Two weeks ago, at a press conference in London, after Round Five of the twelve-round world chess championship, the two competitors, Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen, were asked to name their favorite chess players from the past. Caruana answered with Bobby Fischer, the brilliant American whose dynamic play unsettled Soviet dominance of the game, at the height of the Cold War. Carlsen gave a different answer: “Probably myself, like, three or four years ago,” he said. Carlsen at twenty-three, the moderator pressed? “Yeah, twenty-three,” Carlsen said, with a nod and a smile. The media members in attendance laughed and applauded. It was classic Carlsen: arrogant and wryly self-deprecating at once, and very charming.
And who could disagree with him? Just before his twenty-third birthday, in 2013, Carlsen, who was already the No. 1 player in the world, won his first world championship, beating Viswanathan Anand in such swift and decisive fashion that they did not even play the final two games. Carlsen is now widely regarded as the best chess player of all time. He has been the top player in the world since 2011, and the reigning world champion ever since that victory over Anand. He has achieved history’s highest Elo rating, the system used to evaluate a player’s skill. He has won in nearly every manner possible—with aggressive attacks and astonishing defense, with Houdini-like escapes and by slowly gaining control of the board. Like all the recent greats, he has learned from the lines generated by supercomputers, but he is better known for his preternatural intuition, his feel for the board. With a board cleared of most of the pieces—the stage known as the endgame—and both players in a seemingly equal position, he has a way of provoking a tiny mistake from his opponent and finding a path to victory. When it comes to winning at chess, he can wring water from a stone.
But, going into the tournament, only three Elo points separated him from Caruana, who threatened to topple Carlsen from the No. 1 ranking for the first time in nearly a decade. Where Carlsen relies on his intuition, Caruana has incredible powers of calculation—the ability to see a position and compute the unfolding of a game, to anticipate the minuscule advantages or disadvantages that would result from a particular move, and to find the best option. Unlike Carlsen, who has adopted, or at least affected, a cavalier attitude toward the arduous and often dull business of preparation—on an off-day during the championship, he returned from a soccer scrimmage with a black eye—Caruana, precise, thin, and bespectacled, with an almost birdlike aspect, is famous for his careful approach. On the Chess24 stream of the tournament, Anish Giri, a Dutch grandmaster, called Caruana “the best prepared opponent, ever.” But, in the classical chess that Caruana and Carlsen played for the first twelve rounds, with its long time controls—players sometimes think about a single move for twenty minutes, or more—both Carlsen and Caruana were able to think their way through difficult positions, and the clash of competing approaches resulted, again and again, in a draw.
Just how little separated them became apparent early on. In the first game, playing with the black pieces, Carlsen played an opening known as the Sicilian, which often leads to a more attacking game. He seized control of the board, bearing down on Caruana’s right corner. Thirty-four moves into the match, Caruana’s clock had nearly wound down. (After their first forty moves, players get an additional fifty minutes for their next twenty moves, and an added fifteen minutes after that.) His position seemed lost. But Carlsen slipped, and, at the end of seven hours and a hundred and fifteen moves of riveting struggle, the game was drawn.
After that, the tournament seemed to slow down. When it was Caruana’s turn with the black pieces— which start players with a slight disadvantage—he played safely, aiming not to win but to stop Carlsen from crashing through. “Not to say it’s boring, but it’s a brand of chess where he doesn’t want to put himself in a position to make mistakes,” Chess.com’s Danny Rensch, an international master, told me. When Carlsen had black, the games were generally closer, but the results remained indecisive. There were a few exciting, dynamic games in which one player, usually Caruana, had winning chances, but several others quickly ground to a halt. “Peter, what’s your favorite Stephen King novel?” the grandmaster Alexander Grischuk, providing commentary on the Chess24 stream, asked another grandmaster, Peter Svidler, during one contest. Later in the game, Grischuk said, “So I’ll take a short break because nothing is happening, and nothing is going to happen.”
Still, no one was prepared for what did happen in the twelfth game, after eleven draws. On the thirty-first move, Carlsen, despite having a clearly better position—bearing down on Caruana’s king, with Caruana running out of time on the clock, a predicament known as “time trouble”—offered Caruana a draw. Caruana, startled, looked at his dicey position and, relieved, accepted it. The logic of Carlsen’s decision was obvious: he is the best fast chess player in the world, and so he would be favored in the tie-break games, which are played under faster time controls. Still, his decision to abandon a comfortably playable position left the chess community aghast—and angry. “I’m livid,” Robert Hess, an American grandmaster, said on the Chess.com stream. “R.I.P. classical chess,” Grischuk declared on Chess24. Past champions like Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov also voiced their displeasure. Even Carlsen conceded that he lacked the motivation to win the game. Afterward, told of a winning blow he had missed earlier in the match, he replied, “I wasn’t really in a mood to find the punch.”
For the first time ever, a world championship featured twelve straight draws. The lack of a decisive result was, the immediate consensus held, “bad for chess.” But a day later Hess, for one, was more reflective. “I don’t think, while they’re playing, they owe the world anything outside of playing their best,” he told me. And in his career, Hess added, Carlsen in particular has been “great for chess.” No player has been a more accessible public figure. He has an easygoing sense of humor and a feel for the theatre of live chess, which can seem actionless; he’s been sponsored by fashion companies and endorsed by Porsche. In his native Norway, he is a major celebrity: the final game of the last world championship, in 2016, drew a fifty-six-per-cent share of the Norwegian television audience.
And, strictly speaking, Carlsen made a wise decision. He blew through Caruana during the tiebreaks, winning all three rapid games played. Still, there was some pathos in the result. The contrast between this Carlsen and the one Carlsen himself admired, the one of a few years ago, is stark. In that 2013 championship, in the final game, Anand offered Carlsen a draw—a result that would have assured Carlsen of the title. But Carlsen declined. He wanted the win. (The game ended in a draw anyway.) “He likes to play, he likes to win, and he had the better position,” Kasparov had told The New Yorker’s D. T. Max after the match. “He’s a maximalist like Fischer, and he expects to fight to the death.”
Or he did. It’s hard not to shake the sense that something has changed. “When his life is on the line, suddenly he’s not Magnus!” Giri said, after the draw offer in Game 12. “The Magnus Carlsen that people grew to love was the Magnus who played for a win as black,” Rensch told me. It’s not clear why his form was not at his best in this tournament, or why, at an age when many players enter their prime, he is already nostalgic for his peak. But, then, what does a draw mean to a player who has nothing left to win?