Grandmaster Clash in Slate Magazine

9/23/2014 – "One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed," writes Seth Stevenson, in a most-read article posted recently on Slate Magazine. It is long but definitely worth a read. Seth puts the sheer magnitude of Fabiano Caruana's performance in perspective, and also provides a wealth of background information on the players and the event. Don't miss it.

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The favorite was current world No. 1 and reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. The young Norwegian—who is among the best players in the history of chess—strolled into the lounge of the St. Louis Chess Club as the most alluring grandmaster ever, a brilliant, handsome 23-year-old with a modeling contract for the clothing company G-Star Raw.

One of the many conspiracy theories bandied about in the fever swamps of the chess world’s collective imagination has it that Ilyumzhinov (and his friend Vladimir Putin) yearn for a return to the glory of Soviet-era chess supremacy. Such a shift in the chess world order would require a demotion of this impudent Norwegian tyke and the promotion of a proper Russian world champ.

Fabiano Caruana [photo left by Lenart Ootes] learned to play chess at a synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At 14, he became the youngest U.S.–born grandmaster. By that point, he’d already relocated to Italy, holing up closer to Europe’s top-level coaches and tournaments. Now 22 years old—he’s nearly two years younger than Carlsen—Caruana has been steadily climbing the FIDE rankings, and entered the Sinquefield Cup as the No. 3 player in the world.

Caruana started the tournament with a win, then another. Then another. And another. And another. At the halfway mark, when each player had faced all five of his opponents exactly once, Caruana was 5–0–0. Carlsen, meanwhile, was tied with Topalov in a distant second place, recording one win, one loss, and three draws. Given Caruana’s 2.5-point lead, many observers believed the tournament was essentially over.

To you and me, going unbeaten and undrawn in five straight tournament games sounds impressive. But to chess aficionados, Caruana’s performance is nigh on miraculous. Caruana wasn’t merely avoiding draws and losses. In the words of one commentator, he was “spanking” his opponents.

Caruana won his sixth game against Topalov, and then his seventh in a rematch with Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.. He remained undefeated and undrawn. Onlookers couldn’t believe this was happening. “He’s not making any mistakes,” said a shell-shocked MVL in a post-game interview. “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen by quite some margin.” “We’re gonna need to start calling him Fabiano Fischer,” suggested Maurice Ashley. One of the live stream commentators theorized “chess fans in the future will ask each other, ‘Where were you in September 2014?’ ”

In his eighth game, Caruana came up against Carlsen. Employing an unexpected Accelerated Dragon Defense, Carlsen fell behind early but then managed to work a draw. Caruana’s streak of outright victories was over. “It's an amazing result,” said Carlsen in a post-match interview with Sinquefield Cup commentators. “Even if he doesn't turn up for the last two games, it would be one of the greatest of our time.”

Caruana did show up, drawing his final two games to win the tournament (and its $100,000 top prize) with a record of 7-0-3, getting 8.5 points out of a possible 10. His victory at the Sinquefield Cup earned Caruana the highest tournament performance rating of all time, crushing even Karpov’s legendary result at Linares. As a result, he vaulted past Aronian in the real-time rankings to become No. 2 in the world. (Carlsen finished in second place in St. Louis, three points behind Caruana, with a record of 2–1–7.)

Rumor has it that U.S. chess interests are now trying to convince the U.S.-born Caruana, who now represents Italy, to compete as an American in international tournaments like the Chess Olympiad. “For the moment, I can't discuss if anything is going on,” he responded when I asked him about the possibility. “It's private.”

At one point during the Sinquefield Cup, I was watching from a quiet viewing lounge on the first floor of the chess club. I glanced over to my left and saw a man sitting alone. It was Rex Sinquefield. I tried to make conversation, but he politely brushed me off. He was utterly focused on watching Caruana play. An orphan turned plutocrat, now transformed back into a little boy watching his favorite game.

I suddenly realized that he’d created this institution, funded this tournament, flown these grandmasters here and housed them, out of the purest, simplest love imaginable. He may not have lured droves of spectators to the event, and may not have reignited the world’s love affair with chess. But for two weeks at least, he helped the world’s most storied game flourish as it once had, with dedicated fans witnessing an incandescent burst of greatness that seemed to come from nowhere.

Video interview with Fabiano Caruana

Olympiad Tromsø 2014 - A quick chat with Fabiano Caruana, conducted by GM Daniel King



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