The World Chess Champion Is In Trouble

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen frowns at the board during his 8th game against challenger Sergey Karjakin
World chess champion Magnus Carlsen frowns at the board during his 8th game against challenger Sergey Karjakin

Magnus Carlsen does not like to lose at chess. If he did, of course, he wouldn’t be the world champion; the best players are often the ones with the most pathologically intense aversion to losing. That, after all, is what motivates them day after day to put in the herculean mental effort required to play at the very highest level. This personality trait clashes rather jarringly with the bizarre tradition of the post-game press conference. At major events, the players are hauled out in front of the media mere minutes after each game and forced to endure questions from the public, often of an inane nature.

Some players gamely put on a happy face for the fans. Others opt for the Marshawn Lynch approach and rebel against the very idea that they have some obligation toward the media or the chess-watching public. Magnus Carlsen has always floated somewhere between these two extremes, but in this month’s championship match in New York, he’s tended increasingly toward the latter. After the first game he was subjected to multiple questions on the superficial relationship between the name of a chess opening variation and the name of the president-elect. After game 5 he responded to one question by saying simply, “I don’t care.” Other questions he has chosen to just ignore, leaving it to his challenger, Sergey Karjakin of Russia, to pick up the slack. And on Monday, Magnus took things to a whole new level.

The round started normally enough. Each game of the match thus far has featured a celebrity guest who is given the honor of playing the first move; today it was astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the ceremonial first move in game 8
Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the ceremonial first move in game 8

For a while it seemed that the eighth game, like the seven before it, would be ending peacefully. Sometime in the fifth hour that began to change. The realization dawned gradually on the live commentators that Magnus Carlsen was going to lose. For the first time in his life, he would be trailing in a world championship match.

That’s precisely what happened. And as the players headed out into the spectator’s hall for yet another press conference, Magnus’ patience was getting ready to fray.

In the video below, you’ll hear the official commentators discussing the result of the game. And at the end, you’ll see Carlsen snap and storm off the stage.

The champion did not return during the press conference; he left Karjakin alone on stage.


Carlsen has had difficulty with his temper in the past; here he is reacting to a few crucial losses in the world rapid and blitz championships last year:

But Monday’s display was his most surprising breach of decorum yet. It was the kind of petulance that should be beneath of a player of Magnus’ stature, but I’ll take a moment to sympathize with him.

I am not a grand master (although I did once win a 15-minute game against the Louisiana state champion) but I’ve played some long tournament games in my time. In one such game I gained an early advantage and soon found myself in a completely winning position. After a few hours of play, I was on the verge of wrapping up the game when I made a horrible error. No sooner had my hand left the piece than I realized what I’d done, but of course it was too late. It’s difficult to express the feeling of that moment, when hours (or in the case of the tournament I was playing in, weeks) of work are obliterated by a single, humiliating blunder.

The novelist H.G. Wells, himself an avid player, attempted to sum up this unique emotion in an essay entitled Concerning Chess. “There is no happiness in chess,” he wrote. “No chess-player sleeps well. After the painful strategy of the day one fights one’s battles over again. You see with more than daylight clearness that it was the Rook you should have moved, and not the Knight. No! it is impossible! No common sinner innocent of chess knows these lower deeps of remorse.”

Magnus will be experiencing those deeps tonight. He is adjusting to what is for him a new reality: he is losing a world championship match. The question is whether he can harness that emotion and redirect it productively in the next game - the first of only 4 remaining opportunities for the champion to level the score.

Game 9 begins on Wednesday, November 23rd at 2p.m. EST. You can find my previous coverage of the championship here, here, here, and here.