The College at Holborn, London, was on Saturday besieged with people who had queued up from early afternoon to watch the second game of the world championship match between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruana, the Italian-American challenger.
Such was the turnout that even after paying £70 (₹6,640) for an ordinary ticket, people were allowed inside the viewing hall for only a limited period. After about 30 minutes, the audience was asked to leave so that others could get in. And the venue, a sprawling Victorian building, isn’t small for a chess match—it can hold up to 400 people at a time. The turnout exceeded expectations.
Chess isn’t a popular sport in the UK. The last British grandmaster to have come close to the world title was Nigel Short, who took on the mighty Gary Kasparov in a championship match in London 25 years ago. After he lost miserably, no one else from the island nation has made it big in the world of chess.
But this isn’t just another match.
Carlsen, who has been the world champion since 2013, and consistently the highest rated player since at least three years earlier, has defended his title twice—the last time in 2016. In New York, two years ago, he came from behind to defend his title against Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin.
In 2016, Karjakin had beaten Caruana to take on the world champion. And though he had come close to snatching the world title, Karjakin has since drifted and is currently the 15th highest rated player in the world—despite his early promise, he is now quite far from the top.
But Caruana, who grew up in Brooklyn and is a year junior to the 27-year-old world champion, has been more consistent. Four years ago, for the first time he climbed to the second spot on the monthly rating list and has since been among the top 10 players. Since May this year, he has held the number two spot and is now only three points behind Carlsen at 2832.
Carlsen comes into this €1 million match as an outright favourite—a vast majority in every online poll has voted for him winning. Head-to-head until the start of the match, they had played 33 classical games: Carlsen had won 10 and Caruana, five. The rest ended in draws.
Unibet, the official betting partner of the championship, has set the odds for Carlsen winning at 4/9, compared with 9/5 for Caruana. The odds of the match going into the tie-breakers are 4/1, which shows the bookmaker is not much hopeful that Caruana can drag out the contest beyond the 12 regulation games.
Still, Caruana is widely seen as the biggest challenge Carlsen has ever faced. And that’s because he is widely regarded as the most accurate player after Carlsen. “His playing style is very concrete," Carlsen, billed as the greatest ever, conceded of Caruana in a recent interview.
Commensurate with their strengths, Friday’s opening game was dramatic yet predictable. Carlsen was quick to seize the initiative and looked all set to take the lead. But faced with Caruana’s dogged defence, Carlsen lost his way—he frittered away his initiative but wouldn’t still settle for the most obvious result: a draw.
The game lasted seven hours, of which Caruana was on the rope for almost four. At the end of the game, he said he was “fortunate" to have escaped with a draw. A grimacing Carlsen couldn’t hide his disappointment at throwing away what looked like certain victory. He said he missed the knock-out punch.
Even so, Carlsen kept on pressuring Caruana in the hope that he would make an unforced error and give him a second chance of winning. That’s classical Carlsen—he cares little about conserving energy at any stage in a match.
And it has worked for him several times: against the ageing Viswanathan Anand from whom he took the world title in 2013, Carlsen has often dragged out even contests and got the grandmaster from Chennai, now 48, to make unforced errors after hours of gruelling battle.
Chess between human masters is all about fallibility and Carlsen is always probing.
In the very first game, the Norwegian champion has made it clear that he is going to turn this match into a test of endurance, both physical and mental. Younger opponents such as Karjakin have coped better with this strategy and if the first game is anything to go by, Caruana is no pushover either.
The tables turned in Saturday’s game 2. Caruana got off to a promising start, pushing Carlsen into a corner. But after 49 moves and about four hours of contest, they agreed to a draw. Caruana had a small advantage but couldn’t have converted it into a win against accurate defence. Had Carlsen been sitting in Caruana’s chair in game 2, he would grind away yet again. “I had to beg for a draw, but that went without problems," Carlsen said after the game.
There’s a lot of US pride riding on Caruana. He is the first from across the Atlantic after Bobby Fischer to come within striking range of the world chess title. Fischer, also from Brooklyn, had in 1972 upended the Soviet hegemony in chess by defeating Boris Spassky to claim the world title. Carlsen’s stranglehold over chess looks just as tight as that of the Soviet masters till Fischer disrupted the order. For now, Caruana appears to be the best bet in his generation’s quest to seize the crown from Carlsen.