Fabiano Caruana helps usher in a new era for American chess

Fabiano Caruana helps usher in a new era for American chess


JOHN YANG: And now to a slightly lower profile
game, chess. This evening in London, the 10th match of
the World Chess Championship ended in a draw. So, the series remains deadlocked now, 5-5. The challenger is a young American player. But, as William Brangham reports, not many
in this country seem to be paying attention. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I have got a question for
you. How many of you know the name of the young
American phenom who’s potentially about to become the greatest chess player in the world? Anyone? His name is Fabiano Caruana, known in the
chess world as Fabi. He’s 26 years old, originally from Miami,
Florida. And he’s in London right now dueling against
the reigning champion, 27-year-old Magnus Carlsen from Norway. The winner of these best-of-12 matches will
be crowned the world chess champion. And while tens of millions of fans globally
are watching the matches, it’s getting much less attention here in the U.S. My next guest argues that’s in part because
the U.S. has never quite gotten past its last homegrown chess infatuation. That, of course, was Bobby Fischer, the young
eccentric prodigy from Brooklyn who rocketed to the top of the chess world and, in 1972,
played a dramatic match against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky in Iceland. Even with Vietnam and Watergate vying for
attention, the Fischer-Spassky match was a regular on the nightly news here in the U.S.,
and it sparked a subsequent chess boom in America. Stefan Fatsis is a writer and journalist at
Slate. He’s the author of books about the worlds
of competitive Scrabble and pro football. And he co-hosts the podcast “Hang Up and Listen.” Welcome. STEFAN FATSIS, Slate: Hey, William. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tell us a little bit. Fabiano Caruana, who is this guy? STEFAN FATSIS: He is a 26-year-old American
born in Miami, raised in Brooklyn, who is the number two ranked chess player in the
world. And an American rising to that level is a
rare thing. It has not happened very frequently since
Fischer. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, I mentioned he’s an
American. You have referred to him as an American as
well. But he’s also — we really should be calling
him Italian American, because he lived in Italy for many years, played for Italy many
years. STEFAN FATSIS: Right. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And this has been a subject
of some griping in the chess world. STEFAN FATSIS: A little bit. So, when Caruana was a child, he was a clear
prodigy. And when he was 12 years old, his family moved
to Spain, where he could get better training and some financial support. Italy supported him through his — I think
went through his teenage years and early 20s. And in the United States at that point, there
was a real drive by a multimillionaire named Rex Sinquefield in Saint Louis to sort of
create an American champion, to have a homegrown chess culture. And Sinquefield basically lured Caruana and
another top player named Wesley So, who was born in the Philippines, by giving them stipends. Chess players, in order to be full-time competitors,
need someone to sponsor them. They need a salary. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And do you think that that’s
part of the reason why maybe he hasn’t really caught on and become a household name here? STEFAN FATSIS: Well, I think the main reason
that he hasn’t caught on and become a household name is that chess just isn’t big. We’re in a — it’s a different culture. Fischer, when he won the world championship,
this was a really crazy time. This was the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union dominated chess for decades. Fischer was iconoclastic. He was unusual. He was mentally ill. He became reclusive and eventually was exiled
from the United States. But at the time, the culture just sort of
coalesced around this idea of an American playing and ultimately defeating a Russian
for this championship. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, this iconoclastic young
American defeating the Soviet Union, really, in essence. STEFAN FATSIS: Yes. Yes, it was a proxy war. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You wrote in Slate recently
and on your podcast that this — this searching for the next Bobby Fischer is this hackneyed
media trope… STEFAN FATSIS: Yes. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: … and we ought to just
get rid of it. STEFAN FATSIS: I do think that. I mean, if you go back — and I went back
through a bunch of databases and looked at how many times in the press a chess player
was referred to as the next Bobby Fischer. And it is dozens and dozens and dozens. Basically, every American kid that gets pretty
good at chess, and even a lot of kids that just happened to be like the best chess player
in their hometown… WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In Cheboygan. STEFAN FATSIS: Exactly, get referred to as
the next Bobby Fischer. And, to me, there was a point where the culture
should have flipped here and the attitude toward Bobby Fischer should have flipped. But, even after Fischer was exiled, he praised
9/11. He ended up dying at age 64 in Iceland, which
was basically the only country that would take him. He had violated U.S. sanctions by playing
a match in 1992 in then Yugoslavia. And yet this has persisted. We’re like constantly — and this is partly
because of the book and the movie “Searching For Bobby Fischer” — it’s the name that people
still know in America. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I think, as you wrote, it’s
the — it’s that Bobby Fischer is the one name that people who don’t know chess actually
do know. STEFAN FATSIS: Right. And that’s not to say that there isn’t a vibrant
chess culture. But what also has changed in chess is that
it’s become more democratized. Computers have made it possible for more people
to get really good at chess through studying programs and reviewing old games. Artificial intelligence has sort of leveled
the idea of genius. Computers are much better than players at
this point, even the very best players in the world. So, for — and our culture has changed. The idea that millions of people are going
to turn on PBS, which is what the Spassky-Fischer match was broadcast on, to watch two guys
— and they’re usually guys — play a match of chess, it’s just not going to happen these
days. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Especially a game for even
someone like myself, who actually does play chess, I find it impenetrable to watch those
guys, because they’re playing at such a high level, that I don’t even understand what they’re
doing. And yet I absolutely know the game. STEFAN FATSIS: Right. And I have been watching live coverage of
the Carlsen-Caruana match. And listening to the — I’m not a good chess
player — but listening to the grand masters analyze it, on the one hand, it’s fascinating,
because I think exploring any game that you don’t really understand deeply and listening
to experts deconstruct it is fascinating. On the other hand, listening to the sort of
the litany of possible moves for each player as it’s happening is sort of dizzying. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Stefan Fatsis, thank you
so much. STEFAN FATSIS: Thank you, William.

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