National Security & Defense

To Each His Own Olympics

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen during a match in Bilbao, Spain, in July (Vincent West/Reuters)
The World Chess Championship comes to NYC.

You may be thrilled by the feats of Katie Ledecky, mesmerized by the grace of the women gymnasts, or startled by Rio spectators mocking U.S. soccer star Hope Solo with chants of “Zika! Zika!” (the first recorded instance, noted one wit, of a stadium rocking to the invocation of a virus). Allow me, however, to interrupt the prepackaged, heart-tugging, tape-delayed Olympic coverage to bring you the real sporting news of the year.

It has just been announced that on November 11 in New York City the World Chess Championship will begin.

You scoff, of course. For years, I’ve had to put up with amused puzzlement at my taste in entertainment. (Old joke: How do you do the wave at a chess match? With your eyebrows.) But I remain undaunted.

True, chess is not an Olympic sport. But it should be. In 1984, when challenger Garry Kasparov forced that championship match into 17 draws in a row — each about five hours of unbearable, unrelenting concentration — world champion Anatoly Karpov was so physically and mentally drained (he lost 22 pounds) that the Kremlin pressured the World Chess Federation to stop the match, thereby saving Soviet-favorite Karpov from forfeiting the title to the brash, free-thinking, half-Jewish Kasparov.

My first tournament — the 2002 Atlantic Open, a weekend of all-day pressure so intense that I left in a near-catatonic Karpovian state — was also my last. I have stuck to casual five-minute “blitz” chess ever since. My winnings — a $150 check that remains framed and forever uncashed — hang as a reminder never to do that again.

And while chess’s governing body cannot match the International Olympic Committee for corruption, the World Chess Federation more than makes up for that in weirdness. Its president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former president of Russia’s republic of Kalmykia, is not only a reliable Moscow toady (sanctioned by the Treasury Department in November 2015), but a nutcase who insists he’s been abducted by aliens. They wore yellow suits.

So why am I so excited about the upcoming match in New York? Who goes to a chess game anyway?

I do — twice, in fact, in the early 1990s when the championship was also played in New York (the 1995 match was on the observation deck of the World Trade Center). I drove from Washington both times with a couple of friends, to the consternation of the rest of our acquaintances, who thought we were certifiable.

True, chess is not an Olympic sport. But it should be.

They didn’t understand that we don’t actually sit and watch the game. Instead, we go to the grandmaster room, where the greatest chess minds in the world crowd around a few drop-down demonstration boards, trading furious in-game commentary on the boneheadedness of the latest move and the cosmic brilliance of their own proposed nine-move counterattack.

My friends and I were barely hanging on, trying to follow the dazzling riffs flung about by the immortals around us. Not to denigrate the elegance of the balance beam or the beauty of the pole vault, but that experience was (as we used to say when the world was young) mind-blowing.

Twenty-one years is a long time to wait to have your mind blown again. But there’s a more mundane reason for making the trip this time: a compelling storyline with a touch of the Cold War tension that made the 1972 Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky match such an international sensation.

The reigning world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 25-year-old Norwegian who, unlike Fischer, is quite normal. He sports a winning personality and such good looks that he does commercials for a European clothing line.

His challenger is the classic Russian heavy, Sergey Karjakin, who (reports the New York Times) is a fan of both Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Crimea and who knocked off two brilliant Americans to get to the title fight.

Not exactly U.S.–USSR 1972. But Norway–Russia 2016 does have its charms, given Putin’s threats and intrusions into the Baltics and Scandinavia. Go Oslo!

#related#I do concede that, since Fischer–Spassky, chess has lost much of its mystique. The fall can be dated to May 11, 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Kasparov, widely considered the greatest human ever to play the game.

Today we don’t even bother with the man–machine contest. No human can beat the best software. The ultimate world series is between computer programs. And machines don’t sweat.

Or strive, suffer, or exult. Humans do. So I’ll join the fun and cheer the Olympians. It’ll help pass the time until the main event November 11.

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