Carlsen walks in like a deity, hints at being a mortal in a five-hour bout before he shows who is the boss

The 64-square world that had gathered in the cacophonous hall paused, took a deep collective sigh, and stood in their pose like frozen statues. Only their eyes rolled as Magnus Carlsen sauntered along the busy corridor, his half-quiff quivering and wriggling firmly into the corridor. The moment was akin to pilgrims at a temple who eventually gave the sacred vision and put them into a blissful trance. Not only the passive spectators, even the gnarled pros in the room, who have fought against him countless times, were enchanted by his aura.

The deity entered without any attributes of divinity – he did not raise his arms to applaud his devotees, or fold his hands in gratitude, or even smile back at them. He doesn’t bask in his superstar aura.

An overstrained Kenyan player asked for an autograph, which declined and coolly shrugged. Perhaps the undiscovered attention was stifling him, as was the grind of preparing for the World Championship.

He casually slid into his chair – previously throne – and half-smiled at his opponent Georg Meier, a German grandmaster who had moved to Uruguay, a master of economics who spends his spare time reading Milton Keynes and Noam Chomsky. He has challenged Carlsen a few times, pulled once and even pushed him to the brink of defeat once. Three years older than Carlsen, he’s a player with a tough reputation to beat, but even he was genuinely impressed.

But as the clock began to tick, Meier removed the lens in admiration and looked at the pieces defiantly. He was not there to be the umpteenth one to allow the contest on a platter to Carlsen, whose motives, other than charting Norway’s first gold medal, would be to achieve a live rating of 2900 points, the Mount Everest in Chess, and peak he was two times 20 points short.

Perhaps, their previous encounters weighed in on his mind, Carlsen went for a stable then enterprising opening, the French defense, a relatively base-strengthening opening, after which he was able to enter a more aggressive line. Not entirely surprised, Meier made defensive moves of his own, fully wary of a strange mistake that could punish Carlsen ruthlessly. But then Carlsen himself blundered by his standards – a hasty h3 pawn jeopardizing his moves. A kind of self-strangulation that Meier clung to and moved his queen to d6. Carlsen took two sips of water, stroked his chin, and shook his head, realizing his folly. He would then go for a walk, where he again stopped the hall, again ignoring autograph hunters. He makes great theatre, in a sport that is bored with impassive heroes.

He brooded for an eternity about the next step, his face screaming that trapped feeling. One wrong move and his opponent, playing with the black pieces, would have a significant positional advantage. But such fears do not stop him. The sport’s smartest problem solver has a solution for every riddle. A cat-and-mouse game ensued – he would entice him with a clear picture of his house, before pulling down the shutters. Meier, aware of his opponent’s abilities, would hesitate and retreat into a grenade. As is often the case, it is Carlsen’s reputation that beats the opponent first. Meier captured Carlsen’s knight in the 21st move – attacking his knights is often a preferred strategy against him, but not always successful. But after that, he couldn’t increase the advantage further.

The match dragged on and both saw through each other’s wiles. Those who wondered how long the match would last, how early Carlsen would finish the match were now looking at an intense tactical match. The match seemed to end in a draw, and Meier probably felt the same way. A draw is sometimes a win against Carlsen. And Carlsen probably sensed that Meier smelled safe shores. With a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of his head, Carlsen gave the impression that he was depressed, that he had lost the advantage. He did indeed do that a few times, especially when he blundered his pawn on b2, but he never gave up until the last move.

He gradually scrambled back into the game, making sure he wouldn’t lose the game no matter what, then surreptitiously attacked his queen. Meier flinched. He checked the outlets for a draw, but there was none, and when Carlsen’s queen took Meier’s pawn on b1, the game was all but over, and Carlsen rounded it up short, ending a five-hour fight.

By then the hall was mostly empty. Carlsen peered at the boards of the few games left. At the exit, however, a crowd of admirers was waiting for him, chessboards and notebooks in tow. Every time the door was opened, they started shouting his name. But Carlsen hurried through another exit, though this didn’t stop them from frantically running for the doors. All for another piece of Carlsen – a memorabilia, a hand movement or feel the light of chess divinity.

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