A championship on the line. A move so cold and calculated it has to be a troll (probably). A vitriolic fanbase armed with keyboards and anonymous screen names. And you thought these sorts of things only happened in video games. But even chess, a turn-based strategy game first released for wooden boards some 1,500 years ago, isn’t immune.
Last week, during the annual Tata Steel Chess Tournament (aka “chess Wimbledon”) in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, one chess grandmaster didn’t seem to be playing to win. Sergey Karjakin, a top chess player who was once the youngest grandmaster in modern history, was playing Magnus Carlsen, currently considered the best chess player on the planet, to a draw, possibly intentionally.
A draw might not sound like such a big deal—tie games happen all the time across disciplines—but the stakes couldn’t have been higher for Carlsen. You see, Carlsen has long been gunning for an even 2,900 rating in Elo rankings, widely considered the gold standard in measuring skill in chess. Last month, ahead of chess Wimbledon, Carlsen tweeted out a GIF of a swimmer alongside a simple caption: “2,900.”
Named after its inventor, Arpad Elo, and adopted in the 1960s and ‘70s by the world’s chess leagues, the Elo ranking system is a series of mathematical calculations designed to determine the planet’s best chess player at any given time. If you win a match, you go up in your ranking. Lose a match, and you go down. Your relative ranking compared to your opponent factors in as well, so if you play to a draw against a lower-ranked opponent, they’ll gain points. You, however, will lose some. On the whole, the Elo ranking system functions not unlike the behind-the-scenes weighted ranking systems you’d see in, say, a competitive first-person shooter or a multiplayer online battle arena.
At the moment, according to the stat-tracking site 2700chess.com, Carlsen is sitting at the top of the Elo rankings with 2,868.1 points, down from a record of 2,882. (For some background about why hitting 2,900 is such a notoriously insurmountable climb, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden has a terrifically thorough rundown.) Since he’s at the top, if he wants to gain any points, Carlsen can’t lose and can’t play to a draw. He has to win.
During their match, Karjakin started with white pieces, meaning he got to go first. As noted by Bruno Dias, a games writer who worked on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, chess players who start with white pieces have the offensive advantage and thus tend to play more aggressively. But Karjakin opened with a move called the Ruy López, which is viable at all levels but is also considered one of a handful of openings beginners should learn. The match wound in what’s known (and hated) as a short draw.
Immediately after the match, Karjakin tweeted, succinctly, “#drawmagnus #saynoto2900.”
It’s unclear if Karjakin intentionally played Carlsen to a draw or was simply pivoting after the fact to reframe the draw for some post-match ribbing. Chess fans seem convinced it’s the former.
“Imagine being so scared of playing Magnus that you’ll play in to this opening with white, and then have the audacity to tweet this,” one wrote. “Sounds like an excuse. Are you THAT afraid of Magnus??,” echoed another. Others taunted Karjakin over his world championship matches against Carlsen in 2016, which resulted in several forced draws. Some sneered at the notion that a player could go from world contender to single-minded troll. (“Talk about character development.”) But few topped remarks from chess coach Yosha Iglesias, who wrote, “Short draws are like masturbation: Everyone does it and it’s perfectly fine, as long as you don’t brag about it on Twitter.”
Ultimately, Carlsen trounced his competitors and won the tournament, making it his eighth Tata Steel victory. Last night, Karjakin tweeted a congratulatory note to Carlsen, saying “for me, it was a very solid tournament—too solid sometimes,” followed by three thinking-face emojis.
Representatives for Karjakin and Carlsen did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.