The Grandmaster

Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again

LIST PRICE $35.00

About The Book

A firsthand account of the dramatic 2016 World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Sergey Karjakin, which mirrored the world's geopolitical unrest and rekindled a global fascination with the sport.

The first week of November 2016, as a crowd of people swarmed outside of Manhattan’s Trump Tower to rail against the election of Donald Trump, hundreds more descended on the city’s South Street Seaport. But they weren’t there to protest. They were there to watch the World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Sergey Karjakin—what by the time it was over would be front-page news and thought by many the greatest finish in chess history.

The story lines were riveting. The championship hadn’t been hosted in New York City, the de facto world capital of the sport, in more than two decades. With both Carlsen and Karjakin just 25 years old, the tournament organizers were billing it as a battle of the millennials—the first time the championship had been waged among the generation that grew up playing chess primarily against computers. And perhaps most intriguing were all the geopolitical connections to the match. Originally from Crimea, Karjakin had recently repatriated to Russia under the direct assistance of Putin. Carlsen, meanwhile, had expressed admiration for Donald Trump, and his first move of the tournament he played with a smirk what's called a Trompowsky Attack. Then there was the Russian leader of the World Chess Federation being barred from attending due to US sanctions, and chess fanatic and Trump adviser Peter Thiel being called on to make the honorary first move in sudden death.

That the tournament required sudden death was a shock. Oddsmakers had given Carlsen, the defending champion, an 80% chance of winning. It would take everything he had to retain his title. In doing so, he would firmly make his case to be considered the greatest player chess has ever seen.

Author Brin-Jonathan Butler was granted unique access to the two-and-half-week tournament and watched every move. In The Grandmaster, he aims to do for Magnus Carlsen what Norman Mailer did for Muhammed Ali in The Fight, John McPhee did for Arthur Ashe in Levels of the Game, and David Foster Wallace did for Roger Federer in his famous New York Times Magazine profile. Butler captures one of the world’s greatest sportsmen at the height of their powers, and attempts to decipher the secret to that greatness.

Excerpt

The Grandmaster 1 A NIGHT AT THE PLAZA
In AD 813, a fratricidal power struggle and civil war saw Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire, buried under a ceaseless hail of rocks, an inferno of burning pots of oil. The Tigris River was aflame with ignited rafts, stained in human blood, and bloated with bodies and sunken boats. After two years of raging civil war between Caliph al-Amin and his half brother al-Ma’mun, starved defenders gave up their last ounces of strength desperately trying to reinforce the gates. Urban warfare continued to rage in the streets as the “Naked Army” (mostly amateur troops of African origin comprised of street vendors, market sellers, even inmates from prisons, who went into battle without armor or any kind of body protection) offered the last gasp of the city’s defense. As the artillery of catapults flung heavy stones, arrows soared, battering rams and swords crashed, far removed from the action, shielded by an abundance of walls, gates, and imperial guards, and tranquilly sitting beneath the green dome of the Golden Gate Palace, Caliph al-Amin, the sixth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, ignored the overwhelming chaos and onslaught outside his kingdom. Instead, as his various palaces burned into the night, he focused on a chessboard and pondered his next move.

A panicked messenger arrived to impart the news that, having incurred a new series of bitter losses, the caliph’s brother might soon win the war. Al-Amin’s life was in dire peril. But the caliph didn’t care or even bother to look up from the board.

According to Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin, the messenger deliriously begged the caliph to stop playing and take stock of his kingdom.

Caliph al-Amin’s attention remained glued to his pieces, their future on the board vastly more optimistic than that of his real troops defending his kingdom. Soon after al-Amin successfully mated his adversary on the chessboard, his brother’s troops arrived and, not too long afterward, the caliph was decapitated. The War of the Two Brothers had concluded.

Eight centuries later and more than twenty-five hundred miles northwest of Baghdad in England, in the winter of 1648, a messenger arrived at the court of King Charles I with dire news. The messenger found the king hopelessly absorbed in a game of chess on his precious amber board. The board had been a gift from his father, King James I. It was built by Georg Schreiber, renowned as the “King of the Gamesboards,” in Königsberg in 1607, constructed from preciously small amounts of amber that had washed up onto the shores of the East Sea.

In between moves, Charles read the message. The Scots had betrayed him. He remained seated and gave no indication of the missive’s contents to his royal court by any gesture or expression on his face. Instead, he kept playing. The message was tantamount to the king’s death warrant, yet the game continued.

When Charles was executed on January 30, 1649—the first English monarch ever to be put to death—he was allowed to carry two belongings with him to the scaffold where he was beheaded: he chose a Bible and his chessboard. A bishop named William Juxon read Charles his last rites atop scaffolding with a hooded executioner looking on. The king’s last action before placing his head on the block was to offer the Bible and chessboard to the bishop as a gift.

Jump ahead to the afternoon of November 10, 2016, two days after Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the United States: thousands swarmed the Trump International Hotel & Tower near Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. A mile away, at Trump’s Fifth Avenue residence, protesters battered a piñata of the president-elect. Police closed down the avenue at Fifty-Seventh Street and barricaded demonstrators.

I watched one kid nestled inside the mob drop an American flag on the ground while his friend squeezed a stream of lighter fluid over it. Someone else bent over to reach down toward the flag, their Zippo’s flame delicately fluttering in the frigid cold, to ignite the bonfire.

That same night, I walked just a few blocks west and joined several hundred invitation-only guests who strolled across a red carpet into the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court. They were almost entirely white and older and, judging by their jet-lagged faces and well-tutored accents, Russian and European. Women in backless dresses milled about, their porcelain skin illuminated under opulent crystal chandeliers. Waiters circulated through the crowd with trays of white and black Russian cocktails and delicately sculptured hors d’oeuvres. A black gospel choir sang “Happy.”

This was the opening-night celebration of the World Chess Championship (WCC) between Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin—a best-of-twelve match over two and a half weeks for a grand prize of $1.1 million. If Trump was the glacier and America was the Titanic, then the Plaza felt like the unsinkable ship’s game room—and the only thing anyone seemed to care about was chess.

• • •

This wasn’t the first time the Plaza had been a part of chess history. Nearly twenty years before, in the spring of 1997, then world champion Garry Kasparov had rented a suite there to prepare for his rematch against the IBM computer Deep Blue, which he had already beaten the year before. But on this night, during this week, the Plaza’s connection to chess was overshadowed by its connection to Trump. When he bought the hotel in 1988, he boasted that he hadn’t purchased “a building, I have purchased a masterpiece—the Mona Lisa. For the first time in my life, I have knowingly made a deal that was not economic—for I can never justify the price I paid, no matter how successful the Plaza becomes.” That price was $407.5 million, equal to roughly twice that amount in today’s dollars. The Plaza did not become successful. Four years later it went into bankruptcy. Trump eventually sold it to a Saudi prince and one of Singapore’s leading entrepreneurs for $325 million. Before that, though, in 1993, he married his second wife, Marla Maples, in front of more than eleven hundred guests at the Plaza. Also not successful.

That the WCC gala was at a location synonymous with the new president on the very same week as the election was pure coincidence. The venue had been booked months in advance, according to the communications director for Agon Limited, a sports event–promoting company that was founded in New Jersey in 2012. That same year, the company was granted long-term marketing rights to the World Chess Championship by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or World Chess Federation (FIDE), the sport’s international governing body. Agon’s mission was, as stated on their website, “to turn chess into the [sic] spectator sport and attractive platform for brand [sic] and partners alike.”

More than six hundred million people around the world played chess, about the same number as the global population of domestic cats. If chess were a religion, its adherents would make it the fourth largest in existence. Agon was essentially looking to do for chess what had been done for poker in the early 2000s. Tournaments on ESPN. Corporate sponsorship. Revenue from online gambling.

Mirroring Trump’s hopes for America, they wanted to make chess great again. What could possibly stand in their way?

So Agon had booked the gala at the Plaza. And, for the first time in the history of the match, the event would be streamed online. The stream would feature multi-camera views and even a 360-degree virtual reality option. It would also feature chess-legend commentators such as Judit Polgár, who in 2005 had achieved the world ranking of eighth, the highest ever for a female player.

Then there was the venue itself, a one-hundred-thousand-square-foot space located in the Fulton Market Building in Lower Manhattan. Nearly one hundred workers had been hired to customize the interior, which included a broadcast studio; viewing areas; playing areas; a café; a separate VIP area with a bar; and the soundproof, glassed-in cube where Carlsen and Karjakin would face off.

Agon had invested roughly $5 million in the event. They were hoping for about a thousand attendees per day. Tickets were $75 per day—$1,200 for the VIP area. To stream the event cost $15 for the entire match, or $1.25 per game.

But, as with any event in America, it wasn’t anything unless there was a celebrity presence. There was certainly no shortage of famous chess fans. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. Peter Thiel. Zuckerberg and Gates were reported in one paper as possibly attending. And so, for the gala’s emcee, Agon hired none other than . . . Adrian Grenier, the star of HBO’s Entourage, which had run from 2004 until 2011. Clearly the most intuitive choice.

Nobody seemed quite sure what Grenier had to do with chess, but from the limited understanding I had of his work, Grenier gave one of the peak performances of his career as he regaled the audience with chess factoids he read from handheld cue cards and made lame jokes about chess’s superiority to apps like Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds. Someone behind me whispered that he’d been paid six figures for showing up. After his speech, he stood for photos with Carlsen and Karjakin. They looked just as confused about who he was and why he was there.

But what about me? There was a reasonable question to address before long: What the hell was I doing there?

• • •

A week before, I’d gotten a Twitter DM from an editor at Simon & Schuster. He wanted someone to write a book about Magnus Carlsen, a book that tried to answer three questions. One: Why wasn’t the dude more of a household name? Here was a guy who had been the top-ranked chess player in the world for the past six years and had the highest rating of any chess player in history—higher than Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Yet Kasparov and Fischer—not Carlsen—were still the names that most non-chess people thought of when they thought about chess. It was like Carlsen was Roger Federer and everybody was still talking about Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Two: What was the secret to his greatness? How exactly had he managed to be so much better than everyone else for so long? At least Federer had a true rival in Rafael Nadal, whereas nobody had come close to challenging Carlsen for supremacy. And, finally, three: How long could he continue to do it? More specifically, given the fierce pressures, how long could he continue to do it without cracking the way Fischer and a surprising number of other chess champions had? How did the pressures and stress of staying on top affect Carlsen with all the top players in the world gunning for his crown?

The editor thought I’d be especially suited to try and answer these questions, because I’d made a career from writing about characters on the outer margins of the sports world. Mostly boxers, bullfighters, and controversial high-profile athletes. I had written two books about Cuba, exploring the country through the prism of its greatest boxers, who were used as political pawns by Fidel Castro, and had spent time with and profiled many of the biggest names in the sport in America. My journalism career began on Easter Sunday of 2010, by accident, when I managed to find a way into Mike Tyson’s Las Vegas residence. Through a thick haze of weed smoke, I was initially greeted by Tyson with, “So how did this white motherfucker get inside my house?” I’d also written about the Spanish bullfighter José Tomás and the New York Yankees pitcher El Duque and his escape from Cuba. Lance Armstrong once approached me with the prospect of ghostwriting his tell-all memoir: “It’s a mix of Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire, and Brian’s Song,” Lance explained, laughing, when we met at the bar of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York to discuss the project. “It’s complicated. It’s dirty. But would we do it any different?”

So yeah: I had a thing for people living lives at the extremes of what they did and trying to find unusual angles on what made them tick. On that level, I could see why the editor thought of me. But what he didn’t know was that, though I had never written about chess, I had a very deep and strange personal connection to the game—an obsession I’d suppressed and had only very recently been reminded of.

It was the summer of 1998: my nineteenth birthday was around the corner, and I had just been dumped by my first girlfriend. She was my first kiss and we’d been together for over two years, spending half of that time sharing an apartment in Vancouver, where I grew up. Somehow I’d imagined my first girlfriend was going to be my last girlfriend and we’d be together the rest of our lives. My father’s parents had done that. But that didn’t work out for me and I took it very hard and booked a one-way flight from Vancouver to Europe. I spent my first month backpacking around Europe, basically undergoing a prolonged nervous breakdown. I blew through more money on long-distance phone calls back to my ex than on traveling. I visited many of the capital cities of Europe—London, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin—and an hour after arriving in each, I’d only move into another cold foreign phone booth and call another operator. Instead of helping, each call only made my situation worse and pushed her farther away.

I’d flunked out of high school the previous year, but my father had offered me the mitzvah of the money he’d saved up for my college. He’d had his first heartbreak at the same age as me, and when I asked him at the airport why he trusted me with the money, since I’d let him down with school, he smiled for a long time before he replied.

“You don’t trust the world because it’s trustworthy,” he said. “You trust the world because not trusting is a guarantee that your life will end up without anything worthwhile that the world has to offer. I trust you, and I trust the path you’re going to find in the world.”

But in Europe I was screwing that all up too. With each country I visited, I had one less place in the world that might offer a sanctuary or at least foxhole from what I was running from. So I finally tried my mother’s family in Budapest, whom I’d never met.

My grandfather had left the country during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when my uncle was eight and my mother only six. He entered Canada as a refugee and immediately started working. It took him ten years to raise enough money to bring his family over. By then it was too late for my grandmother and uncle. Their lives were in Budapest and they no longer wished to leave, but my sixteen-year-old mother chose to join him. Unfortunately, she didn’t reunite with the father who’d left ten years earlier. He was someone horribly different.

After my grandmother had divorced my grandfather, a few months before my mother came over to Canada, he’d fallen in love with an engaged Hungarian woman who had also left the country in 1956. When this woman told him in no uncertain terms his feelings were severely unrequited, he took revenge and hanged himself from a balcony in front of her and her fiancé during a New Year’s party. His fellow partygoers were able to cut him down, but the lack of air to his brain left him in a coma for the next fifty-six days. He woke up with an entirely different personality—cold, bitter, violent.

By the age of seventeen, my mother had run away from her father’s home and dropped out of high school, getting married and becoming pregnant within a year. After giving birth to a son, she lost her next child to crib death. Three years later she had an affair and gave birth to my other brother, which led to a divorce and her raising both of her sons in Vancouver’s low-income housing projects while she worked odd menial jobs to put food on the table. My mom met my dad just before he finished law school and started his own child protection private law practice. I was born the year after that, in 1979. My father bought the family a house and was almost immediately forced to sell it for a huge loss when the real estate market crashed. He was buried in debt and my mother went back to work part-time.

One of her jobs was helping the owner of an antique shop. The first time I stepped inside I was four years old, and I instantly cased the inventory for the most precious treasure on display, zeroing in on the chessboard in the backroom office. It stood out like a sphinx. From a distance, it looked like any of the enticing board games my grandparents had stuffed away in the cupboard: Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Sorry, Snakes and Ladders, the Game of Life, Trouble.

The shop’s elderly owner left the back room to greet me, but stopped suddenly when he recognized the look on my face as I stared at his chessboard.

“Do you know how to play?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said gently. “Come a little closer.”

As I started over toward him, I noticed he had a glass eye. He offered a strange little smile and asked if I was sure I wanted him to teach me how to play chess.

I didn’t know what to say. The way he said it almost sounded like a warning, like his board or the game itself was cursed. That he treated chess like some kind of unlocked liquor cabinet only intrigued me more.

I nodded my head.

“Just be a little careful,” he warned, with a barely contained gleam in his good eye. “It might never let you go.”

And then he beat me in two moves in what’s known as a Fool’s Mate.

It felt different than losing at all those other board games. It hurt. And because I couldn’t understand why exactly it hurt so much, it frightened me enormously. I kept my distance over the years. Whenever anybody innocently brought out a chessboard and wanted to play, I’d say no. My feelings about the game weren’t unlike my lifelong cautious attitude toward alcohol, which I’d assumed after learning its effect on several members of my family—up close with my dad, and secondhand from my mother, who’d described alcoholism in her family back in Hungary.

But then I arrived in Budapest on the morning of my nineteenth birthday.

• • •

My uncle Bandi was supposed to pick me up at the Nyugati train station—a breathtaking symphony of stone, steel, and glass. My mother hadn’t been back since I was a baby, and I think the most recent picture I’d seen of my uncle was an army photo from his mandatory military service. In the black-and-white photograph, he looked like Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II. After I’d spent twenty-five minutes frantically searching for him at the station, a stranger sitting at the bar broke out laughing. In my confusion, it took me a few minutes to identify who the man was. He looked like De Niro if De Niro had packed on a lot of weight to play the part of a corrupt, small-town Hungarian cop.

My uncle didn’t own a car, so he took me on a walking tour of Budapest, which included throwing back a Leaving Las Vegas quantity of alcohol. There were pubs on nearly every street—all crammed full with Hungarian men and women from seven in the morning onward—and each hour he’d drink a glass of fröccs (white wine and soda) and two shots of something called pálinka (famous for being unmixable) and expected me to do the same. It was fairly obvious that Bandi had consumed alcohol at this kind of frightening pace for decades. No matter how much I watched him drink, he gave no indication that it had any effect on him.

Bandi had an ex-wife, a daughter, and a handful of girlfriends. They all lived in close proximity to one another and, somehow, were friends. We drank at all their apartments too. Because of my family history, that day was the first time I had ever touched alcohol. I was expected to keep up drinking with my hardened alcoholic uncle and was anesthetized after two hours and nearly blackout drunk by lunchtime. Since the Hungarian Revolution, Hungary had one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and for a while it just seemed like my uncle and I were bonding while doing our part to fit in.

Bandi spoke no English, yet he worked furiously over a Hungarian-English dictionary to explain the sights and history of Budapest. Before we got to that, he kindly informed me that my mother was a Gypsy (it was abundantly clear Bandi’s attitude to the Romani population in Budapest was buoyantly genocidal) and, given my darker complexion, had cheated on my father with a black man (he used the other hateful word). Presumably to help make me feel at home, when we encountered anyone he knew on the street, Bandi made sure to gleefully introduce me as his nephew, the bastard son of his sister from a black man.

As we passed the Danube, I was told that the Scourge of God, Attila the Hun, had been placed in a triple-layered coffin of gold, silver, and lead and buried in an unknown, dammed-off portion of the Tisza River. When they let the river flow over the grave, anyone who had witnessed the burial and knew the location was killed or blinded with nails driven into their eyes. He showed me the gorgeous Erzsébet Bridge, which shared my mother’s name and had been built only two years before she left the country. Near Heroes’ Square, he led me to a park where I was introduced to the ominous statue of what appeared to be the Grim Reaper, but was in fact the statue of Anonymous, an ancient Hungarian king’s chronicler, holding a shiny pen. The legend was that if you touched the pen you would become a great writer. He’d heard from my mother that I wanted to be a writer and used the dictionary to communicate to me that I needed all the luck I could get.

When I tried to order a round of beer, I was warned that the 150-year statute of limitations on clinking glasses wasn’t up yet. Apparently, in 1848, when the Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburgs was defeated, thirteen Hungarian generals were put to death. Legend had it that after each execution of a general, the Austrians clinked their glasses to celebrate. A Hungarian prohibition was enacted on beer-glass clinking for 150 years to honor the memory of the generals.

That’s the last detail I remember from the Budapest tour before everything got blurry and the nausea really set in.

Bandi took me back to the apartment where he had grown up with my mother in Pest, the eastern region of the city, which was flat compared to Buda, with its hills and fortress. I remember an almost Gothic staircase that swung along an enormous curve to my grandmother’s door. My grandmother stood behind the door, dressed entirely in black, mourning the recent death of her beloved second husband. She was holding a little passport photo of him in her hand. She talked to it. She talked to me in French to try to bridge the language gap despite my not speaking any French. My uncle mocked her, and while I barely understood Hungarian, whatever she said sounded like she was reminding him for the thousandth time that she wished he’d never been born. My uncle dug a finger into her armpit until she swatted it away. They had a scary dance between them.

Bandi took us into a back room and showed us the family chessboard.

“My fadder,” he said gently—departing from his usual growl—before reaching into his Hungarian-English dictionary for assistance. “Teach . . . me . . . chezz . . . theez . . . board . . . when . . . child.”

When Bandi’s daughter Zsuzsi came over to visit our grandmother later that day, it turned out she was a gifted linguist in many languages and conversational in English. She told me that learning chess from his father was one of Bandi’s last and most cherished childhood memories of the man.

Later that night, Bandi took me to a run-down, cavernous bar near the Danube, bringing the family chessboard along with him. A tiny girl with ribbons in her hair, who was sitting next to her mother at the piano, began playing a haunting little melody on her own. Some years later, I finally identified it as the middle of Béla Bartók’s Román Népi Táncok. Her fingers delicately scampered across the piano keys like the paws of a cat leaving footprints in the snow as it scampered over the gravestones inside a cemetery.

My uncle reached into a leather satchel and produced his ornate but battered chessboard and a Wonka-purple velvet pouch tied with a yellow string and full of deformed wooden pieces. The loser, he informed me, was to pick up the bar tab. But my uncle’s smile and the glint in his black eyes suggested something more was on the line. I immediately remembered the antique shop owner’s warning about chess, but was too drunk to follow it. And Bandi’s wasn’t exactly the most sympathetic ear in which to enter a protest against playing, so I gave in.

I lost every game to him inside that bar. He was a sadist over the chessboard, never finding more delight than in pinning my pieces as he closed in for the slaughter. Before it was over, I threw up in the bathroom. He carried me home to my grandmother’s apartment. Once I got there, I horrified my grandmother by throwing up all over everything; the next day, in my mother’s old bed, I nursed the first and most egregious hangover of my life. After cleaning up the mess, I went back to the Nyugati train station and took the first train out to Prague. I never saw my grandmother or uncle again.

• • •

A strange thing happened after I arrived in Prague. For hours I searched all over the city for a place to stay but couldn’t find anything. Nothing was available. I went back to the train station late at night with nowhere else to go. Looking at the unsavory characters milling around, I realized that it was far from safe to sleep there. Only one Czech shop was open at the train station and, interestingly enough, it sold knives. I was eyeing a switchblade when I noticed they also sold travel chess sets. So I bought one of each for the remainder of my journey.

By the time I got home a month later, I was completely hooked on the game. For the next two years, I basically lived in cafés and always brought a chessboard along to entice other chess addicts. I bought a clock, and bullet chess—a game played with only one minute for each player—became my duel of choice. I gave up writing and spent the summers hustling tourists for money outside the Vancouver Art Gallery—my hometown’s answer to New York’s Washington Square Park—every afternoon until dark. I don’t think I ever earned more than fifty bucks in a day, and if anyone of any real strength at chess passed through, I was demolished. But it didn’t matter. An alcoholic isn’t especially encouraged to give up drinking after encountering someone who can hold their liquor better than he can.

It’s not an accident that chess has been one of the most durable things humanity has created in the last fifteen hundred years. Think of all the precious, cherished things people have lost in that time along the way to the present: languages, religions, civilizations, entire bloodlines, endless artifacts, and countless stories cast into a common darkness. How did something so seemingly trivial as chess prove so much more durable and immune to the friction and chaos of history? Any child can learn the basics in minutes, yet no human mind will ever be capable of solving it any more than an abacus has a prayer of measuring a black hole.

But then I got hooked on something even less practical, writing a novel, and found it was impossible to do both. One poisoned the well you drank from for the other. I went back to writing and gave away my board and clock.

My grandmother died a few years later, and my uncle moved into her apartment and quit his job to finally devote himself to drinking with unfettered dedication. Ten years after I saw him, he acquired diabetes and both his legs had to be amputated below the knee. His liver began to give out, but he still drank in his wheelchair.

By October 2016, Bandi was in the hospital. He asked my mother to fly back to Budapest to visit him one final time to say goodbye. She had returned only a few times as an adult, the last time to see her mother shortly before my grandmother’s death. She called and told me Bandi had still found ways to smuggle liquor into the hospital room and had only given it up after they started administering morphine.

When my mother returned to Canada, she mentioned that Bandi had given her a package to send to me in New York and that he had asked her not to open it. On Halloween, the package arrived outside my door in the eight-story walk-up where I live on 110th Street in Spanish Harlem. My building’s stoop was decked out in cobweb and skeleton decorations and Hillary Clinton signs. Most of the families who lived in my building were of Mexican descent, and they hadn’t taken kindly to Trump calling them criminals and rapists. All the families I knew in my building were working their asses off just to stay afloat in the city.

So was I. The books about Cuba hadn’t sold, and before I could discuss ideas for another with my editor, he died from a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven. I was barely making ends meet freelancing stories, and had turned to giving private boxing lessons. Renting space in a gym was too expensive, so I ran a sort of guerilla operation teaching in Central Park or in my students’ living rooms.

I brought the package up to my apartment on the fifth floor and placed it on the windowsill beside my desk. It took me a few days to work up the nerve to open it. Bandi was a rotten human being. I had no idea what perverse item he’d bequeathed to me. Finally I took the package down from my windowsill. Inside was the family chessboard with the Wonka-purple velvet pouch full of pieces. No note. No explanation. My mother euphemistically calls gestures like this Hungarian Jokes. I put the box back on the windowsill, listened to Bartók’s Román Népi Táncok for several hours on repeat, and started laughing until I cried.

Less than a week later, the Simon & Schuster editor hit me up on Twitter. For a moment, before I realized the DM was legitimate, I thought it was something like publishing’s answer to a Nigerian-prince scam.

• • •

The editor had been in touch with Agon Limited. He’d told them about the project, and they’d agreed to give me press credentials for both the match and the Plaza gala. They couldn’t promise me any one-on-one interview time with Carlsen. I figured at some point I’d be able to finagle some private time with him. I’d talked my way into Tyson’s crib—how hard could gaining access to a chess champion be by comparison? But it definitely wasn’t happening that night. Several journalists tried unsuccessfully to engage Carlsen, but he only exchanged a few words with some of the chess-beat writers with whom he’d become familiar over the years. But even to their questions he responded with little more than a shrug or a nod. This is the Roger Federer of his sport? I thought. The LeBron James? The Tiger Woods?

That was certainly the story his PR team and the overlords of chess were trying to sell—or so I’d gathered from the research I’d furiously done on Carlsen in the days since receiving the assignment. Here was something new: not your stereotypical social outcast chess champion—a young, hip chess champion. He had modeled alongside actress Liv Tyler in an advertising campaign for the denim company G-Star Raw. He had appeared in a Porsche commercial with Maria Sharapova and the digitally manipulated ghost of Muhammad Ali. Porsche’s ad agency’s chief creative officer described Carlsen as “kind of Drake meets Dalai Lama: confident and cool, with the understanding of a universe that you don’t know about.” In a 2013 article, Time had called him “the World’s Sexiest Chess Player” and the game’s “first sex symbol,” specifically citing his “smoldering good looks and six-pack abs.” He was spotted with Jay-Z at a Brooklyn Nets game, appeared in an internet video with The Office star Rainn Wilson, and checkmated Bill Gates in twelve seconds on late-night Norwegian TV.

But it all felt like staged performance art. While Carlsen smiled for photo ops and a few handshakes with VIPs, he cast his own version of a thousand-yard-stare. You could feel him retreating from the world to somewhere far behind his deep ridge of a brow. He’d look at the ceiling or the ground and something would trigger little trenches of concentration on his face that made him look half like a baby and half like an old man. Only his body was in the Plaza. His mind and imagination were playing over a chess opening or combing one of hundreds of thousands of games in his memory bank for some new glimmer of understanding.

That’s not to say Carlsen didn’t cast a spell. He absolutely did. But it had very little to do with his physical appearance or outward personality. Instead, there was something behind that stare, something that communicated the vast distance between him and everyone else around him. By accident, he locked eyes with me for a split second, and I had the unsettling yet magical feeling of looking at images beamed from the surface of a remote planet in our solar system via satellite. Maybe some of the metaphysical thrill of chess at the highest level owes something to that quality of transmission. And this twenty-five-year-old kid, like those satellites taking the pictures, was still out there, moving through his own inner space, only in Carlsen’s case he was pulled ever further toward his life’s passion by a unique form of magnetism.

I had never felt farther away from a human being who was only twenty feet away from me.

• • •

As the evening came to a close, I noticed some abandoned chessboards arranged on tables overlooking the Grand Ballroom dance floor and wandered up the stairs toward them. At one of the tables sat a bespectacled, well-dressed American in his mid-twenties—one of the few Americans there, it seemed, besides myself and Entourage’s Vinnie Chase. He invited me to sit with him. As we both looked down at Carlsen being photographed with a sponsor, the man turned to me and shrugged. “What if I gave my life to chess? I’ve thought about it occasionally. But I was a little different. I loved chess, but not only chess.”

This was an American grandmaster named Robert Hess II. He was a year younger than Carlsen and, at his peak in 2012, age twenty, was ranked fifth in the United States. By the time he was in tenth grade at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, Hess had been offered an internship at a hedge fund. Wall Street took notice of him, and Goldman Sachs reached out for meetings around the time Hess achieved the rank of grandmaster, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Hess went to Yale instead and majored in history. Today he coaches the US Women’s Chess Team.

“Personally, what was required at the highest level pushed me away,” Hess told me. “It churns out a lot of one-dimensional people. A lot of these top players devote themselves so fully to chess they don’t graduate high school. How many of the fifteen hundred or so GMs have a degree? It’s a very small percentage. I never wanted to be like that. I always felt different because I enjoyed other things besides chess. I wouldn’t have been happy living a professional chess player’s lifestyle. Unlike a lot of chess parents, mine were established. I was able to choose.”

“Do you wonder how good you could have been if you’d given chess all your life?” I asked.

“Listen . . .” Hess sighed. “Unlike music, chess is about winning, not sharing. There’s nothing worse in life—obviously health issues, family issues, political—but there are very few things worse in this world that have devastated me like losing at chess. The complete objectivity of losing to someone and not something. You beat yourself up for hours. It’s entirely your fault in a way that almost nothing else in life is. And it eats and weighs on you. Chess is a very dangerous parasite. Championship chess is studying for the SAT and taking it for six hours a day and then repeating that over and over.”

I had told him about my assignment—how I’d been tasked with figuring out the secret to Carlsen’s greatness and ultimately how sustainable it was.

“Do you think for Magnus the sacrifice was worth it?” I asked.

Hess shrugged.

“Is he the best player ever?” I asked.

Hess smiled.

“According to the ratings. But my high school physics teacher, objectively speaking, is better than Isaac Newton ever was at physics. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s more talented.”

About The Author

Troy Turi

Brin-Jonathan Butler has written for EsquireBloombergESPN MagazineAl Jazeera, Harper’sThe Paris ReviewSalon, and Vice. His first book, The Domino Diaries, was shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for literary sports writing and a Boston Globe Best Book of 2015. His work has also been a notable selection in both Best American Sports and Best American Travel Writing multiple times.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 2018)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501172601

Raves and Reviews

“This is a goddamned joyously addictive book about a brutally addictive game. Brin-Jonathan Butler writes like you'd imagine the child of David Foster Wallace and A.J. Liebling might—with ferocious intelligence, high comedic timing and an absolute love for the obsessives among us.” —Brian Koppelman, co-creator/showrunner of Billions and co-writer of Rounders

“Like Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World and Kawabata's The Master of Go, Butler's The Grandmaster is a gripping account of a world championship—chess, in this case—contested on the crest of seismic international change. In luminous prose chess rookies can easily follow, it traces the mental, political, journalistic, and testosterone-driven vectors in play as Magnus Carlsen and his game Russian challenger are pinned to these pages like Nabokov's magnificent butterflies.” —James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street and Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

“Brin-Jonathan Butler’s writing is irresistibly compelling. The Grandmaster mesmerized me. It’s less about chess than about the razor’s edge between genius and madness. It’s deeply insightful and ridiculously fun.”  —Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger In the Woods

 

"With echoes of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky showdown of yore, Brin-Jonathan Butler takes readers behind the scenes of another chess clash set against today's similarly complicated political tapestry. In a telling that can be alternatingly dark, humorous, fascinating and surprising, The Grandmaster is a thrilling read for chess geeks and lay sports fans alike. It's a story that feels fresh and timely, but Butler’s recounting is one for the ages."  —Mary Pilon, bestselling author of The Kevin Show and The Monopolists

"In this spellbinding journey through multiple dimensions of the chess universe, Brin-Jonathan Butler makes one astounding move after another, ending up with a literary victory equal to the genius performances of the grandmasters he portrays with such sympathetic insight." —Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever

 

“In The Grandmaster, the brilliance of Magnus Carlsen is fully displayed—and so is the brilliance of Brin-Jonathan Butler. This book represents the perfect marriage of subject and author, as Butler guides us on an exploration of rare genius, set against a backdrop encompassing much more than the chessboard.” —Jeremy Schaap, Emmy Award-winning ESPN host and author of Cinderella Man

"A bravura performance by the author... An entertaining book that contains everything you never imagined you wanted to know about chess." —Kirkus Reviews

"This is not the usual chronicle of a world-championship chess match. It has no diagrams, lists of moves, or strategy analysis. Instead Butler offers insight into what it takes to become the best chess player on the planet...A vibrant and provocative look at chess and its metaphorical battle for territory and power." Booklist

 

"Brin-Jonathan Butler covers the contest with an unerring eye, providing insight into both game strategy and the encompassing sociopolitical context."  LA Review of Books

“THE GRANDMASTER is compelling reading, both in terms of the depth of its subject matter and the spare muscularity of its prose. It is both paean and exposé, a both-sides deep dive into a world that not many truly understand. While the chessboard might only exist in black and white, Butler’s book offers up unexpected shades of gray.” —The Maine Edge

“THE GRANDMASTER is compelling reading, both in terms of the depth of its subject matter and the spare muscularity of its prose. It is both paean and exposé, a both-sides deep dive into a world that not many truly understand. While the chessboard might only exist in black and white, Butler’s book offers up unexpected shades of gray.” —The Maine Edge

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