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The Sharp Game

The unpredictable champion Magnus Carlsen and a YouTube-trained, Twitch-streaming generation of young fans has revived one of our oldest games. Is the next great chess boom here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration (after Marcel Duchamp)

I was down on my knees before the chess set. Not out of deference, though I did feel a bit of that. I knelt because Irving Finkel, a board game expert and a curator at the British Museum, which displayed these chess pieces among its extensive collection, suggested that patrons view it that way. “When you look at them, kneel down or crouch in such a way that you can look through the glass straight into their faces and look them in the eye. You will see human beings across the passage of time. They have a remarkable quality. They speak to you.”

These were the Lewis Chessmen, and they composed perhaps the most important chess set in the world. They’re a centerpiece of the British Museum. Even as I knelt on the floor, staring into the eyes of a berserker warrior (most likely a rook) biting his shield, a crowd formed around me to gawk at the carved-walrus-tusk-and-whale-tooth game pieces, displayed on a chess board in a glass box in the middle of a large room. The pieces were an important piece of history, made in the middle of the 12th century, and they offered a glimpse into that time period. But was that all there was to the Lewis Chessmen? The British Museum housed many artifacts much older than these, and items that had a much more direct link to the history of the game. These chessmen hadn’t been owned by royalty or played with by famed explorers or conquerors. They had no writing on them, no messages to translate from our medieval ancestors. So why the fascination? Why did these chess pieces stand out in a museum filled with swords and jewels and ancient texts? Is it the pieces that are important, or is it the game itself that matters to us?

Chess doesn’t begin with these pieces. The game has captivated and enchanted people for much of history, starting probably in the fifth or sixth century A.D. (long before the Lewis Chessmen were made), either in India or China, and making its way around the world by way of Muslim conquest. Through many epochs, languages and cultures have changed, wars have been won and lost, revolutions have upended civilizations, and through it all, chess has persisted. Even in individual historical moments, chess has offered a bridge across cultural and political divides. It is a nearly universal form, a lingua franca in wood and ivory.

But for much of that history and still to this day, chess has been on the margins of American culture. Unlike some countries that have made chess a part of every child’s education, or supported chess players the way we support artists or athletes, or even used international chess competitions as a source of national pride, Americans treat chess as a mild curiosity. Outside of the bright and shining moment when Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972, chess has hardly mattered to Americans. And even Fischer decided chess didn’t matter much to him, either. He never defended his title after winning it, and walked away from the game soon after, disappearing from public life. The chess faithful among us have waited patiently for the flame he ignited in the United States to rekindle itself ever since.

Still, there was something special about that old chess set in the glass box at the British Museum. Something that may have been lost on many of those crowded around it that day. Though the set was discovered on an island off Scotland, historians believe it was carved in Norway. They even believe the pieces were modeled on real people. One of the kings, for example, was likely based on a boy who was made the King of Norway at the age of 5 and ruled for many years. His name was Magnus.

A few blocks from the British Museum at the College in Holborn, another chess set sat in a glass box, and another Magnus as well. Magnus Carlsen was the three-time returning world champion of chess. He was sitting on a sound-proof, glass-encased stage in a theater at the former art school on the second Friday in November, preparing to defend his title against American challenger Fabiano Caruana in a 12-game match that would span nearly three weeks.

Magnus Carlsen
PA Images via Getty Images
Fabiano Caruana
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The 28-year-old Carlsen had been a child prodigy, having become a grand master at the age of 13. At 19, he became the no. 1 male player in the world, and has held that spot uninterrupted since 2011. His peak rating of 2,882 is the highest of any chess player since the rating system was instituted. Norway is a constitutional monarchy, so it already has a king, but Carlsen may be more popular. His chess games are often broadcast on national television. By the end of this match, 3 million of the nation’s 5 million people will have tuned in to some of the hundred-plus-hour broadcast to watch him play. Time has listed him as one of the most influential people in the world. Handsome and built like a European footballer, he has also modeled for the clothing company G-Star Raw. He is a star unlike any the chess world has ever seen.

Per the rules of FIDE, the international governing body of chess, Carlsen must defend his title every other year against the winner of the Candidates Tournament. This year that challenger was Fabiano Caruana, a 26-year-old chess prodigy who lives in St. Louis. Caruana has an impressive résumé of his own, and trails Carlsen’s no. 1 spot by a mere three points. Caruana was born in Miami and raised in Park Slope, but once he showed promise at chess at a young age, his family moved to Spain when he was 12 to be closer to the action among the chess elite. To become one of the best players in the world, Caruana would need to play against and train with the best in the world, and that meant leaving the United States. It also meant hiring a number of former Soviet Union–trained grand masters, products of that once-mighty machine that dominated the chess world for much of modern history. Caruana eventually settled in Italy, where he held dual citizenship, and climbed the ratings ladder until he became the third-best player in the world. He was then lured by Rex Sinquefield, a Missouri-based billionaire financier and chess obsessive, to transfer his membership to the U.S. Chess Federation so he could play for the American team in the Chess Olympiad. The switch wasn’t without controversy, and left many in Italy upset. The Italians claim that Caruana was offered more than $200,000 to make the switch. Caruana has never publicly confirmed the amount of his arrangement.

Carlsen saw Caruana coming. He joked that the United States “are indeed buying nerds,” a reference to a Daily Show quip about Caruana and a number of other high-profile players who had been recruited to change their federations to play for the United States and move to St. Louis. In 2016, many expected that Caruana would win the Candidates, but he fell short in the final round and Carlsen instead defended his title against the Russian player Sergey Karjakin. Two years later, Caruana would finally win his chance to dethrone the king. And as a recently repatriated American citizen and a member of the U.S. chess team, Caruana was the first American to have a shot at becoming unified world chess champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Many hoped that a Caruana victory could inspire an American interest in chess similar to what Fischer’s victory had so many years ago. As the 12-game match went on throughout November, it was all anyone could talk about in London, especially to me since I was an American.

But I hadn’t traveled there to cheer on my once-and-again countryman. I was a chess fan, but like most Americans of this generation, I thought of chess as a contest between players, not nations. When Bobby Fischer, an autodidact born and raised in poverty, took on the Soviet machine with absolutely no support from his own government, it was a thrilling Cold War narrative. But those days were long behind us. Today, chess players don’t represent political ideologies. They instead represent a clash of styles, a battle between unique approaches to this fascinating and ancient game.

I was in London to witness a match between the two best players in the world and hopefully to learn something new and insightful about chess. I wanted to understand why a game that has survived longer than perhaps any other game or sport that humans play today garners so little attention in the U.S. I wanted to understand why chess inspires such devotion from its fans, yet is so difficult to appreciate casually. I wanted to know why people were either wholly uninterested in chess, or wholly in its thrall. And for those of us who were in its thrall, why did it grip us so? Was chess just a game, or was it something more?

The College in Holborn was dark; its rooms felt cavernous. The match took place inside a theater, where the players sat at a table on one side of a large, soundproof, two-way mirror. On the other side of the glass an audience sat in darkness and silence, their phones placed in sealed bags as they entered the room. Above the glass were three large video screens, one each for a closeup of each player’s face, and one to display the chess board. It felt less like a playing hall where a major world championship would be contested than a church. A museum. A tomb.

Despite the quiet and darkness, the audience for the first game of the match was brimming with excitement as the players entered their glass chamber. The players were quickly surrounded by a mass of photographers, who were permitted to take photos during the first five minutes of each game. The spectators grew angry. They stood on their tiptoes, craned their necks to try to see over the swarm of photographers. We couldn’t see it from the seats, but the actor Woody Harrelson was somewhere in there to make the first move, which he managed to do incorrectly, and knocked over Caruana’s king as a goof to boot. Caruana nervously seemed to accept the mistake, but then officials said they could do it again. As the opening moves appeared on the screen above our heads, fans grumbled, wondering whether the photographers would be there the entire game. I overheard a child say to his mother, “What’s the point of sitting here when we can watch on the telly at home?”

I retreated to the broadcast room, where grand master Judit Polgar, the former top female chess player in the world, was doing live commentary along with international master Anna Rudolf for the FIDE live broadcast of the event. The feed cost $20 to watch, and had been a source of some small scandal in the months leading up to the competition. Agon, the company hired by FIDE to organize its events, had sought to stop the live broadcast of the moves from the games by YouTube and Twitch streamers, arguing that Agon alone has the right to broadcast them. It wasn’t live video of the players that was vexing Agon. It was the outside reporting of the moves as they happen. Agon has lost every legal challenge so far, because the moves of a game are no different from the stats of a sporting event — the score of a basketball game, for example. But in chess, the moves on the board are essentially all anyone cares to know. A live video feed of two men grimacing silently at a board is a tough sell for a paying audience.

Next door to the studio, however, was a studio for NRK, the Norwegian television network that had paid Agon for the right to broadcast its own live coverage of the event. While the official FIDE broadcast was subdued, with the brilliant Polgar quietly analyzing the position for the viewers in between interviews with celebrities from within the chess world and without, the NRK broadcast next door was so lively that their commentators’ shouts could occasionally be heard through the walls into the quiet chamber, inspiring giggles from the small audience there.

This underscored a major question surrounding Agon and FIDE during this World Chess Championship. How should they present chess to their audience? Should they treat chess like a sport? The St. Louis Chess Club and seemed to believe they should, as their streams and commentators closely mimicked those of televised sporting events, with constant chatter, colorful banter, and onscreen graphics. Or is chess more dignified than that? In the theater, there was no commentary, there was no noise at all, partly out of respect to the players, who require absolute silence, but also because the match was being sold to spectators here as a performance, something akin to a play or ballet. It is perplexing how chess attempts to straddle these two worlds, both high and low, popular and refined.

As Harrelson joined the commentators at the table, it appeared Caruana was already floundering, despite the advantage of starting with the white pieces. He spent a good deal of time thinking, his clock all the while ticking down. “Will there be time trouble?” Woody asked. “We hope so,” said Rudolf. “We don’t care about the players’ nerves. We are here for the spectacle.”

AFP/Getty Images

The players are each given 100 minutes total to make their first 40 moves. Each time they make a move, an additional 30 seconds is added to their time. After the players make their 40th move, an additional 50 minutes is added to their clocks. This is called the first “time control.” After only 22 moves, Caruana was in serious time trouble. The audience in the theater ate it up, oohing and ahhing and biting their nails as the timer counted down. From move 25 to 30, Fabiano’s clock ticked down perilously close to zero.

As Caruana thought about move 34, his clock ticked all the way down to six seconds before he moved his knight to the h2 square (leaving him with 36 seconds total). In the room next to the FIDE broadcast studio, the Norwegian TV broadcasters could be heard hollering. Polgar, however, showed zero emotion, save for amusement at the circus next door. She knew that Caruana would not “flag,” or lose the game by letting his clock hit zero. He was aware of the clock. It wasn’t an ideal situation. What was more likely than Caruana letting his clock run out was that the time pressure would cause him to make a mistake. His position at that moment was dangerous. Carlsen had a queen and a rook on the same file (or vertical line on the board; the horizontal lines are called “ranks”), what is called an “open file,” because there are no pawns on it to block their path. The two black pieces can work in concert, the rook protecting the queen as she attacks white’s king inside his own territory. Checkmate was a real possibility. But so was safety, if Caruana were to calculate his moves precisely. The problem was, with so little time to analyze the position, he could only adopt a plan and press forward with the faith that he had calculated correctly and not missed anything. He had to trust his gut. No time to second-guess himself. That wasn’t Caruana’s style. But he had no choice.

Carlsen responded by moving his pawn up to the h5 square?! It wasn’t a bad move. It cut off Caruana’s knight from blocking the open file. But if Carlsen had instead moved his queen to e5, he could have infiltrated down the long black diagonal and attacked the black king from behind. Carlsen was still better, but he gave up a real chance to win.

On Caruana’s next turn, his clock again ticked down to a few seconds before he made his move. He protected his king with his rook, and then marched his king toward the other side of the board to get away from Carlsen’s queen and rook. Eventually, on move 40, it was Carlsen who made a small mistake, allowing Caruana to force a trade of the queens and give himself breathing room with 50 minutes added to his clock. Having saved himself from disaster, Caruana left the playing area for a much-needed break.

The game ended up dragging on for many hours. In the endgame, Magnus was assured at least a draw. He played on, however, because he risked nothing and Caruana could make a mistake and hand Carlsen a win. The longest World Chess Championship game in history was in 1978, when Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov played to 124 moves. This game could easily reach that. But after move 115, and seven hours of play, the players finally agreed to a draw.

In the postgame press conference, Carlsen seemed annoyed at his near miss with black. When he was asked about the marathon length of the game, and whether everyone could expect more long games in the weeks to come, Carlsen answered: “We’ll see. In terms of fighting chess, I think it was an excellent start. … It’s the World Championship. I’m going to try to squeeze every drop of water from the stone.”

While chess officials puzzle over how to ignite the game’s next boom, some players say it may already be here. Antonio Radic, better known by his YouTube screen name, Agadmator, is not a grand master or a titled chess player, yet when he walks around the College in Holborn during the World Championship, he is more recognized by chess fans than many of the titled players in attendance. The 31-year-old Croatian’s YouTube channel is one of the fastest-growing chess channels on the internet. In two years he has built an audience of more than 300,000 subscribers. His videos are simple — he plays through a single notable chess game and tells some of the history and context from the game. His videos aren’t terribly long and there are no fancy production values, just him sitting on his couch playing through the moves. His videos are both instructional and historical. What likely sets his videos apart from others is his attention to the stories and characters from chess history that enliven the game that was played over the board.

I invited Radic to get a drink at the Knight’s Bar at Simpson’s in the Strand in downtown London, and to share with me what secrets he has figured out about getting people excited about chess. Simpson’s is an upscale, traditional British restaurant, with waiters who push trolleys around the dining room to carve prime rib onto diners’ plates. But in the 19th century it was Simpson’s Divan in the Strand, a coffee house and cigar divan where politicians and artists alike would gather and play chess. One Simpson’s regular, an actor and Shakespearean scholar named Howard Staunton, was considered to be the best player in the world and organized the world’s first international chess tournament in an attempt to prove it. Simpson’s has embraced its history with chess. The facade of the building is a checkerboard and the walls inside are decorated with historical chess memorabilia, including a board that had been used by several generations of legendary chess players like Emanuel Lasker, Wilhelm Steinitz, and Paul Morphy.

When I arrived at Simpson’s I discovered that Radic had tweeted to his followers that he would be at the bar, and around 20 of them had shown up to meet him in the flesh. Even though none of his fans met the stuffy restaurant’s dress code, the staff still rolled out the red carpet for us because we were chess fans. They even provided us with a house chess set to play with, and opened up a room for what had unexpectedly became our own private party.

Radic told me that he had recently quit his job as a graphic designer in his hometown in Croatia to devote all of his time to making chess videos on YouTube. I wondered what his success can teach FIDE about how to attract new fans to chess. “Make it free,” he said. “Get your money from sponsors.” And he doesn’t buy the argument that sponsors are hard to come by for chess, or at least thinks they shouldn’t be. “It has very little to do with subscribers,” Radic said about his own channel’s financial success. “It depends on what your content is and who your subscribers are. If you make videos about cats and your audience are people who like funny cat videos, they will be served ads about cat food. Those ads generate less revenue. The people who like chess are doctors or lawyers and they will browse about car insurance or real estate. The ads are customized for the viewer. People think because I have a chess channel it’s harder for me to be self-sustaining. Not really. My 300,000 viewers on a chess channel may equal 3 million on a cat channel.”

Eric Hansen, a 26-year-old Canadian grand master, agreed that there are ways to make money from chess’s small but dedicated fan base without charging them on a pay-per-view basis. Hansen was one of the first top chess players to livestream his games on the gaming platform Twitch. Today his channel, Chessbrah, sits at the forefront of a formidable list of major chess streamers on Twitch, almost all of whom followed him into service there and learned from his model. “I’d love there to be an audience for it to be free to watch and funded by advertisers,” he said. “That’s the model we should go for, instead of trying to milk a small audience. They say there are 600 million players. That’s not true. I know the audience online and they aren’t what they could be, not what they should be.”

Chessbrah’s audience isn’t small, though. It has more than 50,000 followers and more than 15,000 paid subscribers on Twitch. And during this World Championship, hundreds of thousands of people watched each game live across various channels on Twitch, each with their own unique commentary and analysis. The largest of these,, had almost 68,000 viewers at once during Carlsen-Caruana, and has regularly been the no. 1 channel on the platform during the games, beating out popular Fortnite and PUBG streamers with ease.

Hansen says the reason Twitch is a popular medium for chess is because the viewers and hosts interact with one another, creating a sense of community. Radic sees the same thing on YouTube. “People interact with each other,” he said. “I feel like I’m not even needed.” Yet while Radic’s and Hansen’s audiences are way into chess, they aren’t what the rest of the traditional chess world is used to. “Our audience is a big pocket from 18 to 44, in Western Europe or North America. Most of them are very casual players who just started playing again after finding us on Twitch or YouTube,” Hansen said. “It’s a much more social crowd — people more interested in grabbing a beer and playing some blitz. They’re not interested in playing in tournaments.”

“Twitch and YouTube users are from a different generation. They do think of chess as League of Legends, as that type of game,” Radic said. “That’s why YouTubers and Twitch streamers are successful. They already built their audience. When they have an event, their audience will come.”

Radic’s audience indeed answers his call, if the crowd that showed up at Simpson’s is any indication. They continued to arrive all night. They all wanted photos with him. Some asked him for his autograph. He seemed taken aback by his own celebrity. But the group that showed up at Simpson’s are indicative of the audience Hansen described: an ethnically diverse group of young men from around Western Europe, all of whom are serious about chess but not particularly accomplished. All of them credited Radic’s videos with helping them get into chess. “I’m a sports fan and my interest in basketball has a lot to do with learning the story,” said Ryan Karpenko, a 22-year-old American student pursuing a master’s in London. “I downloaded the Magnus documentary,” he said, referring to a Norwegian documentary film about Magnus’s life. “Then I found Agadmator’s videos.”

None of these players paid the $20 to watch the official live broadcast of the match. They all watched on various Twitch and YouTube livestreams. I wondered who everyone was rooting for. “I am rooting for chess,” Radic said. When I asked him what that meant, he jokingly explained, “If Magnus wins, nothing changes. If Fabi wins, the press in the United States will make it like if Bobby Fischer was resurrected and perhaps it will go mainstream and perhaps even Trump will put all his money into chess.”

AFP/Getty Images

On this point, even Caruana himself disagrees. When asked by press after one of the matches in London whether he thought a victory would bring about a chess resurgence in the United States, Caruana responded, “I don’t think chess will change much.” Radic’s fans, too, cannot abide him. Nearly everyone at Simpson’s was supporting Carlsen, even my fellow American Karpenko. “Magnus and Fabi are like Messi and Ronaldo. Preparation versus talent,” says 21-year-old Londoner Stoyan Rafailov.

This is a refrain I heard time and time again about these two players, that Caruana’s strengths are rote memorization and the ability to calculate, and that Carlsen is more of a pure talent. Hansen explains it like this: “Fabiano, especially when he’s playing very well, he’s a well-prepared player. He can play like a machine. Magnus is a little more erratic. He’s phenomenal intuitively. His intuition separates him from maybe anyone else in history. He doesn’t rely on calculation as much. He’s got a broad repertoire and understanding of chess, and he’s not as predictable as Fabiano.”

Jon Crumiller, an American chess player and one of the world’s preeminent chess set collectors, entered the room to introduce himself. Crumiller asked whether we were “real chess players.” Radic asked him what he meant by “real.” “Are any of you titled players?” There were a few chuckles as the players glanced around the room. While the enthusiasm for chess among these young men was high, it was not an elite gathering of talent by any stretch of the imagination.

Crumiller then told us he was dining at Simpson’s with Nigel Short, an English grand master and himself a onetime challenger for the World Chess Championship in 1993. And while Radic seemed as impressed by this as he was with all of the other fascinating chess history on the walls at Simpson’s, his fans barely looked up from their boards and beers. He may not be a titled player, and his photo may never adorn the Simpson’s walls, but these chess fans are here only to see Agadmator.

One thing Hansen’s and Agadmator’s fans have in common with Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana is that they are mostly all in their 20s. Carlsen and Caruana’s generation has discovered chess on the internet, both as a place to play and a place to watch other people play. If there is a chess boom, it will take place online, and it will be millennials who will largely fuel it.

In the 1990s, when world champion Garry Kasparov played IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue in two series of contests, much was written about how the computer would kill this ancient game. Today’s computers are far more powerful than the ones Kasparov faced — FiveThirtyEight’s Oliver Roeder even joked that if he could enter his iPhone into the World Championship cycle it would win the title with ease — yet these fears have quieted. Computer engines play chess better than we do, but we humans have accepted that fact and played on against one another, not worrying much about what computers have to say. On Hansen’s Twitch stream of the World Championship and many others, the commentators don’t consult computer engines for analysis and viewers are discouraged from mentioning what moves computer engines recommend in the chat. “Use your brain!” the Chessbrah viewers will shout at whoever brings up computer-suggested moves. “Figure it out for yourself!”

Chess engines rob from the game some of its mystery, some of its romantic nature. We now know that some of the most spectacular games in history were actually riddled with errors. And when we watched Carlsen and Caruana play, sometimes waiting as long as a half hour for a single move, those of us watching with a computer engine analyzing the game would grow impatient, since we already knew what the “right” move was. Sometimes a player would make a move that made absolute sense, yet wasn’t the best “engine move,” and spectators would see it as a mistake, even though another generation of chess player may have seen it as a stroke of genius.

But there is hope in the next generation. If the beginning of the digital age damaged chess’s popularity in the 1990s, the wave may be crashing back on itself today. The fact that so many on Twitch and YouTube eschew computer analysis, as well as romanticize Magnus Carlsen’s reliance on intuition over preparation, is a sign that this generation of chess players longs to get back some of that mystery, that they crave some of the pure pleasure of puzzling out the truth from the vast unknown.

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Back home in the United States for Thanksgiving, I took in some of the games at the famous Marshall Chess Club in New York City. A diverse group of about a dozen players watched grand master Giorgi Kacheishvili analyze Carlsen’s and Caruana’s games. Even though every game had so far resulted in a draw, Kacheishvili said that Caruana was outplaying the world champion. “We’ve never seen it before. Nobody outplays Carlsen in simple positions. He is not the same Magnus.” As he analyzed the games, he talked about creating and disrupting harmony. He talked about finding the truth of a position. Like the younger Twitch streamers, Kacheishvili expressed disdain for the computer and its analysis, like how in Game 6 the computers claimed that on move 67 Caruana could force checkmate in 30 moves. “How many players can do it? None. Nobody can do it! People are not machines.” Yet computers haunt our discussion. Right after showing us a game between the former champions Alexander Alekhine and José Raúl Capablanca to illustrate a point he was making, he showed us a game between Stockfish and Critter, two chess computer engines.

Afterward I hung around the storied club and chatted with the players. Unlike the crowd at Simpson’s, in New York they were all pulling hard for Caruana. I asked whether they considered Caruana an American, even though he played for Italy for most of his career. “It’s just like LeBron going to the Lakers,” said a female African American player named Adia Onyango. “Look around this room. There’s no one in this room that’s native to here,” she says. And she’s right.

“But it isn’t like a USA vs. Norway thing,” said a middle-aged Carribean player named James Jeffrey. “I just want an American player because we need chess to get popular here. This is my business. This is my livelihood.” Jeffrey is a chess coach, and many of the players at the Marshall play in tournaments for money or give private lessons. They are desperate for Caruana fever to catch.

But most of all they were following the World Chess Championship looking for a glimpse of greatness. That’s why they came to the Marshall to watch Kacheishvili analyze the games. “When you analyze a game after, you are looking for the truth,” Onyango said. “The truth of a position has nothing to do with the result of the game.” She wasn’t disappointed that every game in the match had so far resulted in a draw. She and the other players at the Marshall, all devoted students of the craft, were looking deeply into the draws to see what they could learn, what beauty they could appreciate within the tension between the pieces on the board. “Georgi talks about creating the picture in your head. That’s the artistic component. A beautiful game is rare. But when you make your opponent move a certain way, when you’re designing the board, that’s creative.”

Just north of the city at the Palisades Center, one of the largest malls in the United States, the Rockland County Chess Club met up at a restaurant that was showing the World Chess Championship at the bar alongside football and soccer. There are no grand masters among them, but they’re decent players in their own right, highly obsessed with the game. They puzzled out the position in the match on a board set up on one of the tables.

“A classic chess game is a work of art,” says Alex Freuman, a local high school math teacher. He has a framed print hanging in his house of just such a classic game, between Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne.

Not everyone agreed. They debate the question. “You’re only given the opportunity to create art in a game like that if your opponent makes a mistake,” said Danilo Cuellar. “Is the opponent who made the mistake an artist, too?”

“The opponent stretches the canvas,” said Freuman, with a grin.

“It’s not truly art,” said Seth Courtwright. “If a sculptor took a piece of marble and sculpted it and I looked at it and it was beautiful, that’s what we think of as art. But if he did it with a piece of marble that nobody thought could be chiseled, like if he had to solve a problem in order to do it, that’s more like chess. The beauty is in solving the problem, not in the creation.”

But Freuman pointed out that most chess tournaments give out prizes for what are known as “brilliancies,” particularly elegant or surprising or beautiful games — or sometimes single moves — that deserve recognition separate and apart from the result of a tournament. There is broad acknowledgement that what is being created in a chess game has some aesthetic value, even if only to the chess faithful who know enough about chess to appreciate it.

Back in London after nine drawn games, a debate was growing among fans and players about whether or not the rules should be changed to avoid so many draws. Outside of the drama of Game 1, not much of the chess had so far captured the public’s imagination. Even among those who knew an elegant brilliancy when they saw one, who were familiar enough with chess to divine the truth of a position by staring at the pieces on the board, there hadn’t been many candidates thus far. But on the 21st move of the 10th game, Carlsen moved a pawn to b5.

Chess players like to describe certain positions as being “sharp,” as in “a sharp game.” Sharp means risky, that there are combinations of moves — or tactics — that are possible and require lots of defensive calculation. A sharp game is fraught, dangerous on both sides. People sometimes refer to them as “double edged.” Some players avoid a sharp position because they are risky. Other players intentionally play for a sharp game. For those players, the risk also presents opportunity. A sharp game gives a player a chance to outplay their opponent, even while it leaves them open to being outplayed themselves.

21. … b5 was the sort of move that created a sharp game. Carlsen would be giving up his pawn to white, who could capture it en passant. But in an ensuing trading of pieces, ideally Caruana would remove his bishop from its protection of the f3 square and allow Carlsen to advance an attack on white’s king. It was a gambling move, because in the trading of pieces, tactics could ensue, and the player who calculated the best combination of moves could end up unexpectedly ahead. The former world champion Garry Kasparov noticed the move before Carlsen made it and, on the St. Louis Chess Club’s stream, commented, “If he does it he deserves to remain a world champion.” After thinking for 15 minutes, Carlsen indeed made the move, and the commentariat went bananas, calling the move brilliant and applauding Carlsen’s willingness to take risks in order to provoke a fight. After nine draws, it looked like a game may result in a victory for one side or the other. It looked like we finally had a truly sharp game.

“The sharpest lines,” grand master Judit Polgar reminded the viewers of FIDE’s official broadcast, “often lead to the best draws.”

“Don’t tell them that, Judit!” her cohost Anna Rudolf cried. “They are here for the blood!”

“The brutality, I know,” Polgar deadpanned. But she was right. Despite being put in an uncomfortable spot, both on the board and psychologically, Caruana created a shield for his king with his pawns that Carlsen couldn’t penetrate, and Caruana held on for a draw. After the game grand master Daniel King asked Magnus about 21. … b5 and called it “a beautiful concept.” Magnus said he thought about it for a long time and decided the risk was worth it. “I thought it would be unpleasant to face. But I didn’t make it solely based on psychology, of course. … I thought for so long and I wasn’t sure about it but I thought I just go for it and up the stakes even more. Either you win the game, or you get mated,” he said. Or, I suppose, you could draw.

Game 11 and Game 12 both resulted in draws as well. Game 12 was a particularly controversial draw, since Carlsen offered the draw to Caruana on move 31, the first move where he was allowed by the rules to offer one, and at the moment he offered it Carlsen held a superior position and had Caruana in significant time trouble. Most spectators were on the edge of their seats, ready to see Carlsen win the championship on the final game in spectacular fashion, when it happened. It was so surprising that a number of spectators in London wondered whether Caruana had simply resigned.

Instead Carlsen was hoping to take the match to tie breaks, where the players would engage in a series of rapid games, with less time on the clocks. Carlsen held a much larger advantage over Caruana in this form of chess. Rapid chess, where there was less time to calculate, rewarded Carlsen’s intuition and allowed him to play more aggressively, while the longer games rewarded Caruana’s deep preparation and calculation.

The reaction to the draw offer was overwhelmingly critical. Fans wanted to see Carlsen play on, especially in such a strong position. They had come for the spectacle, for the brutality. Immediately after the draw offer, even former world champions like Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik were critical of Carlsen’s decision. Kasparov questioned whether Carlsen had lost his nerve, and Kramnik called it a “grave human error” that he was sure Carlsen would eventually regret. But Carlsen later defended his decision, saying, “I somewhat underestimated the strength of my position, and never saw a clear path where I could play for a win without much risk.” On move 30 he was assured a draw from Caruana in the final long game, where Caruana had proved to be every bit the world champion’s equal. By taking it, and refusing to play on and possibly make a mistake, Carlsen would get to play for his title in the tie breaks — on his own turf, as it were.

In the tie breaks two days later, Carlsen annihilated Caruana with three quick, merciless victories, giving people the bloodshed they said they wanted. He remained the world champion of chess, winning in the most rational, game-theoretical way possible. There was no romance, no adventure over the board. There were no games that people would likely frame and hang on their walls. There was only cold, calculated logic. The final draw offer that frustrated the fans likely ended up being the closest thing to a brilliancy the fans at the 2018 World Chess Championship had witnessed.

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After a month of nothing but chess, I couldn’t accept that a dozen drawn games and three lopsided rapid games weren’t something worth getting excited about. I remembered being struck that, when the grand master Peter Svidler analyzed Carlsen and Caruana’s games during the live broadcast on chess24, whenever he would find a mating idea (a sequence of possible moves that could lead to a checkmate) in his analysis, he would say “this is quite beautiful.” He also frequently cautioned his viewers that there was no way those lines would happen, because the players were too good to not see those kinds of mates in their own analysis. To me, there was something lamentful in this warning. Svidler called these moves a thing of beauty, but because the players were both so good, we were denied the chance to see them. Does that mean beauty and art are now impossible in elite chess? Why, I wonder, isn’t the avoidance of these mating traps itself a thing of beauty? Why can’t we appreciate a hard-fought draw as a beautiful outcome, an expression of high creativity and art? Like Adia Onyango told me at the Marshall, the truth of a position has nothing to do with the result of the game. Isn’t truth also beautiful? Isn’t truth art?

In London I met Daniel Weil, the artist and designer who created not only the chess set that Carlsen and Caruana played on, but also designed the playing space for this event and the Candidates Tournament. Weil is trained as an architect and an industrial designer, but his artwork is included in the permanent collections at MoMA and the Victoria and Albert Museum. As a young man in Argentina, he fell in love with chess during the rise of Bobby Fischer. Even in a military dictatorship a whole continent away from the United States, completely separate from the politics of the Cold War, players were electrified by Fischer’s inspired play. When Weil was asked to help FIDE create new concepts for the presentation and play of their events, he enthusiastically agreed.

This year Weil was on hand at the World Championship to unveil his latest creation for FIDE: Chess Notes, a musical composition created for each game of the match based on the moves the players made. He demonstrated it for a group gathered in the activity room, which was full of chess boards and monitors in the college set up for spectators who wanted to do more than just sit in the theater and watch the match in silence. Two grand masters, Ian Rogers and Daniel King, played a game against each other to demonstrate. As the players moved the pieces, different sounds and notes rang out into a strange and hypnotic soundscape. “Each game is a unique performance,” Weil says. “How do we transfer that intimacy?”

As King and Rogers played, the cymbal crashes and string plucks swirled together into something not quite music, but not quite noise, either. “I’m fascinated by giving music to chess,” Weil said, “because there is no repetition beyond the beginning of the game, the openings. By the time you’re in the middle and endgame, it is orchestrated in a particular manner. And sound shows you how two games are never alike.”

King and Rogers tried their best to mess with the software that was creating the music as they played. Rogers scratched his piece back and forth on the board, “like a hip-hop DJ.” King slammed his pieces down harder to see whether it would make a louder noise. It didn’t. “Think of jazz; it’s not necessarily always harmonic,” Weil said. “It finds a rhythm out of lack of rhythm.”

Later I asked Weil about the relationship between chess and art. “This is what Duchamp said — not all artists are chess players, but all chess players are artists,” he said, referring to an oft-quoted remark from the artist Marcel Duchamp, who at one point considered giving up the visual arts to focus on playing chess full time. “I’m putting it down to the idea of creation. What you’re seeing in the most extreme is, you are not creating on your own. Creativity resists. The world resists creativity. You shape and keep pushing it until you succeed with your creative act. Creativity is about outcome. That’s why it’s an art. The outcome part makes it art; the winning or losing makes it sport.”

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Duchamp had pursued chess with intensity. He played competitively, composed chess problems, and even cowrote a book on chess theory. He saw that chess shared much with art, that chess moves “express their beauty abstractly, like a poem.” He also believed that chess was highly logical. “The beautiful combinations that chess players invent you don’t see them coming. But afterward there is no mystery. It’s a purely logical conclusion.” Duchamp believed the world of visual art could learn from chess, and not the other way around. “This is the direction to which art should turn,” he said in a 1955 interview with James Johnson Sweeney, “to an intellectual expression.”

Why, then, I wonder, does chess struggle to be appreciated as either a sport or an art? Why does it continue to occupy a space in our culture as a novelty, or worse still, an idle pursuit like Monopoly or Go Fish? “It isn’t cards; there is no chance, it is free will,” says Weil. “You do what you want. The other player is resisting your thought and you are resisting his. There is something magical about it. It’s very emotional and very rational.”

But Weil recognizes the obstacles that chess presented. “Erudition is central. What other sport requires this level of erudition? I’m lost with the nomenclature.” The bar for entry into the world of chess fandom is high. While the rules are simple to learn, the game requires much study and practice to master. And mastery may be necessary to fully grasp the game’s real beauty.

Jennifer Shahade, the two-time women’s U.S. chess champion, said that this may be a strength rather than a weakness. “Everyone who loves chess really loves it. There’s a barrier to entry, but people who get over it are passionate about chess.” Shahade coauthored a book about Duchamp and has lectured on his chess games, and she is an artist herself. But she said that chess is better presented as a sport than an art form. “It looks like it’s working,” she said, referring to the way the game is being broadcast on Twitch and across the internet during the World Championship. On the St. Louis Chess Club stream, where Shahade is one of the commentators, they switch back and forth between a desk and a stand-up analyst at a touchscreen, similar to what you might see on a halftime broadcast during an NBA game. On’s popular stream, two commentators wearing headsets narrate the “action” nonstop, as if they were doing color commentary ringside at a prizefight. “Playing chess is more athletic than artistic,” Shahade has said. “Champions are more concerned with victory than beauty: It’s war with occasionally graceful kicks.”

Just as those who need to market chess to as wide an audience as possible need chess to be a sport, I find my motives for thinking of it as art to be similarly selfish. In the last year I have played thousands of games of chess on the internet and over the board. It is an obsession that has taken up all of my free time. I play on my phone while I wait for trains. I play on my computer when I should be working. I taught my children to play so that I selfishly would have new opponents. I spend hours watching YouTube videos and Twitch streams of people playing chess. I attend a chess club once a week. I even subscribe to a chess magazine. Sometimes I play chess on my phone before I fall asleep. On those nights, I dream about chess.

Perhaps because I spend so much time playing chess, I need to think of it as something more than idle procrastination, that my time staring at a board isn’t keeping me from my creative work, but is creative work in and of itself. Perhaps this is why I need to think of Magnus Carlsen as an artist.

In our culture we look to artists to help us understand something about the unknowable parts of life, as if they were philosophers, as if they had some insight into the human condition, could look right into our souls. But our culture has never viewed chess in this way. We see chess as an intellectual exercise, and its masters as logical thinkers, as geniuses from a different sphere of the brain. We don’t ask Magnus Carlsen how we should live our lives. We may ask him what he thinks about computers and technology. We may even ask him about politics. But we never ask our chess champions how we should live. We see the artist as a free spirit, and the chess master as studious and disciplined.

We may be wrong on both fronts. We may not understand the hard work and struggle of the artist, nor adequately respect the output of the chess player. We don’t see in chess the same aesthetic beauty we see in art. When we look at the Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum, we see them as tiny sculptures, the pieces as individual works of folk art. We might miss what their existence as actual chess pieces is telling us about our time and place in history. We might miss that chess is our bridge to the past, and miss what secrets a game of chess can reveal to us, if only we knew how to see it.

Stuart Rachels, a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama and former U.S. national chess champion, no longer plays competitively, but he still follows the game and has written extensively about its place in our culture. I asked him whether he thought chess is art or sport. “Art is a tricky subject. The literature about it is very obscure, filled with a good bit of bullshit. The main forms of art that I think of, like painting, are heavily influenced by who has money. I know Mozart was a genius. But I’m much more sure that Kasparov and Carlsen are geniuses. One thing about chess is there are winners and losers.”

“The fact remains, however, that even a rudimentary understanding of chess takes time to develop, and until it is developed, chess seems utterly dull. This is the curse of chess,” Rachels has written. “Until you know a good bit about chess, you don’t even possess the illusion of understanding it. Most other activities are not like this. I know nearly nothing about poker, opera, football, piano, and surrealist art, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying them occasionally. By contrast, someone who does not play chess will never enjoy looking at a great chess game.”

Still, Rachels is confident that chess is important. “There are only three human activities where it’s clear that someone is a prodigy. Math, music, and chess. It speaks to something deep about the human brain that these three activities people are primed natively to be really good at them. There are no philosophical prodigies.” And while it may go unappreciated in his time, Rachels is also confident that chess is truly art. “There’s no question that chess is extraordinarily beautiful. It’s like my brain can’t quite take it in. I’m continually amazed by the variety of chess.” The writer Brin-Jonathan Butler, in his new book about Carlsen’s 2016 title defense, The Grandmaster, describes the secret beauty of chess, spirited away from mere mortals by its great players. “Chess has always been a forbidden garden behind the eyes of all its greatest composers. For fifteen hundred years they had thrown flowers down a bottomless well.”

In London during a break in the “action” of a particularly boring game, I wandered off to the activity room to see whether I could get a game of chess. The only open seat was at a board across from a child, maybe 11 or 12 years old. I asked him if he’d like a game and he nodded. So we shook hands and set to playing. He wasn’t bad, and he blitzed out his opening moves. I chose to play a variation of the Sicilian defense called the Najdorf. I’m not that strong with the Najdorf, but it is very sharp, and maybe I underestimated him because of his age, but I wanted a sharp game. I got a sharp game, and he played a line on me I didn’t know, which caused me to lose a piece to a clever tactic. I was stunned, but a few moves later I shook it off and studied the minefield for some counterplay. I found a clever tactic of my own and eventually was able to checkmate him despite being down a piece. Child opponent or not, my spirits were lifted by the victory. It had been easy in London, surrounded by such chess talent all the time, to feel like I didn’t get it, that I was an interloper, that I hadn’t yet achieved the proper level of erudition to observe and report on this historic match. But I found that knight fork and checkmate. Child or not, he stretched my canvas.

Back in the theater I found that the feeling didn’t subside. There was something meditative about the playing area. The spectators sat still in the quiet theater and let our minds swim in the possibilities. We tried to put ourselves in that room. We tried to connect psychically with the players. Like a matinee movie or a warm bath, we disappeared for a while from the real world and escaped to the world of play, where everything had an attractive, pleasing order to it and made sense. Where the answers were knowable and available to us so long as we quieted our minds and focused.

Later that day I walked to the Tate Modern, to take in some more traditional art to see whether it felt much different from watching chess. For the most part it was nothing like being at the match, though there were some similarities. The quiet, thoughtful contemplation of what it all meant. The head scratching and private doubts that I even got it at all.

Then, I turned a corner and was confronted with another crowd around a glass box in the middle of a large room, similar to the one at the British Museum that held the Lewis Chessmen. Inside the glass box at the Tate was Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain. Duchamp didn’t create Fountain as much as he selected it. Fountain was nothing more than a urinal from a men’s restroom, sitting in a glass box in the middle of an art museum. It was an arresting sight, a urinal in a museum, and I wasn’t sure I understood why it belonged there. Nevertheless, I made my way to the front of the crowd and got down on my knees.

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