The World Chess Championship begins today at the former Cochrane Theatre in Holborn. The reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen, faces the world number two, Fabiano Caruana, for the title and €1 million in prize money.
They will meet 12 times over three weeks. Individual games will be played at a ‘classical’ time control, giving each player on average three minutes’ thinking time for each move. They will play to a finish each evening, with a rest every third day. Starting at 3 p.m., games could stretch past 10 p.m. With one point for a win and half for a draw, the winner is the first to 6.5 points. Should the match finish 6-6, a series of tiebreak games played at increasingly faster time controls will be used to break the deadlock on 28 November.
Carlsen, who was born in Norway in 1990, achieved the grandmaster title at 13, reached the world number one spot in his teens, wrested the world title from Vishwanathan Anand in 2013, and defeated Anand again a year later in Sochi. Two years ago in New York he came out on top after a close match against Sergei Karjakin.
Caruana, two years younger than Carlsen, was just shy of 15 when he was recognised as a GM. In 2014 he obliterated the field, including Carlsen, in the annual St Louis tournament and achieved his peak rating. After a bad start to 2018, his old form has returned and he has come closer than anyone since 2011 to knocking Carlsen off the top of the rankings. He is the first US challenger to the unified title since Bobby Fischer.
Many experts think the contest too close to call, with some leaning towards Caruana. Carlsen’s recent performances haven’t shown the dominance over his rivals seen in 2014 and 2015, and he struggled against Karjakin in 2016 until the match was settled by a 3-1 win in the first round of rapid-play tiebreaks.
On the other hand, Caruana has not won any of their encounters at classical time control since 2015; Carlsen has won three times and came close on two other occasions this year. In Stavanger, he went into the Big-Brother-style confessional booth to record his thoughts towards the end of his game against Caruana, when it looked as if he was going to win. He placed his finger to his lips to silence his doubters, in imitation of goal-scoring footballers. Back at the board, however, he bungled a move order intricacy and eventually settled for sharing the point. He took the embarrassment in his stride, but questions remain about his motivation and his ability to deal with dips in form. In yesterday's press conference, he admitted to occasional apathy.
I would still back Carlsen. Caruana has no significant matchplay experience, while this will be Carlsen’s fourth world title challenge. The close call against Karjakin should stand the defending champion in good stead and he will be more comfortable in any tiebreak situation. In the pre-match jockeying, Carlsen has made pointed reference to his superiority at fast time controls, where the ability to calculate variations deeply and thoroughly – one of Caruana’s strengths – is necessarily limited.
Carlsen and Caruana don’t seem to be friends, but neither do they exhibit any of the animosity that led to the scandals of previous matches, involving claims of coded messages being passed via yoghurt, bugged chairs, bad vibes from front row parapsychologists or allegations of computer aid accessed in the loo. The controversies at this year’s World Championship don’t involve the players.
FIDE, the administrative body for world chess, elected a new boss last month. Arkady Dvorkovich was Russia’s deputy prime minister for six years until May 2018 and chaired the organising committee for the football World Cup this summer. That Putin lobbied for him to get the FIDE job tells you something about the geopolitical stakes surrounding the ancient board game. Dvorkovich’s predecessor, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, stepped aside reluctantly after two decades. He was barred from attending the 2016 title bout in New York, because of his dealings with the Assad regime in Syria, but didn’t resign until the sanctions bit further this year: UBS withdrew its banking services from FIDE and the organisation struggled to find a replacement.
It isn’t clear if Ilyumzhinov’s departure has eased the pressures on Agon, the Russian-led company that owns the rights to chess’s flagship event and its qualifying cycle under the ‘World Chess’ brand. In 2016 the major sponsors all exhibited strong links to Moscow; this year’s roster looks almost identical, with Prytek, Kaspersky Labs and PhosAgro again heading up the list.
There were no bids, no competition even, to host this year's event. Agon held a press conference last November to announce that they had decided London would be the venue. Kay Burley of Sky News and George Osborne of the Evening Standard made an appearance then, but the World Chess website is still advertising for an official media partner. The former world title challenger Nigel Short, now a FIDE vice-president, publicly denounced Agon's 'mismanagement' last month.
Tickets for the event range from £55 per game to £350 for a VIP package, but the Cochrane only has seating for a couple of hundred. Agon had plans to monetise online viewing, but chess presents particular difficulties here. Chess moves are sporting facts and can be freely reported as such. That Carlsen confirmed his 2016 win by sacrificing his queen on the h6 square at move 50 is such a fact. That the blow left his opponent with a choice of being checkmated in two different ways is information or news. Everyone is free to reproduce the move, the position in which the move was played, and all the moves leading up to it.
In exactly the same way, I can tell you about an overhead volley that Wayne Rooney scored in the 78th minute or an astonishing flick-cum-swipe that saw Jos Buttler register another six. What I cannot do freely is broadcast footage of such moments when a rights deal is in place. Unfortunately for chess organisers, the value of a chess move rarely lies in the filmed act of the hand picking up the piece, though there is something to be said for the stares, the glares and the gulps presaging ineluctable mate. What matters is knowing what move was made. And then any commentator on any platform can vie to explain what motivates each move, what insights and oversights are at work, and whether a thread leads out of the labyrinth that each player tries to construct for the other. All the while without direct reference to what Agon owns.
Agon is charging viewers $20 for its package, with Judit Polgar, the first woman to register as a top ten player, as its star pundit. It is also looking to impose a thirty-minute delay on rivals’ access to the moves. It has however lost every legal case it has pursued trying to establish its right to do so. In New York, a district judge refused an injunction that Agon sought against Chess24. His judgment cited a case the National Basketball Association tried to bring against Motorola. The NBA was unable to prevent court-side spectators providing subscribers with live play-by-play reportage. Chess24 told the court that they got the moves off Norwegian television, which had paid Agon to broadcast live throughout.
Agon's efforts have alienated the informed viewing public (‘absurd’, ‘so scummy’, ‘so sad’) as well as experienced hands who think the route to chess popularity lies in disseminating the game freely. ‘To the extent that the New York match was a success,’ Colin McGourty of Chess24 told me, ‘that was because the attempted ban on reporting moves and providing commentary was flouted by dozens of commentators and thousands of chess fans. There was a buzz that would otherwise have been absent.’ Agon have some sympathisers, however, among professional chessplayers and those inclined towards the radical alternative: intellectual copyright remaining with the players. But in this particular instance the question as to whether chess is art or sport appears settled.
Agon were approached for comment.