Playing chess with Woody Harrelson
12 November 2018 14:08
London is hosting the World Chess Championship this year, from November 9 and 28. It is an unparalleled event, with evening galas, VIP lounges, a vodka terrace and numerous arbitrators from Siberia assessing one another. You’d expect to have all the world’s top players competing in the tournament, but actually it’s just two young white men, playing repeatedly against one another for 12 games to decide who takes most of the cash. A million euros are divided 60 per cent to 40 per cent between winner and loser, or 55 per cent to 45 per cent in case of a tie break. The reigning Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen (age 28, net worth $8 million) is facing a challenger from the US named Fabiano Caruana (age 26, born in Miami, net worth unknown). Caruana is the first American challenger for the world championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972.
I attended the huge apparatus of dark rooms and heavy merchandise at the College (Holborn) on the first day of games. Chess has become an incredibly rich sport. Kaspersky, the anti-virus company and Beluga, a Russian vodka, are sponsoring the event. Pentagram designed the board pieces, specifically made by Daniel Weil, who sat next to me in the front row. Front rows in chess are much chicer than front rows in fashion. Phones aren’t allowed, and the players definitely cannot see you (one-way glass). Mr. Weil informed me how I will never witness a checkmate move, as players always surrender beforehand. Lame. A few kids in suits were stuck to the glass trying to understand what (1.) d4 Nf6 (2.) Nf3 d5 (3.) c4 e6 and (4.) Nc3 Be7 means.
The match started as pawn woodpecker Woody Harrelson, also known as LBJ, came in to support Fabiano Caruana, and play his first move for him (there was no other American celebrity in attendance). Woody began by dropping Caruana’s king, which means surrender and game over. A self-imposed defeat. I got up to leave (there’s only game per day), but for some reason the arbitrators let it slide; the king was put back up and Harrelson went on to move a different piece. He then left for seven hours as the two players reached an incredibly tedious tie, with 115 benign moves.
In the meanwhile, I caught Woody in the terrace, while he was taking pictures of the TV screen where they showed the match with Scandinavian commentary. A few nagging reporters begged him for yet another quote. I shut it down by telling him to focus on the game and ignore the media. Let them read his moves, not of his mouth. He sat down and put two chess pieces in his hands to draw who gets to play first. I won the opening but then lost the match (on purpose). I played too fast and accidentally opened a sparkling water bottle midway, spraying it on his friend’s clothes. The pieces stayed dry. I later told Woody that the winner has to buy to loser a full authorised chess set and board for £420 in the giftshop. He refused.
The opening gala was held at the V&A and hosted by the voice of Come Dine With Me, grey alpha male George Lamb. It was organised by the prolific India Clarke, and featured FIDE legends such as Chinese grandmaster Hou Yifan (age 24). At the age of 12, she was the youngest ever participant of the Women’s World Championship. Yifan tends to play the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defence, castling her king’s side while aiming the bishop at the centre. I was told she didn’t participate in this year’s rounds due to some regulation issue with FIDE that has now been resolved.
FIDE themselves took the chance to showcase an alternative logo for the 2018 games, which depicts two figures with overlapping legs holding a chessboard. A crossmate. The image was very controversial in chess squares. World Chess called the logo ‘Trendy, just like the host city’. When Ilya Merenzon, head of World Chess, was asked to speak on the topic he said, ‘it’s about two people fighting’, and later added that ‘it would be nice to bring a little bit of sexual appeal to chess’. Kind of like YOMO; you only mate once.
Game 2 on Saturday began with something called a ‘Queen’s Gambit Declined’ scenario, with Caruana playing quickly and emerging with a 45-minute time advantage on the 14th move, a reversal of fortunes from Game 1. He held Carlsen to a rook endgame with an extra pawn. Unfortunately, the whole thing still ended in a second tie. I again wondered the corridors, imagining running into deceased Bobby Fischer, or the living anti-Putin knight Garry Kasparov. Mr. Kasparov, by the way, tried to launch a competing chess organization once, called PCA, but failed. FIDE is too omnipotent. I did meet a Ukrainian henchman who claimed to be best friends with gas bishop Oleg Deripaska. I asked him about the 2016 collusion. He said how dire it is that the Russians keep funding these championships without having a champion of their own. This year, most of them cheer the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, but not due to proximity, he just reminds them of Matt Damon.