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Reigning chess world champion Magnus Carlsen, right, from Norway, plays American challenger Fabiano Caruana (Matt Dunham/AP)

Sports

A rivalry is born

After a fierce battle with an American challenger, Magnus Carlsen retains his World Chess Champion title

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.”

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Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/AP

Olson directs the band after playing in his first NCAA football game. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/AP)

Sports

Faith without sight

Blindness hasn’t stopped Jake Olson from achieving football dreams and inspiring others

Facing the loss of an eye to cancer for the second time—and mentally preparing to go through life blind—young Jake Olson turned to God in prayer. Olson, now 21, believes God responded by giving him a sense of strength and peace and encouragement to wait and see what He had in store for him.

“Obviously,” Olson says, “it’s been something pretty special.”

Olson is a long snapper for the University of Southern California football team. Long snapper is hardly a high-profile position: A long snapper only comes in for field-goal attempts, extra-point kicks after touchdowns, and punts (though not in Olson’s case), and he’s typically noticed only when one of the balls he fires backward through his legs goes haywire. Olson isn’t even atop USC’s depth chart at the position: As of Nov. 6, the junior had appeared in just three games over the past two seasons, all on extra-point attempts when victory was practically sealed. That includes the Trojans’ season-opening 43-21 victory over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Sept. 1.

Still, Olson’s few appearances have earned him a platform to talk about his faith as well as other topics. In the first, in USC’s 2017 season opener, he delivered a perfect snap on an extra-point kick as the Trojans defeated Western Michigan. Olson earned the Pac-12 Conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week honor for his performance. After that game, Olson told the Los Angeles Times, “If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one.”

Olson wasn’t even a year old when he lost his left eye to retinal cancer. Still, both before and after cancer took his right eye, sports played an important role in his life, and he decided to try out for football before his junior year at Orange Lutheran High in Southern California. His early attempts at long snapping were disastrous: “He said, ‘Coach, I was just wondering how long it was going to be before I’m snapping on the varsity,’” said Dean Vieselmeyer, his position coach at Orange Lutheran. “The ball was flying every which direction. I told him it was going to be a long time.”

He responded by meeting Vieselmeyer for early-morning workouts at a nearby junior college—“The maintenance men got to know us real well,” Vieselmeyer said—and practicing for an additional 1½ to two hours after Vieselmeyer got off work during the summer. By the start of football season, Olson was the best long snapper Orange Lutheran had.

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France’s soccer team players celebrate as they hold their World Cup trophy. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sports

Skill beats scrap

After surprises and upsets, France wins the World Cup

France, the second-youngest team in the FIFA World Cup tournament, yesterday beat Croatia 4-2 to win the cup for the first time since 1998. Croatia had won each of its three previous matches either during the 30 minutes of extra time when the first 90 minutes ended in a tie, or past that in a shootout.

The scrappy Croatians couldn’t beat either the skillful French or new technology. This World Cup was the first to use the controversial video assistant referee (VAR), and the referee on the field consulted VAR before reversing his original call and awarding France a key goal on a penalty kick by Antoine Griezmann.

Croatia’s appearance in the final was just one of the plot twists in the tournament. World Cup competition includes 32 teams, and this year’s first shock for Americans came when the United States team, ranked 25th in the world, failed to qualify. U.S. viewership of the 2018 competition was 42 percent lower than in 2014, when the U.S. team did play. Volkswagen and other companies created commercials featuring fans from different countries trying to convince Americans to support Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, or others.

Soccer fans were surprised when England’s new coach, Gareth Southgate, left off the team two of the country’s best players, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, when he felt they were not a good fit. England defender Danny Rose told reporters the team after that knew Southgate meant business. This year the team won its first penalty shootout in a World Cup, and the jaded English started watching the games religiously—even in theater audiences and wedding ceremonies. In the end, the English team that had not seen a semifinal match for 30 years came one game short of the final.

The tournament took place in Russia, and as always the host country played the first match. Some analysts thought Russia faced immediate elimination, but Russia beat teams including 2010 winner Spain and made it to the quarterfinals. Individual brilliance was not enough in the tournament: Many fans believe Lionel Messi is the best soccer player in the world, but Argentina didn’t make it to the quarterfinals. Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t carry Portugal very far. Germany, the 2014 champion, did not even advance to the final 16.

In the quarterfinals, France eliminated Uruguay and its star Luis Suárez. Belgium defeated Brazil, the second-best team in the world. England beat Sweden, 2-0, keeping its dream alive. But Russia’s run ended after an excruciating match against Croatia. With an injured goalkeeper and exhausted team, Croatia managed to hold on to a tie score and go to penalty kicks to eliminate the host country.

France knocked out Belgium in one semifinal after a pristine match with jaw-dropping plays from both sides. France’s Kylian Mbappé, 19, had gained fame when he scored two decisive goals against Argentina. He drew more international attention for his play against Belgium.

In the other semifinal, England scored early against Croatia, dominating the first half with possession and play. In the 67th minute of the game, Croatia scored and managed to hold on and send the game to extra time. In the 108th minute, Croatian forward Mario Mandžukić scored, giving his side the lead. England was not able to bounce back.

Moscow provided the venue for the Croatia vs. France final. Mandžukić quickly went from fame to shame: France’s first goal came when the ball bounced off him. He made up for that with a goal late in the match, but it wasn’t enough. Mbappé scored another goal and Paul Pogba also drilled a low shot into the net.

The next World Cup will be fought for in Qatar in 2022. The Women’s World Cup tournament is in France next year.

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