At long last! An American will challenge for the world chess championship.

At long last it has happened. Fabiano Caruana, former United States chess champion and top ten player has won the right to challenge for the world chess championship in London in November. This is the first time since 1996 that an American has qualified for the championship and the first time since since 1972 that the challenge has been for the undisputed title. From 1993-2006 their was a split in the world chess championship that was governed by the world chess governing body FIDE and the PCA (Professional chess association). An American has not become a world chess champion since Bobby Fischer in 1972. Fischer, perhaps the greatest American player of all time known for his reckless abandon on and off the board.

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. One round was played per day with a rest day after every three rounds. A round robin event (each participant plays each other competitor twice) consisted of arguably the best players of this generation. Participants ranged from the ages of 25-42 and consisted of former world chess champion Vladamir Krammnik and former world chess champion challenger Sergey Karjakin, both from Russia.  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 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.

 

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Setup of the candidates tournament: All four games (eight competitors) in each round take place simultaneously. A second and third floor viewing area is available to spectators.

The 8 competitors in the candidates tournament, their world rankings and ratings, as well as their method to qualify for the event are listed below.

candidate tournement qualification

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Competitors from left to right: Levon Aronian, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Vladamir Krammnik, Ding Liren, Alexander Grischuk, Sergey Karjakin.

 

Caruana finished the 14 round tournament with 5 wins, 8 draws and 1 loss. His one loss came to Karjakin in the 12th round. He finished with 9 total points (win=1 pt, draw=.5 pts, loss=0 pts), 1 full point ahead of second place Mamedyraov. 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 against Sergey Karjakin. Carlsen has been seen as the 21st century prodigy of chess and has obtained the record for highest chess rating of all time. Known as an around player, Carlsen excels in complicated positions, is a great player under time pressure (he is a former blitz chess world champion), and plays a plethora of openings making it difficult for opponents to prepare for him.  Caruana and Carlsen have played 31 times in their careers Carlsen leads their series 9 wins to 5, and there have been 17 draws. Simply put, it will be a very difficult undertaking for Caruana to upend Carlsen as world champion.

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 American challenger Caruana will face off against the world champion Carlsen from Norway. Caruana competed for Italy between 2005-2015.

Caruana as well has been a prodigious chess player from a very young age. 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.

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Caruana, after winning the United States Chess championship in 2016 in St. Louis

If Caruana does emerge victorious in November the parallels to Fischer will be extraordinary. Both learned and mastered the game, both are Jewish who had parents expose them to the game at a very young age, and both would dethrone giants to become champion. Fischer’s opponent in 1972 was Boris Spassky of Russia. Fischer’s win broke a 26 year streak of champions hailing from Russia (1946-1972) which then continued after Fischer abdicated his title until 1993. Caruana would break a similar dominant streak with Carlsen being world champion since 2013. It should make for quite  a match that may go down in the history books as one of the best ever.

 

Note: Excerpts and information taken and adapted from USA today, fivethirtyeight, chess.com, and the guardian.

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