Updated: November 5, 2018 3:01:13 pm
The last American to win the world chess championship was a Brooklyn-bred grandmaster who stunned the world champion and took his title. The next one may be, too. Beginning this week, Fabiano Caruana, a 26-year-old grandmaster who has spent the last two decades fighting his way up the ranks to reach No. 2 in the world, is expected to lay serious claim to a title that has not been held by an American since Bobby Fischer won it from Boris Spassky in 1972.
Caruana will challenge the world’s best player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, at the World Chess Championships in London. They will play 12 matches over the course of three weeks beginning Friday.
“I’ve had mediocre years, I’ve had good years,” Caruana said. “This year has been the best by far.”
A lot of people in the world of chess agree, and they are awaiting a Caruana-Carlsen showdown that could affirm a resurgence of U.S. strength in international chess competitions. Russia and Eastern European countries have a history of dominance in the game, which in many cases is embedded in their culture, and some European governments have invested in developing players. Still, Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. women’s champion, said European dominance in chess was being threatened in part by technology.
“The fact that anyone can study online or get coaching via Skype is a bit of an equalizer,” she said.
A lot of would-be American contenders in the generations since Fischer have come and gone, but now the United States has a stronger presence than in past decades, and Caruana is at the vanguard. Some of that lift has come from a multimillionaire in St. Louis, Rex Sinquefield, who has brought top players to the United States — sometimes by helping to finance their nationality switches — and has bankrolled a club that is cultivating talent and wooing top contenders like Caruana.
The U.S. Chess Team, of which Caruana has been a member since 2015, won the worldwide Chess Olympiad two years ago. It was the first time since the 1930s that the Americans could boast of having the best chess team in the world. Since that victory and others, Caruana has had to hire a manager — two, in fact — to handle the increased news media attention his success in major tournaments has brought.
His matchup with Carlsen, 27, seems inevitable, but victory is far from assured; it will be Caruana’s first world championship match but Carlsen’s fourth. “He was destined to play for the world championship; whether he wins or not is another question,” said Frank Brady, the president emeritus of New York’s renowned Marshall Chess Club. “Someone at the club the other night said: ‘Oh yeah, I played Fabiano once. I beat him.’ I asked, Well how old was he? ‘Oh, about 6 years old.’”
This time, Brady added, referring to the epic Fischer victory over Spassky, a Russian, “It’s not one kid from Brooklyn against the entire Soviet hegemony.” Caruana and Carlsen are two of only 1,600 grandmasters in the world, and part of the elite handful of players with a chess rating better than 2,800 from the World Chess Federation.
The sport, as chess enthusiasts insist it is, has changed over the last 40 years. Today, smartboards and smartpieces are equipped with digital technology that livestreams the pieces’ location on the board at every moment, and tournament announcers use computer algorithms to analyze the moves as they are made. Caruana and his contemporaries are part of the generation raised with this kind of chess. Of the top 20 players in the world, only four are older than 40. The youngest is 20.
Even at 26, Caruana might be aging out of the elite game. But he has projected an air of calm about the coming matches, and about the pressure on him to win. “I was surprised when I met him how nice, how mellow he is, how not crazy, in a way,” said Ilya Merenzon, the chief executive of World Chess and the organizer of the match. “He is great to the media, he doesn’t act weirdly and he is a very pleasant person to talk to. But he also seems extremely calm, which helps phenomenally during a championship match.”
Fabi, as Caruana is known on the chess circuit, spends most of his time these days within a few blocks of the St. Louis Chess Club.
It is bright, with large storefront windows and a small section of books for sale with titles like “Bologan’s Black Weapons” and “Sacking the Citadel.” T-shirts for sale include one that reads “FABI WINS” in red, white and blue. Those who remember the Fischer boom of the 1970s hope Caruana will bring increased interest in the game in the United States. It helps that chess has been having a modest renaissance.
This boomlet the past decade was made possible by apps and other technology that have made the game more accessible. Fans can now follow their favourite players on streaming platforms like Twitch, where viewership (based on minutes watched) has grown by more than 250 percent in the last year. And the YouTube channel for the World Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, is full of videos with titles like “25 minutes of Sergey Karjakin thinking.” The clip has thousands of views.
Caruana, the son of a mother from Sicily who grew up on a farm without electricity or running water and an Italian-American father from Brooklyn, has been attracting attention for his chess abilities since age 5, when he began playing in Park Slope. He said he joined an after-school chess program to address problems paying attention in school. But despite catching his chess teacher’s eye as a promising student and going on to win tournaments in local clubs, the Caruanas were discouraged from seriously pursuing chess by Garry Kasparov himself, said Fabiano’s father, Lou.
Kasparov warned that Caruana’s devoting his life to chess at a young age was too risky, Lou Caruana said. (Kasparov confirmed the account through a representative.) Very few make a living playing chess, and even many top-level players have to teach, coach or take other jobs to make ends meet.
Yet the Caruanas were determined. Schoolteachers told Santina, Fabiano’s mother, “You can either go for chess or you can go for school,” she said. “And so, we went for chess.”
Caruana and his family moved to Europe when he was 12 in search of more opportunities to compete and train. He achieved grandmaster status in 2007, at age 14, while he was playing for the Italian Chess Federation.
“We knew he was extremely intelligent, so we did have a degree of confidence that with or without formal education, he would be OK,” Lou Caruana said. “He spent a tremendous amount of time reading, and so he is somewhat self-educated.”
His parents estimated that they spent as much as $50,000 a year paying for coaches and training before Fabiano started making money around the time he turned 17. His father gave up a career in data processing and focused on growing income from real estate holdings in New York and Miami as well as managing his son; in those days, Caruana and his father traveled across Europe to events and training sessions listening to Elton John on the car radio (his taste leans more to Kendrick Lamar these days).
“Looking back,” Fabiano Caruana said, “I didn’t really have any friends. I would just play chess all the time.” He still maintains an aggressive schedule of training and playing that means about 100 classical games a year and an additional few hundred blitz or bullet games.
When he plays online, he said, it might be 50 games in one night. “You could easily do 70 hours of chess a week for a few weeks,” he said. “And during tournaments, it’s like 12 hours a day. “
He supplements those challenges by playing tennis, doing yoga and spending time in the gym; he runs with a trainer, too, to build stamina. It is not enough to be mentally strong, most of the new generation of grandmasters agree; players now believe they stand the best shot at winning if they are physically fit, as well. He is taking this year off from dating to focus on chess, out of the fear that a breakup would throw off his game.
The Caruanas moved back to the United States three years ago, in large part because of the support of the St. Louis Chess Club and the interest Sinquefield had in Caruana’s joining the U.S. team.
In 2015, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Caruana had received an offer of more than $200,000 from the U.S. Chess Federation to switch allegiances. At the time, Caruana said, he had turned down the offer, though he did later make the switch. (Transfers of elite players are rare, but Russia and the United States have benefited from them in recent decades.)
Norway’s hopes need no such reinforcement. Carlsen is the undisputed king of chess, renowned for a swaggering, bad-boy demeanor; he has developed his own popular chess app and supplements his income with big-dollar endorsement contracts.
“It was actually interesting to see how quickly the whole country became enamored with chess, because they had a chess hero,” Fabiano said of Carlsen, and Norway. He wondered if he could do the same for the United States.
But Caruana said Carlsen did not intimidate him. “I think that most players at the top are confident,” Caruana said. “Some are even arrogant.”
“Especially for Magnus,” he added, “it’s kind of hard for it not to get to his head because he’s had an enormous amount of success, more than anyone in the history of chess, especially considering his age right now.”
Win or lose, Caruana is likely to go down as one of the best players of his generation. And, he said, he is ready for the next generation, too. “I welcome the challenge.”
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