I faced the best chess player in the world. You will totally believe what happened next.
UNITED NATIONS – I almost deleted the email. I’m not used to receiving authentic correspondence from an adviser in Norway’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, so I almost put it away with the other press releases of the day, including an opportunity. fascinating interview with the former CEO of Hardee’s parent company. But a name in the middle of the first paragraph of the email just caught my attention: Magnus Carlsen.
And that’s how I found myself last week in Conference Room 8 at UN Headquarters playing chess against perhaps the best chess player who ever lived – and who happens to be too. , at 27, the reigning world champion and at the height of his awesome powers.
My basic problem: I had very little idea of ââwhat I was doing. A secondary problem, but more and more serious, was that I was shaking nervously and uncontrollably. A frantic Google search told me this was likely due to an acute and supposedly beneficial stress reaction also known as a fight or flight.
Fight or run away?
Much to my chagrin, trembling nervously, they had set up my chessboard correctly and in the traditional way: I only had one queen and the two towers and so on, and somehow it it was deemed appropriate that Carlsen start with the same and equal number of pieces. A grandmaster friend of mine texted me before the game: âMake sure your pieces are defended. It certainly sounded simple enough. My aunt wrote on Facebook: âI hope Oliver wins! “Other supporters wished me” good luck “.
Thanks, but what luck? Chess is stripped of this frivolity; it is the canonical game of perfect information without luck. This nudity is why boxing has a good chess analogy: two people fighting in a confined space with nothing, not a shroud of chance or the fog of war to hide behind. I once beat the National Scrabble Champion (in Scrabble, not chess), but that was only because a) I kind of knew what I was doing and b) there is luck in this game that I could hide behind. I was lucky. While waiting for the world chess champion, I did not harbor such silly illusions as I sat at a huge horseshoe table, gnawing and adjusting the pieces. Carlsen was about to do to my psyche what Mike Tyson would have done to my face. There was no escape.
There were 15 of us waiting for this fate: the mayor of Oslo, the Afghan ambassador to the UN, a legal adviser to the mission in the Maldives, me, etc. The usual suspects.
The event was a âclock simulation,â short for âsimultaneous exposure with clocks,â in which each of us âchallengersâ sat at our own panels while Carlsen, âthe exhibitor,â rushed through. the room, rarely taking more than a few seconds to make a move before moving on to its next victim. We each had 30 minutes to do all of our moves, but Carlsen’s clocks were constantly spinning at each chessboard, putting him at a disadvantage.
Here’s a tech schematic of the Carlsen-Roeder game at the exact moment it really went off the rails:
I had the black pieces, which means Carlsen went first. He opened with d4, moving his queen’s pawn forward two spaces. I did the same. He then moved a pawn to c4, employing what is known as the queen’s gambit. White apparently offers black a free pawn in exchange for what promises to be a successful attack. I refused, and we ended up in an opening called the declining queen’s gambit, exchange variation.
I lasted 25 more shots. It was over long before that. If you absolutely have to, you can check out 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.
It was always going to happen. But as I sat without a shroud, Carlsen broke my heart. On move 12 he had pushed a pawn to his right flank, which caused all kinds of trouble for me, and my king was the equivalent of a sitting duck on the opening day of the hunting season. But my own pawn, my little pawn that could, was on the move. My pawn did so two squares from the end of the chessboard, where he could become a queen. And that would soon defend my existing queen, who on the next move fled up the chessboard to defeat Carlsen – I put Magnus Carlsen in check! I admit that for exactly 1.5 seconds I thought, “I’m gonna fucking win.”
Carlsen then easily defended himself, parriedâ¦ and destroyed me.
But I fought!
My editor insisted that this story “somehow works in the data,” so I’m now going to add a patina of empirical humiliation to this piece of solid bronze embarrassment. I recorded Carlsen’s and my moves, then ran them through the powerful Stockfish computer chess engine, which rates each position and provides an estimate of who is most likely to win.
For me, chess is a cultural and aesthetic experience – and I am fortunate sometimes to have the chance to write about it. It’s usually not competitive, in the sense that I’m just not very good. I have always held great masters in high regard, and I do so even more now. I witnessed firsthand a knockout of Ali.
Carlsen will face an American with a higher rating in chess than me – Fabiano Caruana, the world number 2 – in a match in November to defend his crown as world champion. Just two players, alone and fighting in a game with no luck and nowhere to hide. I asked Carlsen if he considered his match against me part of his official preparation for the world championship.
âUh, no,â he said.