Magnus Carlsen of Norway recently became the World Chess Champion by drawing the 10th game in a best of 12 series against the former champ, Vishwanathan Anand of India.
By winning two times with black and once with white, he sealed the fate of his opponent by scoring 6.5 against Anand’s 3.5. But the main reason this series is important, goes beyond the scores, or the age difference between the challenger and the defender (Carslen is 22 while Anand is almost twice his age at 43). It is more than a veteran passing on the baton to a rookie. It’s about the game of chess in its entirety and how it is undergoing massive change.
Before Carslen burst into the scene as one of the youngest grandmasters of the game a few years ago, people only knew the names of a few bigwigs in the game, like that of Gary Kasparov, Vishwanathan Anand, Anatony Karpov and Bobby Fischer. The ones who knew more players were probably hardcore fans of the game.
The point is, although chess is one of the oldest known games in the world and is played all over as well, the media exposure it has had over the years, leaves a lot to be desired. Take India for example – it’s a country obsessed with cricketers who bag the best endorsements like Adidas, Reebok, Pepsi, etc. Vishwanathan Anand, an Indian, however, has endorsements from NIIT (a private Information Technology course provider) and Crocin. And this is considered a really big deal for chess players. Traditionally, the media has never made heroes out of grandmasters in chess. And this is where Carlsen comes in.
When was the last time you ever saw a chess grandmaster on a fashion billboard and that too with an A-list Hollywood actress by his side? Never. For its 2010 Autumn/Winter campaign, G-Star Raw hired Carlsen for an advertising campaign and posing next to him was none other than Liv Tyler. It is said that noted sci-fi filmmaker J.J. Abrams also approached Carlsen to play the role of a futuristic chess player in one of the Star Trek films. That would have happened as well if it weren’t for problems with his US work permit, which could not be attained on time.
Noted comedian, Rainn Wilson, who hosts musicians and actors on his YouTube talk show SoulPanCake, also invited Carlsen on his show. And the cherry on top? – lifestyle magazine Cosmopolitan named Carlsen as the 31st “Sexiest Men of 2013”. Clearly, Carlsen has chosen a path outside of chess that very few other individual sport players have walked on. Thanks to him, kids today think chess is “cool”.
But surely, Carlsen’s influence on chess can be stretched a little beyond his attitude and his “coolness”, right? He’s also spearheading a generation of chess players that has literally changed the way the game itself is played. For a lot of us chess fans, perhaps the ‘game of the century’ was when a 13 year old Bobby Fischer faced Donald Byrne in 1956. The underdog Fischer sacrificed his queen on the 17th move and yet pulled a victory on the 41st move.
Games where such drama ensued, are rare today. The nineties’ top level players showed some remnants of the “romantic era” of chess. However, Carlsen and his contemporary players shy away from such cowboy antics. They may be young and restless outside chess and on social media, but their game involves a lot of variations that were unheard of earlier. Carlsen even refuses to talk about who he practices with before tournaments just so that the opponent cannot prepare beforehand. Truly, a chess duel today is no less exciting than a boxing match in Vegas and with people like Carlsen heading the movement of change, one can only imagine what the future of this game holds.
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– GM Susan Polgar