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Kelly: Cold War flares up in Lower Manhattan at the World Chess Championship

Ahead of this year's World Chess Championship, which reaches the end game on Wednesday, defending titlist Magnus Carlsen reportedly hired Microsoft to protect his communications.

The Norwegian worried that Russian hackers would infiltrate his practice sessions and tip off his opponent, Sergey Karjakin. It's gotten so bad that Russia didn't draw from its usual playbook on these matters – outraged denials followed by curling into a fetal ball of patriotic self-pity. If the Russians were quieter than usual, it was probably because Karjakin was expected to lose, continuing a streak of Russian failure at their national game. That's changed.

The championship has instead become an epic grind and political proxy war. If East is not yet fighting West in reality, it is currently doing so virtually in Lower Manhattan. "For all normal people, this is a chess match, not a political game," Russian grandmaster Sergei Shipov told the New York Times this week.

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In fairness, you must have noticed that there are fewer and fewer normal people left in the world. Carlsen and Karjakin have been playing inside a soundproof New York studio for the last three weeks.

Among the crowd that watch live via one-way mirror is a press secretary for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president follows each round online. Before he was emboldened enough to invade his neighbours, Putin hoped to express native strength through sport.

He began a series of works designed to grow Russia's global athletic reach, many of them financed by oligarchs under Kremlin pressure. They bought foreign teams and players, built stadiums, invested ludicrous amounts of money in fringe sports such as judo (Putin's obsession) and fixed the Olympics.

That last move was a bit much, causing the whole effort to collapse in on itself.

Karjakin, a 26-year-old Ukrainian turned Putin cheerleader, has risen from that competitive rubble.

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He and Carlsen are perfect avatars for the geo-political moment. Karjakin was born in Crimea, but left for Russia before the invasion. His new citizenship was granted by presidential decree. He has since become a high-volume booster of the war in his native country.

In press reports, Karjakin is portrayed as a timid, suburban father of one and chess obsessive. He holds the record for youngest grandmaster in history – age 12. But his success at the very highest levels has come relatively late, and as a result, no one expected him to get this far.

By contrast, Carlsen, 25, is that familiar Western athletic type (if the word "athletic" is correct here) – a smouldering prodigy-cum-rock star who is in no doubt about his own talent, and given to famous bouts of pique. After losing one match in New York, Carlsen came out to his news conference, fidgeted petulantly while people were taking their seats and then walked off without speaking.

Some people regard Carlsen as the best player ever. His tactical signature is a profound adaptability. Playing a more formal style, Karjakin has spent most of November backed into the ropes while Carlsen whales away at him. It's proved an effective strategy. Of their 12 encounters thus far, 10 have ended in draws.

In Monday's penultimate game, with a chance for either man to seal it, neither bothered trying. They played for 36 limp minutes – the shortest game in tournament history – and retired the field.

On Wednesday, they'll play a series of "blitz" games, each with a declining time limit. If those result in draws, a month's worth of effort will end in "Armageddon" – white is given five minutes, black only four, with a draw counting as a win for black.

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Carlsen is considered the better at speed chess, but given that he was supposed to wipe the board with Karjakin from the start, that doesn't mean much now.

A loss would be an embarrassment for Carlsen and a blow to his carefully cultivated brand. He's been given modelling contracts not because of his (let's be honest) middling good looks, but because he is considered unbeatable at something. You only get one chance to get that wrong.

But whatever the Scandinavian has to lose, Karjakin's state sponsors have so much more to gain.

After dominating most of the 20th century, Russian chess has been a basket case for years. Its central figure is billionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Putin adherent, head of the World Chess Federation and a man who has claimed he was abducted by aliens. That would make sense, since Ilyumzhinov believes chess was invented on another planet.

It's rather a long way from Boris Spassky and the image created by a generation of Soviet players that Russians could outthink the rest of us. Even their dissidents – Garry Kasparov, Alexander Alekhine, et al. – deepened this impression of a nation's stolidity and cool ruthlessness. When we envision Russians at their best, we picture writers, revolutionaries and chess players. Often all three at the same time.

Karjakin is very much the type, meek and thoughtful, speaking with a stutter and deeply politicized. While Carlsen curls up painfully in front of the board, head desperately in hands, Karjakin sits there like a sphinx. He may not be the better player, but he could in the end be sold as the better man.

After a series of humiliations, Karjakin's victory – against insurmountable odds and western hubris! – would be worth far more to Putin's Russia than any weightlifting gold.

It's been a decade without a chess title – years in which Russia has increasingly seen itself as exceptional in the world community. You can imagine how easy it will be to spin a chess victory into a self-reinforcing vision of renewed strength – "They may be bigger than us, but we are smarter."

Whether you care about this game or not, it is a storyline that cannot be resisted, and one that Russia will fold into its agitprop.

The players themselves have been careful to keep things cordial, garlanding each other in bland compliments. Maybe the rhetorical dam will break once the event ends, however that may be.

After Monday's desultory draw, Karjakin said, "Let's hope there won't be Armageddon."

Yes. Let's hope that.

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