While we adjust our eyes to the darkness in the room and lift our phones as periscopes, behind the glass wall the best chess player in the world parries the advances of a challenger to the throne. From our distant vantage points, a phone brings the opening position into greater resolution – a Slav Defense with a quiet pawn on e3 and a puzzling one on a6 poised to storm on the queenside. By the time we have weaved through the crowd of phones to the front, we can see the expressions of Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, practically side-eyeing the board, more interested in the blinking crowd of cameras than the wooden pieces in front of him.
His challenger is Sergey Karjakin, whose spoils from victory at the Candidates Tournament gave him the right to fight the champ. If he doesn’t look so confident now, it’s because Carlsen has waved his wand over the board to produce a novelty: a new move, one that Karjakin and the rest of the world haven’t seen yet. He must labor at the board, taking as many as twenty minutes to prepare his response. While he thinks, we return to the spectator lounge and see that another renowned mind –Neil Degrasse Tyson – has come as a guest to the commentators, who are broadcasting the glacially changing position all over the world. He’s no expert here, but he adds to the commentators’ delight that there are more chess positions than atoms in the universe.
Viewers in Norway and Russia, whose flags sit beside Carlsen and Karjakin’s seats, must endure sleepless nights to watch their representatives play. As I look to my friend to my right, whose eyes glassed over staring at the board, I know with unfortunate and amazing certainty that this is, in my lifetime, the only time I will have this experience. It is not often the US holds the championship to begin with – the last time was in 1999 – nor is it often that we can share this experience with each other as a team, a few meters away from the greatest players in the world.
While we walked through a classed-up Skittles room with boards for blitz and analysis, ventured into McDonald’s and Starbucks, and browsed through shops nearby, we’ve stopped to talk to people who also made it to today’s match: a family who drove up from Pennsylvania, a Brown alum who introduced us to the number two player in the world, and even an old foe I had met in the third grade who interestingly did not recall that our first encounter ended in a checkmate he didn’t see coming. It is this community to which we return when we enter tournament halls all over the world.
Two-and-a-half hours later and the secrets of the board begin to crystallize: a clever tactic by Karjakin that even Carlsen missed spells trouble at first, but the world champ has enough resources in his position to muster a defense. The arched generals trade off until we’re left with bishops of opposite color, a neon sign for an impending draw. With complete the roll call of the Pyrrhic exchanges’ survivors, we know for the final hour they spar that the game will end in a split point. In a locked endgame, Karjakin can’t make use of his extra pawn as the key to iron out a win, so the two shake hands, the tide steady for now. Karjakin seems to be the only one happy with the seventh draw of the championship, but the rest of us wanted to see the first blood drawn. We have five rounds left for that.
After the press conference, one of the strangest I’ve seen with the masters shrugging off every question as dumb or uninteresting, we take our final pictures together, argue about who gets to change their cover photo, and take our first steps outside the venue. While today we didn’t witness a lasting blow in our protracted Super Bowl, we were once again excited, nostalgic, and dreaming about chess.