Archive for the ‘chess’ Category

Magnus Carlsen defeated Fabiano Caruana in the lightning round of the championship today, winning the first three games of the four-game rapid series (25 minutes per side) and thus the title. Ho. Hum.

Caruana played well in the first game, but he was overpowered finally by Carlsen, the best player at speed chess since the invention of clocks. Caruana’s performance in the next two games got worse. Carlsen was never seriously threatened.

At the postgame press conference, Carlsen was his usual effervescent self, which we haven’t seen since the match started, which seems like about a year ago. Caruana was quiet, but he’s always quiet. They sat next to each other, but despite having spent weeks with Caruana inside a soundproof booth, Carlsen never looked at or acknowledged him.

After Carlsen’s decision in the 12th and final game of the regulation match to offer a draw even though he had the superior position, a strategy that would minimize his risk and send the match into extra innings at the faster speeds at which he excels, today’s events were kind of depressing.

“Magnus needs to get rid of this fear of losing the title,” former world champion Vladimir Kramnik said after the 12th game. “I cannot imagine him doing this a few years ago.”

Whatever will be the result of the match he should start to think a little bit, to ask himself a few questions: Why does he play chess? Does he really enjoy it? What does he want in chess?

It seems like he just wants to keep his title and to get rid of this match somehow.

“They should put an asterisk after Carlsen’s name,” my wife said.

I’ll think of something happier to write about next time. Maybe my list of the most depressing albums of the 21st century. (I’m up to four.) Until then, one of the last questions at the press conference came from a reporter who said that Donald Trump wanted to meet the players. Would they accept an invitation to the White House?

Both players basically said, “No comment.”

Kramnik’s comments courtesy

I once worked at an ad agency with an artistic gentleman who brought more flair to his life than everyone working for Paper Mate. J5 was never at a loss for something to say. If he was at a loss, he would fall back on a Swiss army knife catchphrase, good for the office, the opera, the 50-yard line, or a chess match:

WHAT the FUCK is UP with THAT?!

Today, in the final round of regulation chess, Magnus Carlsen, playing black, built up an enormous advantage against Fabiano Caruana — and then offered the challenger a draw.

WHAT the FUCK is UP with THAT?!

I’ll tell you what the fuck is up with that. Carlsen, the world champion of tournament chess, rapid chess, and blitz chess, decided ahead of time that he would bluff. He would force a draw and take his chances in the playoffs, where he and Caruana will decide the title by playing rapid and, if necessary, blitz.

Caruana, looking down the barrel of an attack that even I might have been able to bring home, was surprised. He accepted the offer.

Hungarian Grandmaster Judit Polgár, the World Chess commentator for the games, the former #1 woman chess player in the world and the only woman to defeat a ruling men’s world champion, had a different explanation for the draw offer: “Carlsen was afraid.”

Garry Kasparov, the world champion Polgár defeated and the man who once compared women chess players unfavorably to “circus puppets,” agreed with her:

In light of this shocking draw offer from Magnus in a superior position with more time, I reconsider my evaluation of him being the favorite in rapids. Tiebreaks require tremendous nerves and he seems to be losing his.

This result makes this championship the first championship in the history of chess where every game was tied. This result lowers chess to the level of checkers, where the 1863 world checkers championship ended with all 40 games drawn. Most games of checkers at the master level are drawn because CHECKERS IS A SOLVED GAME, like Tic-Tac-Toe. This result makes chess look STUPID and BORING. And possibly FIXED, as the players make more money if the match goes into tie-breaks.

At the postgame press conference, a writer from ChessBase asked about that difference, “more money than a journalist makes in a year,” he added, to laughter. Mag Wheels, who looked grumpy and defensive, deflected the question. Fabio said, quietly, “I don’t care about the money.” You tell me who really wants this title.

On Wednesday, Carlsen and Caruana will play four games of rapid chess, with 25 minutes per side per game. If that doesn’t produce a winner, they’ll play two games of blitz, 5 minutes each.

If they still haven’t gotten anywhere after all that, they’ll go to something called Armageddon.

When I first heard about Armageddon, I imagined the players fighting with meat cleavers in scuba gear. Nope. It’s one game, no weapons or costumes. Mag Wheels, playing white, would get 5 minutes. Fabio would get 4, but he would only have to draw to win. The odds of the match going to Armageddon, as calculated by Oliver Roeder, chess correspondent for, are about the same as the soundproof booth where they play being invaded by a sharknado.

If I had known how this match was going to go, I would’ve written about the women’s world chess championship, a knock-out tournament that began earlier this month with 64 circus puppets and ended in an exciting four-game match with the reigning champ, Ju Wenjun of China, defeating Kateryna Lagno of the Ukraine. But I thought Carlsen-Caruana was where the action was. I fucked up. I trusted them.

Even if Carlsen wins, his reputation will be forever tarnished. He’ll be the champion who was too afraid of losing his celebrity and his clothing line to fight like a champion. You think Ju Wenjun would pull a stunt like this? How about hell no?

Enough grumbling. Let’s look at two chess players who aren’t afraid of whaling on each other. R. Praggnanandhaa is 13. He was a grandmaster before he was a teenager. Here he plays blitz against former world champion Viswanathan Anand. Pragg and Vishy fight like they’re on a tightrope, with both sides ready to topple on every move.

I have never seen such composure from a boy this age.

See you Wednesday. Watch out for sharks.




Today’s game between defending champion Magnus Carlsen, playing white, and Fabiano Caruana was a draw, the 11th straight. There’s one game left before the tie-breaker round (if necessary).

I’m not going to discuss today’s game except to say the champ didn’t show us much. I’ve seen more action from our dog after another pitched battle with his bed.

This is how we roll
This is how he rolls.

What I will mention are two moments from the postgame press conference. Mag Wheels, who is normally gregarious with the press, was restrained. I’ll bet he’s unhappy with his play, especially in the games where he had white. You can’t change the past. Fabio was his usual nerdy, laid-back self. He hasn’t changed by one complex carbon molecule from the first game, which they played three weeks ago.

Question to Carlsen: The Ukrainian Grandmaster Sergey Karjakin, whom Carlsen defeated in his championship defense in 2016, said it would be “better for chess” if Carlsen won this match because “people like to see a dominant champion.” Do you think that, if you won, it would be better for chess?

The journalists and officials laughed, but Carlsen, who can be witty in Norwegian and his second language, English, didn’t take advantage of this easy opening. He grimaced, shook his head, and said, “I can’t answer that.”

The moderator, English Grandmaster Daniel King, put the question to Caruana. Would it be better for chess if you won?

Fabio, looking confident, smiled and tossed it right back. “Oh, I don’t think chess would change much,” he said.

The other moment was when the players were asked what they would do on Sunday, their last off-day.

Fabio: “I’m going to rest.”

Mag Wheels: “I need to find some energy.”

The 12th game is on Monday. Fabio will have white. They’re still the two highest-rated players in the world, but if 90% of this game is mental, Fabio has the advantage. All he has to do to claim the crown is win. Imagine being 26 years old and having the power to turn your life inside-out in one day.

Yogi Berra, the ultimate chess fan, said it best. It ain’t over till it’s over.



Magnus Carlsen and Fabriano Caruana took serious chances in today’s game. At one point, U.S. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura said Carlsen was about to go “true caveman” against Caruana’s king. “I don’t see how this could possibly be drawn,” he said.

It was. The players mixed sulfur, potassium nitrate, and charcoal in bamboo tubes and fired diamonds at each other and still, nobody won.

This was exciting, fabulous chess. Both of these boys like to control the board. They don’t like surprises. That’s not what we got today. “I don’t know where the ball is going to go,” Crash Davis, the catcher, admitted to the batter after Nuke LaLoosh uncorked another wild pitch. “I could have lost it in the end,” Mag Wheels said during the postgame show. Everyone in Norway fainted.

I should note here that the final position of a draw between masters at this level might look to the amateur like there’s plenty of play left:

Game 10 final

True, the computer says that Fabio, playing white, had a better chance of winning than Mag Wheels. That doesn’t mean Fabio could actually win, it just means the computer fancies him. Don’t get a swelled head, kid, the computer is fickle.

Seven hundreds years of chess practice (ever since the pawns were given the powers we know today) have taught us that this position is a draw. Black can block white forever so long as he or she refuses to trade rooks. The only way you can win this one is by voter fraud.

Two amateurs arriving at this position would keep playing (I speak from personal experience) until somebody blundered. Or maybe, after another 30 moves, they’d agree to a draw after all. Chess in Asgard is not like chess at my level.

At today’s press conference, the players were asked if a woman would ever play for the world chess championship.

“Right now, the current crop of players, it’s hard to imagine,” Carlsen said. “But in the future I don’t see why not.”

“In the future it’s possible but right now there don’t seem to be any players currently,” Caruana said. “So maybe not in my time, but certainly one day.”

This is an improvement over Bobby Fischer’s assessment, almost 50 years ago: “Women are weakies.”

And now, for everyone who has asked me about chess-themed songs. I found one!

Now that my eyes have been opened, I see that Juga is all over YouTube. Get over there now and check out her song about Capablanca, which she performed at the Marshall Chess Club in New York.

Yesterday, during a five-on-a-side game of football, Magnus Carlsen and an opposing player cracked skulls. Their own. The men suffered cuts and bruises but no concussions and finished their game.

The other guy was a Norwegian journalist. Insert your own joke about the fake news media here, I’m tired of making these things up.

Id rather fight than switch
Magnus Carlsen: “I’d rather fight than switch!”

I don’t know what Fabiano Caruana was doing on his off-day. He was probably listening to Kendrick Lamar and Killah Priest (he’s evolved from Metallica and Led Zeppelin) and preparing to play the black pieces in Game 9, not sucking down Big Gulps and watching There Will Be Blood.

Was Mag Wheels rattled or ignited by his collision? He got off to a strong start today and came close to a winning position…until move 25, when he pushed a rook pawn for the second consecutive move. That’s his normal level of aggression (as the Norwegian journalist found out the day before), but too much for this game. Fabio, whose position until then had looked about as stable as banana Jell-O at a kindergarten birthday party, immediately spotted a way to fight back. The game was equal by the 30th move, but Mag Wheels, clearly upset with himself, plugged along until move 56 when he accepted reality and the draw.

In chess, we call a substandard player a wood pusher or a pawn pusher, implying that they are barely competent to push pawns, nevermind the other pieces. Carlsen’s first pawn move was a clever idea, a dagger pointed at Caruana’s kingside. “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!” The second pawn move was more like one of my wood-pusher ideas.*

Even Homer nods, especially when his head hurts.

Three games to go. Something’s gotta give?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States. We celebrate that happy day by overeating and throwing asylum seekers into POW camps. This year at the dinner table, everyone will be talking about chess. Don’t be the person sitting silent in a corner like a character in a Left Behind novel. Just memorize the following list:

My favorite chess quotes!

  1. Professional chess requires a level of peak mental alertness that most of us achieve only in the throes of searing tooth pain. (Seth Stevenson)
  2. Chess is a constant struggle between my desire not to lose and my desire not to think. (Jan Gustafsson)
  3. [Chess is] as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. (Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye)
  4. In chess you may hit a man when he’s down. (Irving Chernev)
  5. The chess mentality offers rich pastures in which psychoanalysts may safely graze. (David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Bobby Fischer Goes to War)
  6. Chess is not something that drives people mad; chess is something that keeps mad people sane. (William Hartston)
  7. When you don’t know what to play, wait for an idea to come into your opponent’s mind. You may be sure that idea will be wrong. (Savielly Tartakover)
  8. Chess has this in common with making poetry, that the desire for it comes upon the amateur in gusts. (A.A. Milne)
  9. Chess has no social purpose. That, above all, is important. (Marcel Duchamp)

There’s a lot of good writing about chess. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense leads the pack, though after I read it I was depressed for two years. Sometimes you find something memorable in unexpected places. The English master Jonathon Rowson, in a review of Neil McDonald’s The Benko Gambit Revealed, produced this gem about a particular position. It won’t get you extra stuffing at Thanksgiving, I just enjoy reading it:

…Black has much less pressure than normal here, according to McDonald. I was going to leave it at that, but I have to say that this assessment is not as compelling as it might be, and I’m taking the author’s word for it to some extent. This makes me wonder if he is taking someone else’s word for it, and so on and so on, back to the baseless conjecture of a forgotten man in a drunken post-mortem, in a pub that has since closed down.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

* Emanuel Lasker, who was world chess champion from 1894 to 1921, once said about players like me, as if to console us: “In life we are all duffers.”

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of my favorite chess player, the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942). Happy birthday, old man! Capa was so talented, so natural a player, so calm under stress, that he could play a clear, elegant game while going over Niagra Falls inside a barrel.

Capablanca played more than 500 tournament games in his career, lost fewer than one in 10, spent most of a decade not losing anything, and was world champion from 1921 through 1927. Beginning in 1913, the Cuban government made him a permanent, roving emissary of goodwill, which means he spent the next 30 years playing chess para la Gloria de Cuba.

He also liked baseball.

If you want to learn how to play chess, you might start with a good chess book. Capablanca wrote two chess books for beginners, A Primer of Chess and Chess Fundamentals, but neither is really for beginners. They assume you know too much. You’d do better with Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess or the books at the top of this excellent list.

A book by a U.S. master from the 1930s, I.A. Horowitz, jump-started my chess career. If my chess career didn’t jump very far, well, that’s my fault, not Horowitz’s.

Published 1951, reprinted 1968. I won this copy in a tournament in 1970. I would rather have had this book than a Pontiac GTO. My parents would’ve made me give that back, anyway.

You won’t find How to Win in the Chess Openings on any greatest-hits list, and God knows the writing can be as turbulent as the water at the bottom of Niagra Falls (Horowitz made a living off the board by churning out chess books), but this is the book that acquainted me with all the concepts that Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana employ in each game. I just opened it and realized that it’s in such bad shape that I probably shouldn’t open it anymore, but when I did the memories jumped right off the page.

Fabio and Mag Wheels played to their eighth consecutive draw today. Do they need a good chess book? Hell no, they’re already playing in a higher league. Fabio, who had the better position, made a microscopic error with his pawn. Mag Wheels pounced like my lucky dog Lucky on a biscuit that fell from my pocket and just like that the position was equal.

Fabio has four games left to make something happen. If the match is tied after game 12, we head into the lightning round. First they’ll play some rapid chess (each player gets 25 minutes for all of his moves). If four games of rapid chess doesn’t decide anything, they’ll switch to blitz (5 minutes per side).

Guess who is the reigning world champion of rapid and blitz? Guess who sacrificed his queen two years ago in a rapid-chess tie-breaker to make his Russian challenger’s cranium explode and keep his crown? Do I have to say his name? I do? OK! Magnus Carlsen!

Caruana is better than average at rapid and blitz. In fact, he’s in the world top 20 in each. But that’s not first, is it?

Stay calm. That’s what Capa would do.





When I was starting out in chess, when Victoria was on the throne and Britannia ruled the waves, the U.S. Chess Federation had a simple philosophy: Chess is for old white males.

This wasn’t the USCF’s mission statement, but it might as well have been, because in 1967, when I played in my first tournament, everybody behind a board was old, white, and male. The tournament was a knock-out type. My friend Jeff and I lost to old white males in our first round and were knocked out. I had to call my Dad to come pick us up, and he’d only dropped us off 20 minutes before. He had just settled in for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. None of the old white males seemed unhappy to see us leave.

Somewhere in the late 1970s, the USCF’s leaders must’ve realized that if you don’t develop chess players when they’re young, who will play chess in the future? And how will you keep your jobs? Suddenly there were tournaments for children, and that meant tournaments for all children, regardless of gender, race, creed, or national origin.

One of the early financial backers of this work was Yoko Ono. Ono loves chess and even created a chess set in 1966, called Play It By Trust. Other distinguished 20th-century artists who played chess: The American Man Ray, who could take it or leave it, and the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, whose career in art was derailed by the game. “I am still a victim of chess,” he wrote to a friend in the 1930s. He was speaking for millions of people over the past 1,500 years.

In the 1990s, while living in Seattle, I coached an elementary school chess club for Chess Mates. (Here in Portland, Oregon, I volunteer with Chess for Success.) We distributed buttons to our students that said CHESS MAKES YOU SMART. Everybody likes a good button. You feel like you’re on a cool team. But does chess actually increase your intelligence? I suppose there’s research to back this claim, but as a lifelong player and teacher and a person who vividly remembers his childhood, here’s what I believe are the reasons kids should play chess:

Chess teaches you to sit still, shut up, and think. This gets you ready to do your homework, do more reading, and do what you need to do to hold a job.

Chess gives you a way to interact with adults you’re not related to. You’ll meet them on a playing field where all that counts is how good you are. You’ll learn how to look an adult in the eye and carry on a conversation. (To any child reading this: Are you regularly beating adults? Don’t get cocky, kid.)

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were already grandmasters by the time they got to 14, and that’s something you do with immense natural talent and private coaches, not with 20 kids from eight different grades in an after-school program. But they didn’t look particularly smart today. After yesterday’s draw, which was as multifaceted and arresting as the Orion Nebula, today’s draw was more of a moth-eaten red dwarf. Maybe Mag Wheels and Fabio left everything on the road in the last game. In chess, moving first gives you a solid advantage, but I’ve never seen so many games where that advantage was null and void almost as soon as it happened.

To end on a more upbeat note, here’s the cover of a European magazine, New in Chess, from last May. The Women’s World Championship has an even more byzantine structure than I knew, as the current tournament is the second women’s world go-around of the year. No matter. I’m showing you this cover because I love it:


And I’ll bet that Yoko loves it, too.