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First Western-Born Chess Champ Since Fischer

Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, 22, crowned World Chess Champion today

Jonathan Zalman
November 25, 2013
Magnus Carlsen presented with a laurel wreath during today's closing ceremonies of the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championships in Chennai, India.(Twitter)
Magnus Carlsen presented with a laurel wreath during today's closing ceremonies of the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championships in Chennai, India.(Twitter)

As is tradition, the new World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, was presented with a laurel wreath today during the closing ceremonies of the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. The laurel wreath—the chess world’s version of a crown—will be placed over Carlsen’s neck and shoulders, framing the deserving smile of the 22-year-old Norwegian, now the second-youngest world chess champion in history.

Carlsen clinched the title on Friday, Nov. 22, by drawing with Viswanathan Anand, the four-time defending champion, in the 10th and deciding game. (Carlsen won by a count of 6.5-3.5 in the best-of-12 match). The match included several signature performances from Carlsen, who favors long, pressing games—versus Anand some lasted six-plus hours—that force his opponents into uncomfortable positions on the chessboard wherein they’re bound to make mistakes. And when Anand made them, Carlsen pounced.

Carlsen entered the match as the top-rated chess player in the world, an echelon he’s been perched atop almost solely since 2010. Because of this, the Norwegian was considered the slight favorite despite the fact that Anand had been the undisputed world titleholder since 2007, and would be playing at home in Chennai. Anand, a national icon, is India’s first grandmaster and world chess champion. In the end, however, he proved to have no answer to Carlsen’s tricky, perhaps weakness-free game.

Carlsen’s wreath (read: crown) symbolizes not only his seat at the international chess throne, but a responsibility to continue to push the ancient game of chess into mass popularity once again. This win will surely place Carlsen’s youthful face across a wider array of homepages, front covers and trending topics worldwide; he’s already a model for clothing brand G-Star Raw, and has been featured on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report, to name a few. In other words, welcome to the era of King Carlsen. Get comfortable.

The last time chess took the world by storm—feel free to read that again—was in 1972, when American Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky of the former Soviet Union to international fervor during the Cold War. Outside of Norway, however, Carlsen’s cult of personality has not reached the level of Bobby Fischer’s—yet.

Like Fischer, Carlsen is a virtuosic animal on the chessboard, and an avid athlete off of it. Carlsen enjoys playing basketball and soccer, and as a youth even enjoyed ski jumping. Fischer, too, believed that staying in shape was key to his chess performance, so he swam and played tennis:

As the interview continued, Cavett told Fischer that people expect to meet “a frail little fellow with thick glasses,” and that they’re surprised by the width of his shoulders and athletic appearance.

“I like a little swimming [and] tennis,” Fischer responded. “Mainly I just use [sports] to keep in shape for the chess.”

The audience offered a nervous chuckle.

Cavett pressed gently. “Where does it take strength?”

“Well, you’re sitting there for five hours,” Fischer said, offering the now risible crowd a toothy smile that’s equal parts nervous and warm.

Fischer, who had been the youngest American chess champion ever at 14, sensed genuine doubt in the audience and stuck to his guns. “How does that song [go]?” he said. “The neck bone is connected to … all that stuff. You gotta have the blood coming into your head. The reason that players fade out in, say, their 40s or 50s is ’cause by the fourth or fifth hour of play they’ve lost their concentration, their stamina’s gone.”

Unlike Fischer, however, Carlsen, though confident, is neither an egomaniac nor a bigot.

Jews, whom Fischer would also call “absolute pigs,” would become his default nomenclature for anyone who drew his ire, whether Chosen or not. He denied the Holocaust ever happened and believed that “hundreds of thousands of Jews should get executed in the U.S. … and go to some kind of concentration camp to be re-educated.”

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Fischer’s death, I examined Fischer’s life, chess legacy, and anti-Semitism through a fresh lens: an attempt, by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—via Samuel Reshevsky, a fellow Jewish grandmaster—to bring Fischer back into the fold, despite Fischer’s condemnation of his birthright.

Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, director of Chabad activities in Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, says that when the Rebbe sent Reshevsky to see Fischer, he was testing his theory; if Fischer could recognize his Jewish soul, his culture, his people, and his identity, he could overcome his inner hatred and embody malchut d’Atzilut—become the queen.

Carlsen, it appears, has both the managerial and mental goods to remain in the driver’s seat of his career—one that’s peaking perfectly—and avoid the intense pitfalls that plagued Fischer’s playing career, and public and private life; one that ended in near solitude in Iceland, a country not far from Carlsen’s homeland of Norway.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.