I, like thousands of men and women around the world, was enjoying getting an early jump on the chess world when Magnus Carlsen laid down eight moves at the biggest chess match in history. Having never played the game as a teenager, Carlsen was on an upward arc. Between 17 and 21 years old is where talent and intellect often meets evolution — any brief layin’ is a red flag. As Carlsen piled up cumulative victories at the International Senior Grand Prix in 2013 and 2014, members of the global chess community and media alike suggested Carlsen may be in his prime. The youngster was soon elevated to challenger for Magnus P. Carlsen, the world’s longest-reigning champion.
Stefan Klebba, a highly regarded German chess journalist, disagrees. Klebba argues that Carlsen’s debut was marred by poor play, loose maneuvering and, the most damaging of all, a language barrier. “When your friends or family are playing chess they are free, they talk,” Klebba says. “When you are a challenger, it’s much more difficult, you have no one to tell you anything. And in chess there is no deafness.”
The talk concerned a cross-checks in Slavic chess, a sport which is typified by one-on-one battles where the opponent will aim to destroy, say, Carlsen’s last king, rather than challenge his position.
Carlsen’s reaction to his jittery introduction to Slavic chess? “I lost,” he said to Klebba. No, I repeat: With respect to Carlsen’s very long-term goal of great Chess, saying he “lost” is just not right. I liked the fact that Carlsen wasn’t any better. He was just loose.
His good friend, chess player Fazioli Magali, took an opportunity to explain his friends’ deliberateness in language that was right for the situation. “I was tired after another day of matches,” Magali recalled. “My text message to Magnus was ‘see you in two days and you can challenge me.’”
Everyone was relaxed — until Match Two started.
Match one is considered the loneliest game of the championship series: It’s contested between Carlsen and Levon Aronian of Armenia, with possibly only around two dozen spectators packed into the hall. It’s particularly hard for spectators to understand the nuances of Slavic chess, especially after so many years of feedback.
“This is the beginning of the championship,” Carlsen’s captain, Viswanathan Anand, said in a briefing with the media at the King’s Dock Place hotel. “The players have never been paired before. So things can become very strange very quickly.”
After the first half-hour of the match, Anand explained, a player could look at all the different combinations of moves and the limitations of any one of them without risking certain defeat. But then the blind trust was gone. The game — and Anand’s chess career — will be defined by how the game evolves, by what unfolds over the next couple of weeks.
What unfolded was very different. Carlsen took full advantage of his opponent’s uncertainty and aggressiveness. Anand, already good but not great, was no match for the 15-year-old or the World Championships.