UNITED NATIONS — I almost deleted the e-mail. I’m not accustomed to receiving real correspondence from a counsellor with the everlasting mission of Norway to the United Nations, so I nearly filed it away with that day’s different press releases, together with an thrilling interview alternative with the previous CEO of the guardian firm of Hardee’s. However a reputation in the course of the e-mail’s first paragraph simply caught my eye: Magnus Carlsen.
And that’s how I discovered myself in Convention Room eight within the headquarters of the U.N. final week enjoying chess towards perhaps the most effective chess participant who has ever lived — and who additionally occurs to be, at age 27, the reigning world champion and on the top of his superior powers.
My primary drawback: I had little or no thought what I used to be doing. A secondary, however more and more dire, drawback was that I used to be nervously and uncontrollably shaking. A frantic Google search informed me that that was most likely on account of an acute and supposedly helpful stress response, also called battle or flight.
Combat or flight?
To my nervously trembling chagrin, they’d arrange my chess board appropriately and within the conventional trend: I had solely the one queen and the 2 rooks and so forth, and in some way it was deemed acceptable that Carlsen begin with the an identical and equal variety of items. A grandmaster buddy of mine texted me earlier than the sport, “Be sure your items are defended.” It definitely sounded easy sufficient. My aunt wrote on Fb, “I hope Oliver wins!” Different well-wishers wished me “good luck.”
Thanks, however what luck? Chess is stripped of that frivolity; it’s the canonical no-chance, perfect information recreation. That nakedness is why boxing is an effective analogy to chess: two folks battling in a confined area with nothing, not a shroud of randomness or the fog of conflict, to cover behind. I once beat the Scrabble nationwide champion (in Scrabble, not chess), however that was solely as a result of a) I kind of knew what I used to be doing and b) there is luck in that recreation that I may disguise behind. I obtained fortunate. Awaiting the world chess champion, I harbored no such idiotic delusions as I sat at an infinite horseshoe desk, fretting and adjusting the items. Carlsen was about to do to my psyche what Mike Tyson would’ve accomplished to my face. There was no escape.
There have been 15 of us awaiting that destiny — the mayor of Oslo, the Afghan ambassador to the U.N., a authorized adviser with the Maldives mission, me, and so forth. The same old suspects.
The event was a “clock simul,” brief for “simultaneous exhibition with clocks,” during which every of us “challengers” sat at our personal boards whereas Carlsen, the “exhibitor,” darted across the room, hardly ever taking various seconds to make any transfer earlier than transferring on to his subsequent sufferer. We every had 30 minutes to make all our strikes, however Carlsen’s clocks continuously ticked away at each board, placing him at a nominal drawback.
Right here’s a technical diagram of the Carlsen-Roeder recreation on the precise second when it actually went off the rails:
I had the black items, which means that Carlsen went first. He opened with d4, transferring his queen’s pawn ahead two squares. I did the identical. He then moved a pawn to c4, using what’s referred to as the queen’s gambit. White seemingly gives a free pawn to black in alternate for what guarantees to be a fruitful assault. I declined, and we ended up in a gap referred to as the queen’s gambit declined, exchange variation.
I lasted 25 extra strikes. It was over nicely earlier than that. Should you completely should, you possibly can see the full game beneath.
Looking back, I blundered — unbeknownst to me on the time — on my 12th, 13th and 17th strikes. Others too, I’m positive.
This was all the time going to occur. However as I sat shroudless, Carlsen did break my coronary heart. By transfer 12, he’d pushed a pawn down his proper flank, which brought about me all kinds of issues, and my king was the equal of a sitting duck on the opening day of looking season. However my very own pawn, my little pawn that would, was on the march. My pawn made it two squares from the top of the board, the place it may turn out to be a queen. And it will quickly defend my extant queen, which on the subsequent transfer fled down the board to place Carlsen in verify — I put Magnus Carlsen in verify! I confess that for exactly 1.5 seconds I assumed, “I’m going to fucking win.”
Carlsen then simply defended, parried … and destroyed me.
However I fought!
My editor insisted that this story “in some way work in knowledge,” so I’ll now add a patina of empirical humiliation to this stable bronze piece of embarrassment. I recorded Carlsen’s and my strikes and later ran them by means of the highly effective laptop chess engine Stockfish, which evaluates each place and supplies an estimate of who’s extra more likely to win.
For me, chess is a cultural and aesthetic expertise — and one which I’m fortunate sufficient to get to put in writing about generally. It isn’t, usually, a aggressive one, within the sense that I’m simply not superb. I’ve all the time held grandmasters in excessive regard, and I do much more so now. I’ve witnessed an Ali knockout firsthand.
Carlsen will face an American of considerably larger chess notice than I — Fabiano Caruana, the world No. 2 — in a match in November to defend his world championship crown. Simply two gamers, alone and battling in a recreation with out luck and with nowhere to cover. I requested Carlsen if he thought-about his recreation towards me to be a part of his official world championship preparation.
“Um, no,” he mentioned.