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


Chess has fallen almost completely from the American public eye in the four decades since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky , 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 , 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 a 60% share of the €1m ($1.14m) prize fund, or 55% if it’s decided in the tie-breaker stage, in addition to cuts of the digital pay-per-view receipts and sponsorship revenue.

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.

Quick guide

World Chess Championship 2018

The players

Norway's Magnus Carlsen is defending the world chess championship against of the United States. The best-of-12-games match is taking place at the College in Holborn between 9 and 28 November, with the winner earning a 60% share of the €1m ($1.14m) prize fund if the match ends in regulation (or 55% if it's decided by tie-break games).

Carlsen, 27, has been ranked No 1 for eight straight years and was considered the world’s best player even before he defeated Viswanathan Anand for the title in 2013. Caruana, 26, is ranked No 2, having earned his place at the table by winning the candidates tournament in March. No American-born player has won or even competed for the world title since Bobby Fischer in 1972. 

It marks the first title match between the world's top two players since 1990, when Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov faced off for a fifth and final time. 

The format

The match will consist of 12 classical games with each player 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.

The time control for each game is 100 minutes for the first 40 moves, 50 minutes for the next 20 moves and then 15 minutes for the rest of the game plus an additional 30 seconds per move starting from move 1. Players cannot agree to a draw before Black's 30th move. 

If the match is tied after 12 games, tie-breaks will be played on the final day in the following order: 

 • Best of four rapid games with 25 minutes for each player with an increment of 10 seconds after each move. 

 • If still tied, they will play up to five mini-matches of two blitz games (five minutes for each player with a three-second increment).

 • If all five mini-matches are drawn, one sudden-death 'Armegeddon' match will be played where White receives five minutes and Black receives four minutes. Both players will receive a three-second increment after the 60th move. In the case of a draw, Black will be declared the winner.

The schedule

Thu 8 Nov – Opening ceremony
Fri 9 Nov –  
Sat 10 Nov –
Sun 11 Nov – Rest day
Mon 12 Nov –
Tue 13 Nov –
Wed 14 Nov – Rest day
Thu 15 Nov –
Fri 16 Nov –
Sat 17 Nov – Rest day
Sun 18 Nov –
Mon 19 Nov – 
Tue 20 Nov – Rest day
Wed 21 Nov –
Thu 22 Nov – 
Fri 23 Nov – Rest day
Sat 24 Nov –
Sun 25 Nov – Rest day
Mon 26 Nov –
Tue 27 Nov – Rest day
Wed 28 Nov – /Awards and closing

The games commence each day at 3pm in London.

“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 aged 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.

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 .

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 – 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 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 , 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 : 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.

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 .

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.”

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.”