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Jim Ross: USA loses bid for chess dominance to Norway

December 7, 2018

The USA last month lost its chance to have its second world chess champion of the past 132 years.

It came in London when 26-year-old Fabiano Caruana lost a tie-breaking round to Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, 28, in the biennial championship match.

The match was scheduled for 12 games. Each game ended in a draw — the first time that had happened since championship matches began in 1886. At the end, Carlsen defeated Caruana in a series of three games played in which players had much less time to plan their moves.

Had he won, Caruana would have been the first world champion from the U.S. since Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in 1972. Fischer held the title until he forfeited it by refusing to play Anatoly Karpov three years later.

Carlsen won the world title five years ago at the age of 23. Last month’s match was the third time he had defended it. His first defense was a rematch against the man he won it from, Viswanathan Anand. His most recent challengers were Sergey Karjakin in 2016, who like Carlsen was 26 at the time, and Caruana, who is 26 now.

The ages are significant, because since Fischer’s victory the highest levels of chess have been dominated by men in their 20s. Spassky was 32 when he won the title, and Fischer was 29 when he defeated Spassky three years later. Since then ages of other players who have won the championship have ranged from Garry Kasparov, 22, to Anand, who was 31. Among those in between were Anatoly Karpov, 24, and Vladimir Kramnik, 25.

Championship chess truly is a young person’s game now.

Carlsen himself acknowledges that age can be a factor at the highest level. According to an article in The New Yorker, after the fifth game of this year’s match, both players were asked who their favorite players were from the past. Caruana said Fischer. Carlsen said, “Probably myself, like, three or four years ago.”

During this match, experts said both players missed chances to win games, and even in the final game Carlsen had a stronger position before offering Caruana a draw. Carlsen knew he would have the edge in the speed chess tie-breaker, so why risk a loss that would eliminate that advantage?

Kramnik and Kasparov criticized Carlsen’s strategy in that final game. But after retaining his title, Carlsen said, “Based on my chances today it was correct. As for the opinions of Garry and Vlad, they’re entitled to their stupid opinions. That’s all I can say.” Oh, the unfiltered opinions of youth.

Perhaps Carlsen has lost something in the past five years, and his next match in 2020 could be his last. Or perhaps he will retain his edge into his 30s.

It’s unlikely a victory by Caruana would have made chess as popular in 2018 as it was in 1972, when we nerds were reading books on opening theory, middle game strategy and end-game positions. We played matches by mail or at weekend tournaments. The craze lasted maybe a year or two before chess went back to what curling was before television discovered it.

There is a chance the 2020 world championship match could be in St. Louis, given the growth of the game in that city. Perhaps then a 28-year-old Caruana or another young American can defeat the over-the-hill 30-year-old Carlsen and bring the title back here. And maybe chess will have another year or two of popularity here again. It’s not likely, because Fischer’s victory ended several decades of Russian domination, and the Cold War is over now, except when people talk about the 2016 election. But you never know.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. In a recent game played online as White, he opened with the King’s Gambit Declined and was destroyed within 20 moves. He can be contacted at jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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