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Meet the first American since 1972 to compete for the world chess title

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

From Nov. 8 to Nov. 28 in London, Fabiano Caruana will face Magnus Carlsen in the 2018 World Chess Championship. And just by making it that far, Caruana ended a 46-year drought: he’s the first American to play for the world title since Bobby Fischer in 1972.

This is the Super Bowl of chess, with two individuals competing in 12 games over 3 weeks for a $1.19 million purse.

Carlsen and Caruana provide a study in opposites.

Carlsen, 27, from Norway, has become a minor international celebrity: He has modeled for clothing brands like G-Star Raw, appeared in a Porsche ad, and has his own mobile app, Play Magnus. As Mashable wrote, Carlsen “shatters nerdy stereotypes.” 

Caruana, 26, representing America, is the quiet underdog. He was born in Miami, grew up in New York, and moved to Italy in 2005, where he lived until 2015. He currently lives in St. Louis.

U.S. chess Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana during his match against Azerbajan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Berlin on March 23, 2018. Caruana won the tournament and the right to face Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. (Soeren Stache/dpa via AP)

‘I think chess is a sport, like any other’

Caruana is on the World Championship stage for the first time. Carlsen was there in 2014 and 2016, and won it both years. He’s been the world’s No. 1 player since 2013.

Nonetheless, Caruana is confident — and he’s focused on the rigorous preparation that this event requires. “I think it’ll be a very close match,” he told Yahoo Finance. “It’s a whole new challenge to play someone for three weeks in a row, almost every single day. The preparation, the stress, and tension of playing for the highest title — it’s a very different type of challenge.”

FIDE promo screen for the 2018 World Chess Championship between Carlsen and Caruana. (Worldchess.com)

Chess matches can last between four and seven hours. You may not think of a chess player as an “athlete” (Caruana says he does), but players must be in top physical shape to avoid exhaustion.

“It’s like taking a very long exam,” he said. “It can be very physically and mentally exhausting. A lot of our preparation before the event is geared towards physical preparation, making sure I have enough endurance. I think chess is a sport, like any other. It’s not as physical, but the psychological aspect of it is pretty much identical to any other sport.”

Wladimir Klitschko, who was world heavyweight boxing champion for 12 years, agrees. Chess, he said in a recent visit to Yahoo Finance, is “basically pretty much the same as in the boxing ring. If you’re cornered, you’re cornered. You’re limited in your movement. When you stay in the middle—same in chess, business, life, private life, or boxing ring… you have space, you can act better.”

‘We haven’t captured the magic yet’

The 2016 World Chess Championship was held in New York City for the first time since 1995, and saw Carlsen beat Russia’s Sergey Karjakin. The chess world had high hopes that the event’s return to New York could make it a bigger draw, but it didn’t play out that way: The event was hard to find and not widely covered by media.

Maurice Ashley, an international grandmaster, told Yahoo Finance after the 2016 championship: “We haven’t captured the magic yet and made it into a story. That has always been part of chess’s problem. The story has always been the single genius, and people get caught up in the story of one genius, and not in the magnificence of the game.”

Ashley thinks Carlsen’s celebrity has overshadowed other stories in the chess world. 

Magnus Carlsen in a 2014 G-Star Raw ad.

Caruana would like to brand himself too, but he would present himself differently if he can become the world champion.

“I’ve always focused more on chess,” he says. “I think Magnus has too, but he has a very good team around him and he’s managed to brand himself very well. … I’m still not at that point. That’s where I hope to get. If I can reach the point where Magnus is at, then I’ll give more attention to the marketing, branding part of chess.”

FIDE, the World Chess Federation, is selling $20 unlimited passes to stream this year’s championship online, complete with HD views and live in-match commentary from grandmasters — and even “priority access to limited edition merchandise.”

Still, as pro chess still struggles to gain mainstream popularity, Caruana thinks FIDE needs to do more. He added that the burden also lies on top players like himself and Carlsen.

“I think generally the World Chess Federation hasn’t done a great job, historically, of bringing chess to a larger audience,” he says. “It’s been mainly put on the shoulders of smaller chess federations and organizations. … I think that it’s part of the responsibility of top chess players to do that work.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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