Chess has a new world champion. The 22-year-old Magnus Carlsen beat the reigning champion Vishy Anand – who has held the title since 2007 – in only 10 games of a 12-game series in Anand’s hometown of Chennai, India.
Carlsen – a grandmaster since the age of 12 – is the highest-rated player in the history of chess (ratings are a measure of a player’s performance against his peers). But Carlsen is no ordinary chess champ. The Norwegian is also a model for G-Star Raw and is renowned for an affable, down-to-earth personality. A far cry, then, from some of his predecessors, who have been by turns obsessive and paranoid.
So what is it about chess prodigies that fascinates us? And does Carlsen herald a new era for a game typically riven by controversy?
• To remember perhaps the most controversial, and strange, chess champion of all time, go first to Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. The 1972 World Championship between the 29-year-old Fischer, an outspoken American, and the Russian Boris Spassky, became a symbolic Cold War battleground and was beset by increasingly paranoid claim and counterclaim: Fischer insisted all TV cameras were banished from the hall, while Spassky’s team alleged the Americans were using secret chemicals to brainwash Spassky. In the end, Fischer took the title and became the first non-Russian champion since 1948. In later life, Fischer’s incipient madness took full hold: he made increasingly bizarre anti-Semitic statements and died in 2008 in Iceland.
• Thirteen years later, the player many believe to be the greatest ever (at least, before Carlsen) became world champion. But Garry Kasparov’s best-known match was not his 1985 victory over Anatoly Karpov, but his 1997 encounter with an IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue. Read Kasparov and Deep Blue by Bruce Pandolfini to learn how Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion. Observers heralded the victory as the beginning of the age of artificial super intelligence; Kasparov alleged that human grandmasters were backstage helping Deep Blue during the match.
• Fancy taking on Carlsen at the next World Championship? Your game may not be up to it yet, but after What It Takes to Become a Chess Master by Andrew Soltis, your chances will surely increase from zero to practically no chance whatsoever.