Clash of titans

Perhaps the greatest assemblage of human chess players ever converged on, of all places, St. Louis, for the 2014 Sinquefeld Cup. Included in the group were the world's top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen and the world number 2 Levon Aronian.

But, as Seth Stevenson writes, neither of those two players triumphed, and the run by the eventual winner might be one of the most incredible feats in chess history.

By the time Caruana won his fifth straight game to open the tournament, destroying Nakamura while playing with black, the commentators were struggling to situate this performance in historical context. Some brought up Anatoly Karpov’s run at Linares in 1994, when he won his first six tournament games (including one against a then-babyfaced Topalov) before Garry Kasparov at last slowed him down with a draw. There was also a magical Viktor Korchnoi showing in the 1968 tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands. But many think the field in St. Louis is stronger than those Karpov and Korchnoi faced. And Caruana was still going. Were he to win all 10 games without a blemish, it would likely be considered the greatest feat in the annals of tournament chess, stretching back to the 1800s.

I asked some experts to explain, to a layman, what sort of accomplishment it would be to go on a 10–0 run here. When not reaching for analogies from other sports—one grandmaster, in complete earnestness, likened it to pitching 100 straight innings of no-hit baseball—they invariably turned to Bobby Fischer. Fischer’s streak of 20 consecutive victories against grandmasters. Fischer’s mindblowing tournament performances. Fischer’s near-hallucinatory leaps of chess logic. Stumped for further superlatives with which to describe Caruana’s excellence, one chess expert resorted to the highest possible praise: Caruana, he said, was “Fischer-esque.”

I wish I had learned to play chess when I was younger. Now I don't even know where to begin.

I can appreciate the difficulty of most sports and also enjoy watching for them the dramatic uncertainty. However, I lack an appreciation of chess tactics and strategy, and that makes watching a chess match akin to watching some semiotically opaque performance art.