One chess grandmaster represents the most democratic country in the world. The other supports, and is supported by, Vladimir Putin. Last night, inside the Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan — that urban palace and President-elect Donald Trump’s captured rook — the two prepared to do battle.
The World Chess Championship has come to New York City. The tournament captured this city’s imagination once before, in 1972, when its favorite Brooklyn son, Bobby Fischer, clashed with the Soviets in Reykjavik. But this year New Yorkers can only watch, as the Norwegian defending champion Magnus Carlsen and his Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin vie for the game’s highest title. They’re both kids: Carlsen is 25 and Karjakin is 26, yet they’ve lived half their lives as grandmasters. The match is being billed as the youngest championship ever.
Here in New York, the faces of chess are diverse, from the outdoor hustlers lining park tables in Washington Square or Union Square to the excellent middle school chess program of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn. But last night, at the pre-tournament Black & White Gala at The Plaza, the guests were nearly all white. Under potted palm trees and crystal chandeliers, the steak was carved and the champagne and martinis flowed, and the scene recalled a VIP cocktail hour in a Vegas penthouse suite before a heavyweight prizefight. (At least the ones I’ve seen in the movies.)
As both baby-faced competitors faced the camera flashes and microphones, Carlsen looked calm. He has reached the championship before, after all. Karjakin looked a bit lost — nervous, maybe — his voice barely audible above the reporters’ din. And indeed, despite Karjakin’s slightly earlier prodigious bloom, the consensus heavy favorite is Carlsen. He’s rated No. 1 in the world, while Karjakin is No. 9.
The best-of-12 match could stretch past Thanksgiving. Game 1 begins Friday afternoon, in downtown Manhattan. My own Elo-based simulations1 give Carlsen an 88 percent chance of defending his title. Bookmakers put his chances somewhere between 80 and 85 percent. I’ll be reporting from the match, here and on Twitter.