At the chess Candidates Tournament in Moscow on Thursday, four-time U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura was in trouble. His opponent, Levon Aronian - Armenia's top player - was up by a pawn, and was gradually pushing his pieces forward into Nakamura's territory. It was a difficult position, but the consensus of the commentators was that Nakamura should be able to hold things to a draw.
Then, a disaster. Nakamura reached out his hand and gripped his king. Suddenly, his hand trembled and he yanked it backwards.
"He touched the king! He touched the king!" Gasped the official commentators, grandmasters Evgeny Miroshnichenko and Alexandra Kosteniuk. "He needs to move it!"
Perhaps a few words on the rules are in order. In chess, whether in the loftiest of professional or the lowliest of scholastic tournaments, the "touch-move" rule, as it's known, is holy writ. If you touch one of your pieces, you must move it. If you reach out and place your fingers around a pawn, then change your mind and decide you'd rather move a knight - too bad. You are obliged to move that pawn. Many an amateur has lost a game with an ill-considered touch. I can recall a tournament game I played a few years back in which my opponent picked up his queen to move it - then realized that the only legal queen move available to him would allow me to capture it on my next move. He of course lost. It's a bit embarrassing to win a game in this way, rather than by your own skill, but rules are rules. Besides - a few weeks before that, against a different opponent, I had been kind and allowed him to move a different piece. I lost that game.
But in professional chess - especially at the super-elite level - losing a game in this way is a rare thing. In the video, you can see that after realizing what he's done, Nakamura mutters something, prompting a response from Aronian. It is as yet unknown what that something was, but many have speculated that Nakamura was trying to escape from his mistake by claiming a "j'adoube". More words on the rules of chess are in order. A player may touch a piece without being obliged to move it for the purpose of adjusting its position on the board - if, for instance, one of your pieces is not properly centered on its square. However it's crucial that you announce your intentions by declaring "j'adoube" (French for "I adjust") before touching the piece. This rule exists to prevent people from abusing their "j'adoube" privileges to violate the touch-move rule, as Nakamura appears to have tried to do Thursday.
All this happened in just a few seconds. But if you watch the video you can detect all these thoughts running through Aronian's mind as Nakamura tries to renege on his touch. He shakes his head and throws up his hands - it's embarrassing at the professional level to have to remind your opponent of the rules. Aronian was hardly going to "be nice" when a chance at the world championship - a lifelong ambition for both men - was on the line. After a visit from the tournament arbiter, who presumably confirmed Nakamura's obligation under the rules to move his king, the two men resumed play. After 90 seconds or so of tortured silence, Nakamura moved his king to the f8 square. It was the best he could do given his situation, but it nonetheless left him in a hopeless position.
Most professional chess players maintain a studious poker face at the board, the better to hide the inner workings of their minds from their opponents. Former world champion Viswanathan Anand of India, who is also playing in the Candidates this year, is famous for maintaining the same impassive expression whether he's crushing his opponent or being crushed himself.
Not everyone adopts this approach, though. Ex-champion Garry Kasparov was famously un-poker-faced at the board. If he didn't like his position, he would scowl at it like it was a disobedient child. Nakamura very much belongs to the Kasparovian school of thought regarding facial expression. As the reality of his situation became clear, he sunk his head into his hands. He furrowed his brow in dismay and embarrassment. Again and again, he arched his eyebrows and shook his head in the manner of a man who knows he's all out of options. After a few more futile moves, he extended his hand to Aronian in the traditional gesture of chess surrender.
The Candidates Tournament is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of the modern world championship in 1946. Typically, 8 players meet in a double round-robin format, meaning that each player plays each other player twice. With 8 players, that means 14 rounds. Including rest days, the event can last several weeks, and it takes a tremendous toll on the mental and physical stamina of the participants. Players lock themselves up with their assistants, or "seconds", in the months leading up to the event - devising new strategies, poring endlessly over the games of their seven opponents, probing for possible weaknesses. That's because a victory in this month's event doesn't just mean a shot at the championship, it also means a lot of money. The winner not only gets the lion's share of the candidates tournament's €420,000 prize fund, but since they will then go on to play in the championship match, they are guaranteed at least the loser's purse in that event, which can be close to a million dollars.
And Nakamura - who is currently the #6 player in the world but has been as high as #2 - has been publicly bullish on his championship chances for years. One example (of many) is this tweet, from November of 2013.
The "Sauron" that Nakamura is referring to is world champion Magnus Carlsen, of Norway. Carlsen has mostly refused to return fire - although once, when asked by a Norwegian journalist for his thoughts on Nakamura, he responded with one word: "udugelig", which roughly translates to "inept".
Being a top chess player, of course, requires deep wells of self-confidence, and Nakamura is no exception. But it's nonetheless hard to tell where this particular strain of confidence against Carlsen comes from. Over the last few years, he and the champ have met across the board a whopping 30 times. 18 of those games were draws. Carlsen won the other 12. In fact, Nakamura is the only player in this year's Candidates Tournament who has never beaten him. Even the event's youngest participant, 21-year-old Anish Giri of the Netherlands, has pulled it off on one occasion.
Nakamura's touch-move loss was a minor scandal in a sport known for its minor scandals. The last one was in the Norway Chess tournament in June of last year, when Carlsen lost his first game of the event - against Bulgarian #1 Veselin Topalov - by running out of time in an otherwise winning position. Apparently, he had neglected to read the rules of the event beforehand.
With Nakamura's defeat, hopes that either he or the other American participant - world #5 Fabiano Caruana - will win the event seem to be slipping into the abyss. After six games, Nakamura sits at two losses and four draws. Caruana has drawn all six of his games: a respectable performance, but as Marco Rubio recently learned in the Republican primaries, at some point you have to start winning. All eyes are now on Aronian and on Sergey Karjakin of Russia, who share first place with two wins and four draws apiece. With eight rounds remaining, it is still theoretically possible for anyone to win - but Karjakin and Aronian are increasingly the favorites. Think of them as the Trump and Clinton of the chess world, minus the xenophobia and the pink blazers.
You can follow round seven of the Candidates tournament, which starts tomorrow at 3pm Moscow time, at worldchess.com.