Slow swordfighting

Chess enthusiasts aren’t flamboyant dressers, save the occasional eccentric (best avoided) who wears chess ties etc. Today’s crowd – middle-aged men and gauche teenagers – sticks closely to greys and greens.

I’m at the World Chess Championship Candidates Tournament, at London’s IET. The winner will play India’s Viswanathan Anand for the 2013 title. Anand has been World Champion for six years, but most punters now regard his title as vulnerable. The stakes are high.

The waiting room bookshop carries such esoteria as the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (doesn’t everyone use a database now?), a treatise on pawn structure, and a thorough analysis of the French Winawer variation. My fellow patrons tap their fingers and bury their faces conspicuously into novels. I scrawl notes into a cheap notebook.

Daniel Weil of Pentagram has designed a custom set for the tournament, which now takes pride of place in the makeshift shop. Any decent chess player will tell you that novelty sets are useless. Chess is all about pattern recognition: recognising mating themes, recalling previous failed exploits. A standardised design makes this easier. Weil’s set iterates skillfully on the established Staunton pattern, but serious players usually have a quality set already, and at £199 few are sold.

A quiet nod – too quiet, as I fail to lift my head from my notebook – and we file in through metal detectors. The concern isn’t physical security but intellectual security. No bleeps, no ringtones, and particularly no computer analysis that could be leaked to the players. (These photos are the official shots.) Although the sponsors have tied tablets to the auditorium seats, they all come with a warning to keep them well out of the players’ eyelines. It’s the first time I’ve been separated from my phone in years. The discomfort slightly edges out the respite.

The room is elegant under the dim gaze of portraited engineers. Four substantial tables lie at right angles, an arrangement designed to minimise likely distractions. During the Cold War, when chess was a political battleground (I’m talking real spy shit here: thrown matches, defections, allegations of hypnosis…) match organisers fixed boards under the tables to prevent players kicking each other. These appear to be more relaxed times: the dividers are absent.

Sensors in the boards and pieces will relay the moves to a large projected screen. As we wait, the screen shows a countdown and an enormous hashtag, an impressive nod to the present rendered useless by our technological surrender.

Near each board, a spare queen of either colour, to be used in the event of a pawn promotion. Only the most extravagant sets feature four queens: club players improvise with an upside-down rook or snag a captured queen from a neighbouring game.

The 70 or so spectators have clotted at the left edge of the auditorium, claiming seats that will give the best view of the Kramnik–Carlsen game. A dozen photographers stroll around the stage. Yes, there’s chess press. Laminates, lenses, the works.

The players trickle onto the stage as the countdown reaches 00:04. Teimour Radjabov is first into the arena, looking remarkably upbeat given the diabolical tournament he’s having. He looks too much like my friend Paul for me to take him seriously.

Next up is Magnus Carlsen, causing a polite fizz of electricity. The Telegraph has labelled him the Justin Bieber of chess, to the chagrin of a fellow spectator: “Why didn’t they get someone who likes chess to write about it?”.

(The mainstream press has a cyclical relationship with chess; every few years it rediscovers it, proclaims that it’s no longer just for nerds, then continues to ignore it because it’s just for nerds. The game is grateful for the patchy attention, but wishes it were on different terms.)

At 22, Carlsen is already statistically the strongest player of all time, with a FIDE rating of 2872. Unlike most young players he eschews opening theory, instead preferring to grind out results with a ruthless, precise style. In that regard his chess is rather like the computers that have now largely surpassed humans. In the flesh he’s rather more human. For a start, he really does look like Bieber, albeit less pretty. He bears the gracelessness of youth, slouching in his seat and showing disdain for the photographers. He’s the only player with sponsor logos on his reluctant suit. His shoes are unpolished.

Boris Gelfand is wiry, the token mad scientist. At 43, Gelfand’s chance may have passed when he lost last year’s World Championship in a tie-break. He empties a blue plastic bag onto the table – water, a pen, no poison or secret transmitters.

Alexander Grischuk is the looker. Tall, well-dressed, with something of Adrien Brody about him. He’s mid-table in the tournament, now playing just for the pleasure and his share of the handsome €510,000 prize fund.

Carlsen’s opponent emerges next. Vladimir Kramnik (above) is a former World Champion, and Carlsen’s most likely threat in the tournament. Kramnik looks exactly like a chess player. Perhaps it’s the glasses. If he weren’t here today he’d be taking minutes at a local council meeting.

Armenia’s Lev Aronian drops his thermos as he enters. It’s the loudest noise of the day.

Vassily Ivanchuk ambles in like a tipsy penguin. He appears completely unphased by the demons that are haunting him this tournament. He’s a veteran of the chess world and several Candidates Tournaments, but he’s already blown it this year, losing four games simply by running out of time. This level of inattention – “self-immolation”, Nigel Short calls it – is unfathomable. But Ivanchuk is notorious for his unpredictability. On his day, he’s a strong a player as anyone.

Finally, Peter Svidler, the only Russian who loves cricket. He looks particularly happy today because someone has secured him a ticket for this summer’s Ashes.

I’m overwhelmed to be in the same room as these men. I played through their games (well, except the younger ones) as a teenager, developing a love or dislike of their styles, and scratching my head at their depth. The skill gap in chess is remarkable: these Grandmasters would demolish someone who would easily beat someone who would wipe me off the board. Amid my admiration, I feel a vertiginous impulse: I could leap out of my seat, scatter the pieces, and make history as the world’s first chess streaker. The temptation soon fades.

Each player aligns the pieces, although the boards are already laid out in pristine formation. It’s a curious habit I recognise from my own experience. It helps to get your hands on the tools of your trade, to feel they’re yours.

I expected more left-handers.

What will happen when the countdown clock hits zero? I brace myself for either klaxons or silence. In the event, we receive a brief welcome from some old white guy, and the players get to work. Their first few moves are almost instant. Chess openings are codified and repeated by rote; even mediocre players have favourite variations. (Me: Scotch Gambit, Sveshnikov Sicilian, Benko Gambit.)

All four games start with identical moves: 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4. 1 d4 is often a conservative opening choice, leading to nuanced positional games that I don’t fully understand. Fortunately the games soon diverge. Aronian transposes to a solid Queen’s Gambit Declined, while Grischuk plays the counterattacking King’s Indian Defence. Svidler responds with the Sämisch Variation 5 f3, a move that looks daft yet turns out to be frustratingly savage.

As the games head out of theoretical territory, the players sink into thought. Their postures bear the usual mannerisms of concentration: heads in hands, fidgeting, biting of lips. I’m almost disappointed by the normality of their strain. I expected something superhuman: trance-like states, or cessation of the blink reflex. My other surprise is how mobile the players are. On their opponents’ time (and often during their own), they stroll around the stage, checking up on the other matches or popping out for a comfort break, presumably accompanied to the door by arbiters. As with most likeminded groups, they’ve fallen into a groove of behavioural similarity. They all have the same walk: a slow, meaningful stride, with arms tucked behind the back. Ivanchuk’s strut is the most pronounced: head high, eyes unfocused, staring into the auditorium. He stares right at me, but doesn’t see me. Instead, he mutters to himself, head lolling from side to side. You’d avoid him on the Underground. Of course he’s calculating variations in his head as he strolls. These men could play quite adequately without the boards; so-called ‘blindfold’ displays often see the Grandmaster unbeaten in a dozen simultaneous games.

We roll into the middlegame. This is the phase of chess that’s most familiar to the novice: exchanges, attacks on the king, complexity, calculation. The commentary room is revelling in the myriad permutations of each game, discussing zany variations that will never come to pass. It’s partly intellectual curiosity, and partly a demonstration of the moves the players will analyse and reject. Grandmaster Nigel Short and International Master Lawrence Stean are holding court. It’s clear they love chess. The commentary is light-hearted, and the analysis lightning quick. Short has a penchant for weak puns (“The man with three first names: Vassily Ivan Chuck”), and is enjoying his adopted role as the has-been who doesn’t understand modern chess. Short’s big moment was in 1995, when he lost a one-sided World Championship against Garry Kasparov, and for a short while the TV networks declared chess was no longer just for nerds.

Grandmaster Jon Speelman is also in the commentry room. Speelman has a reputation as a particularly imaginative player, and throws out ludicrous suggestions that demonstrate unhinged genius but have no chance of appearing on the board. Play that speculative is too risky, too easily refuted by these elite players. Beginners quickly learn to assume your opponent will always find the right move. There is no such thing as luck in chess.

The analysis in the commentary box is largely based off instinct. Chess isn’t just about calculating long branches. The language reflects a surprising amount of intuition. “I prefer …Qc7, it feels more harmonious.”

Grischuk flings his h-pawn down the board, and follows with a bold sacrifice: knight for pawn. He’s relying on methodical preparation, based on a knowledge of Svidler’s preferred opening choices. Computers and a team of seconds will have analysed this line thoroughly; the pressure is on Svidler to minesweep under the pressure of a live game. He slows immediately, and the commentary agrees that the position has become very complex. His responses are steady and accurate, sidestepping the many disasters lying in wait. By contrast, Grischuk is barely concerned by the board: his battle lies inside his own head. He anchors his eyes to the ceiling in a struggle to remember his analysis.

The other games are more entrenched. Aronian has adopted the perfectly-named Stonewall formation. That’ll be a long one. He pours another drink from his thermos and settles in.

At last, Grischuk recalls his analysis and further ignites the position by sacrificing his queen. Most of the other players now seem more interested by this game than their own. Arched eyebrows all round. The commentators are in an orgy of confusion:

“Surely Black’s just winning!”

“Isn’t White just winning?”

“Let’s calm down and count the pieces.”

Meanwhile, small advantages start to crack open on the other boards. Kramnik looks strong after his eighteenth move, with queen and rooks tripled on the d-file. The audience switches its focus, wondering if Kramnik is about to assert his authority over the young upstart. Carlsen has to huddle his pieces to one side to avoid the piercing attack. Kramnik tightens the tension for the next few moves until, in a moment of breakthrough, Carlsen finds an equalising line, 25 …Nd5. His posture relaxes immediately back to the student slouch, knowing he has drawn the venom from the position.

Aronian’s game isn’t going so well. He’s chasing a win to stay in contention with the leaders and takes risks. He fails. After Gelfand’s pawn thrust 28 e6, the position’s screwed. The commentators delight in explaining how he’s thrown it all away after a tense, solid game.

Grischuk–Svidler, earlier so freeform, eventually grinds down into a standoff, thanks to Svidler’s precise defence. Queen and rook orbit a minor piece nucleus, impossible to break down. Svidler has done well to neutralise this game, and he’s free to once more daydream about the Ashes.

It’s only now that I notice Ivanchuk is wearing a Real Madrid training top beneath his suit. Damn. I wish he was World Champion.

The time control provides one last moment of tension. The players have two hours to make forty moves, and Teimour Radjabov is intent on making full use of them. Amid a flurry of (still very strong) moves, he makes it with two seconds to spare. Plenty, but his position against Ivanchuk is looking desperate.

As the smoke clears, two of the four games are heading toward draws, while Ivanchuk and Gelfand press home their advantages. (How did Gelfand turn that one into a win?) Draws are an unfortunate feature of top-level chess. There’s a wide drawing margin in the game – even two knights can’t checkmate an enemy king alone. The result is that a third of all games end in draws. Chess isn’t yet interested in the idea of awarding three points for a win: grinding out a win from a drawish position doesn’t make for box office entertainment.

Carlsen seems happiest with his draw. Playing Black against his strong rival is likely to prove his most difficult game. At the press conference, the players reveal some of their at-board analysis, flinging out variations and moves even faster than the commentators had. They literally think in chess. “After Nb4 Qb6 I was thinking e5, but it feels too risky because d5 knight takes, with pressure on c4.”

Kramnik is asked whether he saw Nd5, Carlsen’s equalising move, in advance.

“Of course. It was the only move.”