Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
Twenty-six-year old Fabiano Caruana, born in Brooklyn, used to play chess at Manhattan's Marshall Chess Club when he was so little that the club stacked books on a chair for him to reach the table. Grown men remembered losing to the then-8-year-old boy.
On Nov. 28, a roomful of grandmasters and former opponents gathered around a TV at the club to watch Caruana (whom everyone simply calls “Fabi”) in his final game for the World Chess Championship in London. Fabi–with his suit jacket, skinny frame, curly hair, and glasses–was trying to unseat the champion from Norway, Magnus Carlsen. Fabi was the first American to challenge a world chess champion since Bobby Fischer.
The underdog American’s valiant effort to unseat Carlsen, whom some consider the greatest chess player of all time, ended in tiebreaks and heartbreak. Still, it was the most evenly matched championship in a long time, and Carlsen said Fabi was the toughest competition he had faced in his four classical championships. This match set up a promising rivalry for years to come.
For three weeks, the American and Norwegian champ battled, with some games lasting seven hours. On a rest day in the middle of the match, Carlsen sustained a head injury while playing soccer. Doctors worried he had a concussion, but it turned out to be just a black eye and he played on.
All 12 games ended in draws. Under old rules, the reigning champ would retain his crown if the classical games ended in a tie, but now a tie leads to a day of tiebreaker games, starting with rapid chess, where Carlsen excels.
On this final day, Bryan Quick, the head of the Marshall Chess Club, had just flown in from watching the match in London to catch the tiebreaks in New York. Though Fabi is a New Yorker, the city had few public events to watch the matches, which took place during the work day and over Thanksgiving. As Quick got the TV set up, a longtime member of the Marshall Club wandered in.
"He’s still got that rook on b2, huh?” said Mark Wieder, chewing gum. Wieder recalled Fabi being so “polite and deferential” as a boy that people worried he didn’t have the competitive fire to be a top player.
Another top chess player stepped in, Leif Pressman, who played Caruana when he was 9 and Fabi was 5. He still remembered the outcomes of all the games they ever played: He beat Fabi four times, Fabi beat him 18 times. Yuri Omelchenko, a teacher who snuck into the club during a break for a few minutes to watch, had also played Fabi at the club when Fabi was 8 years old, and lost to him.
In the corner stirring instant coffee was grandmaster George Kacheishvili, who offered a review of the 12 classical games leading up to the tiebreaks. He thought Caruana’s classical chess play was sharper than Carlsen’s.
Many chess commentators agreed that Caruana showed more creativity; but Carlsen also had two games in which he had winnable positions and missed them. Quick said many of the draws were incredible games that had expanded chess theory.
In the rapid tiebreaks, Caruana lost the first game to Carlsen in mostly respectable fashion, but the second game was a disaster for him. The normally unflappable 26-year-old looked visibly upset—three weeks of close-fought ties ending in a few minutes of rapid chess agony.
“Oh Fabi, Fabi,” said Kacheishvili, mournfully.
In the third, must-win game, Fabi showed some fight, but what looked like a potential win fell apart quickly as time ticked down. Irina Krush, the seven-time U.S. women’s chess champion, leaned back in a chair at the Marshall Club.
“For a second it looked like he had something,” said Krush. “Oh, so sad. It’s hopeless.” She watched a few more moves, and Fabi’s situation went from some chances to win to a loss.
“This is so painful,” said Krush. “At least if he had won one.”
Fabi did interviews afterward, calm and collected again, and the grandmasters at the Marshall Club discussed how much they liked him as a person. That’s good for the sport, because top players like Fabi and Carlsen who are likable translate to good sponsorships of tournaments, which means more money for everyone playing. The last American champion, Fischer, was a public relations nightmare—making horrible remarks from denying the Holocaust to praising the 9/11 attacks.
What’s promising for chess: This championship had stronger viewership than the recent past, with many streaming the games online. Most chess fans watched on Twitch, where Chess.com had a stream regularly playing to 50,000 viewers. Old standbys like Chess24, which has one of the best commentary teams, had similar streaming numbers, with their videos reaching half a million views by the end of the games. The Norwegian channel NRK announced that a record 3 million had viewed some part of the matches in Norway, which has a population of 5.3 million.
“It’s maybe the best match ever, at least in terms of the number of mistakes,” said Alexander Grischuk, one of the top players in the world, commentating on the championship for Chess24. But he added: “At the top level, something must be changed … it’s just a little too boring.”
Grischuk suggested shortening the time of classical games. Carlsen himself at the end of the match advocated for moving championships more to rapid and blitz games, which are more exciting and spectator friendly.
But even without an American world champion, the Marshall Club’s Quick sees a renaissance in American chess. At a recent youth chess championship, many of the young players were from the Marshall Club. In the 1960s, the United States had about seven grandmasters, Wieder estimated, and now there are at least 90 here. Wesley So, currently rated the 10th best chess player in the world, is also American (we profiled So earlier this year).
“Chess is taught in every school in New York City. It’s in the culture,” said Quick. “That’s how you get Fabiano Caruana.”