The World Chess Championship arrived in London on Friday with a blitzkrieg of breathless hype that hasn’t been seen in chess for nearly three decades.
The matchup between reigning champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana is the first title series since Garry Kasparov’s reign to pit the world’s two top players against each other. Carlsen may already be the greatest player ever but has lacked a worthy rival. Caruana is an aggressive player who could become the first American champion since Bobby Fischer. The players’ combined ratings are the highest for a World Chess Championship ever.
The chess cognoscenti sense history and dream of the next great chess rivalry, with early comparisons to Kasparov’s famed matches against Anatoly Karpov. Think of it as a budding Lakers-Celtics rivalry for the chessboard.
“This might be the first of a series of titanic affairs,” said Kassa Korley, an international master.
The 12-game match, which began with a draw on Friday as Carlsen played the black pieces, is Carlsen’s third title defense. He won the crown in 2013, retained it in 2014 and 2016 and achieved the highest rating ever. If he’s not already the best of all time, he is indisputably part of the conversation. But he has never played someone like Caruana for the world title.
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Caruana is often compared to Fischer, the late American savant who beat Soviet champion Boris Spassky in a geopolitically-charged title match in 1972. Caruana was born in Miami and, like Fischer, raised in Brooklyn. He is the United States’ most promising hope in almost half a century. Since narrowly missing the right to play Carlsen for the 2016 title, Caruana has established himself as Carlsen’s clearest rival.
Carlsen hasn’t, in earnest, had a challenger of this caliber during his reign. The Norwegian has continuously held the No. 1 ranking since 2011 and evolved from the chess wunderkind to a swaggering champion who has managed to make the board game at least kind of cool.
But Caruana is storming the castle with a run of play, including wins over Carlsen, that has created a belief his opponent has a legitimate chance.
Carlsen’s Elo rating is 2835. Caruana’s rating of 2832 is just three points lower. The last title overseen by FIDE—the international chess governing body—that featured the top-two ranked players was when Kasparov played his famous foil, Karpov, in 1990.
Self-described “obsessive learner” Max Deutsch challenged grandmaster Magnus Carlsen to a game of chess. What could possibly go wrong? Video: George Downs/WSJ. Photo: Gordon Welters for The Wall Street Journal
The chess world sees a potential parallel between those famous matches. Carlsen is still just 27 years old. Caruana is 26. So there’s a chance that no matter who wins that this could be only the beginning of an epic rivalry like the two Soviets shared with their five championship matches.
“Comparison with the Karpov-Kasparov seems to be more than justified,” Wojciech Moranda, a Polish grandmaster, wrote in an email. “I can certainly imagine those players battling it out at the highest level for the next decade or so.”
Even for a match that, before it begins, has already been compared to the game’s most memorable moments and figures, there is yet another element: a fascination between two clashing styles. In the computer age of chess preparation, strategic differences are minimal. But Carlsen and Caruana are still known for different and distinct approaches that will make this championship a test of philosophy as much as sheer skill.
“This is yet another reason why the chess world is going to be following this encounter in awe,” Moranda wrote. “Some even look forward to it in search of a deeper answer as to whether the practical Carlsenesque style or rather Caruana’s concrete approach to chess will prove to be superior.”
Chess players describe Carlsen as an acutely intuitive player. He isn’t known to be particularly aggressive. And in a mathematical game, people don’t see his tactics as overly algorithmic. Instead, Carlsen is uniquely talented at exploiting strategic advantages and particular positions over the course of a game that no other chess player might see. “I don’t think Magnus has any clear weaknesses,” Caruana says.
While Carlsen is seen as the great chess philosopher, Caruana is noted for a different approach. He is deeply calculating. In contrast to Carlsen’s noted ability to finish off end games, Caruana is said to intensely focus on the opens and search for an early edge.
That type of aggressive style is another reason experts make the Caruana-Fischer comparison, even though Caruana himself says stylistically he doesn’t think it’s quite true.
“Caruana is fearless in a way like Fischer,” said Dylan McClain, a master-level player. “He really doesn’t care who he’s playing. He’s not going to back down.”
This sets up a contrast to the 2016 title match between Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, which was distinguished by a string of uneventful matches. Observers believe Carlsen was nearly upset for the simple reason that he did not take his opponent, who was ranked No. 9, seriously enough.
Carlsen has indicated he is aware of the unique threat Caruana poses. He has conceded his recent form hasn’t been what people usually expect from him. The player known for his brilliance and bravado said that, lately, his play has been apathetic.
And it isn’t chess blasphemy to say Carlsen could lose. Although he has a winning record in his classical head-to-head matches with Caruana, the challenger enters this tournament having shown his pluck. In their last tournament together, they shared a three-way split for first. Before that, Caruana came out on top in two other tournaments.
“I know that if I continue to play in the same vein that I have been recently that I will probably not win,” Carlsen said.
Still, the champion added: “But I have great confidence in my powers to do exactly that.”
Write to Andrew Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org