not much more than that,» Strand said, before concluding: «It means very little politically. Magnus Carlsen is no Bobby Fischer. Magnus Carlsen is Norwegian.»
And Carlsen is certainly not fanning any flames. He has openly admitted that as a kid he looked up to his then more promising contemporary, and they have developed no animosity as their careers progressed.
«There could be a (match) parallel that Fischer and Spassky had very great mutual respect despite being far from each other politically,» Magnus told VG, adding that he had nothing resembling the grudge against Russians that Fischer had. «Clearly there are tensions in the world, but I have zero problems with Karjakin.» Carlsen said the greatest contrast was that Fischer had been the underdog in 1972, while he has «everything to lose» as clear favorite against Karjakin.
Other aspects of the domestic media’s scrutiny of their chess hero’s activities included a look at his hotel suite in New York.
Besides salivating over how luxurious and expensive the suites are at the Ritz Carlton Battery Park – 5000 dollars a night, though presumably the organizers have negotiated a better deal – VG reported that the usual core of ‘Team Carlsen’ – father Henrik, manager Espen Agdestein, chef Magnus Forsell and physician Brede Kvisvik – would all be on site. The hotel has been chosen so that walking to the venue is an option, and because of its 24-hour training facilities.
With my friend Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the match Miami-San Antonio! What a fight?! Proud to touch the ball during the game?! pic.twitter.com/fyMVZxq4b4
— Sergey Karyakin (@SergeyKaryakin) October 31, 2016
One thing I can corroborate from my experience as Norway’s team captain at the Baku Olympiad is the champion’s renowned focus on physical exercise, and his fairly well known love of basketball. The first assignment I had after Magnus arrived in Baku was … finding a handy basketball court.
Speaking of which, this allows for an odd segue. Team Karjakin have made no secret of their early arrival in the US to acclimatize, and their headquarters for pre-match preparation and relaxation has been Florida. Apparently Karjakin also appreciates the American game:
Shakh and Serge also appear to be NBA hoop fans.
Azerbaijan’s number one, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has been a prominent Karjakin second, lending an element of creative aggression to the mix, and former Carlsen assistant Vladimir Potkin has been working with the Russian challenger for some time. In an early Matt & Patt piece about second skullduggery I speculated that another Carlsen chum and occasional analyst, Ian Nepomniachtchi, seemed to be hanging around Karjakin a lot, and might also be part of the challenger’s team – this has now been corroborated.
Carlsen fans may have noticed with some unease that the core of Team Karjakin has been hot lately. Mamedyarov won – and dominated – the powerful Amir Timur Rapid Round Robin Tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. And ‘Nepo’ has been in incandescent form, first at the Baku Olympiad and then winning the Tal Memorial super-tournament, in the process finally leaping up around the world top ten, currently just a handful of rating points behind his boss, and at a level that his childhood results seemed to promise.
Point of view
And it is this kind of resurgence that gives me pause while contemplating the approaching championship. Sitting in Norway, looking at Magnus’ record and rating, having seen him in action close up, and knowing his competitive character, it is hard to imagine Carlsen relinquishing the title to a player currently ‘just’ in the world top ten.
But there is no shortage of ways to view an event, and there are multiple narrative points of view. Nepo was Magnus’ chief rival in multiple world kiddie events, and edged out the slightly younger Norwegian then. And Karjakin, a few months older than them both, was once the world’s greatest prodigy, the youngest ever GM, consulting with the world’s top players when before and barely a teen. He was surely seen by many as world champion apparent.
The Russian pair have not quite lived up to their early promise. Instead, Magnus reached unheard of heights at a dizzying pace. But now, there must be more than a hint of feeling that their time is coming, and that this match can be far more dramatic than many anticipate.
Although the VG TV series warming up for the match is in Norwegian, there is certainly understandable material of interest for those unversed in the mysteries of this obscure language. This episode features Hammer and VG in Manhattan, and looks back at Magnus’ formidable memory.