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How yoga and hip-hop helped Fabiano Caruana challenge for the world chess championship

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07/11/2018 Bryan Armen Graham
Fabiano Caruana wearing a black shirt: Fabiano Caruana: ‘It’s not like we go to the game and then after we’re done it’s over and we can relax’. © AFP/Getty Images Fabiano Caruana: ‘It’s not like we go to the game and then after we’re done it’s over and we can relax’.

Chess has fallen almost completely from the American public eye in the four decades since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky waged their Cold War proxy battle in Reykjavik, but another Brooklyn-raised prodigy is poised to bring the sport’s most prestigious title back to US soil.

Over the next three weeks in London, the American grandmaster Fabiano Caruana will challenge for Magnus Carlsen’s world chess championship. The best-of-12-games match will begin on Friday at the College in Holborn, with each contestant awarded one point for a win and a half-point for a draw. Whoever reaches six and a half points first will be declared the champion, earning the winner’s share of the €1m ($1.14m) prize fund, in addition to a 20% cut of the pay-per-view receipts and an undisclosed portion of the sponsorship revenue.

Related: Chess: Magnus Carlsen against Fabiano Caruana expected to be tight battle

No player born in the United States has won or even competed for the world title since Fischer, who surged to it dramatically in 1972 and held it until his controversial abdication in 1975, after which he mostly disappeared from public life. The 26-year-old Caruana, a rare American contender in a sport historically dominated by Russians and Eastern Europeans, is accustomed to, and flattered by, the comparisons.

“I’d say the one player who has always blown me away and inspired me has been Bobby Fischer,” Caruana tells the Guardian. “I mean some of the personal stuff was not great, but his approach to chess and his willpower was just phenomenal and was always an inspiration. We’re just so different in so many ways. It’s great to be compared in a historical context to Fischer, but in terms of our personalities and our playing styles and our approach to chess, we’re both very different.”

A dual US-Italian citizen who was born in Miami and spent his childhood in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Caruana – who goes by Fabi – started playing chess age five in an after-school program that he had joined to address issues concentrating in school. He recalls an early tournament, perhaps his first though he’s not certain, in which he lost all four of his games and forgot to hit the clock after most of his moves. “It was an inauspicious start,” he admits.

Chess players don’t take the physical aspect as seriously as they should.

Fabiano Caruana

Before long Caruana was defeating far older players, showing enough promise that his family pulled him from school at the age of 12 and moved to Spain where he could train with better instructors and play in higher-caliber tournaments.

“I haven’t been in New York for so many years, but living there so long, especially as a kid, it kind of gets in your blood in a way,” he said. “So I still consider myself a New Yorker. It’s the most unique city, just such a diverse and vibrant place, culturally and in terms of the energy of the city. I generally prefer quieter, slightly smaller cities, but it’s still the best place to visit, in my opinion.”

He competed internationally for Italy from 2005 until 2015 – his mother is from Sicily – reaching international prominence in 2007, when he became the youngest American-born grandmaster in history less than two weeks before his 15th birthday, a mark since bested by Sam Sevian.

Following a dominant performance that included a victory over Carlsen at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis – the tournament named for the financier Rex Sinquefield, whose $50m investment has made the midwestern city an improbable world mecca for the sport – Caruana moved back to the United States and changed federations to compete under the US flag.

He’d come agonizingly close to competing for the world title in 2016, but was forced to play for a win against the Russian Sergey Karjakin in the final round of the candidates tournament due to tie-breaker rules and fell short. Instead, it was Karjakin who pushed Carlsen to the limit in that year’s world championship in New York City.

Now Caruana, who has climbed to No 2 in the world rankings and survived the eight-man candidates gauntlet in March, highlighted by a late-stage win over pre-tournament favorite Levon Aronian of Armenia, will take his crack at an opponent widely regarded as the greatest player of all time.

Carlsen, who is 27, has been ranked No 1 for eight straight years and was already regarded as the world’s best player even before he saw off Viswanathan Anand for the title in Chennai five years ago. He is the closest thing to a celebrity in the sport today: handsome and media trained, having done ads for Porsche and modeled for G-Star Raw alongside Liv Tyler and Lily Cole. Known as the ‘Mozart of chess’ since before he was a teenager, he enjoys an outsized celebrity in his native Norway, where the games will be broadcast on primetime TV. Carlsen’s peak rating of 2882 is the highest in history – even better than Fischer – a point frequently cited by those who have called him the best to ever do it.

Magnus Carlsen posing for the camera: Fabiano Caruana faces Magnus Carlsen, seen by many as the greatest player of all time, for the world chess championship. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/AFP/Getty Images © AFP/Getty Images Fabiano Caruana faces Magnus Carlsen, seen by many as the greatest player of all time, for the world chess championship. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a stark contrast with the mild-mannered Caruana, who enters as a decided underdog, though the gap between the pair has closed in recent years to the point where many insiders are saying the forthcoming match is too close to call.

Both Carlsen and Caruana were born in the 1990s and brought up in the age of computer chess, which has drilled in players a sort of machine-like objectivity in tactical evaluation that can be an advantage against older rivals who are more prone to be influenced by the aesthetics of a move. And both are dedicated sportsmen in a trade where physical fitness has become essential at the top level.

“That’s probably one of the common misconceptions, that [chess] is not really a professional sport, that it’s more like a game that you play as a hobby or in your spare time,” Caruana says. “If you’re in the mix of things and you spend time with a player during the tournament, you realize that they actually have all the same ups and downs and emotions and physical strain and stress that any other athlete would have.”

He adds: “It’s not like we go to the game and then after we’re done it’s over and we can relax. The preparation and the stress continues for the entire event and a lot of it takes on a physical form, which is also why chess players generally try to look after their health, because it’s a very energy-draining and physically demanding as well as mentally demanding activity, so you can’t just show up and not have the mindset of an athlete.”

Related: Magnus Carlsen: the cool grandmaster who cries when he loses to himself

Caruana’s hobbies away from the board are varied. He became serious about swimming for a few years (and became pretty good), then tried his hand at squash (with markedly less success). Most recently he’s taken up yoga, which he’s found to be an effective means for alleviating stress amid the rigors of tournament play.

“Chess players don’t take the physical aspect as seriously as they should,” he says. “Other athletes, if you look at basketball players or baseball players or football players or whatever, they do things chess players should do. We generally don’t have the money to take it quite as seriously as other top athletes. Magnus, I think, does, and I think that’s part of the reason for his success, because not only his chess strength but also his physical form and his psychological conditioning is at the highest level and not at the same level that traditionally chess players have gone lengths to achieve.”

Caruana, an aspiring filmmaker who has studied screenwriting in his spare hours, calls himself a fan of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro and David Cronenberg, though he admits the latter is “still a bit too extreme for my tastes”. He grew up on classic rock and spent many tournaments listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin during his downtime, but has taken a shine to hip-hop in the last few years. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he says. “But it changes all the time. When I’m bored and I have nothing to do, I’ll just listen to random pop music.”

But those idle pursuits will take a necessary backseat over the next month as Caruana straps in for the most important match of his life.

“The general advice which I’ve always been given is just to apply myself very consistently regardless of what my results are,” he says. “If I’m doing well, to apply myself just as much as if I was doing badly, not to become complacent. This is something which is difficult because when you when you achieve something, you feel like the work is done. But the work never is really done.”

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