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An American Will Play For The World Chess Championship

For the first time since Bobby Fischer captivated the country, a U.S. grandmaster has a shot at becoming the undisputed world chess champion.1 Fabiano Caruana, the current world No. 3 and the top American chess grandmaster, won the right today to play for the game’s most coveted prize. He’ll face the reigning world champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a 12-game, one-on-one match in London in November. It won’t be easy. Carlsen, the current world No. 1, has been champion since 2013 and became a grandmaster when he was 13 years old. He most recently defended his title in 2016 in New York City.

Caruana earned his challenge bid by winning the Candidates Tournament, a 14-game tournament featuring eight of the world’s top players, held over the past three weeks in Berlin. For much of the Candidates, Caruana seemed like he might cruise to a relatively painless victory. He notched some early victories and fended off other top rivals with exacting draws. But he stumbled in Game 12, losing to the Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin in 48 moves. That created a formidable and complex thicket at the top of the standings — going into the tournament’s final day, four of the eight grandmasters had a chance to win. But in the 14th and final game, held today, Caruana fought Alexander Grischuk of Russia for 69 moves and over six hours, winning the game and securing the tournament.

Caruana has been to the world championships before — but only as a spectator. While Carlsen was winning his championship in New York in 2016, Caruana could be found playing speed chess amid throngs of onlookers at a New York chess club. He told me at the time that he was staying up late at night analyzing the championship games. Now he’ll have a chance to put his analysis to use.

It’s been a long road to the championship for Caruana. His family moved to Brooklyn from Miami when he was 4 years old, and he began playing chess at age 5 at a synagogue’s after-school program. Within a few months, he was playing in tournaments around the city. Fischer, whose own family moved to Brooklyn when he was young, learned the game 50 years earlier in an apartment about a mile away from the synagogue.

Despite these roots in the U.S., Caruana is one of a couple super-strong players who have transferred to the American team from other countries’ teams. Caruana had been a member of the Italian team, having moved to Europe to take advantage of its strong coaches and tournaments. He rejoined the American team in 2015.

But there’s still one steep hill to climb. Caruana and Carlsen have played 31 times before in the lengthy sort of games that will be played at the world championship, according to Chessgames.com, a website that collects top players’ games. Carlsen leads their series 9 wins to 5, and there have been 17 draws. A simple simulation of the match2 using the players’ current Elo ratings puts Caruana’s chances of upending Carlsen’s reign — and claiming the first American title since Fischer — at about 30 percent.

Footnotes

  1. In 1996, American Gata Kamsky played in the finals of the FIDE world championship (and lost), but the world championship was divided because Garry Kasparov, the world’s strongest player, had split from FIDE and played in championships under the banner of the Professional Chess Association.

  2. I simulated 100,000 instances of the championship match and its potential tie-breakers, using the players’ live ratings from 2700chess.com and assuming a draw rate of 30 percent, similar to what I’ve done before previous world championships.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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