UNITED NATIONS — I nearly deleted the email. I’m not accustomed to receiving genuine correspondence from a counsellor with the permanent mission of Norway to the United Nations, so I almost filed it away with that day’s other press releases, including an exciting interview opportunity with the former CEO of the parent company of Hardee’s. But a name in the middle of the email’s first paragraph just caught my eye: Magnus Carlsen.
And that’s how I found myself in Conference Room 8 in the headquarters of the U.N. last week playing chess against maybe the best chess player who has ever lived — and who also happens to be, at age 27, the reigning world champion and at the height of his awesome powers.
My basic problem: I had very little idea what I was doing. A secondary, but increasingly dire, problem was that I was nervously and uncontrollably shaking. A frantic Google search told me that that was probably due to an acute and supposedly beneficial stress response, also known as fight or flight.
Fight or flight?
To my nervously trembling chagrin, they’d set up my chess board correctly and in the traditional fashion: I had only the one queen and the two rooks and so forth, and somehow it was deemed appropriate that Carlsen start with the identical and equal number of pieces. A grandmaster buddy of mine texted me before the game, “Make sure your pieces are defended.” It certainly sounded simple enough. My aunt wrote on Facebook, “I hope Oliver wins!” Other well-wishers wished me “good luck.”
Thanks, but what luck? Chess is stripped of that frivolity; it’s the canonical no-chance, perfect information game. That nakedness is why boxing is a good analogy to chess: two people battling in a confined space with nothing, not a shroud of randomness or the fog of war, to hide behind. I once beat the Scrabble national champion (in Scrabble, not chess), but that was only because a) I sort of knew what I was doing and b) there is luck in that game that I could hide behind. I got lucky. Awaiting the world chess champion, I harbored no such idiotic delusions as I sat at an enormous horseshoe table, fretting and adjusting the pieces. Carlsen was about to do to my psyche what Mike Tyson would’ve done to my face. There was no escape.
There were 15 of us awaiting that fate — the mayor of Oslo, the Afghan ambassador to the U.N., a legal adviser with the Maldives mission, me, etc. The usual suspects.
The event was a “clock simul,” short for “simultaneous exhibition with clocks,” in which each of us “challengers” sat at our own boards while Carlsen, the “exhibitor,” darted around the room, rarely taking more than a few seconds to make any move before moving on to his next victim. We each had 30 minutes to make all our moves, but Carlsen’s clocks constantly ticked away at every board, putting him at a nominal disadvantage.
Here’s a technical diagram of the Carlsen-Roeder game at the exact moment when it really went off the rails:
I had the black pieces, meaning that Carlsen went first. He opened with d4, moving his queen’s pawn forward two squares. I did the same. He then moved a pawn to c4, employing what’s called the queen’s gambit. White seemingly offers a free pawn to black in exchange for what promises to be a fruitful attack. I declined, and we ended up in an opening called the queen’s gambit declined, exchange variation.
I lasted 25 more moves. It was over well before that. If you absolutely must, you can see the full game below.
In retrospect, I blundered — unbeknownst to me at the time — on my 12th, 13th and 17th moves. Others too, I’m sure.
This was always going to happen. But as I sat shroudless, Carlsen did break my heart. By move 12, he’d pushed a pawn down his right flank, which caused me all sorts of problems, and my king was the equivalent of a sitting duck on the opening day of hunting season. But my own pawn, my little pawn that could, was on the march. My pawn made it two squares from the end of the board, where it could become a queen. And it would soon defend my extant queen, which on the next move fled down the board to put Carlsen in check — I put Magnus Carlsen in check! I confess that for precisely 1.5 seconds I thought, “I am going to fucking win.”
Carlsen then easily defended, parried … and destroyed me.
But I fought!
My editor insisted that this story “somehow work in data,” so I will now add a patina of empirical humiliation to this solid bronze piece of embarrassment. I recorded Carlsen’s and my moves and later ran them through the powerful computer chess engine Stockfish, which evaluates every position and provides an estimate of who’s more likely to win.
For me, chess is a cultural and aesthetic experience — and one that I’m lucky enough to get to write about sometimes. It is not, typically, a competitive one, in the sense that I’m just not very good. I’ve always held grandmasters in high regard, and I do even more so now. I’ve witnessed an Ali knockout firsthand.
Carlsen will face an American of somewhat greater chess note than I — Fabiano Caruana, the world No. 2 — in a match in November to defend his world championship crown. Just two players, alone and battling in a game without luck and with nowhere to hide. I asked Carlsen if he considered his game against me to be part of his official world championship preparation.
“Um, no,” he said.