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Chess Is Back

The World Championship between Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen features controversy, glamor, charges of "fake news," and ... Woody Harrelson?

Caruana on the left, Carlsen on the right, and Woody Harrelson, who is apparently a chess enthusiast, shaking hands (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Tuesday, in central London, as Theresa May unveiled a freshly forged Brexit deal, American Fabiano Caruana and Norwegian Magnus Carlsen played out a procedural draw in game four of their World Chess Championship showdown, leaving the best-of-twelve battle delicately poised at two points apiece.

The day’s biggest drama had unfolded hours before the two young men shook hands, however. That morning, a member of Caruana’s team released a two-minute YouTube video of the Brooklyn-born Grandmaster, who aims to become United States’s first world champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972.

Featuring Caruana reading a book of Carlsen’s games, the video also briefly showed Caruana’s open laptop, on which a series of what appeared to be his possible opening gambits were clearly displayed. Was it a slip, or a masterstroke of digital misinformation? Caruana added to the mystery at a post-game press conference, when he refused to comment. Carlsen, the top ranked chess player in the world, who at age 27 is defending his title for a fourth time, told reporters he hadn’t seen the video. “Then I’ll make up my mind,” he added.

When Fischer took his title against the USSR’s Boris Spassky, chess was a proxy for the Cold War, with the board a battlefield of opposing ideologies. Almost half a century later, the game is once more a political microcosm. In 2018, however, that means social media campaigns, cries of “fake news,” and no small serving of national pride.

Chess grandmasters retreat ahead of tournaments into hermetic training camps where, much like boxers shooting for a major belt, they spar and share strategies with trusted, top-line players. The Caruana YouTube video revealed a number of specific (and Shakespearean-sounding) openings including the Fianchetto Grünfeld and a rare variation of the Petrov Defense. Both are stifling, exacting plays, which perhaps reflect the challenger’s admiration for Carlsen, widely considered one of the best players of all time.

Only around ten lines of openings appear in the video. A couple were ones Caruana used in the games he and Carlsen have already played to draws in London. And the Petrov is a favorite of Caruana’s: Carlsen will have expected it for months. “If what everybody already knows is leaked, is it really a leak?” FiveThirtyEight’s Oliver Roeder, who has closely followed the fortunes of both players at this event, wrote to me. “If ten lines of a spreadsheet can sink your chances then chess is not a robust endeavor and would not have survived 1,500 years.”

Roeder suspects the leak may actually benefit Caruana, a 26-year-old Miami resident who has been credited with “helping make chess cool” again. Jon Ludvig Hammer, a Norwegian grandmaster who has analyzed the leak, disagrees, but favors a “move on” approach “Even if it reveals an unusual opening they’ve been looking at, there’s no sequence of moves, which means there’s a limit to how much damage is done,” Hammer told me. “I feel he made a mistake with the ‘No comment’ strategy yesterday, because he appeared visibly upset about the whole thing. It would have been better to answer something like, ‘Yeah, that was silly,’ laugh, and move on.”

“(Caruana) will be like, ‘Oh shit, somebody left something, that’s really stupid,’” Anish Giri, the fifth-ranked chess player in the world, told me. “But I guess he’s professional enough to brush that off.” He doesn’t buy that the leak was deliberate, though: “I really don’t see it benefiting Fabi in any way. … If anyone will be benefiting from it, it is Magnus.”

The ostensibly accidental leak is a classic move in politics, where the omnipresence of cameras and social media has turned any photo of an open briefcase, notepad or smartphone into a potential banana skin or opportunity. This September, a photographer made UK headlines by capturing a shot of a post-Brexit treasury plan. Neither has sport been spared digital embarrassment: At this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, England, Argentina, Denmark, and Brazil suffered tactical leaks ahead of vital matches.

Fischer, an eccentric fellow Brooklynite who won the United States’ last world chess title against Spassky at the height of the Cold War, grew obsessed with the idea that his Communist adversary was surveilling his every move. So virulent was Fischer’s paranoia that he persuaded Spassky to play game three of their 1972 showdown in Reykjavik, Iceland, in a small, spectator-free room.

Rarely has the world been as gripped by chess as it was that year: Fischer and Spassky were seen as intellectual totems of their respective superpowers.

Tønsberg, the small, Norwegian fishing town that produced Carlsen, may not provide the political drama of the USSR. Neither would the champion, a Porsche-endorsed prodigy low on modesty, have won invitations to the Supreme Soviet. But in the diminutive Caruana, a fan of yoga and Kendrick Lamar, America has a genuine shot at ascending the game’s summit. Much of that is thanks, in typically capitalist fashion, to the largesse of Rex Sinquefield, a retired billionaire whose St. Louis Chess Campus has been Caruana’s home since 2014. And this championship has even acquired a Hollywood following: Woody Harrelson played the ceremonial first move in London, to a chorus of camera shutters.

Chess has fallen from popular U.S. consciousness since its Cold War peak. But in recent years, the Internet has become a key part of drumming up excitement for matches, offering an interactive spectator experience unavailable in the 1970s. Broadcasts, watched by millions, include running commentary, chat functions, and a comparison of players’ moves to those chosen by computers. “You can indulge your inner Pac Man without feeling guilty about it,” wrote Bloomberg’s Tyler Coren. World Chess, the game’s organizing body, even unveiled a chess-based dating app called “Mate” ahead of this month’s London final.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the web–in this case a social media fiasco–should play a potentially key role in deciding who walks away with the event’s one million Euro ($1.14m) prize. It has, at least, spiced up what has been a cagey affair thus far, and one whose evenness looks set to continue Thursday, when game five gets underway.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Ian Wilkinson, a Jamaican player and honorary vice president of World Chess, addressed Caruana and Carlsen as “gladiators,” a note-perfect descriptor of how the world saw Fischer and Spassky in ‘72, but which in 2018 was greeted with a round of smirks. Whatever the leak’s implications for the players’ strategies, it has undoubtedly added to the mystique of a match hyped like few others in recent memory. To paraphrase Maximus Decimus Meridius, we are most definitely entertained.