Photo by Lennart Ootes
United States / Chess

The Death of Chess

It’s relatively clear that Bobby Fischer, the famously infuriating, enigmatic and opinionated American chess demi-god, recognized the importance of his 1972 World Championship match series against Boris Spassky. Cold War hyper-drama, a life in pursuit of literally one thing—world number one—and a realignment of the entire chess world, it was all there.  Yet Fischer, hours before the opening match and wanting more money, only decided to play after then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called him on the phone, telling him that “it really is the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians.” The drug of celebrity worked; after two months of playing (21 matches), Fischer emerged as the new world number one.

Fischer flew back to New York City and met a level of celebrity usually reserved for risqué teenage pop stars and heroic athletes with bizarrely forgiven characters flaws. Plastered onto the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Life Magazine, Fischer suddenly became a John Wayne-esque national hero, a household name. People actually started playing chess.

Fischer’s legacy lives on in the hearts of thousands of over-eager elementary school chess club members today. But one couldn’t fault even the most inspired enthusiast for playing the game entirely unaware of the 2014 Sinquefield Cup and its existence. In August, the tournament drew six of the world’s best chess players to compete, but like most of today’s chess tournaments, hardly anyone noticed.

Yet the tournament played host to one of sports’ greatest achievements of the past fifteen years, and certainly one of chess’ all-time great accomplishments. Between the players involved, the spectacle of the tournament, and the implications of what happened, the 2014 Sinquefield Cup became the site of an epic story that few will probably ever hear of.

A Preview

From first glance, very little about Italian chess prodigy Fabiano Caruana sticks out. Looking more like a nerdy college student than chess grandmaster, Caruana appears especially average among the field of competitors gathered at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. His compatriots range from a 23 year-old Norwegian grandmaster and model for fashion brand G-Star Raw, to a 39 year-old Bulgarian grandmaster that somehow looks like the spawn of Buster Bluth and a ferret. But, unlike his fellow chess superstars, Caruana will go on to finish the Sinquefield Cup having orchestrated one of the greatest individual performances in chess history and rocked the chess world, small as it is.

Caruana’s stage, the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, is relatively new. The first tournament took place only last year, and this year grew from four to six participants. March Madness it is not. Still, the tournament managed to grab one of the most impressive fields of players ever recorded, with the world’s first, second, third, fifth, and eighth seeds all gathering to compete last August.

Sinquefield’s world extended far beyond the reaches of a simple tournament. Its roots date back to2008, when stock broker Rex Sinquefield decided St. Louis should be the new home of American chess. He then relocated and massively expanded the World Chess Hall of Fame, built a 6,000 square foot Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, and created a community somehow entirely devoted to a board game.

Today, the community has grown from miniscule to still very, very tiny. Yet it has earned its reputation as the center of American chess, becoming America’s premier chess tournament. America’s leading chess website, which sold tickets for the Sinquefield Cup, even dedicated a small portion of the Sinquefield webpage to providing suggested lodging for the tournament’s out-of-town visitors, few as they may have been.

The favorite going into the tournament was, far and away, Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen is the clearest intellectual heir to Bobby Fischer since Garry Kasparov (another once-in-a-generation talent from the late 90’s) and the current world number one. He carries with him the same indescribable air of understanding, deeper knowledge and natural comprehension that people associated with Fischer. He first became a grandmaster at age thirteen, and, in case that wasn’t impressive enough, he’s the competitor who moonlights as a model for G-Star Raw –despite looking suspiciously angry about the size of his own head when he does try to model. He’ll come in second at Sinquefield this year.

Despite the location, America only had one entrant into the Sinquefield Cup this year: Hikaru Nakamura. Nakamura, a three-time US Chess Champion and current world #5, has faced Carlsen 26 times; he has won zero times. Yet Nakamura still boldly took Carlsen to task on Twitter last year, tweeting: “starting to realize that I am the only person who is going to be able to stop Sauron in the context of chess history.”

At one point during the tournament, broadcasters will describe Nakamura’s play as “a terrible mess” and “simply bad,” before asking if “this is too weak to be something that he’d prepared in advance, right?” The American crusader, the mythological superhero sent to save chess humanity, will go down in flames at Sinquefield, finishing in dead last.

The Tournament

The Sinquefield Cup began like almost any other tournament played in the last few years: focused on Magnus Carlsen. A small Norwegian news team, led by a beautiful blond Norwegian woman who interviews Carlsen after every match, blended in among the various chess journalists in attendance, all ready to witness the next great miracle from the Scandinavian maestro. The thought weighing on everyone’s mind had to do little with Sinquefield though: by the end of the tournament, Carlsen had to decide whether he would give in to FIDE’s wishes and play a match (allegedly) financed by dirty Russian money against a challenger (world number five Viswanathan Anand) he already beat in last year’s championship to keep a title – world champion – he has already owned for several years. Rather soon, journalists will move on (and Carlsen will decide to play the match).

Before diving into the tournament results though, one thing should be understood: winning in chess is hard. Really, really hard. As Slate’s Seth Stevenson puts it, a particularly determined grandmaster playing with the white pieces, which have an advantage because they go first, can, “choose a cautious approach and reasonably expect to engineer a draw,” against another grandmaster. To put the difficulty in perspective, in a tournament like Sinquefield, a two and a half point lead with five games left can be an insurmountable advantage.

Caruana began the tournament on the defensive, playing with the black pieces against former world number one Veselin Topalov. Topalov, the aforementioned Buster Bluth-ferret man-spawn, first came into contact with chess greatness exactly twenty years ago, at the ripe age of nineteen. Just growing into his looks, the young grandmaster stood powerless as then-world number one Anatoly Karpov demolished an entire field of superstars in Linares. At the time, people considered Karpov’s accomplishment as among the best of all time. Topalov later came and went as the world number one, but Karpov’s achievement booked a permanent place in chess lore.

Now an aging, 39 year old has-been, Topalov would have loved to make Sinquefield a noteworthy return to glory with a dominant performance against one of chess’ few young guns. It didn’t happen. Caruana, “got big with the black pieces,” against Topalov, as one commentator described the performance, and finished the first round in impressive fashion. Still, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred – yet. Even in the second round, commentators could chalk Caruana’s victory against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (or MVL, as the chess world knows him) up to a bizarre decision from the Frenchman. To the uninitiated (me), MVL’s “mistake” looked like little more than messing around in the beginning of the game, when the moves don’t even really matter anyways. But to the experts, MVL’s decision to move his pawn one square forward to c6, as opposed to two squares forward to c5, made a world of difference. Caruana immediately capitalized on his encyclopedic knowledge of chess strategy; one square made all the difference.

Caruana’s next win—against the almighty Carlsen—came with caveats too. A few apologists claimed that Carlsen was distracted by his looming decision over the title fight he never wanted, and thus couldn’t be at the top of his game. Nevertheless, Caruana took hold of the black pieces and still eviscerated a player touched by some higher power in chess. People noticed. It wasn’t huge—Caruana’s run still felt like a remote possibility—but it mattered.

After three games, Caruana had three points. And after his fourth, he had four. The fifth game, facing America’s Hikaru Nakamura, brought yet another, at which point it became clear that the man couldn’t be stopped. Nakamura, usually an adept player, didn’t stand a chance; he was simply out of his league. Despite Nakamura’s tournament-long struggles, however, Caruana’s win carried significant weight.

Caruana had systematically devoured everyone at the tournament. The world’s third-ranked grandmaster, playing a game where the world’s best start with an advantage and hope to engineer a draw, showed no signs of stopping.

People already struggled to find comparisons for Caruana’s run. Commentators immediately thought of Karpov’s Linares decimation, when he ended up winning six straight games before Garry Kasparov took him to a draw. A few other tournaments came up too, but the magnitude of Caruana’s run had left a deep impact. His field was stronger than Karpov’s and, not to be discounted, he was still going. For Caruana, the sky was the limit.

Caruana’s scenery

The tickets to go see Caruana’s eighth game—a momentous rematch between the now almost-Sauron-esque chess titan Caruana, fresh off his seventh straight win, and ego-bruised superstar Carlsen—sold for $15 each. If we’re being generous, 300 people ended up attending. In case interested viewers didn’t want to front the ticket price though, the tournament held commentary for every match at Lester’s, a nearby sports bar. A more subdued atmosphere could be found across the street at the World Chess Hall of Fame as well, where the interested chess patron could find an intellectually stimulating real-time analysis of each game (A count for the patrons at each establishment has not been provided).

Before Caruana even moved his first piece against Carlsen, the gravity of his previous seven wins had been felt. After losing to Caruana in his sixth match, MVL said Caruana’s streak was “the most amazing thing [he’d] seen by quite some margin.” Another commentator, Maurice Ashley, noted that “We’re gonna need to start calling him Fabiano Fischer.” A grandmaster named Ben Finegold claimed that Caruana’s 7-0 was “like the impossible happening right before our eyes.”

When Caruana eventually drew to Carlsen, the chess world collectively dropped back down to Earth. He ended up going on to draw his last three games, putting his overall record for the tournament at 7-0-3. His performance left him with eight and a half points out of a possible ten, a comfortable, to say the least, margin of victory. Even with the psychological blow of losing his absurd streak, Caruana went on to draw the last three games of the tournament, giving him the highest individual tournament performance rating ever recorded. Sinquefield’s players would have put the power of The Avengers to shame, but the world’s best legitimately couldn’t muster a single win over Caruana.

Carlsen and his supposed distraction showed what an uncommonly poor performance from one of the world’s greatest gives: second place. The gap in records between the two tells a better story though. While Caruana ended up with seven wins, Carlsen managed a meager two, drawing seven others and losing one.

It’s unclear whether Federica Mogherini, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, plans on reaching out to Fabiano Caruana. The chances of a Time Magazine or Sports Illustrated cover seem low. Most will never hear about Caruana’s accomplishment and people won’t care the slightest if he eventually makes anti-Semitic and anti-Italian comments. For many, he’ll be a complete nobody. But for those who recognized what occurred during the end of August in a quiet corner of St. Louis at America’s second-ever Sinquefield Cup, Caruana’s achievement couldn’t be more impressive.