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Stempak: The 2018 Chess Championship offers unexpected thrill

| Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My recommendations page on YouTube is in a weird place at the moment. Amid the standard basketball highlights, NPR Tiny Desk concerts, SNL clips and movie trailers, a new genre has taken up real estate: chess. For some reason unbeknownst to me, the 2018 World Chess Championship has piqued my interest since before the start of the 12-game contest in early November.

The gripping championship this year is between a pair of prodigies, American Fabiano Caruana and the famous Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Twelve games in and what keeps me coming back has nothing to do with either of these grandmasters, or even the games they have played, but one word: “drawish.”

What does this esoteric word mean? To help explain, I will return to the world of normal sports with a college football connection. I watched one of the longest games in college football history over the weekend — LSU at Texas A&M — and let me tell you, that game was looking incredibly drawish.

This game had everything you could want from a college football game, an FBS-record 146 points, seven overtimes and plenty of sleep lost. The Aggies (8-4, 5-3 SEC) and Tigers (9-3, 5-3 SEC) managed a lovely coordinated dance throughout the overtimes, each team making sure to miss or make the two-point conversions when its opponent did the same.

Being an avid Cleveland Browns fan, experienced in the art of the draw, I was certain this game was going to end without a victor crowned. It had all the makings of a tie, yet five overtimes in, my friend told me that ties are not allowed in college football.

Unfortunately, the Aggies won and the chance for a draw disappeared. This is very much not the case in the 2018 World Chess Championship. It has been as drawish as can be, with each game ending in a draw so far and the scored tied 6-6.

I follow chess pundits, who do exist, on Twitter, and every game so far has gotten to a point where an expert has deemed it drawish, which means that the pieces sit in such a way where a draw is the most likely outcome.

A secondary, and arguably more important, definition of drawish is that it is something you can say in the middle of the chess game to sound like you know what is going on. This is the way I use the odd term the most.

Now that we established that I know very little about the game itself, it is time to delve into the exciting side stories that make the World Chess Championship unlike any other sporting event.

The biggest scandal of this year was a YouTube video leak documenting some of Caruana’s preparation. That does not sound like much, but it turns out the top chess players in the world keep their training camps very secretive. This extends all the way down to keeping the members of a team anonymous, as knowing who is in the room might give an opponent a hint regarding certain tendencies the player is practicing.

The video was taken down quickly, and the championship is still even, so it seems this blunder has had little effect on the outcome so far.

The next big scandal came from Carlsen’s side of the table in the ninth game, when the defending champion showed up with a bruised eye. No, it was not from some Caruana crony trying to take his opponent down a notch, but from a game of pickup soccer in between matches eight and nine.

Onlookers were worried that any need for painkillers or impaired vision would hurt Carlsen’s chances in a World Championship, where he needed to operate at peak performance. Despite the away-from-the-table drama, Carlsen maintained control of game nine, but was unable to break the tie.

The 12th regulation game took place Monday morning, and something very out-of-the-ordinary happened. Carlsen had a large advantage on the clock as well as a clear advantage on the board after his 31st move. There were many pieces left, and the game did not look drawish. Yet Carlsen offered a draw, and Caruana took it happily.

Spectators were shocked at the quick ending and timid play by Carlsen. The championship will move on to overtime Wednesday, which will involve games with stricter time limits.

Just imagine two grandmasters in top form playing chess on the biggest stage. Now adjust the playback speed to 1.5 times in your head and that will give you a good idea of what tiebreaker format is like.

The defending champion Carlsen is favored in this overtime format, but if the competition so far tells us anything, we should be ready to expect the unexpected.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About R.J. Stempak

R.J. Stempak is a sophomore computer science major who enjoys basketball.

Contact R.J.