World Chess Championship, Game 1: Please come back for Game 2

Posted: November 9, 2018 in chess
Tags: , ,

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.

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