As a break from political news, I was going to write about the world chess championship title match that is just beginning in New York between the reigning champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Russian grandmaster Sergei Karyakin. The first game ended in a draw. Carlsen is favored but Karyakin is no pushover, currently ranked ninth in the world after becoming the youngest grandmaster ever at the age of 12.
Both are very young, 25 and 26 respectively, and are of the generation that came after computers proved their dominance in the game. You do not need to even haul out supercomputers like Deep Blue anymore. This was the computer that beat reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Now even the best human players cannot beat fairly run-of-the-mill computer programs that run on personal computers. While this is a big development for computers, I have never quite seen why this was perceived as a diminution for humans. We routinely accept that machines can do things better than humans, so why not at chess? After all, cars can go much faster than humans can run, and yet we still pay great attention to running events. The legend of John Henry may have resonated at one time but has little relevance anymore.
But politics has reared its head in the coverage of the chess match. The fact that one of the players is Russian and the other from the West seems to bring out all manner of extraneous political factors.
The tournament has prompted comparisons with the iconic 1972 showdown between American Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky, two rivals in the Cold War-era whose showdown was dubbed the “Match of the Century.”
This match comes as Moscow and Washington’s relations have plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War due to disagreements on Syria and Ukraine.
The Russian president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is unable to attend the championship after being denied a visa, possibly because he has been on a US Treasury blacklist since 2015 over financial ties to the Syrian government.
“This is the first time in the history of the world championships that the (FIDE) president is not at the match,” Ilyumzhinov told journalists in Moscow on Thursday.
I wish countries and the media would not put national burdens on the shoulders of competitors but we seem determined to make every contest into something bigger than it really is.
I played chess fairly seriously as a student, even captaining my high school chess team, but my interest waned after I went to college, and after playing in a couple of national tournaments in Sri Lanka and performing in the middle of the pack, I gave up playing seriously. The game was a little too time consuming and anti-social for my tastes, with both players sitting in silence. It requires hours and hours of practice to become good and I just did not see the point. I still have a chess set, though, and taught my children the game but it never went anywhere and I haven’t played in many years.