Sometimes sport is at its most tense when it is at its most still – in those micro‑lulls before world title fights as the protagonists coil in their corners, awaiting the bell, and adrenaline and testosterone races through the crowd like white water; between the purse of a referee’s lips and the first step in a shootout; before the starter’s pistol shatters the hush of an Olympic 100m final; and, yes, when the world chess champion is hunched over the board, brain scurrying back and forth through innumerable tunnels of calculation looking for a clear path to victory.
I can say that with some confidence having sat through most of the 11 games of the world chess championship between Magnus Carlsen and the challenger, Sergey Karjakin, in New York, including an epic 10th game which sprawled over six nervy and compelling hours until Carlsen finally found a way through the battle fog.
Afterwards both players looked shattered. Anyone still watching at 1.30am on Friday, UK time, would have known how they felt.
The World Chess Federation claims that more than a billion viewers have tuned in on TV or online, which is obviously make-believe, taken from the IOC and Fifa school of wishful thinking. Even so, the TV figures for Carlsen’s last world championship match against the Indian Vishy Anand in 2014 (which included about half the population of Norway and between 80m and 100m people in India) were encouraging. They suggest that even in an era in which there are increasing laments about attention spans slipping; about the masses wanting instant gratification when watching sport and the consequences in terms of plummeting Premier League and NFL viewing figures, there are still people who appreciate the thrill of the slow.
For years cooks and foodies stressed the joys of Slow Food. Watching Carlsen and Karjakin, and then rising early over the weekend to drift in and out of the third Test between India and England, provided a welcome reaffirmation of the virtues of Slow Sport, given time to breathe and mature.
I have watched most of the match on the website Chess 24, listening to the Russian super-grandmaster Peter Svidler whizz through almost mystical variations and complications with the strong German player Jan Gustafsson.
Svidler is a huge cricket fan and their discussions frequently veer into tangents, such as whether Pokemon Go is a secret surveillance tool for the CIA. He might have learned a trick or two from Test Match Special. Of course there are those who maintain that chess is not a sport, which seems an increasingly odd stance in an era where button-bashing eSports are on the march and when curling, lawn bowls and darts – also more tests of skill and nerve than Vo2 max – are given a free ride.
It also ignores the unique psychological strains chess places on its players. A witness to the 1951 world championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein, for instance, noted that at the end of each game “Bronstein, and to a lesser extent Botvinnik, was likely to be wreathed in beads of sweat. Such was their toil.” During the Moscow Marathon between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, over five months and 48 games, Karpov lost 10kg in weight.
Botvinnik – a non-smoker – used to prepare for some events by encouraging his training partner to smoke heavily while they played so that he would get acclimatised to facing smokers, while he would go skating to improve his stamina.
The preparation has stepped up a notch or two since, with this week’s Athletics Weekly noting approvingly how Carlsen takes regular 30-60 minute runs on an incline treadmill, yoga and playing football to ready himself for tough tournaments, while Karjakin has punishing training sessions with the former US Open tennis semi-finalist Anna Chakvetadze.
He needs to, for Carlsen treats each match as an interrogation. Even when the game looks bone dry, and the opponent appears to have answered every question fluently, the Norwegian usually finds ways to make him question his position and himself.
And in an era of intense opening computer preparation Carlsen takes a different approach – heading wherever possible to virgin territory rather than theoretical novelty on move 38. He wants to make it an exam not a memory test. As Frederic Friedel, co-founder of the Chessbase chess software company, explains, his play is “like a tennis player turning up to Wimbledon with an ancient wooden racket and winning”.
So far, though, the nerveless and cheery Karjakin has coped admirably. But the pressure is mounting. Game 11 on Saturday night was drawn, which means the match could well be decided in Monday night’s final classical game. If this game is drawn, play will switch to rapid-play or blitz games which is a bit like deciding who wins a drawn Test series by playing a one-day or Twenty20 match.
Incidentally after game 11 Carlsen was asked the time-worn question, “What is chess: a sport, a game, science or art?” He smiled and gave a response as sharp as his suits. “Chess is definitely a sport more than anything else,” he said. “Of course the work I have done at home has something to do with science but I’m afraid to find art you’d have to go elsewhere since it becomes mostly about the finding the right result.”
Winning is everything, see. Spoken like a true sports person.