If you like your sports narratives with some biblical flavour, this year’s world chess championship is for you.
It’s no longer nearly good enough to call the defending (x4) champion Magnus Carlsen the favourite in any tournament. He is the highest-rated player in history. He’s been world No. 1 for nearly a decade. He’s been world champion for that whole stretch.
This time around, the poor sap lined up against him against him is a Russian, Ian Nepomniachtchi, commonly referred to as Nepo.
Like a lot of top chess players, Nepo doesn’t exactly leap from your screen via his irresistible physical charisma. The only visually interesting thing about him is that he wears a top knot. You get the feeling this guy may be a little too into Kurosawa.
For the first bit, things were progressing alright for Nepo against the peerless Norwegian. After seven of the planned 14 games, they’d drawn a half-dozen times.
According to the computers that measure such things, a couple of those games ranked 1-2 as the most tactically precise encounters in world chess championship history. We were watching two masters at work.
Carlsen was still winning, but Nepo was in there with a shot. Then we got to the eighth game.
It was played after a rest day. Nepo showed up having shorn off the top knot. Apparently, he is the first ever professional athlete who thinks that when things are bumping along just fine, that’s the time to make a major change to your routine.
In chess, there are three categories of error – inaccuracies, mistakes and blunders.
Midway through the game, Nepo blundered. In notation, the move was 27 C5. He dangled a pawn and left a bishop exposed.
The mistake was so enormous that it left Carlsen shaking his head slowly in wonderment. Either he couldn’t believe his luck, or he resented an opponent beating himself before he had a chance to do so. Once he realized what he’d done (almost instantaneously), Nepo leapt from his chair and fled the playing hall.
“You work your whole lifetime for one shot and this is what happens on the biggest scene,” British chess champion David Howell said, according to The Guardian. “He’s probably never blundered like this in his whole career. It’s just so sad.”
Nepo lost the ninth game as well, and then drew the 10th. Needing four straight wins over a guy who’s never lost more than one at a world championship, he was asked if his “strategy” remained “trying to win this match.”
“That is an absurd question,” Nepo said.
I’ll give chess this much – it’s populated by realists. Carlsen’s triumphal march toward a fifth straight title resumes on Friday.
That will leave us with an unusual question about Carlsen at his most imperious – is he so good that it is bad?
He is still young (31). He presents well in public, and has never done anything to toxify his brand. He’s good-looking enough to work as a model.
Yet despite all these ancillary advantages to go along with his growing best-ever credentials, it feels like Carlsen is doing a slow fade on the global stage. He is not talked about nearly as much as he once was. The last time he made headlines unconnected to a specific chess match was when he briefly held first place in a British fantasy soccer league.
Carlsen is so excellent and wins so reliably, that it has the curious effect of deflecting interest, both from him and from chess.
Because who wants to watch a guy cruise to victory every single time? The David vs. Goliath narrative is the most reliable crowd-pleaser in sports, but it works the opposite way around if Goliath wins.
For a while, Carlsen was presented as David – because he was young and looked younger in a sport we associate with fossilized beardos. But the No. 2-ranked player in the world, Alireza Firouzja, is only 18 years old. Carlsen is a fossil now.
‘Teenage genius comes out of nowhere to stun chess world’ – that’s sexy.
‘Guy you already heard about a bunch of times is still here’ – that’s not.
The last crossover chess star was Gary Kasparov (If we define ‘crossover’ as ‘playing chess with David Letterman on live TV over the phone’). Kasparov won his sixth and final world title when he was 32 years old.
By that point, he’d also worn out his welcome in the chess world. A series of administrative roadblocks were thrown up to make it more difficult for him to find his way back into the centre. Kasparov retired in frustration 10 years later.
Someone somewhere must have understood that people don’t want great. They want great, but with complications. They want it to burst onto the scene and dominate for a little bit and then disappear. Or they want it to toil for years and then finally get over the hump. Or they want a rise and a fall and a rise again.
What they don’t want is uninterrupted dominance. It offends the audience’s mediocrity. It prompts envy. Most dangerously, it bores people.
This is why people love Roger Federer so much. He was the greatest of all time, and then around the time that would have started to get annoying, he wasn’t. By his own standard, he became embarrassingly bad. Then he got good again. Now he’s back to being bad.
That’s an arc that sings. It’s exaggeratedly human, but not superhuman. The rubes love that.
Maybe that’s why Carlsen had such a dark look when Nepo hung that bishop out in no man’s land in Game 8. He knew in that instant that he was going to win again, as well as knowing that it wasn’t going to be the right sort of win.