Happy birthday, Fabiano Caruana. The country’s youngest grandmaster* ever turns 15 today. I have fond memories of a chess event, when Fabiano was 10, where he almost abandoned the game. I write about the event in King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.
In December 2002, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, who had perhaps the bitterest rivalry in the history of chess, came together for old time’s sake for a two-day match in the ABC Studios in Times Square. The two veterans played two games of rapid chess a day, at the brisk time control of twenty-five minutes apiece with ten seconds added for each move.
The organizer of the match had asked me to help him with the staging of the match. He asked me if I knew a celebrity who understood enough about the game to be able to make the honorary first move. (The first move is, in fact, chosen by the player with White, but you still want someone who can perform it without, say, pushing the king pawn an extra square or making a knight hop in the shape of a V instead of an L.)
I am friends with David Blaine, the magician and endurance artist—we’ve played chess together—and I thought he’d enjoy meeting Kasparov. “Chess is like magic,” David once told me. “You always have to stay one step ahead of your opponent—or your audience.” The television cameras were rolling when Kasparov and Karpov swaggered up to the board and watched David pick up a White pawn. With an agonizing expression on his face, David grunted and squeezed the pawn, like the strongman at a carnival, until he’d crushed it into a cloud of dust. The match arbiter started berating David on camera because the pawn he destroyed was irreplaceable. Like each of the other chessmen, it was uniquely equipped with a microchip so that the electronic circuitry in the chessboard could sense what square the pawn was on and broadcast the full game position over the Internet to hundreds of thousands of chess fans around the world. The arbiter was angry, but the champions were laughing—a rare display of levity for them at the start of one of their matches. Needless to say, David made the crushed pawn rematerialize and the match, and Internet transmission, began without a hitch.
David asked me which kid in the audience was particularly talented in chess, and I directed him to Fabiano. He did some card magic for the ten-year-old, who was then small for his age. The future grandmaster was bedazzled and asked David to perform trick after trick. He paid much more attention to the knaves in David’s deck than to the knights on Kasparov’s chessboard. Later, Fabiano asked me how much work it took to be a magician; he said he wanted to master David’s tricks. When I explained that it required even more prepration and practice than chess, he dedided to stick to the royal game.
*He is really a grandmaster elect because the title must still be approved by FIDE, the world chess federation.