On Chess: Finding a new Bobby Fischer
The United States may soon be the home of the next World Chess Champion. Beginning Friday, Fabiano Caruana, born in Miami, raised in Brooklyn and living in St. Louis, will compete against reigning champion Magnus Carlsen, 27, of Norway, in a 12-game match in London. Fabi, as he is affectionately known, has the chance to become the first American-born player to win the title since the legendary Bobby Fischer, who, in 1972, defeated the Russian Boris Spassky in the most publicized chess match of all time.
Caruana still has a long way to go to get the same name recognition Fischer enjoyed at the time, when then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly called Fischer and told him “America wants you to go over there and beat the Russians.” However, the chess world is hoping a victory by the world’s No. 2 player will catapult him and chess once again to level not seen in almost 50 years.
“A win for chess could dramatically change the state of chess in the U.S. overnight,” said Tony Rich, executive director of the St. Louis Chess Club. “It could be a great way to bring many more young fans to the game.”
To win the title, Caruana, 26, will have to defeat a player who has held the title for the last five years and has been ranked No. 1 continuously since 2011. Magnus Carlsen (whose very name seemed to foreshadow greatness) also holds the highest rating in chess history, surpassing both Fischer and the previous record-holder, Garry Kasparov, who held the title of World Champion for 15 years. Carlsen’s absolute dominance seemed unquestioned until 2016, when he needed tie-breaks to win his last title defense, against the Russian Sergey Karjakin, an opponent most pundits suspected Carlsen would easily defeat. In addition, his recent rating slide and Caruana's scintillating victories in 2018 have placed the two combatants less than three rating points apart, a statistical dead heat. The winner of the match will also be the No. 1-ranked player on the planet.
Caruana’s path to the title match seemed destined after he won the 2014 Sinquefield Cup with a historic runaway performance against a group of the world’s elite players, which included Carlsen. However, he struggled to stabilize himself as the No. 1 challenger for a few years until December, 2017, when he finally won another event ahead of the champ. Since then, Caruana has been on a tear, winning multiple tournaments with sharp, incisive play, finally establishing his status as the true contender to the throne. However, defeating the champion will require guts, courage, determination and nerves of steel. His supporters believe he has what it takes.
“Fabiano doesn’t get rattled by anything,” said Rex Sinquefield, the billionaire backer who has been bankrolling the chess renaissance in the U.S. and who helped entice Fabiano to move to St. Louis near his world-famous club. “I think he has the intestinal fortitude to handle anything that comes his way.”
The match lasts until Nov. 28 and may be viewed at uschesschamps.com each match day starting at 11 a.m. CST.
Maurice Ashley is a Jamaican-American chess grandmaster, author, commentator, app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker. In 1999, he earned the grandmaster title, making him the world's first African-American grandmaster. In 2016, he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame. Ashley will also be providing commentary for the World Chess Championship on the St. Louis Chess Club’s broadcast coverage, Today in Chess.