Magnus Carlsen at the World Rapid and Blitz championship in Berlin, 2015
On Saturday, as the chess world prepared for the world championship showdown between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, its collective eyebrow was raised by the revelation in the Daily Telegraph that Carlsen had asked Microsoft to help him protect his data from Russian hackers.
A bit of backstory. The 2016 world chess championship, which begins this Friday in Manhattan, will see Carlsen, a 25-year-old from Norway, attempting to defend his title against 26-year-old Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin. In Moscow back in March, Karjakin plowed his way through seven of the world’s best players, including two former champions, for the right to face Carlsen.
Although Carlsen himself has already been champ for 3 years, this month’s match feels like a generational torch-passing. Two years ago in Sochi, Russia, Carlsen successfully defended the title against a challenger twice his age: former champion Viswanathan Anand of India. This year, for the first time, the world championship will be contested by two players both born after January 1st, 1990 (It’s also the first time the championship has been held in the US since Anand faced Garry Kasparov in New York in 1995).
In many ways, Carlsen-Karjakin is a promising event for the global chess community. Since he appeared on the chess scene in the late ’00s, Carlsen has given it a much-needed jolt, winning fashionable endorsement deals (like one from Dutch clothing line G-Star Raw) uncharacteristic in a sport formerly dominated by bespectacled soviets with unpronounceable names. Nonetheless Karjakin is not the challenger most western fans were hoping for. US chess champion Fabiano Caruana raised hopes back in March with a strong showing in the Candidate’s Tournament, but succumbed to Karjakin in the final round.
Since then, the two players have kept themselves busy; Carlsen has been promoting his chess app “Play Magnus” and its new tie-in deal with Scandinavian Airlines….
...while Karjakin put in an appearance with Vladimir Putin at the opening of a new chess education center in Sochi.
The last time Carlsen and Karjakin met across the board was in July at a tournament in Bilbao, Spain. There they played two games; one was a draw, the other went to Carlsen. In fact, the challenger has only beaten the champ once in more than a dozen serious tournament encounters. That doesn’t mean the match will be a walk for Carlsen; while British grandmaster Jonathan Speelman puts his victory odds at somewhere between 2-1 and 3-1, the challenger often has a powerful psychological advantage in a long match, simply because he has so much more to fight for. Becoming champion is a better motivator than remaining champion.
While the matchup has promised a bit of “east vs. west” intrigue, it’s lacked the Cold War drama that characterized the 1972 bout between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Or so it seemed, until the news that Carlsen’s team suspected partisans of his Russian challenger might be trying to gain access to his files. Chess is one of the few sports in which computer hacking is really an issue: one wouldn’t gain too much of an advantage against the Golden State Warriors by breaking into Steph Curry’s Gmail. To understand why it might be a problem here, consider the following.
21st century championship training is largely about what chess players call “opening preparation”. Top-level chess games always begin with one of a few “approved” sequences of moves, those that have been shown by practice and computer analysis to be the most dependable and sound. So the job of each player’s team of assistants and analysts is to scour these opening lines looking for original ideas, in the hope of uncovering a new move - a “novelty” in chess lingo - with which to surprise their opponent. For months, Carlsen and Karjakin have been cloistered in their respective training camps plotting their stratagems for the match, poring over the moves of their opponent’s games, probing for any potential weaknesses in their repertoire.
Why spend so much time on this? Well, the dream scenario is to repeat what Viswanathan Anand of India pulled off at the Tata Steel Tournament in the Netherlands In January 2013 against Armenian #1 Levon Aronian. Anand (then the world champion) had prepared a new idea 12 moves into a well-worn variation of the Meran variation of the Semi-Slav defense, and Aronian, caught unawares, went down in flames after failing to find the correct response. By virtue of his superior preparation, Anand won a brilliant game without breaking a sweat.
But more often the goal of such intensive analysis is more modest: to simply avoid disaster. Both players and their teams, sequestered in remote locations in different countries, are attempting to guess what lines the other side might be investigating in order to anticipate potential novelties and prepare their replies. All of which is to say that the ability to sneak a peek at your opponent’s homework before the big day could give you a major advantage.
While the rumors of a potential cyberattack have so far come to naught (and will almost certainly continue to do so), they reveal the extent to which modern chess, even between humans, has come to be dominated by computer analysis. Carlsen and Karjakin are of a generation that grew up with computer chess (Carlsen once told an interviewer that he doesn’t own a physical chessboard). FIDE (The World Chess Federation, pronounced fee-day) is hoping that those same computers can help increase public interest in the sport: they’ve promised to make this year’s match the most interactive and immersive ever, with the official site providing 360° panoramas of the players arena, stereoscopic virtual reality broadcasting, live commentary, computer analysis, and more.
We’ll see. Check back for updates as game 1 commences on Friday, November 11.
Karjakin and Carlsen pose together after the Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger in 2013 (holding their brand new Samsung tablets)