LONDON – The United States has waited 46 years to crown a world chess champion, but the wait goes on following American Fabiano Caruana’s loss Wednesday in London to Norway’s reigning champion Magnus Carlsen after a three-week, nail-biting battle.
Carlsen, 27, pockets $860,000 for his victory; Caruana, $700,000.
The Norwegian won the title after a contest that included more than 600 moves, 50 hours of play, a leaked video and a black eye. Miami-born and Brooklyn-raised Caruana was hoping to be the first American to be world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972.
“I am really happy,” Carlsen said after match. “I feel I did a good job of work today.”
Still, a victory for Caruana would have represented a milestone for the game.
Fischer defeated the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky in a so-called Match of the Century held in Reykjavík, Iceland. It was billed as a major sports confrontation between two Cold War adversaries and it arguably attracted more global interest in chess than at any other time, not least because the Soviet Union had dominated the game at the very highest level since World War II. Fischer was also an eccentric character who was outspoken in his criticism of the Soviet Union. Before matches, he drank orange juice.
In fact, the last time an American captured chess’ highest accolade five White House operatives were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in what became the Watergate Scandal. The Dow Jones stock index ended the year at 1,020. A pair of Wrangler Jeans cost 12 bucks. Gas was 55 cents a gallon.
And Carlsen, 27, who was defending his crown for the third time, is considered to be as close to a “chess celebrity” as the modern game has. He became a grandmaster at age 13 and has attracted glitzy sponsorship and media interest that has seen him appear on billboards and on the sides of buses in his native Norway. His participation at the World Chess Championship in London received blanket coverage in his home country.
“Even Magnus’ dog is famous in Norway,” said Ilya Merenzon, CEO of World Chess, the organization that holds the commercial rights to the championship. “Norway actually closed down for this match. They closed banks. Nobody went to work,” he said.
Merenzon said that the game of chess is now bigger than when Fischer was playing largely because more than a 1 billion people play it on their smartphones.
“For these guys, Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are like Kim Kardashian five times over,” he said, referring to the model and reality-TV star. “And this match was like Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier,” he added, a reference to the Fight of the Century, a legendary boxing match between the two fighters in New York City in 1971.
Merenzon, originally from Moscow, said that Russians no longer dominate the game. Rather, apart from Norway’s Carlsen, it is Chinese, Indian and American players who consistently who score best at the international level. He said that in the USA there are four “hubs of popularity” where chess gets the most attention: No. 1 is Wall Street.
“Whenever investment bankers hold events with Carlsen or other chess champions it’s like Jesus coming,” he said. “Chess is a proxy for intelligence. They like that.”
The second “hub” is Silicon Valley. Merenzon said technology chiefs are “head over heels” for the game and that chess greats get to meet with “all of the top people over there” such as Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The third is Los Angeles. “All the actors love it,” he said, noting that Woody Harrelson made the first ceremonial move when the championship opened in London on Nov. 9. And the fourth is St. Louis, where American financier Rex Sinquefield heavily promotes the game, he said.
For a game whose intricate, tense drama can be hard to appreciate for those who don’t follow it closely, the contest between the American and Norwegian came down to a final tie-break. Even after 12 regular games, the pair played a series of rapid-fire sequences that lasted for 25 minutes plus and 10 additional seconds per move.
Carlsen was in command of Wednesday’s showdown from the start, winning 3-0.
There was a spectacle of a different kind earlier on in the tournament, too. A video showing Caruana’s training strategies at his base in St. Louis appeared on YouTube ahead of Game 4. While it was quickly deleted, such training strategies are a closely guarded secret and the chess press gathered in London spoke of a possible scandal.
Carlsen then showed up for Game 9 with a black eye sustained during a weekend soccer game. Before play resumed, he needed to be cleared for a concussion.
Arkady Dvorkovich, president of the World Chess Federation, the game’s international governing body, said that chess is “one of the greatest tools to improve your intellectual ability: memory, logic, strategic thinking,” especially for kids.
“It is a real combination of sport, art and science,” he added.
He predicted that countries with a large population and that emphasize science and technology, such as China and India, would dominate the game going forward.
“Numbers matter,” he said.
But Eric Kuhn and Mehreen Malik, Caruana’s co-managers, said Caruana should not be written off despite losing Wednesday in London.
“He’s made chess relevant and cool again in America,” Kuhn said, citing large interest from American media in his progress at the championship.
“He’ll take time to take stock, his preparation has been so intensive,” said Malik, who noted that while chess is not traditionally viewed as a game that attracts a large female following, about half of the fans attending Wednesday’s final were women.
“The women’s part of the game is being missed,” she added, adding that chess is one of the few sports where women can compete with men on the same platform, although there has never been a female world champion and most grandmasters are male.
In a post-match press conference, Caruana said he was disappointed to lose.
He said he “gave it everything” he had and hoped he help put “this beautiful game back on the map in America and hope it will inspire a new generation of players.”
For him, there was consolation from a familiar corner: Dad Lou and mom Santina.
“He was discovered at an early age. And you never really know with a prodigy. Is he going to go to No. 1 in the world? No. 10?,” Lou told USA TODAY on the sidelines of the event Wednesday. “I did win one game against him,” he added. “A long time ago. I think he was 7-years-old. He wasn’t paying attention. I haven’t played him since.”