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Deadspin's Ben Tippet On World Chess Championship


The top two chess players in the world are playing a world championship match in London. It's the best of 12 games. There's an American, Fabiano Caruana, who is in the match against the Norwegian defending champion, Magnus Carlsen. And to say that they are evenly matched would be an understatement, which we will discuss with Ben Tippett, who's writing about their rivalry for the sports website Deadspin. Welcome.

BEN TIPPETT: Good morning, Steve. Good morning, NPR viewers. Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Glad you could join us. OK, so they're - they've completed eight games. What's the score?

TIPPETT: Eight games, eight draws so far, incredibly tense match - there's just about nothing between these two guys, the No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. It's the largest draw streak to start a world championship match in history. They've both had winning chances in various games, but so far, no one has drawn blood.

INSKEEP: What does it look like when these two players sit down to play? What do they look like? How do they comport each other across the chessboard?

TIPPETT: Well, in the playing arena here in London, they are sitting in what I've described as a very comfortable police interrogation room. They're in a brightly lit room behind a glass panel, which separates them from the audience, who are - there's about room for about 150 people who are sitting in a darkened room. And they're separated from everyone so that there can be no outside interference. Some of these games can stretch up to seven hours, leaning at the board with an incredible air of drama as they bang out their moves.

INSKEEP: How unusual is it to have an American in the championship?

TIPPETT: Well, there has not been an American competing for the undisputed title since 1972. Fabiano Caruana could be the first one in more than four decades.

INSKEEP: First one since Bobby Fischer. How did he get here?

TIPPETT: Well, the way that the classical world chess championship works is that the winner defends their title against a challenger every second year. So they have an automatic pass through to defend their title, and Fabiano Caruana qualified to a traditional tournament called the candidate's tournament. And he won his way through. And so that's how he became the challenger. And it's the match we were all looking for.

INSKEEP: Do the players ever talk to each other?

TIPPETT: They're not allowed to. I was lucky enough to interview Fabiano. I asked if there was any trash talk at the board. In classical chess, there's not. You cannot talk to each other except to offer a draw so that there's no collusion or any interference.

INSKEEP: I think I read that these two guys hardly even look at each other as they play.

TIPPETT: They don't very much, although there was a very interesting moment in the second game where Fabiano sprung an opening surprise, which knocked the world champion for a bit of a loop. And he glared at his opponent. He was trying to stare into his mind and say, what have you got prepared for me? It was an incredible moment.

INSKEEP: So they've tied eight games. They each get half a point for a tie, so I guess it's 4-4. They're going to play 12 games, which I have to note is an even number of games. What happens if they get to the end of the 12 and they're still tied?

TIPPETT: Then they go to a day of tiebreaks. The reason it's an even number of games is because, in chess, white always moves first, so they have an advantage, so you can't play an odd number of games and expect it to be a fair contest. So they first go to rapid games, which are 25 minutes a side. Then if those are tied, they go to rapids, which are 10 minutes a side. And if it all comes down to the final game, they play something called Armageddon in which it's a one-off game. White gets five minutes, black gets four minutes, and if black draws, then they win.

INSKEEP: Well, Ben Tippett, could be exciting. We'll pay attention.

TIPPETT: Steve, thanks so much for having me. Thanks for having me, everyone.

INSKEEP: He is writing about the World Chess Championship for Deadspin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "QUICKPIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.