Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are playing for a purse of one million euros. How much is that in real money? About $29.16 in the U.S., $31.20 in Canada, enough to buy a nice dinner for four in Mexico or a two-bedroom house in China with off-street parking.

Each member of the World Series winners, the Boston Red Sox, could buy and sell chess 50 times over.

Why is chess so little valued, when it’s one of the most important activities on the planet?

Mag Wheels and Fabio are playing for less money than the stakes in the 1995 Garry Kasparov/Deep Blue match. (Elon observed at the time that IBM wasn’t sponsoring the match, they were paying Kasparov to debug their program.) (What Deep Blue intended to do with the money if it won has never been disclosed. Deep Blue took the rematch in ’96, but IBM responded by taking the machine apart.)

Why isn’t IBM sponsoring this match? How about Amazon? Google? Netflix? Dunkin’ Donuts?

Who is the sponsor? PhosAgro, a Russian fertilizer company.

Because I am too sad to riff on that, I want to mention that the Women’s World Chess Championship is going on right now in Russia, in the city of Khanty-Mansiysk (where one million euros won’t even shine your shoes). The 64 highest-ranked women in the world are playing in a knock-out tournament similar to basketball’s Final Four.

There have been 21 women’s chess champions since 1927, all of them from the Soviet Union, Russia, China, the Ukraine, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Among the 64 players in this year’s battle, there are six from the Western Hemisphere (two from the U.S. and one each from Canada, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Peru). The field is dominated by China, India, Russia, and places that once belonged to Russia, with lone wolves from Western Europe, North Africa, India’s neighbors, and countries as mysterious and unknowable as Scotland.

Though the women are being trounced in the TV ratings war with the men and can’t even land a fertilizer company as their sponsor, and even though the men’s championship is called the World Championship but the women’s is called the Women’s World Championship, it’s worth noting how far women have come from the days when they were herded into tournaments designed to keep them out of the men’s hair, tournaments that produced a “ladies champion” who was laughed at by the men.

Vera Menchik, who was born in Moscow in 1906, was the first women’s world champion. Her father, a Czech, taught her how to play. In 1921, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, she and her sister, who also played chess well, joined their mother in England.

By 1927 she was good enough to represent her birth country in the first women’s world championship, which she won. She reigned until 1939, when World War II froze chess in place. Menchik defended her title six times, five representing Czechoslovakia and, in her final match, representing her adopted country, England. Menchik and her family were killed by a German V-1 flying bomb in 1944. The Czech Republic put her on their postage in 1996. She was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2011.

One of the best chess stories is what happened when our heroine entered a prestigious tournament in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, in 1929. The Viennese master Albert Becker declared that she didn’t belong there among the men and that anyone who lost to her should become members of the Vera Menchik Club. It was Menchik’s first international competition, and she finished last, but one of her two wins was against Albert Becker.

I’ve had my share of challenges as a chess player, but nothing compared to being the only woman in a tournament full of men who think you’re there to bring them coffee.

Let’s all raise a lone finger to honor Herr Becker. Tomorrow: Game 5.

(Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties, all of them involving my ISP and wheezy old laptop, yesterday’s post only appeared about an hour ago. Run-DMSteve regrets this error.)

Our modem tipped its king today and was removed from the board. Our resourceful internet service provider immediately vowed to replace the device…in two days. I don’t understand why an ISP would not have a modem or two in the supply closet. I guess they have to order one from Amazon.

So I’m at my favorite coffee shop by the window, sitting on a wooden stool by a marble shelf, watching hip nighttime Portlandia parade past while the barista/dj plays The Secret Sisters‘ 2017 release, You Don’t Own Me Anymore. Their music still has its roots in country, gospel, and the blues, but on this, their third album, they swing a little harder. I can always count on an evening of music I like here, though I can never predict what they’ll play. We had a malcontent behind the bar one winter who liked Garth Brooks, but he didn’t last long.

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in London had a more intense day than I did in Oregon, and I slept through three meetings and went to a co-worker’s birthday party and ate BBQ beef tacos. Game 4 ended in a draw. All four games have ended in draws. My unlettered opinion: The first game should’ve gone to Mag Wheels. If Fabio was nervous when he started that game, his nerves were steady seven hours later when the game fell over and stopped. Since then, despite the draws, Fabio has been playing better and better. Mag Wheels has had to stretch himself to keep these games even.

How long can these draws go on? How about the worst chess championship ever? In 1984, a kid named Garry Kasparov challenged the champion of that era, Anatoly Karpov. Unfortunately for chess, there was a fatal flaw in the ground rules: Draws would not count. The first man with six wins would be the winner. This was like the writer George Plimpton pitching to a lineup of all-stars at Yankee Stadium in 1958. No one was calling the balls and strikes, so a batter could simply wait for a pitch he fancied. Ernie Banks waited 23 pitches before getting bored and swinging at one. (Fly out to Mickey Mantle.)

Kasparov had never beaten Karpov before this match, and in the first nine games he looked hopeless, as Karpov won four and drew the other five. Kasparov, desperate to take back the Big Mo, started forcing draws. Kasparov earned his first win on game 3fn2, at which point the score was 5-1 Karpov. Then they plunged into a run of 14 consecutive draws that caused a global spike in people playing checkers and Go.

Kasparov won games 47 and 48. Karpov still lead, but his lead was now 5-3. At this point, they had been playing for five months, I was sick of both of them, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to emigrate to Israel rather than be president of the Soviet Union, and they had been cursed by the pope. And then the president of the world chess federation stopped the match after 40 draws and just eight decisions, claiming the players’ health was in danger. Karpov retained his title, an endless supply of conspiracy theories was born, and the Super Ks, who hated each other, played four more championship matches over the next seven years. I’m surprised that chess still exists.

The Carlsen-Caruana match is just 12 games long, and if the players are tied after 12 games, they’ll meet in a lightning round of blitz chess (probably five minutes per player per game). We’ll all be home for Thanksgiving.

Rest day tomorrow. Time to talk about fertilizer.

Today, World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the challenger, Fabiano Caruana, maneuvered but could not out-maneuver each other for four hours and 49 moves. That’s three games and three draws.

It could be that the chess championship has never seen two players so closely matched, as if the Boston Red Sox, who won 108 games this season, were playing their mirror images from the alternate universe where Spock wears a beard and Uhuru wears a dagger in a holster on her thigh.

At this level, every square, every piece, every occupied and every empty space, has a value, and every value waxes and wanes as the game proceeds. Fabio and Mag Wheels are looking for micro advantages, tiny pluses they can pile up to make positive integers. (A commentator called Carlsen “nano-aggressive.”) The two men played an endgame I’ve often found myself in and often ruined, but though Mag Wheels, playing black, pressed as he always did, Fabio easily parried and in fact forced the draw with a neat sacrifice that left Mag Wheels’ remaining pawns stuck in a block of frozen carbonite.

Are draws typical at this level? They are. In this case, it’s because Carlsen and Caruana are Transformers with roughly equal powers. Not all draws are battles. In the 1960s, Bobby Fischer accused the Russians of agreeing ahead of time to draw with each other in tournaments but playing to win against non-Russians (true) and fixing world championships that featured two Russians (again, true). Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the Russians aren’t out to get you.

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Magnus Carlsen or Justin Bieber? Photo courtesy of ChessBase.com.

Meanwhile, in Norway, where they never had a world champion before Carlsen, where no one has ever played for the world championship before Carlsen, where no master has ever made a dent in the history of chess before Carlsen, the national blood pressure is 160 over 110. (Which reminds me, I believe Mag Wheels and Fabio are wearing heart monitors for the benefit of the Norwegian viewing public.)

What if Carlsen loses? What will happen to Norway? Television and internet coverage there has been wall-to-wall, with football scores relegated to the crawl at the bottom of the screen. The Twitter stream of NRK, which appears to be Norway’s answer to ESPN, has become histrionic, and I can’t read Norwegian. Carlsen’s sister gave an interview that was so revealing of her brother’s inner torments that the citizens marched with torches and pitchforks and King Harald V asked NATO to intervene.

This is an exciting time to love chess, with grandmasters jumping from airplanes, cracks and fissures appearing in the earth, and TV networks concocting promos for a chess match as if we were still living in the heyday of MTV. Pump up the volume. Buckle up for Game 4.

When you’re teaching chess to kids, it helps to use superheroes in your lessons. For example, François-André Danican Philidor, a musician and composer and the best chess player of the 1700s. In 1783, Messr. Philidor revealed his superpower: He could play chess blindfolded, that is, without sight of the board.

When he announced that he would play three blindfold games simultaneously, the scientists of that era begged him to reconsider. They feared his head would explode. They asked spectators to sit at a safe and respectable distance. This is how you hook your typical 5th grader.

Philidor won all three games. He went home that night with his head intact.

The record has expanded in the centuries since. The American Harry Nelson Pillsbury played 22 simultaneous blindfold games in Moscow in 1902. Before his blindfold exhibitions, he often memorized lists of difficult, abstruse words, then repeated them correctly after he had spent hours clobbering everybody.

The Belgian-American George Koltanowski played 34 blindfold games in 1937 (in honor of his turning 34), and Kolty didn’t begin playing seriously until he was 14. Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were already grandmasters by 14.

To give you some context, when I was playing lots of tournament chess, I could play up to one (1) blindfold game. This will surprise anyone who has ever seen me frantically searching for my car keys.

This year the record for blindfold chess games grew to 48. The record-holder, the Uzbekistan-American Timur Gareyev, is so exciting and inventive that he makes Mag Wheels and Fabio look like the guys who come once a year to audit your employer.

Timur Gareyev is thinking
Grandmaster Garayev is thinking.

Garayev often rides an exercycle while playing blindfold, eats bags of tomatoes and cucumbers, is a kid magnet, and recently jumped out of an airplane for chess:

I love chess, but not this much.

The board, btw, is set up in a position from a game played in 1760 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another French polymath, who once wrote, “I have always said and felt that true enjoyment cannot be described.” This seems to be Garayev’s philosophy, as the man has spent his first 30 years on our planet doing exactly what he most loves, exploring his skills and enjoying the hell out of it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be this young, this talented, and this unbounded.

Timur Gareyev t shirt
Better than the shirt gamers wore in the ’90s: EAT SLEEP PLAY WARHAMMER.

I’m not coaching chess this school year, but when I go back to the classroom, it’ll be with a story about Timur Gareyev.

Timur Gareyev with kids
Garayev teaches chess at a tournament in India.

Tomorrow: Game 3 of the World Chess Championship. Get a good start, get your game face on, get into your rhythm, and let’s take that crowd out early.

Photo credit: ChessBase.com

In the 1990s, I worked on a computer chess game called Power Chess. Among other tasks, I wrote thousands of lines of dialog for the game’s talking chess coach, demonstrated the game for the press, and often acted as liaison between Elon, the game’s designer (a genius), and the rest of the team (like me, ordinary schmucks).

Power Chess.jpg
Power Chess, now available for Windows 98!

Elon loved to talk and I loved to listen. Naturally, we talked quite a bit about playing chess, and over the months we worked together, Elon gave me an earful about the openings and defenses he liked to play. I didn’t say a word on this topic. You never know whom you’re going to meet in a tournament.

Elon and I never met in a tournament, but on the day we shipped the game, at our celebration, someone set up a board and a clock and the team demanded that Elon and I square off. I had white, and I opened with a move that I knew he hated. Elon looked at me and immediately understood what I had done (or hadn’t done). Everyone was watching, the clock was ticking, and on the seventh move, probably while he was trying to remember everything he’d revealed to me, he blundered his queen. Game.

The lesson here is to employ treachery whenever possible, but also, be prepared. Fabiano Caruana was totally prepared today when Magnus Carlsen, playing white, unleashed the Queen’s Gambit. The Queen’s Gambit is chock-full of traps, and even though we’ve known about them for 800 years it’s still a treat to watch two grandmasters offer and dodge them while whistling innocently and acting as if they had no idea that that wicked little landmine was sitting there.

Mag Wheels pressed hard, but Fabio knew everything that was coming at him, and after 49 moves and an hour and a half the two men agreed to a draw. (Unlike yesterday’s seven-hour epic, where the two men collapsed in each other’s arms and were carried off by paramedics.)

It was a terrific outing for Fabio, but a disappointment for Mag Wheels. He started yesterday’s game half-asleep, woke up, almost pulled off a win with black, blundered, and spent hours moving a rook back and forth. I expected better of him today. This Fabio guy is going to be tough to conquer.

Tomorrow, Sunday, is a travel day. We’ll use that time for a quick look at the most fabulous traveler of all: The sky-diving, meditating, vegetarian chess master who just set the record for playing the most games of blindfold chess. Until then, if you have white against Elon, remember: 1. c4.

 

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to play chess against a 16-year-old named Alexandra. She wasn’t a master, but she had just returned from the world high school chess championship, held in Turkey, so you can bet she knew her way around a chess board.

The occasion was a tournament just for girls in grades K-8. When Alexandra, a tall, beautiful girl in fashionable clothing who could outplay any boy in the state of Oregon, entered the room, it was to greater acclaim than if we were receiving Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, or Michelle Obama.

After trouncing all the girls in a simultaneous exhibition (she played against them on 30 boards) and posing with them for photos, she retired to a table in the corridor with her mother while the tournament got itself back together. Deborah urged me to challenge her, which I did. She graciously accepted.

Alexandra Steve 2010
Not shown: Alexandra’s mom, french fries, my dignity.

Alexandra wasn’t paying attention. She was stabbing french fries into a puddle of ketchup while arguing with her mother in Russian. I don’t speak Russian, but I could tell the argument was about her clothes. Suddenly, Alexandra felt a disturbance in The Force. She held up her hand to shush her mother and focused on the board. She had the look that I’ve seen on other masters — like a red-tailed hawk a mile up, scanning the ground for a mouse for dinner. Except I wasn’t going to be dinner this time. While she was distracted, I had built up a better position.

“How good is your endgame?” she asked.

“I’m not going to tell you,” I replied.

“Good answer,” she said. She tipped over her king and said, “We play again.” We did. Our game was nasty, brutish, and short. If I had had two heads, she would’ve knocked them both together.

I tell this story now because the champion, Magnus Carlsen, began Game 1 today with something on his mind. Perhaps he couldn’t hear the chess over the sound of how awesome he is. Meanwhile our hero, Fabiano Caruana, built up a better position. Carlsen didn’t even bother to castle until the 16th move.

(If any of my chess kids saw this game — don’t you DARE do that!)

But somewhere in the first hour, Mag Wheels woke up, recognized the grave he had dug for himself, and, I imagine, gave Fabio the red-tailed hawk look. He dug in and turned a negative situation into a positive. Only the world champion could do that. But Fabio is also a red-tailed hawk. After losing the initiative, he played defense like he’d invented the idea. (It helped that Mag Wheels made a mistake in the middle innings.) Game 1 ended in a draw.

Unfortunately, these lessons in how to play a chess game required 115 moves and six-and-a-half hours. A reporter for the BBC World Service noted that chess fans display even more patience than fans of test cricket. It’s a miracle I got anything done at work today.

There was some heady stuff in the middle of the game, when the big pieces where hitting each other over the head while one of the pawns ran away like a wild pony over the hills, but we eventually settled into a three-hour war of strategic irrelevance, including one extended sequence in which there were only nine pieces on the board and five of them didn’t move for a fucking hour.

This is no way to make friends for chess.

Stay with me for Game 2: The Return.

I know what you’ve been thinking. “Will an American ever again play for the world chess championship?” It hasn’t happened since Bobby Fischer dethroned Boris Spassky in 1972. There hasn’t even been a native English speaker in the challenger’s seat since the UK’s Nigel Short lost to Garry Kasparov in 1993.

What’s held this country back? Poor preparation? Lack of talent? The caravan of Republicans who want to steal our health care?

Today, the wait ended.

Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, who looks like Thor and has his own line of clothing, is defending his crown against our own Fabiano Caruana, who skipped high school to play chess and who looks like one of the statisticians at fivethirtyeight.com.

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Fabiano and Magnus surrounded by the fake news media.

This 12-game match has global video coverage, merch, a logo, an alternative logo (NSFW), an ump, a deputy ump, a website that’s the best mix of the ’90s and ’00s, dramatic close-ups of the players as they worry and drink from their water bottles, and commentary by some annoying people. The match was scheduled for National Family Caregivers Month because with this level of excitement you’re going to need all the care partners you can get.

To help reduce workplace and family disruption, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation has designated me as your personal point person.

Prepared to be awed. Though not, perhaps, by Game 1.