One of the biggest heavyweight clashes in sports is about to get under way in London—but not in boxing, nor soccer, nor any in the alphabet soup of American sports.
Norway’s Magnus Carlsen takes on Fabiano Caruana, a dual Italian-American national, in the World Chess Championship, starting tomorrow (Nov. 9). The rules are quite simple. There are 12 games. The winner gets a point and a draw results in a half-point for both players. The first to 6.5 wins. If the match is drawn after 12 games, it goes to a series of fast-chess games on the final day, ending in what is terrifyingly called “Armageddon chess.”
For Carlsen, this match is sort of akin to LeBron James making the NBA finals or Floyd Mayweather headlining the biggest fight of the year; it’s just what he does. He has been the world number since 2011, world champion since 2013, and has become something of a celebrity beyond the game, too.
The pressure on 26-year-old Caruana is more significant. He is the first American to make the final since Bobby Fischer, the genius who won it in 1972. Fisher forfeited his title in 1975, then disappeared from chess until the 1990s when he had a $5-million rematch—billed as a world-championship bout but not officially sanctioned—against his old Soviet rival, Boris Spassky, before spending his final years awash in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Fischer died in 2008 (paywall) and remains the only American to ever be world champion.
“I’d say the one player who has always blown me away and inspired me has been Bobby Fischer,” Caruana recently told the Guardian. “I mean some of the personal stuff was not great, but his approach to chess and his willpower was just phenomenal and was always an inspiration. We’re just so different in so many ways. It’s great to be compared in a historical context to Fischer, but in terms of our personalities and our playing styles and our approach to chess, we’re both very different.”
Caruana, the youngest American grandmaster in history, is an aspiring filmmaker and tells the Guardian he listens to a lot of hip-hop during the many quiet periods of chess tournaments. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he said.
The match between Carlsen and Caruana features the two best players in the world. The last time number one faced number two was when Garry Kasparov met Anatoly Karpov for the fifth and final time in 1990. According to Deadspin, the difference between Carlsen and Caruana in terms of accumulated ranking points is the smallest it has ever been in a championship match. In May, Carlsen last played and defeated Caruana, who has never before played a 12-game one-on-one competitive match.