The Character of Fabiano Caruana

Considering the man who may win the title of world chess champion without losing his soul.

Caruana (on the right, albeit not in the great purple shirt) versus Sergey Karjakin at the 2016 Candidates Tournament. Photo courtesy of Andreas Konotkanis.

So in March there was Berlin Candidates, a tournament which pitted the world’s top chess players against each other. This by itself is not as remarkable as you would think: the world’s top chess players play each other constantly. The world’s top chess players play each other in tournaments and in Chess Olympiads and in the new Pro Chess League, under goofy team names (Marseille Migraines! Volga Stormbringers!). The world’s top chess players play blitz against each other for your stream-watching enjoyment on Twitch. But of the eight world’s top chess players gathering in Berlin, only one could emerge eligible to play Magnus Carlsen for the undisputed title of world chess champion in a match that begins tomorrow.

Which is remarkable. Carlsen is only the sixteenth recognized undisputed world champion in history, and only the third since the current championship system began in 2006. He became a grandmaster at 13, and is at present the highest-rated player listed by FIDE, the globally recognized chess governing body; although he’s not at his highest rating ever of 2882. (Which is the highest rating ever recorded by anyone.) He’s defended his title twice, and if he wins this match he won’t have to defend it again until 2020.

World-championship matches generate drama like no other gathering of world’s top chess players. The most famous example is the 1972 match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky: the TV hype! the Cold-War-themed magazine covers! Henry Kissinger! That was followed by the 1978 showdown between Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov, which involved enough psych-outs and sweaty press conferences and looming KGB flunkies to merit its own documentary. (Which you should watch, by the way.) Karpov beat Korchnoi — twice — and then faced Garry Kasparov — twice, the first time in a match that went 48 games before being called off. When Kasparov finally won he ended up trying to secede from FIDE. Carlsen is not quite as inclined to grand gestures as his predecessors — his big dramatic moment, upon beating then-champion Vishwanathan Anand in 2013, was to jump fully clothed into a pool — but nonetheless: if you generally don’t follow chess, this week is a good time to start.

The Berlin tournament was fun in itself, featuring as it did a guy who hasn’t lost a game in over a year, a former world champion chain-smoking between games and giving impatient press conferences, and Alexander Grischuk. But the winner that emerged to challenge Carlsen — in a come-from-behind victory, but we’ll get to that — was Fabiano Caruana, who also happens to be second-ranked in the world, 2832 to Carlsen’s 2835.

Caruana is American, by the way, which has meant all sorts of comparisons to Bobby Fischer, the only American chess champion so far. Caruana has named Fischer as his “chess inspiration,” and he’s not the only one: Fischer is still the winner of the Game of the Century, the author of the book everyone still reads, the player movies get made about. Fischer still looms large enough to influence how we think about chess — and not just chess: about talent, about concentration and mental health, about single-minded pursuits. And that, folks, is what makes this world championship challenge particularly interesting: because Fabiano Caruana is no Bobby Fischer.

If you don’t follow chess, or if you’re a patzer like me, it’s easier to tell the story of Bobby Fischer’s deterioration than it is to explain how he came to be so lauded. Part of the problem is that Fischer’s determination to learn more about chess, obstacles be damned, was more impressive in the 1950s than it is in the post-Sargon era of easily accessible game databases. (An example: a lot of chess content was published in Russian-language magazines; so, Fischer learned Russian.) A larger part is that, at that high a level of chess, you need a certain amount of understanding just to follow what makes a move or a strategy so admirable. Fortunately there are a number of thoughtful grandmasters who have put Fischer lectures up on YouTube: Varuzhan Akobian, Yasser Seirawan, Ben Finegold. (Full disclosure: my older daughter is a member of, and occasional tournament player at, the chess center run by Finegold and his wife, Karen Boyd.)

But Fischer died in 2008, and now his ending frequently overwhelms any attempt to tell his whole story. In the movie Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire plays Fischer as a walking chess-obsessed exposed nerve. In the biography Endgame, Frank Brady assures the reader, “His head was not merely filled with chess bytes… but with poetry and song and lyricism,” but the first scene of the book is a paranoid Fischer under arrest at Narita Airport. The 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World opens with a quotation by Albert Einstein about how chess “holds the master in its own bonds,” then cuts to footage of Fischer being interviewed on a park bench. “What about Bobby Fischer, the man?” the offscreen interviewer asks. “What’s he like?” Fischer shrugs. “You know, chess and me, it’s kind of hard to take ’em apart.”

By contrast, the more you read about Caruana, the more normal a dude he seems. He’ll walk your dog! And take pictures of your sheep! And wear your event’s T-shirt, because he is almost certainly one of those people who likes getting commemorative T-shirts because it means having to do laundry less often! He hasn’t convinced himself yet to fully enjoy David Cronenberg films, although he feels he should! He keeps having to think up dumb new usernames to log in to play Plants vs. Zombies! And some of those dumb new usernames are based on Led Zeppelin lyrics, because he really really likes Led Zeppelin!

To be fair, some of this may be a reaction to the Fischer story. The recent New York Times profile of Caruana mentions he has not one but two media handlers, which would have done Fischer an enormous amount of good in the 1972 crush. But even immediately after winning Fischer was still normal-dude enough to leave his victory party early to go meet Icelandic women, and once home crack jokes about Kissinger. Years later, living in Iceland, he would become a voracious reader. His slide into misanthropic instability only looks foreordained in retrospect.

Here’s one thing Fischer and Caruana have in common with each other — and with Carlsen, for that matter; and with Sergey Karjakin, the most recent previous challenger; and with a number of people who get mentioned as potential future champions, such as Jan-Krzysztof Duda and R Praggnanandhaa: they started playing very serious chess very young. Remember how I said Carlsen was 13 when he became a grandmaster? Caruana was 14. Karjakin and Praggnanandhaa were 12.

According to Endgame, Fischer was six or seven when he learned how to play chess. Even in New York City, which in the 1950s was probably the best place in the United States to learn chess, seven-year-old players were near-nonexistent: Fischer was the first child member of the Brooklyn Chess Club. Nowadays kid chess is a respectable after-school activity. That’s how Caruana learned, at five; and if the Times account is to be believed, his being introduced to the game was less a case of his parents hoping to discover a chess prodigy than of their trying to find something that would make an easily bored little boy sit still.

But a chess prodigy they discovered. And the discovery must have come with some difficult questions. As the mother of two chess players, one of them somewhat serious about it, I can tell you this: finding out your 5-year-old is a good chess player is like being told you have a potential Olympic champion on your hands — with the thousands of hours of training that implies. How much of your child’s life do you want to devote to this skill? How much of your life do you want to devote to this skill? How much are you willing to wrench out of place, and what is that going to mean for your child?

And what is it going to mean for your child right now? Because to refuse to focus intently on that chess talent is to fall behind awfully damn quickly. “If a twelve-year-old is performing at around 2300 that’s very good,” writes Kasparov in his 2017 book Deep Thinking, “but if there’s a nine-year-old with that rating, he or she is something special.” My kids are special, say I, but neither of them are anywhere near that “very good” standard.

The Caruanas apparently consulted with Kasparov. He actually advised against pursuing top-level chess play: the risk of getting very little back at great cost was too large. They went for it regardless, uprooting themselves, spending thousands a year on coaches. “Looking back,” Caruana told the Times, “I didn’t really have any friends. I would just play chess all the time.” I will bet you a large sum of money that Kasparov was not the only person who warned the family that they were risking a great deal. You can practically hear the hope and worry in the Caruanas’ voices in just a short 2003 Times article on a then-10-year-old Fabi; within two years they’d moved from Brooklyn to Budapest.

The risk being not just that the kid might not succeed enough to justify years’ worth of sacrifices — might end up merely “very good” — but might end up very good in chess and terrible at the rest of life: the memorable precedent being Fischer. Or Tiger Woods, of whom his biographers wrote, “His unapologetically self-centered attitude was critical to his success in golf, but it had an utterly devastating impact on the way people perceived him.” Or William James Sidis, one of the early-20th-century child prodigies profiled in Ann Hulbert’s Off the Charts, who was a Harvard freshman at 11 and an unhappy recluse by his mid-20s. The story of the spectacularly successful child who becomes an even more spectacular failure as an adult is pretty well known at this point.

And let’s be frank: it’s a comforting story, too. Because most of us who show promise at an early age will never become skilled enough to have a shot at any world championship, and most of our children who show promise at an early age will never become skilled enough to have a shot at any world championship. We like to think that those prodigies who chose differently than we did, or our parents did, or our children do, have to sacrifice something in return for their success; and that by choosing differently, we might lose the chance at amazing accomplishments but gain the ability to live more happily and do more good in the world. A world’s top chess player who is also a decent, grounded human being is surely too much to expect.

For all the recent profiles emphasizing Caruana’s normal-dude-ness (sometimes in contrast to Carlsen, who used arrogance to his advantage even before he’d been world champion for five years), he’s still an intensely focused chess player above anything else. (Really, if you want to admire a current world’s top chess player who displays an equal thirst for knowledge beyond chess, skip the world championship and go see what Hou Yifan is up to.) That having been said, there is a way Caruana differs from Fischer — and from a lot of top-level performers, regardless of their focus — that ought to be better noticed and better celebrated than it has been.

Recall that Fischer never actually defended his world-championship title. He made a series of demands of FIDE, not all of them unreasonable, before playing Anatoly Karpov in 1975; then finally refused, after which FIDE awarded Karpov the title by default. A number of commentors, Kasparov among them, think Fischer forfeited the title rather than risk losing outright to Karpov. Brady does his best to argue in Fischer’s defense, and there’s simply no way to know for certain. But if Fischer’s main motivation was to prove a point with FIDE, why did he play no public chess at all until 1992? It’s hard not to conclude that, having reached the summit, he couldn’t bear the thought of having to come back down.

Give credit, then, to Carlsen, who has defended and defended again (and relaxes, for the record, by playing bullet chess. On his phone!) And to the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, in the mix in Berlin, and to Anand, who challenged Carlsen a year after losing to him. Fischer’s withdrawal was so complete it risks obscuring that getting up, accepting the bruise to the ego, and continuing to play is the rule and not the exception.

And then there’s Caruana. I actually don’t expect him to win — as well as Caruana’s been playing, Carlsen is still the incumbent and is generally much better than Caruana if the match goes to rapid games. But I do expect that, win or lose, Caruana will be gracious and resilient: like Anand before him, unlike Fischer.

Also, Caruana will almost certainly play the Petroff defense.

Here’s what I mean. Take Caruana’s answer to the routine question “What’s the best game you’ve ever played?” posed by Deadspin back in January:

There are some games that I’m kind of proud of and people might not be able to appreciate them. I’m proud of them because maybe I overcame a certain struggle, it might not be the quality of the game, but because I overcame something in myself and I was able to survive a dead lost position, or I was able to win a game which was almost drawn the entire way, or some which have to do with the tournament situation. There are some games which are just close to my heart because they enabled me to win a tournament. Like my game against [Mickey] Adams in the last London Classic in December, when I won the tournament and had to play six and a half hours to try to create a win from basically nothing. I was pretty proud of that, not because it was a great game, but because I overcame a difficult situation.

Note the focus: not on who he was playing, or how high-profile the tournament was, or how well the game would be evaluated by others, but what he recognizes, to himself, as having “overcome.” This is the kind of internal motivation everybody from Angela Duckworth on down has been lecturing you to instill in yourself and your kids. (And it’s especially difficult to teach yourself that kind of motivation if you’re a bright, easily distracted kid like Caruana was, says a former bright, easily distracted kid who needed thirteen years to complete a PhD program.)

For a more concrete example of Caruana’s sense of perspective in action, let’s go back to the Berlin tournament. In Round 12 (of 14) Caruana lost a game and the tournament lead to Karjakin. Who, as you’ll recall, played Carlsen in the 2016 world-championship match, because in that year’s Candidates tournament, he’d managed to beat out — in the last round — Caruana. So now it’s 2018, and Caruana’s just lost to the guy who prevented him from challenging Carlsen two years ago; and now talk is building of a Carlsen-Karjakin rematch; and there are only two games left to make up ground, but before Caruana can play those two games he has a rest day during which to brood about all this.

So what does he do?

Caruana-Aronian press conference following Game 13, Berlin Candidates tournament, 26 March 2018

Yep: practices for a bit and then goes out and sees a damn movie. That’s not Normal-Dude-Just-Like-You! PR; that’s the actions of a person who has every intention to play his best but no intention of letting competitive chess consume his psyche whole. That he then won two straight games to take the tournament outright is the icing on the cake.

And finally: there were the reactions to Caruana’s Berlin win on Twitter. Some of which were simply nostalgic, but many were cheerfully celebrating a bro in matching sweatshirts or calling Caruana “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.” Jen Shahade of the St. Louis Chess Club looked to have been moved almost to tears by the win; well before that she’d been inspired by Caruana for her first kid’s name.

It’s hard to imagine Fischer receiving that kind of affection. It wasn’t that he couldn’t love and be loved — Spassky came to regard him as a brother; his late-in-life marriage to Miyoko Watai seems to have been fairly happy and rewarding for both parties — but the sympathetic Endgame is full of accounts of Fischer insulting, ignoring, or otherwise mistreating friends even before his fall from grace. Caruana, for his part, isn’t angelic to the point of falsity — his relations with fellow American GMs Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura are generally cordial at best — but people (like me) keep looking for evidence that his character has warped in a way similar to Fischer’s, and not finding it.

Caruana has talked about watching Anand and Carlsen inspire pride and new chess interest in India and Norway, respectively, and wanting to do that in the United States. Whether he beats Carlsen or not, I hope he ends up showing people — promising chess players, terrible chess players, you, me, your kids, my kids — that you can have an intense, intimidating knowledge of the game of chess and still have Eraserhead, and pop music, and trips to the science center, and friends who let you borrow their dog for a walk. That you can have thoughtfulness and kindness and awareness of the world and still have chess.