You may be thrilled by the feats of Katie Ledecky, mesmerized by the grace of the women gymnasts, startled by Rio spectators mocking U.S. soccer star Hope Solo with chants of “Zika! Zika!” Allow me, however, to interrupt the prepackaged, heart-tugging, tape-delayed Olympic coverage to bring you the sporting news of the year.
It has just been announced that on November 11 in New York City the World Chess Championship will begin.
You scoff, of course. For years, I’ve had to put up with amused puzzlement at my taste in entertainment. But I remain undaunted.
True, chess is not an Olympic sport. But it should be. In 1984, when challenger Garry Kasparov forced that championship match into 17 draws in a row – each about five hours – world champion Anatoly Karpov was so physically and mentally drained (he lost 22 pounds) that the Kremlin pressured the World Chess Federation to stop the match, thereby saving Soviet-favorite Karpov from forfeiting the title to the brash, free-thinking, half-Jewish Kasparov.
And while chess’ governing body cannot match the International Olympic Committee for corruption, the World Chess Federation more than makes up for that in weirdness. Its president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former president of Russia’s republic of Kalmykia, is not only a Moscow toady (sanctioned by the Treasury Department in November 2015), but a nutcase who insists he’s been abducted by aliens.
So why am I so excited about the upcoming match in New York? Who goes to a chess game anyway?
I do. Twice in the early 1990s when the championship was also played in New York, I drove from Washington with a couple of friends, to the consternation of the rest of our acquaintances.
They didn’t understand that we don’t actually sit and watch the game. Instead, we go to the grandmaster room where the greatest chess minds in the world crowd around a few drop-down demonstration boards, trading furious in-game commentary.
My friends and I barely hung on trying to follow the dazzling riffs flung about by the immortals around us. Not to denigrate the elegance of the balance beam, but that experience was mind-blowing.
Twenty-one years is a long time to wait to have your mind blown again. But there’s a more mundane reason for making the trip this time: a compelling storyline with a touch of the Cold War tension that made the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match such an international sensation.
The reigning world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 25-year-old Norwegian who, unlike Fischer, is quite normal. He sports a winning personality and such good looks that he does commercials for a European clothing line.
His challenger is Russian Sergey Karjakin, who (reports The New York Times) is a fan of Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Crimea and who knocked off two brilliant Americans to get to the title fight.
Not exactly U.S.-USSR 1972. But Norway-Russia 2016 does have its charms.
I do concede chess has lost much of its mystique. This can be dated to May 11, 1997, when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Kasparov, widely considered the greatest human to play the game.
Today we don’t even bother with the man-machine contest. No human can beat the best software. The ultimate world series is between computer programs. And machines don’t sweat.
Or strive, suffer or exult. Humans do. So I’ll join the fun and cheer the Olympians. It’ll help pass the time until the main event November 11.