For the first time in more than 20 years, the World Chess Championship match will be held on U.S. soil, and it brings with it a whiff of Cold War tension, a link to the Syrian crisis and even a haunting reminder of the 9/11 attacks.
While chess fans eagerly anticipate the clash between two prodigies who’ve come of age, non-chess players can appreciate the geopolitical themes coursing through the match.
The 12-game contest, which begins Friday in New York City, features the defending champion, a Norwegian whose square jaw and knitted brow landed him a modeling gig, pitted against a Russian who embodies the Russia-Ukraine conflict and is an ardent supporter of President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the president of the World Chess Federation — a Russian politician and multimillionaire — who normally would preside at the game’s championship, has been barred from the United States and is facing sanctions because of his financial dealings with the Syrian regime.
Amid this international intrigue, the two millennial grandmasters will take their seats on a soundproofed stage while hundreds of attendees look on from the other side of a glass partition, and millions around the world follow via the internet.
Both players, current world champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin, are in their mid-20s, but were succeeding at the highest levels of competition before they could shave. Karjakin holds the record for becoming the youngest grandmaster — chess’ highest rank — at age 12.
Karjakin is Ukrainian by birth and grew up in its Crimea region, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014. But five years before that, Karjakin had already switched loyalties. A Russian speaker, he became a Russian citizen in 2009 and has played for that country ever since.
He publicly applauded Russia’s takeover of Ukraine, posting a photo of himself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt with an image of Putin and the words, “We don’t leave our guys behind.”
Karjakin has taken other pro-Kremlin stands that have drawn criticism from some former chess greats and fellow grandmasters, as well as chess aficionados.
While Karjakin will be carrying this Cold War baggage to Manhattan, he and Carlsen share no enmity. At age 26 and 25, respectively, Karjakin and Carlsen grew up together at international chess tournaments. Photos of them meeting over the board stone-faced, and afterwards laughing with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, document their rivalry and their bond. When they reached legal age, they even went out on the town together in Moscow for a night downing fiery B-52 cocktails.
“Some people try to tell me that now he has to be my enemy. …” Karjakin told New In Chess magazine. “As I have no problems with Magnus, I would not know why he should be my enemy.”
Carlsen told Norwegian newspaper VG that he has no hostility toward Russians in general, or Karjakin in particular. “Clearly there are tensions in the world, but I have zero problems with Karjakin,” he said.
Carlsen is, however, taking extra security measures to ensure that Russian hackers don’t tap into his computers and his online communications with aides to steal his ideas and, presumably, share them with Karjakin. The champion has enlisted Microsoft to help with what his camp is calling Pentagon-level security.
Once the match gets underway, it promises to present the paradoxical question of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object.
Carlsen is unrelenting. He squeezes his opponents, pressing unforgivingly in what appears to be equal positions until they crack. But in Karjakin, he’ll find an adversary who is a tenacious defender, adept at finding resources while under attack, frustrating his opponents even when they appear to have the upper hand.
Chess experts and betting websites think they know who has the upper hand. Carlsen is heavily favored to win.
He became world champion in 2013, and defended the title in a rematch a year later. He has been the undisputed top player for the past five years, and has achieved the highest chess rating in history.
Karjakin, in the meantime, had failed to deliver on the promise he showed as a pre-teen. Only recently has he climbed back among the top 10 players in the world, but just barely.
In March, Karjakin won the qualifying tournament for the right to challenge Carlsen, edging out the top American player in the final round. So for the past seven months Carlsen and Karjakin’s teams of grandmasters and high-powered computers have been helping them prep for the encounter.
In lifetime head-to-head games, Carlsen has the edge, though it’s a small one. Of the 21 games they’ve played with the same time on their clocks as they’ll have for games in this match, Carlsen won four and lost one, while the remaining 16 games were draws.
“Magnus is a great player,” Karjakin told a reporter from Chessbase. “But still, he is a human, not a computer.”
The winner of the championship will earn 600,000 euros (about $659,000), while the loser will collect 400,000 euros (about $439,00). While the championship is, naturally, the biggest prize on the chess circuit, the money is peanuts to a billionaire who the chess federation president says will be attending the match — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
The match will be held in the Fulton Market, part of the South Street Seaport neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge. The site is a short walk across lower Manhattan from the location of the last world title chess match that was held in the United States.
That one was held on the Observation Deck on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center tower, six years before the twin towers were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.