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Norwegian, Russian to square off in World Chess Championship

Associated Press Associated Press 11/11/2016 By VERENA DOBNIK, Associated Press
Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, left, looks through a virtual reality viewer while his challenger, Sergey Karjakin, of Russia, looks on during a news conference to promote the World Chess Championship in New York, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. The championship, which will also be broadcast live in 360 degrees, starts Nov. 11, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) © The Associated Press Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, left, looks through a virtual reality viewer while his challenger, Sergey Karjakin, of Russia, looks on during a news conference to promote the World Chess Championship in New York, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. The championship, which will also be broadcast live in 360 degrees, starts Nov. 11, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK — The defending world champion is a 25-year-old Norwegian who's been named one of the world's sexiest men.

Magnus Carlsen is tops in an endurance sport that doesn't require him to move from his chair.

It's called chess.

Carlsen, the highest-rated player in chess history, again aims to win the World Chess Championship, the most eagerly awaited match in a generation, starting Friday in New York.

Trying to wrest the title from Carlsen is the 26-year-old Ukrainian-born Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin.

The prize purse of $1.1 million will be divided 60-40 between the men, who are treated like rock stars in their countries.

Carlsen and Karjakin will play in a renovated building on the historic Manhattan waterfront, near Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge.

The championship has returned to the United States for the first time in 21 years; the last one was in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

In the U.S., organizers face a challenge: how to popularize a sedentary sport with little visible action in a society where most fans favor dynamic sports like football, boxing, basketball and baseball.

Still, chess has its fervent American fans, including Jay Z, Jude Law, Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Barack Obama.

The International Olympic Committee recognizes the World Chess Federation, which governs championship-linked matches, as a sports entity. It requires not only brain acrobatics but also the physical stamina to sit as long as six hours at a time for three weeks.

The board battle pits figures of medieval warriors, kings, queens, bishops and knights against each other in ever-changing plots as dramatic as the "Game of Thrones."

About 1 billion downloads have been tracked to apps offering electronic versions of the game, says Ilya Merenzon, the Moscow-based chief executive officer of Agon Ltd., which owns the marketing and commercial rights to the World Chess brand for the championships and the qualifying games leading up to it.

There are an estimated 600 million players worldwide, Merenzon says.

By contrast with the glitzy, high-tech championship, chess enthusiasts can be found playing in hundreds of New York outdoor public spaces, such as Central Park. Some of these urban street players are homeless.

Karjakin was 12 when he became the youngest grandmaster, and Carlsen was a grandmaster at 13.

"When I was young, I was used to winning games in a very aggressive style, and I would attack all the time and I was used to my opponents cracking," Carlsen said. "But when I got to the highest level, then people defended better, so now I'm more pragmatic. Whatever risks I take, I try to control the game."

Carlsen has cashed in through sponsorships, his own chess app and modeling for ads. He appeared in G-Star Raw's Spring/Summer fashion ad campaign along with actress and model Lily Cole.

He also was selected by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the sexiest men of 2013. Since then, he's also been the world's No. 1 player.

All 600 seats for Friday's inaugural game were sold out, starting at $75 apiece. Two games are played on consecutive days, followed by a one-day break, for a total of 12 games.

Tens of millions of fans are expected to follow live online, free of charge through the worldchess.com website and affiliate partners. In addition, $15 via Pay-Per-View buys the game in virtual reality, allowing fans to experience the game as if they were there by wearing special goggles.

For years, chess seemed to be played in a bubble, far from mainstream media.

But it never grew out of style in Carlsen's Norway, where TV programs are pre-empted for important games.

This week, New York will host the first championship with two grandmasters of the smartphone generation — "a battle of two of the finest minds on the planet," Merenzon says. "Our goal is to make chess a pop culture event."

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This story has been corrected to show the company's name is Agon, not Agony, and the company does not control the games, just the commercial rights to the brand name.

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