Monday 3 December 2018

Seventh impressions

Alex Spencer, a schoolteacher and member of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club, went to the Carlsen v Caruana match, the first such event he's attended. Thanks very much to him for permission to reproduce them here. - ejh
World Chess Championship 2018
Game 7
Sunday 18th November

Magnus Carlsen (white) v Fabiano Caruana (black)

These are just a collection of my thoughts as I sat staring at both players through the double layer of protective glass for 3 and a half hours.

Apologies in advance to the chess experts. I’m writing this to be less about the chess and more about my observations on the players and the whole experience of staring at two people non-stop for so long.

Notes on Magnus Carlsen (opening thoughts)
  • 27. Norwegian.
  • World number 1.
  • Thought by some to be the best chess player ever.
  • One shirt button undone.
  • Bit of a bum chin (only a little bit).
  • Bit of hair gel.
  • Muscular, sporty physique.
  • Looks like a Norwegian footballer. Maybe a right midfielder for Southampton who has had 6 months out with a bad knee injury and is struggling to get back his peak fitness.
  • Light pink shirt.
  • Black suit.
  • Brown belt.
  • Black shoes.
  • ‘PLAY MAGNUS’ sponsor on his upper right arm jacket.
  • ‘Simonsen Vogtwiig’ (SP?) on his right breast pocket. Another sponsor?
  • Magnus takes his jacket off after move 12. Oh no! What about the sponsor… It’s OK. He hangs the jacket on the back of his chair so the sponsor is showing. And his shirt has the same sponsors in the same locations so now it’s double sponsor time.
  • [Has he done that because he’s stressed? Hot? Surely not thinking about the double sponsorship.]
  • Studying his face, he looks like a boy on the first day of a big secondary school. A boy who was the smartest kid in primary school. By far. A boy who was worried he wouldn’t be the smartest kid anymore. But he’s halfway through his first day and he now knows he’s still the smartest kid.
  • Magnus sits normally. Then with his left leg tucked under his right leg. (Like my girlfriend sits). Then 3 moves later with his right leg over his left leg. (Like I sit if I’m pretending to be mature).
  • Magnus goes to make a move but pulls his hand away. It’s good to see that the best still have so much doubt and indecision.
  • He plays with a taken pawn in his hand through a lot of his thinking.
  • I imagine if he was a poker player he’d be constantly manipulating the chips between fingers in quick, regular patterns.
  • Looks unimpressed by … 12 Qe7.

Notes on Fabiano Caruana (opening thoughts)
  • Glasses.
  • No hair gel.
  • Short, curly, fluffy dark hair.
  • Light blue shirt. It looks like a block of light blue. But then it’s actually a tiny check of light green and white. A nice shirt but not a sleek shirt.
  • Navy suit. No sponsor
  • [I noticed much later during the press conference that he has a SLC logo on his blazer breast pocket. St. Louis Chess Club]. But no sponsor as such.
  • Looks like the kid at school who is not massively popular but happy with his lot.
  • He’d be the best at science. Because science is about how hard you work.
  • But is he actually immensely talented? It’s hard to tell because he works so hard.
  • Sits ‘normally’ throughout. Both feet flat on the ground. Often on the edge of his seat with his elbows on the table. Alert. Very alert.
  • Is this the most efficient way to sit? More oxygen to your brain? Why is Magnus clogging all his oxygen supplies with his demi-yoga pose?
  • Clean shaven like Magnus. But Magnus looks like he’s shaven. Fabi looks like he doesn’t have to shave.
  • Caruana looks like a cross between Screech from Saved by the Bell and Mark Zuckerberg. But shorter than both of them. And more steely than both of them. And smarter. Fabi is growing on me the more I look at him. I wanted him to be the guy who put up a good fight and got beat. But there’s a nice confidence to his manner. He knows everyone’s here to see Magnus. But that’s ok. That’s how it’s always been.
  • 26 years young.
  • They’ve both been playing chess round the world since they were tiny but whereas Carlsen seems to carry that around with him, Fabi looks like he’s just hitting his stride.
  • Both players seem to relax their posture when the other one steps outside (presumably to go to the toilet) Or maybe to eat. I didn’t see either player eat. Maybe they’re not allowed to eat. Is it like exams? You can drink water but no eating? One of their games lasted 7 hours. You’d want at least a banana.

Notes on Magnus Carlsen (middle game)
  • Jacket back on. Move 13.
  • Where else do you see two players or two teams in a final with one having sponsors and the other not?! Maybe when Barcelona used to have no sponsor. Is Caruana “Mes Que un Club”?
  • Interesting. Will everyone have sponsors in future or is Carlsen the anomaly?
  • Carlsen steps outside again. The pink shirt is becoming untucked at the back. Tut.
  • Carlsen’s face is now saying:
    • Holy shit. I’ve just realised I’m Truman in the Truman Show.
    • I have 3 choices:
      • Pretend nothing has happened. Life is good. Don’t rock the boat. (pawn move)
      • Shout loudly. THE SHOW IS OVER. I KNOW I’M TRUMAN. (resign) I’m a chess player. Get me out of here.
      • Ah ha. Two can play at this game. I’ll pretend I don’t know I’m Truman. But really I do know. (Manoeuvre the knight to a better square).
  • Magnus slouches and rests his head on the back of his chair. Sit up straight please! Tut.
  • Again sits with his left leg over his right. Sit more efficiently! Look how Caruana is sitting.
  • The weight of the world is on his shoulders.
    • Am I still the smartest kid in the school?
    • Is Fabi the smartest kid?
    • What do I have if I’m not the smartest kid?
    • I am the smartest kid! But I can’t seem to show it!
    • Ah well; there’s more to life than being smart.
    • Why doesn’t my brain work as well as it used to.
  • Move 25. I’m now sat on the front row of VIP. There’s only two panes of glass between me and the best brain of my generation.
  • I’m front right. And Magnus is on the left. So I have a great view of his face.
  • Is this why I am here? To become smarter. To feel smarter. I hope no one asks me a chess question.
  • I love how Magnus moves his bishop on move 26. Take your right hand. Point your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers vertically down. Form an equilateral triangle with the tips of them. Then place those three fingers over the head of the bishop. Don’t lift the bishop. DON’T LIFT IT!! Just slide it. The cha cha bishop slide. What a beautiful move.
  • I have no idea if it was a good move. The game is bypassing me. It seems pretty equal. Magnus seems to be the one directing the play. Fabi reacting. But I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It’s fun watching it without a computer ‘telling you who is winning’.

Notes on Fabiano Caurana (Middlegame)
  • Fabi has a deep think before move 13.
  • Every minute he carries on thinking the tension builds.
  • The screens at the front of the venue change:
  • “Your viewing time is now over. Please leave the auditorium”. I’m lucky. I’m VIP. I get to stay. The crowd let out an audible sigh. Their half hour is done. They shuffle out checking over their shoulder to see if Fabi has moved yet.
  • The next lot shuffle in.
  • Can Fabi and Magnus see us? I guess not. That might be too distracting.
  • The main piece of evidence I have that they can’t see us is that
    • 1. Magnus doesn’t glance at me for tips.
    • 2. When the press photographers were over on their side of the glass at the start of the game, a photographer looked at the glass, and adjusted her top as though it was a mirror.
  • Caruana’s shoes have laces. Why didn’t I notice this sooner? Their shoes sum them up perfectly. Caruana’s are traditional. Smart. Fresh. New.
  • Carlsen’s are more flashy. But just a hint of tiredness.

The Room
  • It’s in Holborn. In a nice old building.
  • The two players are in a rectangular room. Size of a penalty area (of a big football pitch)
  • They are in the middle of the room. In the far left corner is a male arbiter (like a referee in a suit).
  • In the far right corner is a female arbiter. I think that’s what they are.
  • Then there’s two huge panes of glass.
  • Then there’s all of us. There’s 4 rows of long wooden black benches. For VIP. (Have I mentioned I was VIP yet?)
  • Then there’s a further 12 or so benches for the punters. About 12 to a bench.
  • There’s no cushions but they are sturdy and quite comfortable.
  • VIP is a real mix of people. Quite a lot of under 18s with their parents. Who are they all? Friends and family? Famous players? A few press as well I think.
  • On the huge back wall behind the players are the sponsors. Alternating in a diagonal pattern are:
    • Kapersky Lab
    • Phosago
    • Unibet
  • [These seem like odd sponsors. But maybe the main audience isn’t the UK. I guess these are big in Norway]
  • On the side of the chess table is the Norwegian flag and the US flag. The Norwegian flag is nice. The cross is more left aligned than I thought.

Back to the game
  • Both players have left the playing area maybe 5 times now.
  • Never at the same time. Are they allowed to?
  • On closer inspection, the Unibet sponsor says ‘Unibet – av spillere, for spillere’ Noweigen? What do you reckon the translation is… ‘”The sport, for sport”?
  • [I’ve just looked it up. By players, for players] I didn’t think players were allowed to bet on sport?!
  • The room is absolutely packed. People are standing. Even the VIP remains mostly full. At least 60% full. Sometimes completely full.
  • Between move 14-21 I left and got my fill of complimentary treats:
    • Beluga Vodka cocktail
    • Olives, crisps, nuts
    • Decaf coffee (paid for)
    • Judith Polgar commentating in one room.
    • Loads of chess games in another.
    • Nigel Short and David Howell in another VIP area. And probably some other famous people I don’t recognise.
  • Move 18-22, lots of pieces get exchanged.
  • I meet Dr Andrew McGettigan. He’s writing a chess piece for London Review of Books. He tells me that this opening was the same as game 2 for the first 9 moves each. (I think). How this must become such a mental battle when you play the same guy day after day. Playing the same moves.
  • I’m wearing a light blue shirt. Grey chinos. Brown boots. Brown belt. Sleeves rolled up one roll (so people can see my VIP wristband). I’m wearing a white t-shirt under my light blue shirt. I’m a little bit cold but have small sweat patches. Bad combo. You can’t help but analyse everything in the smallest detail when sat watching this game. These players.
  • A man comes and sits on the floor next to me. He looks like he works here. Sort of.
  • He gets out a pad of paper and is drawing Carlsen with a pencil. It’s a lovely drawing. Not that flattering but it shows the angst on Carlsen’s face.
  • What about the chairs the players are in? They are like £50 Argos office chairs. Maybe they cost £5k but they don’t look like it. Black. 5 wheels. High back. Able to lean back as Magnus does like a bored school child.
  • Before I came in they said no photos. But lots of people have taken photos. Maybe they said no flash. So I make sure my phone is on no flash. And I sneak a pic. THE BRIGHTEST FLASH GOES OFF. I feel so embarrassed.
  • The drawing guy tuts at me. The dude to my left shifts slightly away. A couple of security guys look to see where the flash came from.
  • The drawing guy has now moved to the other side to draw Fabi. Sorry.
  • The auditorium is very quiet. There is some whispering. But not much. I’d be interested in what most people are thinking about.
  • I was alternating between trying to work out what move would come next, and, just studying their facial expressions and body language.
  • The opening was a queen’s gambit declined.
  • Time control doesn’t look like it’ll be an issue. Caruana has 14 minutes left, and only 1 move left to make before he gets more time. He needs to make 30 moves in the first time slot of 100 minutes.
  • NO HANG ON! 40 moves. Now he has to make 11 moves and only has 11 minutes left (+ 30 second increment).
  • I start getting excited. The crowd is anticipating a spell of quick moves.
  • I turn to the knowledgeable looking fella next to me. Tall, European.
  • He puts a pin in my excitement balloon. “time won’t be an issue”. Then Fabi gets down to 8 minutes and cool guy leans across and says.. “maybe it will be” with a smirk.
  • The tension builds.
  • “YOUR TIME SLOT IS NOW OVER.” Another groan as the masses are replaced.
  • During the changeover, the players blitz out a sequence of moves. And both make time control easily.
  • Queens get exchanged. It looks like a draw.
  • Carlsen has a knight and 6 pawns. Caruana has a bishop and 6 pawns.
  • Carlsen has 3 pawn islands. Caurana 2. Both have doubled pawns.
  • The guy who runs AlphaGo comes and sits next to me on the front bench. Demis Hassabis. I watched a Netflix documentary about him last week. I think he’s a keen chess player too.
  • The players repeat positions once. There is a groan. The audience know it’s heading for a draw.
  • They repeat positions again. And a third time. DRAW.
  • The first 7 games have all been draws.
  • 5 more to go.
  • Is this good for chess? No. I don’t think it is.
  • I sit there. Everyone leaves straight away. I always like to sit in the cinema for a few minutes when the film ends. Just to collect my thoughts.
  • Around me, lots of people in black start moving things around. I hear someone say “we’ll move the front two benches to make room for the press conference”. So I sit in the third bench, which quickly become the front bench.
  • In 5 minutes time, I am suddenly front row at the post match press conference. I’m surrounded by journos, cameramen, photographers, I can’t believe it. Everyone else has green media wristbands. I don’t. Maybe it’s because I’m scribbling these notes in a pad, they think I’m a journo.
  • Carlsen and Caruana are so close now I could spit on them. (I didn’t).
  • The man next to me asks a question. He’s from German media I think.
  • I’m tempted to do a Hugh Grant (Notting Hill) and pretend I work for some newspaper to ask a cheeky question... but of course I don’t dare.
  • Carlsen says he got away with murder in game 6 to draw and is frustrated he can’t do more with the white pieces in this game.
  • Most of the questions and attention are directed at Magnus.
  • Caruana answers his questions quietly and confidently.
  • Again that steely look in his eye. He’s still fresh. Plenty left in the tank.
  • I’m worried for Magnus.

  • Press conference over.
  • Back up to VIP.
  • Feel out of place.
  • Few nuts.
  • Go to the shop.
  • Buy 4 mugs and 2 t-shirts for friends’ Christmas presents.
  • Head home.
  • Overall, I’ve got increased respect for Fabi.

  • Increased love for Magnus.
  • Increased worry that Magnus won’t win.
  • Amazed by their skill and levels of concentration.
  • Glad that chess is a thing.
  • Magnus, 27 years old. Fabiano, 26 years young.

1 comment:

DavidR said...

Nice. Not quite Hunter Thompson, but a good read all the same