Why Chess Is The Most Exciting Sport In The World

This month's World Chess Championship Candidates Tournament had it all: dramatic finishes, epic comebacks, and the infamously volatile chess bad boy Vassily Ivanchuk...
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This month's World Chess Championship Candidates Tournament had it all: dramatic finishes, epic comebacks, and the infamously volatile chess bad boy Vassily Ivanchuk...


I think a case can be made, based on the World Championship Candidates Tournament just finished in London, that chess is the most exciting sport in the world and could, if forced on an ungrateful public, reach a mass television audience. There is an obvious reason why it hasn’t – few people understand the game – but really it is because of the popular view that chess is boring and geeky: an obsession pursued by unhygienic men in the upstairs rooms of pubs or empty community centres. The fact that most of it now happens on the internet hardly improves this perception.

The candidates’ tournament is to decide who plays the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand for the ultimate chess title but the incumbent is ageing and in poor form and the winner of this event is widely expected to beat him. It is also the first world championship challenge by the highest rated player in history, 22 year Magnus Carlsen.

The eight players play each other twice – once with white, once with black - in a darkened room with chiascuro lamps highlighting each player’s intense, hopeful or anxious profile against classy, minimalist furniture. As always, atmosphere is everything. With the right lighting, that awkward, sweaty intimacy becomes a concentrated pool of intellectual conflict. The players are also mostly well-dressed, youngish, even charismatic personalities who understand the value of the media. With one exception.

Vassily Ivanchuk has, for years, exemplified the stereotype of the eccentric chess genius: an inscrutable social misfit who travels to any tournament that will pay his air fare and loses inexplicably to lesser opponents every time he reaches the brink of greatness. This is either frustratingly repetitive or hopelessly romantic depending on your point of view. Nabokov and Stephan Zweig have made literature out of it. But here Vassily self-destructed from the start, almost ruined a brilliant tournament with his perverse inconsistency and, basically, came across as a bit of a jerk.

Losing on time at the top level is virtually unheard of but Ivanchuk managed to do this on a total of five occasions, regularly leaving himself with 15 or 20 moves to play in something like half a minute. It was almost as if he was deliberately putting himself out of contention from the start so he could concentrate on being a tortured artist. After his latest disaster, he would turn up at press conferences already wrapped up for the cold London night and sit picking his nose until they agreed to let him go. He also ended up being arguably the critical protagonist in the whole tournament.

In the early rounds, the two top-rated players, Carlsen and Levon Aronian, ran away with it. Lev is an Armenian jazz aficionado with tousled hair, trendy glasses and a self-deprecating smile. He is almost sexy - even when he talks chess. Magnus is handy-in-a-fight looking and exudes Scandinavian good health. His stamina at the board is superhuman, grinding out wins from equal positions or defending bad ones with almost languid calm for hours on end. Apparently, he takes an energy drink to the board which he won’t touch until the fourth hour. The message is clear: I’m here for as long as it takes.


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Their most dangerous rival was former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, a 6 foot 5 Russian with a serious suit but a twinkle in his eye, one of the last great products of the Soviet chess school. He seemed well-prepared and determined but couldn’t actually beat anybody, drawing his first seven games.

Most engaging of all is Peter Svidler who concedes he used to compile his own spreadsheets on the performance of the England cricket team and wears well–pressed orange, lime and maroon shirts with a single silver earring. Generally considered too nice to win the very top events, he turned up slimmed down and ready for his last real opportunity at chess greatness but faltered after failing to beat the lugubrious Boris Gelfand from an absolutely crushing position.

Elsewhere, the pale and lanky Alexander Grischuk answered a question about how he was preparing for the next round “Cocaine, hookers and black jack.” If you could believe this of a chess player, you would believe it of Alexander who looks like he is being played by John Turturro.

Teimour Radjabov, many people’s outside bet, won his second game but soon collapsed losing six in total. At the post-game press conferences he talked graciously and in depth through his disappointment.

And this is the thing about watching chess: you get to know and care about the players and it’s not their ability to hold a cue straight, hole a putt or avoid a kidney punch that is exposed under pressure. It is their thinking, their decisions, their minds. Few footballers can tell you much you didn’t already know but chess is a thought process and demands explanation. If you can’t talk coherently about it, you can’t play it either. When you watch chess – and listen to Grand Masters talk about it - you learn; about psychology and human weakness as well as the game.


So when nerves set in and some unravelled while others seized their chance, it felt dramatically intimate. This was an oedipal moment in chess history with the two leaders ready to overthrow a lengthy hegemony of world championship matches between players pushing forty. But then Kramnik finally started winning and Aronian self-immolated with a series of creative but impractical decisions. Ivanchuk began alternating his chaotic losses with moments of exemplary technique. In a stunning twelfth round he beat Magnus with black and Kramnik did the same to Aronian, the first time the two best players in the world have ever lost with white on the same day. According to impenetrable internet uber-geek analysis, Kramnik was now a 76% favourite to win.

In the next, penultimate round Kramnik and Aronian drew, Ivanchuk lost on time again and the stage was left to Carlsen who was trying to win a completely drawn position against Radjabov. Tired and under unprecedented pressure he pushed for hour after hour to manufacture something from the minutest edge. After seven hours of remorseless precision the positional advantages accumulated and suddenly, sensationally, he had won. Level now with Kramnik but with more wins, Carlsen just needed to equal the Big Vlad’s result on the final day to win on tiebreak.

Playing simultaneously, they had to decide whether to play safe or go all out for the win. Kramnik went for the latter, creating wild complications against Ivanchuk. Carlsen, with white, could afford to play more steadily but for the first time in his career, got scared and started throwing pieces at Svidler’s king. He ended up with 10 moves left to make in just over a minute. He made them, but badly, and lost. By this time, Kramnik, with no time to realise that a draw was enough, had launched a desperate attack. Carlsen’s fate was in the hands of the infamously volatile Vassily Ivanchuk and, in the final hour, he was lethally professional. A heartbroken Kramnik, who many felt had played the best chess, went down with his generation. And youth, through force of will, and luck, won.

Pity it wasn’t on telly.