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Fabiano Caruana helps usher in a new era for American chess

Twenty-six-year-old American Fabiano Caruana is poised to become the next chess world champion. Despite his success, most Americans don't know his name. Yet they still remember Bobby Fischer, whose iconic triumph over a Soviet rival is imprinted in popular consciousness. William Brangham speaks to Stefan Fatsis, of the “Hang Up and Listen” podcast, about why we don't pay more attention to chess.

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  • 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've 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:

    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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