For the first time in 21 years, the World Chess Championship is back in New York City. The choice to hold it here, as opposed to, say, Chennai, or Sochi, was overt: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. If organizers could host an interesting, well-run, and successful (in terms of ticket sales and media coverage) match in the Big Apple, the thinking goes, then it bodes well for future chess matches of this caliber to be held in other cosmopolitan cities. Mainline sponsors and media partners could potentially follow, not to mention hordes of fans.
Thus far, the match between two-time defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, and challenger Sergey Karjakin of Russia, the world’s No. 9-ranked player, has been a fantastic first-hand experience.
The Fulton Market Building at the South Street Seaport has been transformed in a maze of entertainment with black-and-white stylings. Let’s begin our tour in the VIP area, because it’s always fun to see how the other side lives. One-day tickets to the VIP lounge range from $600-$900 per day. With that you get to pal around with celebs and VIPs and grandmasters from far and away, eat couture snacks and booze and Nordic selzter, and sit on designer couches. It’s comfortable and roomy and if you want to take a break from hobnobbing or watching the match with commentary on the many TVs in the room, you can go out on the deck, suck down a smoke, and take in sights from the East River. Not bad, eh?
During the first game, Woody Harrelson was there. He played lots of chess, I was told. So was Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary.
Elsewhere, in the general admissions lounge, for which tickets run $75, grandmasters and journalists and kibitzers and kids alike pour over chess theory, and play one another, and eat high-priced sandwiches, and watch the match. It’s a lively, congenial atmosphere that exhibits an energetic kinesis despite the fact that there’s lots of sitting and chess-playing going on. Attendees are into it, predicting moves on the board as they take breaks from games of blitz. The press conference area nearby, with access to an outdoor deck, is also packed, as row up row of benches are filled with spectators.
But perhaps the coolest part of this venue is the actual spectators area, wherein attendees can view Calrsen and Karjakin playing. Behind a black curtain manned by two security guards, attendees enter into a pitch black hallway, and walk towards a huge pane of glass. There they can pop out their phones, whisper their thoughts to friends, and watch two of the world’s best players duke it out. Inside the soundproof box, Carlsen and Karjakin cannot see the spectators. It’s like entering a spaceship and becoming a voyeur of aliens, except the aliens have an encyclopedic understanding of a game of endless possibilities and they are human, but also superhuman.
The Match: Games 1-4
Today, Wednesday, is an off-day. I imagine that Carlsen, who is staying at the Ritz, probably slept in a bit, as did Karjakin, after two straight games that lasted over six hours apiece.
Game 1 was not particularly exciting, but there was a vibrancy in the air, if only because it was the first game of a highly anticipated match, and also because Carlsen played an opening called the Trompowsky just days after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Carlsen joked that his play was an homage of sorts to the results, which says more about the champion’s sense of humor and ability to play with the press (and perhaps forge a headline) than it does to the actual reasoning behind his strategy on the board. As an avid chess player, I found it remarkable that the board shrunk into a 4 x 8 battlefield before a draw was agreed upon.
Game 2 featured the Ruy Lopez (e4), a common tactic, and also ended in a draw. Perhaps the most exciting part of this day was the Saturday afternoon crowds that had gathered inside the venue. There was a longish wait to enter the playing area, and organizers told me they had capped ticket sales because demand was that high and also, I’m assuming, to provide attendees with a better, less crowded experience, which seems like a fine choice.
Game 3 was thus far the most exciting moment of the match. As Carlsen pushed for winning chances, Karjakin defended like a prizefighter—he had to after some inaccurate moves, namely a “crack” like 31. … c5)— which appears to be a running theme in this match; just how long the Russian can stay on his feet may in fact determine the outcome.
The game lasted nearly 7 hours and I found myself in a bar after about 6 of them. With two fellow journalists, I watched as Carlsen tried to eke a win out of a position that teetered back and forth between “drawish” and advantage Carlsen. But Karjakin, a la Houdini, as Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight wrote, fought to a draw. This, I think, is what chess is all about, and the power it holds for spectators. Belly up to a bar, look at the position on your phone as the time ticks and ticks away on the players’ clocks, and talk it out.
At #vgsjakk, we had audio on post-game reactions from Magnus and Sergey.
MC: Did you see a win for me?
SK: No, but it was very close.
— Jon Ludvig Hammer (@gmjlh) November 15, 2016
Game 4 featured 94 moves over 6.5 hours. When is the last time you did something, anything, for 6.5 hour straight? Exactly. The game, for all intents and purposes, was a barnburner, with Karjakin, yet again, earning a draw by the skin of his teeth, coming back from the dead, as Colin McGourty of Chess24 wrote. Here a reaction to one Karjakin mistake:
“Frankly, after Games 3 and 4” said Peter Svidler, a Russian grandmaster and the world’s No. 21-ranked player, “I have no ideas what we’re about to see in this match.”
We will, of course, find out, and I for one can’t wait. And after four games, particularly the grueling marathon-like Games 3 and 4, I’m sure the thousands in attendance in New York, and the potentially millions watching around the world, feel the same way.
the (second) epic #CarlsenKarjakin draw, in game 4. 94 moves and more than 6 hours in real life. pic.twitter.com/6MSveLc25l
— Oliver Roeder (@ollie) November 16, 2016
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.