One of the most anticipated world championship matches in recent memory kicked off Thursday at the The College in Holborn, London. For the first time since 1990, the biggest belt in chess will be contested by the world’s top two players.
Not only will Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana be contesting the world championship in this cavernous, stone building, but if there’s a winner in regulation then that person will also be the number-one rated player. You have to go back five years for the last time Carlsen wasn’t world champion. Add two more years for the last time he wasn’t the highest-rated player.
The view that spectators will have of the action, behind one-way glass. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
The two men are remarkably close in rating (Carlsen is merely three points to the good) and they are separated even less alphabetically: just one other grandmaster divides them on a roster. They are only one year apart in age (Carlsen 27, Caruana 26) and both even had final training camps in the same country (Spain).
FIDE press officer Danny King showing that the two players are so close in rating. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Today both entered a darkened but packed press conference area. The two pugilists looked about the same as they usually do. They even dressed like any other event—Carlsen in his sponsored black jacket and white shirt; Caruana in his dark-blue casual jacket (the same he has worn in tournaments like the 2018 Sinquefield Cup).
Neither directly looked at each other during the 30-minute press conference. In fact, they both seemed to avoid eye contact with anyone. Except when answering a direct question, Carlsen looked up and seemingly over the crowd of journalists, while Caruana’s gaze was often at the floor while others were speaking. For the American, he immediately took some water as soon as he sat down. Unlike the champ, he’d almost certainly never faced such a throng of leering lenses.
Magnus Carlsen looked serious and stern, until he got a chance to add some levity. Pretty much the usual for him. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Eventually they both became animated at the wide array of questions, both serious, and silly. Below are some of the highlights of the short session.
When asked if he was playing not just for himself, but for the chance for the U.S. to regain the the world championship for the first time in more than four decades, Caruana said: “I mostly try to approach tournaments as an individual. If I have success of course I’d like to share it with the United States. But at the board chess players are all alone.” (Later he also gave a nod to his Italian ancestry and dual citizenship and to his time with that federation.)
Caruana added later that he’d like to be compared one day with Bobby Fischer, but that can’t happen until at least the end of the month. “If I win it will be more apt,” he said.
Fabiano Caruana, with the weight of two countries on his shoulders. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
One reporter wanted to know if Carlsen thought chess was now cool. For him, he can’t remember it being any other way.
“Personally I’ve found chess the coolest thing in the world since I was eight years old,” Carlsen said.
Is this year any different than the three previous world championship matches? Carlsen mixed his usual blend of a serious answer and a “Hollywood Squares” style joke response.
“You always feel differently,” he said. Then the small joke: “I’m a bit older, so I feel older.”
Does Carlsen look older? You decide. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Both players have given revealing interviews in the lead-up to the match (make sure to check out GM Jonathan Tisdall’s excellent summary including fascinating quotes by sister Ellen Carlsen). But at least one may not have been terribly accurate. When asked about an interview in mainstream media that he harbored aspirations as a screenwriter, Caruana corrected the record today.
“That was news to me!” he said.
Switching to music, Caruana was asked if Carlsen is indeed the “Mozart of Chess,” what comparison would he give himself?
“My musical tastes are outside classical music,” Caruana said. “So I’d probably pick something in the hip-hop or rock genre.”
Caruana: Not Amadeus or Aaron Sorkin, but darn good at his day job. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Backing up to those pre-match interviews, Carlsen gave one of his more revealing and lengthy interviews ever on a Norwegian podcast (Tarjei Svensen transcribed it here). Alluding to one of the champion’s answers, Carlsen was asked by veteran reporter Leontxo Garcia if he has improved his temper since the 2016 match.
“Your question is very upsetting to me!” Carlsen joked without skipping a beat. Then he added, “At times I’ve been apathetic. It goes the other way. So I need to find some middle ground.”
World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon said this was the best playing site he’d been a part of. Like in 2016, there will be a one-way glass partition where fans can watch but players can’t see them back. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Back in 2014, Caruana had just reeled off seven straight wins at the Sinquefield Cup and was due to have white against Carlsen. This reporter made the linguistic mistake of tepidly calling the world champion an “underdog” instead of asking if he felt like one. Today that same word “underdog” was broached by another reporter, but since it came in the interrogative form, Carlsen didn’t offer a similarly-strident response.
“It’s been a while since I’ve considered myself an underdog against anybody,” he said plainly, adding that with all of his accolades and superlatives in the chess world, something would be wrong with him psychologically if he did.
However, any thought of unflinching confidence by the Norwegian was dispelled a few moments later when he said, “I know that if I play in the same vein as I have recently, then I will not win.”
For his part, Caruana said he’s seen the flaws in Carlsen’s play, but he cannot deduce any clear pattern. His research suggests that his opponent’s mistakes have been randomized incidents.
Across the street from the playing hall, it seems the city is hoping for some sharp openings! | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
What’s the pregame formula for success? Carlsen has done this extended match thing for a while and said simply: “Eat well, sleep well, prepare well, play well.”
Finally, the press conference ended with the most out-of-bounds question. Although it was enunciated clearly, the players needed it repeated to make sure they’d heard it correctly from the female reporter: “Are there any women supporting you in the match?”
Caruana is amused that on the precipice of the biggest chess event of his life, he’s being asked about his personal life. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
FIDE Press Officer Danny King noted the ambiguity in the question, and decided to let the players answer as they saw fit.
Caruana said that yes, his mother is supporting him, and that many of those in his social circle are “female friends.” Carlsen’s love life has been more “on the record” than the American’s, and he went straight to that aspect of his life.
“I don’t think so,” he said about female support. “Women hate me; I repel them.”
Chess.com will have extensive coverage of the match, including daily reports on match days right here on Chess.com/news. You can catch all of the moves live at Chess.com/wcc2018 and watch Chess.com’s best-known commentators, IM Danny Rensch and GM Robert Hess, on either Twitch.tv/Chess or Chess.com/TV. Special guests, including GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Wesley So, Sam Shankland and more will be joining the live coverage on different days.
In addition, GM Alex Yermolinsky will be doing round-by-round wrap-up videos, available immediately after every round on all your favorite social platforms (Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and Chess.com).
The current U.S. chess champion GM Sam Shankland will provide written, in-depth analysis of each game in our news reports.
GM Yasser Seirawan will share his thoughts on the match standings and inner workings of how the players are approaching each game with videos, exclusive to Chess.com members, on each rest day.