Do you remember when the World Chess Championship last led BBC news? No? It was 41 years ago, when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Reykjavík: the cold war was, in effect, being fought on the chessboard. This month, the world’s best players are in London for the Candidates Tournament to decide who will play the next match against the champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, who has held the title since 2007. The tournament in London is bankrolled by the American entrepreneur Andrew Paulson, who has bought up world chess in order, he claims, to return it to its glory days.
The overwhelming favourite is the 22-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen does not remotely resemble Fischer, who was as crazily over the top as Carlsen is coolly understated. Nor has he much in common with his mentor, Garry Kasparov: once a Soviet enfant terrible, later a leader of anti- Putin dissidents, now a global business guru.
Carlsen, by contrast, is the first grandmaster not only of chess but of fashion. Sharpeyed readers will have noticed him modelling men’s clothes in posters on the London Tube. Such a juxtaposition would have been unthinkable in earlier generations but Carlsen evidently takes his new role as a chess icon with a dash of aquavit.
In conversation, he is friendly but guarded, open but opaque. He often wins not by formidable feats of memory to gain an advantage in the opening but by hanging on until his (usually older) opponent makes a mistake. This technique has served him well, most recently in his victory at the London Chess Classic last year, when he finally broke Kasparov’s record rating of 2851, which had stood for 13 years, to become the highest-rated player of all time at 2872.
Yet Carlsen is a young man in a hurry. My impression was that he is already impatient with the geeky and unglamorous subculture of chess.
Until he burst on to the scene as a prodigy a decade ago, Norway had not had much to do with chess since the Lewis chessmen were made there in the 12th century. Not since the great Dane Bent Larsen, who rivalled Fischer in the 1960s, had Scandinavia produced a world title contender in a game still dominated by players from the former Soviet republics. Anand’s reign has brought a surge in popularity to chess in south and east Asia. So Carlsen’s emergence in western Europe is a surprise that may herald a chess renaissance here, too.
Despite the end of the cold war and the rise of the computer, chess still has a unique allure. As the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn put it: “Chess is too serious for a game but too much of a game to be taken seriously.” This month, Carlsen has the chance to stamp his authority on what remains the supreme intellectual contest.
Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint