Chairman of the board

Magnus Carlsen’s recent triumph proves chess is a dynamic sport

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Is chess a sport? If the recent world championship between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi is anything to go by, most definitely. It had drama, skill, endurance, determination and disintegration. It even borrowed from football’s oldest cliché, the game of two halves. The first five games ended in draws, with neither player able to secure more than a fleeting advantage on the board.

Game six changed everything. It was the longest game in world championship history: 136 moves lasting 7 hours 47 minutes. Spending that long at peak concentration tests body and mind like little else, and Carlsen does it better than any player ever. He establishes a microscopic edge and works away at it, slowly ratcheting up the pressure, widening the fissure. 

British grandmaster Nigel Short once described sitting across the board from Garry Kasparov and feeling battered by the waves of aggression pulsing from deep within the nuclear reactor of Kasparov’s life force. Carlsen doesn’t have that presence, but he does have the obduracy of a granite cliff and an almost frightening need to win. He’s the Terminator; he can’t be reasoned with, he doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Deep into the game, the computer engines were still calling it a draw. But engines don’t get tired, don’t get flustered, don’t make mistakes. Humans do. Wherever Nepomniachtchi turned, Carlsen was there first. With the time controls now in increments, Carlsen varied the tempo, almost running down the clock on some moves and then making several at lightning speed. Chess is a dance, and it’s always better to lead. 

Finally, past midnight in Dubai, they were down to their last pieces: a rook, a knight and two pawns for Carlsen, and a queen for Nepomniachtchi. Carlsen’s pieces suddenly seemed to coalesce into an ouroboros, each defending another in a perfect circle of impregnability. Up the board they marched. 

There are no such things as unforced errors when you’re playing a multiple world champion

Nepomniachtchi’s queen, so mobile and rangy earlier, now appeared frantic and skittish. Nepomniachtchi stared, grimaced, stared again. Carlsen’s face was impassive, but his eyes betrayed his exhaustion and what he’d had to give to get to this place. Nepomniachtchi reached out a hand, and it was done. First blood to Carlsen.

Games like these take a toll deep in players’ souls. “Ideally, of course, [Nepomniachtchi] would like to strike back immediately,” tweeted Short, “but perhaps a bigger challenge will be not to break. Dams can collapse very abruptly.” Rarely can a tweet have been more prescient. 

Nepomniachtchi lost three of the next five games, all with pawn blunders which would have shamed a decent club player, and the match was over. Some commentators called these blunders “unforced errors” but of course there are no such things, not when you’re playing a multiple world champion for the greatest prize in your sport and certainly not when you’ve thrown the kitchen sink at him to no avail. 

Great champions of yore such as Bobby Fischer and Paul Morphy went mad with the strain of the game. George Orwell described sport as “war minus the shooting”, and chess fulfils this in spades, not just because the pieces and pawns are ostensibly militaristic but because as Fischer said, “I savour the moment when I break a man.” 

Nepomniachtchi was certainly broken, but he won many friends with his grace in defeat and his patience with some frankly insulting questions in the post-match press conferences. Besides, it was no disgrace to lose to the man many rank as the greatest ever and few would place outside the top three. 

The match also did wonders for the image of classical chess. Cricket fans will see clear parallels with the tripartite division of the sport: for Test, one-day and T20, read classical (generous time controls), rapid (15 minutes plus 10 seconds per move) and blitz (five minutes) respectively. 

In the game of kings, Carlsen is emperor supreme

In our age of gnat-like attention spans the faster formats are beloved of marketeers and broadcasters (and Carlsen has, uniquely, held all three titles simultaneously), but for the purists the long form is king, with all its undercurrents, its striving for tiny advantages, its play and counterplay. 

Carlsen’s two previous world championship matches (he has now won five in all) had been decided on rapid tie-breaks after all the classical games had been drawn. Rapid games are exciting, but their drama can too often be the rather ersatz one of a penalty shoot-out. Far more satisfying to win and lose within the bounds of the usual format. 

Where Carlsen goes from here is anybody’s guess. He spoke frankly after the championship about his waning motivation to keep defending a title he has held since 2013. 

He has indicated that he may not even do so two years hence unless the 18-year-old prodigy Alireza Firouzja wins through to challenge him. That would be a match for the ages, giving Carlsen the chance either to put the French-Iranian whippersnapper in his place or, in defeat, to pass on the torch to the next generation. Whatever he chooses, he has already done so much for the sport. In the game of kings, he is emperor supreme.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover