The World Chess Championship began Thursday, Nov. 8 in London, and for the first time in more than 40 years, an American-born player is vying for the title. If Fabiano Caruana wins when the competition concludes Nov. 28, he would be just the second U.S. champion in more than a century.
But Caruana, 26, who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has his work cut out for him against Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the defending three-time champion. Carlsen, 27, has been ranked No. 1 since 2011 and is widely considered one of the best ever. His last title defense, against Russia's Sergey Karjakin at South Street Seaport in 2016, is the subject of New York-based writer Brin-Jonathan Butler’s new book, “The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again” (Simon & Schuster, $26).
Butler, a journalist and author of "The Domino Diaries," which was shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for literary sports writing, says there is an “unbelievable, unbearable sadism at the heart of elite chess.” "The Grandmaster" colorfully describes championship games taking place in an “execution chamber,” and likens players to addicts and “merciless killers," an elite teetering on the edge of madness.
The book’s poster child is Bobby Fischer, currently the only American world champion since the 1800s. Fischer won the title in 1972, refused to defend it, then essentially disappeared, only to pop up occasionally as a raving anti-Semite. (He died in Iceland in 2008.)
Butler talked about the book, the match and how long Carlsen can “deal with the pressure of every chess player out there gunning for him.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Did your opinion of chess change while reporting this book?
I think it doubled down my initial sense of how precarious a whirlpool chess can be for a certain type of person, especially for an obsessive type. . . . It threatens to take things away from the rest of your life. And I found that fascinating but also quite frightening in a lot of ways.
Who do you think will win the championship?
I certainly think that Magnus is the favorite, but if [he] doesn’t play up to his potential, Caruana could very easily score an upset and that would be an enormous deal in terms of how that would impact Magnus.
Carlsen has talked often about how his No. 1 ranking is a part of his identity.
I don’t think it’s a part of his identity, I think it’s his whole identity. And that was the big thing in this book. I’m an outsider in the world of chess, but what is very much a common link [with other sports] is that winners have no self-awareness whatsoever about what’s going on with winning. It’s losers that are forced to confront who they are. And Magnus, being this perennial winner/child prodigy/world champion . . . when he finally does lose, he’s going to be forced to look at who he is without being No. 1.
How would a Caruana win affect U.S. chess?
I think it would definitely have a positive effect. Fabiano learned chess a mile away from Bobby Fischer, but Fischer was not trying to become one of the best chess players in the world. What I kind of love about [Fischer], but it’s ruthless, is he wanted you to think about nobody else. He wanted to be alone, the only chess player — like a primary color of not just chess, but art, of science, of math. I don’t think that’s where Fabiano is coming from. He is trying to become the world champion of chess, which is a great achievement, but he’s not going to transcend chess, in my opinion.