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Chess’s ‘coolest’ rivals show they’re far from square

Oozing confidence, hip young duo aim to be game-changers as they arrive in town for eagerly anticipated match

09 November, 2018 — By Richard Osley

Three-times champion Magnus Carlsen in Holborn yesterday (Thurs­day)

ONCE upon a time it was dangerous to admit you were in the school chess club, as the playground bullies brought out the old clichés that it was the domain of slightly odd young brainiacs who could not kick a football.

But the lazy stereotypes surrounding the game are being peeled back, and nowhere more so than in Holborn yesterday (Thurs­day) when two hip young men arrived for what has been described as the most eagerly anticipated chess match in history.

Right on the West End doorstep, the best two players in the world, both still in their 20s, are to spend November repeatedly playing each other to find out who shall be crowned the globe’s undisputed number one.

It was not just chess buffs, then, crammed into the press conference room at The College to hear the reigning king Magnus Carlsen, 27, and his chal­lenger Fabiano Caruana.

The first of 12 games begins later today (Friday) and even those who with only passing interest in the game have been drawn to the duel.

Challenger Fabiano Caruana faces the media

Three-times champion Mr Carlsen has been compared in looks to the actor Matt Damon. He has a film-star confidence and, despite a recent patchy run of form, oozes self-belief.

When you have the racing mind of a grandmaster, it would not have taken many grey cells to telegraph some of the questions coming from a room full of journalists, even if the media collective had flown in from around the world.

A Russian journalist asked Mr Carlsen whether he had any “female support” in town, to which he rapped back: “I don’t think so. Women hate me. I repel them.”

If you ask a chess champ a silly question, you probably should expect a silly response.

Does he have any rituals before matches, the BBC asked him. “Eat well, sleep well, live well, play well,” he said.

Each short, snappy and, dare it be said, smartarse answer makes him even more of a “character”, and like it is often said about snooker, tennis and so on, the game needs characters. He is something of a national hero in his native Norway.

The players’ images on The College building in Holborn

“It’s been a while since I’ve considered myself an underdog,” he half-grinned. “To be honest, if you’ve been the number-one ranked player in the world for seven years and you’ve won three World Champion­ships in a row – and you consider yourself the underdog, then there’s something seriously wrong with your psyche.”

On the other side of the table, Mr Caruana, 26, arrived in trendy jeans and a bomber jacket. Asked about the way Mr Carlsen had been compared to Mozart, he said he would prefer to get a nickname from the world of hip-hop or rock. Yes, school bullies, chess players like music too. All of this has led journalists to bill this as the “coolest” World Championship match.

“Personally, I’ve found chess the coolest thing in the world since I was eight years old,” said Mr Carlsen.

Mr Caruana added: “I think chess is definitely becoming cooler and there are a lot of people in the celebrity world – in movies and music – who have an interest in chess, so I think it’s definitely gaining more exposure and I also think chess is a great thing.”

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