What The Life Of A Chess Grandmaster Is Really Like

Fabiano Caruana is the No. 2-ranked chess player in the world. He achieved Grandmaster status just before his 15th birthday back in 2007. In the 2016 Chess Olympiad he represented the United States on the first board as the Americans took home the gold for the first time since 1976.

I spoke to Fabi this month during the 80th edition of the Tata Steel Chess Masters in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, about his routine, artificial intelligence, cheating in chess, and that awful World Championship logo.

Ben: For those wondering how a person comes to be a professional chess player, can you describe your career trajectory? At what age did you start playing?

Fabiano Caruana: I started around the age of five. I was around five, six, and it was just an after-school program, playing other kids and a few teachers. I don’t remember exactly who noticed my talent or if I was immediately very good, but the teacher there recommended to my parents that I pursue chess, and I was playing more or less as a hobby when I was a kid, and then at some point it became professional for me.

When did it become apparent that you had the potential to take it further?

Well, I started playing tournaments, and my results kept improving. In scholastic tournaments I was doing well, I was usually scoring near the top, so it became clear that I had some sort of knack for the game. But, there were so many talented kids that you never know how it will turn out. And, for me, I just didn’t worry about it. I enjoyed playing chess, so I kept on doing it. And I started representing the United States in international competitions, like in the Pan-American youth competitions under-10, under-12, and I got some medals there, so my career kind of progressed that way.

What was behind the decision to move to Europe [when you were 12]?

That was my parents’ decision entirely. I wanted to stay in the U.S. [laughs] I had friends in the U.S. and my family was there and my home was there, but my parents wanted to visit Europe and explore a few countries for a few years, and it ended up being pretty much a decade that we were in Europe. The idea was to pursue chess professionally, and that’s what I did. I started working pretty much all day, working with coaches in Spain and Hungary and Switzerland. We travelled Europe for about 10 years, and I pretty much played chess non-stop. I would play 100 games a year or something, for 10 years. And I went from a decent, talented kid level, to pretty much a strong Grandmaster level by the time I came back.

And what was behind that decision to come back to the U.S. [in 2015]?

I just wanted to come back at that point. The U.S. has always felt like home, so I wanted to come back, and it felt like after 10 years and more financial security—by the time I left Europe I was supporting myself and could live on my own—it was time to come back.

Can you take us through a day in the life of a chess player during a big tournament?

During a tournament it’s just purely chess, from morning to night. It starts usually with breakfast and a brisk walk, and then preparing for the opponent pretty much up until the game. Usually it’s for a few hours before the game that I’ll prepare, look at their openings, try to figure out what I want to do, what they might do, try to predict what they’re doing. On the other hand, they’re trying to do the same thing, so we’re both trying to surprise each other. Then I play the game, which could last from four hours on average—maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less—and then it’s dinner and preparation for the game the day after. Sometimes I’ll watch TV or a movie at night to rest, maybe work out a bit, but it’s 95 percent chess.

And what about when you’re in training?

When I’m at home, it’s pretty chilled. Like, I’ll work on chess probably a few hours a day, but I might, you know, go to the movies, or I might meet up with friends, get drinks, do whatever. I try to work out pretty much every day, which is, I think, important for chess players. People, I don’t think, realize the mental energy that goes into playing a full game of chess. Not only do you burn an insane amount of calories, it’s also very mentally draining, and so you have to both physically and mentally have a lot of stamina. So I try to work out to make sure I’m able to do that, to play for six, seven hours if needed. And then, training—sometimes alone, sometimes with colleagues or friends. Some of it is practice, some of it is purely trying to figure openings out, which is not just improving my own chess but trying to be well-prepared for games in the future. Because I have a lot of freedom when I’m at home, every day is different.

You were the runner-up in 2016 Candidates Tournament. How do you assess your chances this time around?

I try to look at it realistically, which is: I’m one of eight players, and all the players are pretty much of equal strength, more or less. Some players have had better results, some are higher-rated, but all the players have been near the top, have won many super-tournaments, so we all have a good chance. So I would estimate my chances as 1-in-8, or a bit higher. But, my emotional assessment is a bit better, because I kind of believe in myself more than other players. I think I have a good chance, but I’m trying not to assume that I’m going to win or anything. Last time I was very close, and it came down to a tiebreak—if I had drawn the last game, which would have very often been a possible result, we would have had the same score, but my opponent [Sergey Karjakin] would have won on the basis of having won more games. He won three games and lost one [with 10 draws], and I won two games and drew the rest. So I was forced to play for a win in that game, which was very difficult under the circumstances, and I ended up losing it. So, it was pretty much neck-and-neck, there was also another player who had very good chances to win. So last time I think I played a good tournament, not everything came together in the end, but I was very close to having qualified for the World Championship match. This time, I’m hoping that I’ve learned my lessons a bit better, and I might be a bit more prepared. But, anything can happen.

How would you use the platform and recognition that comes with being World Champion?

I would have a lot of ideas on how to popularize chess, and things that I would love to do if I had the World Champion title. We see now that Magnus has all these opportunities and he takes advantage of them and he popularizes the game and he does a great job with that. I think that I would also have a lot of ideas as World Champion, as the front-runner in chess, if that came to be. It’s still—it’s not just one tournament away. First, this tournament is a huge challenge, and then the match after is maybe an even bigger challenge, so I haven’t thought about it so concretely. I’ve thought about it more what it would be fun to do as World Champion, but that’s still a long way off.

What’s the best game you’ve ever played?

That’s a tough question. There are a lot of games which I’ve really enjoyed, like my game against [Levon] Aronian from the Sinquefield Cup 2014, that was one game I thought was one of my best games ever, and I was really proud of that game. A bunch of games from that tournament were pretty good, because that was the best performance I’ve ever had. [Fabi’s 8.5/10 (starting with seven straight wins) against the highest-rated field ever assembled is likely the greatest tournament performance of all time.]

There are some games that I’m kind of proud of and people might not be able to appreciate them. I’m proud of them because maybe I overcame a certain struggle, it might not be the quality of the game, but because I overcame something in myself and I was able to survive a dead lost position, or I was able to win a game which was almost drawn the entire way, or some which have to do with the tournament situation. There are some games which are just close to my heart because they enabled me to win a tournament. Like my game against [Mickey] Adams in the last London Classic in December, when I won the tournament and had to play six and a half hours to try to create a win from basically nothing. I was pretty proud of that, not because it was a great game, but because I overcame a difficult situation.

Akshat Chandra vs. Fabiano Caruana

With so much preparation done with computer programs that are equally available to all players, how can you find an edge over the competition? What separates the very top players from the rest?

Everyone has access to engines, but there are different ways to use them. You can just follow the computer and trust it completely, but if you know how to guide it in the right direction, you can try to use your human intuition to see where it might not find the best move. Engines are massively powerful, but they’re not infallible. And if you use your intuition and understanding of some positions, you can discover amazing things which might be hidden to others who just see the first recommendation of the computer and don’t try to push it further.

What’s the relationship between you and the other two of the United States’s big three super-Grandmasters, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura?

We’re not very close, but when we play on the same team during the Olympiad I think that we have a pretty decent camaraderie. We won last time, so it shows that there’s some sort of synergy in the team. But outside of the team events, I don’t really work with them or train with them or practice playing with them. I consider both Hikaru and Wesley to be pretty big competitors, they’re both top players, and so I try to win games against them if I can. I wouldn’t say I have a friendly approach to them over the board. [Laughs]

Have you ever gone down to the park to take on some chess hustlers?

I’ve done that in New York. Sometimes I visit New York, I have a lot of friends there, and so sometimes I go to Union Square, Washington Square Park, and sometimes play with the hustlers, but sometimes just watch their games. I went with a few friends to Union Square last time, which is where the most activity is, and I just watched my friend—they were both Grandmasters—play against a guy by the name of Russian Paul, I think, and my other friend started giving, like, a one-hour lesson to another guy who was sitting down at one of the boards, so that was fun.

Is there any cheating at the highest levels of chess?

Nothing that I know of. There have been allegations, but nothing that I’ve seen. I mean, there is definitely cheating in chess, some players have been caught, but usually around the level of IM [International Master], FM [FIDE Master], or lower, not at the top level. I think that in general the top players in chess have integrity, and also it is incredibly risky because generally cheaters get caught, so most likely if there was a case of cheating, then the player would have gotten caught and would have been banned for life and had his or her reputation ruined. So, I hope there’s no cheating at the top level. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t suspect of any.

If you were the almighty ruler of the chess world for a day, what would you change?

I think that chess could be marketed better. It could be presented better to the public. It’s not so easy, it’s not the most attractive game for people to look at, I mean you really have to—for the average person, it’s maybe not so interesting to look at a game, you have to know what’s going on. So to bring it to the outside public I think you need top-class commentary to explain the moves, and also you need to make it exciting, and create a story around tournaments. Usually tournaments are just played, and chess fans look at them, but people from the outside world don’t really pay much attention. So, I think what they’re doing in St. Louis is great, they’re trying to market chess for a broader audience and trying to find new things, different things, which will make it interesting—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It’s a process of trial-and-error, but I still think there’s a long way to go and I hope that someday we’re able to bring chess to the outside world, not just to chess fans, but to everyone.

You’ve popped up a few times online under the username “Evermore.” Where does that name come from?

That was just from the Battle of Evermore.

Led Zeppelin!

Yeah, the Led Zeppelin song, and also Lord of the Rings. I don’t often play online, but I created that. I’ve created so many weird account names. One account name I created recently playing on some website was BombeGranite, which was a plant in a video game I played, Plants v. Zombies. And Evermore, I dunno, the song is great and Led Zeppelin, I’ve always been a big fan of them, and the song is great, too.

Do you ever think ahead to what you might do after chess?

I’ll probably always be in chess in one form or another. I mean, one day I won’t be able to play professionally, I don’t know when that day will be, but I hope I’ll still be involved in the chess world. I think that I won’t have professional interests outside of chess. I mean, I’ll do things for hobbies and hopefully I’ll have made a living or something to sustain myself after I’m done playing professional chess and can pursue things which I enjoy doing. And there are plenty of things, I mean, there are a lot of things which I don’t have time for and I wish I had time to actively pursue, to do something every single day and get really good at it, but chess takes up most of my time for now.

Is there much trash talking on tour?

[Laughs] The thing is, during tournament games we can’t speak to each other, besides to offer a draw. But when you see casual chess games, then, yeah, there’s a lot of trash talking. And players always want to one-up their colleagues, so you’ll see some banter during casual games.

Can you explain why all elite chess players obsessively-compulsively adjust the position of all of their pieces on their squares before the start of each game?

I think that, I mean, it’s just, it’s become sort of like a habit for me. I just adjust my pieces and everyone adjusts their pieces before the game. I’ve never really thought about it… maybe it’s sort of a way that you just want to get your army set up and you want everything to be neat, it’s sort of like your workshop for the day and you want everything to be in place and orderly. And it feels like, I don’t know, if you have messy pieces, not centralized on their squares, then you’ll play a messy game. [Laughs] I think it’s just like, any time someone sits down at their professional workplace they just want to have everything set up nicely.

I like how the top players all have their set tournament clothing. You’ve got the suit jacket with jeans and sneakers. Magnus wears a suit with no tie. Wes rocks the V-neck with a jacket and necklace. Hikaru has the woollen jumper. My boy Wei Yi wears a hoodie like he’s a poker player.

Yeah, I usually like to wear jeans. Sometimes I’ll wear a full suit, but usually I’ll just wear jeans with a shirt and the jacket, and I’ll switch between formal shoes and sneakers. Wei Yi has the hoodie, there are some other players who have the hoodie, like Jeffery Xiong was wearing a hoodie all the time. I follow poker a bit, so I guess that’s like the Phil Laak look. But nobody actually puts the hoodie on during the game.

Or the aviators.

Yeah, or the glasses. But it would be cool to have some players who rock a unique look like Phil Laak will do in poker. But in chess pretty much everyone is dressed up in something pretty normal.

At this stage of their careers, which of these junior players would you bet on to go the farthest: [2017 World Junior Chess Champion] Aryan Tari, [2016 Dutch Chess Champion] Jorden van Foreest, or [12-year old wizard who may soon become the youngest Grandmaster in history] Praggnanandhaa?

They’re all at such different ages. I would probably say Praggnanandhaa, I mean, he’s already so strong at such a young age and he’s obviously massively talented. I don’t know how old Jorden is, I’d say probably 17, 18, around that age, so he’s very strong, normally at this age or very soon he’ll have to break into the elite group, or at least 2700+. But who knows, every player has their own personal progress and trajectory. And Aryan, he’s very good as well, he won the World Junior Championship. Of the three I’d say Praggnanandhaa has the best chance.

It’s been nearly two months now since Google announced that its program AlphaZero had thrashed reigning world computer chess champion Stockfish in a 100-game match. Some in the chess community claimed that it would change the game forever, while others thought that it wouldn’t change things at all. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, what are your thoughts?

I don’t think it’s gonna change much. If they start to look at endgames, that will be the most interesting thing, because they can maybe use their technology to create bigger tablebases. Not six- or seven-piece, but eight-piece, although I assume that we’re still a long, long way away from eight-piece tablebases, the numbers are just so astronomical. In terms of opening theory I don’t think it’ll change much. The thing is, for it to change a lot in terms of how we play openings, we would all have to have both the software and the hardware, a lot of players would have to have access to both AlphaZero and the hardware to run it, and would have to start looking at openings and trying to figure out new stuff. But the people at Google, they’re not really chess players, so I don’t think they’ll make discoveries with this technology.

Do you follow any sports?

Pretty much I follow poker and nothing else. I don’t really follow basketball or football. I like to go watch a game, sometimes if I’m in St. Louis. I’ve gone to baseball games, I’ve gone to hockey games, but I don’t really care about teams, I don’t really care who wins and who loses, so I don’t really follow it too much.

If you could pick five people, dead or alive, to play in a game of chess, who would you choose?

I mean, it would only be interesting to pick chess players. It would be interesting to see some historic figures, if they played chess or if they were good. Like, maybe, I don’t know if Winston Churchill was a player, it would be interesting to see whether he was any good at all. Among chess players I would pick Capablanca, Morphy, Fischer for sure, and I’d probably pick Alekhine and Botvinnik as well. I had the privilege of playing some players, like Garry Kasparov—still a great player, but hasn’t played chess for a long time. I had the pleasure of playing him in some blitz and rapid games. And also [Viktor] Korchnoi, who has passed away. He was already not nearly at full strength, but even at the age of 75 he was still a very formidable player. Of players who I didn’t have a chance to play against, those are the five.

What did you think of the new world championship logo?

[Laughs] When I saw it I thought it was a joke, it’s just so ridiculous. I don’t even know what they were going for. It almost feels like someone was just having a laugh by designing that. I mean, I don’t mind, I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just strange. It’s sort of a story, but maybe not the best story for chess.

Let’s say you win the Candidates Tournament and face Magnus for the World Championship this November. It’s all tied after the regulation 12 classical games and the 10 tiebreak games. It comes down to a one-off Armageddon game where white gets 5 minutes, black gets 4 minutes, and black is the victor if the game ends in a draw. You versus Magnus for the world championship—do you want white or black?

I think I’ll take white. I mean, it’s very difficult to play against Magnus in blitz. He’s already very fast, so with a one-minute deficit I probably wouldn’t have very good chances of holding on, and I think that statistically white scores better in these situations. I’ve beaten Magnus a lot in blitz, so I would try to put pressure on him with white, play quickly, and hopefully I would win. Either way, it would be crazy, it would be completely out of either of our control, but maybe white has a better chance.

A few rapid fire questions to finish up. If you were to check into a hotel under a fake name, what name would you use?

[Thinks] Umm… Dirk Diggler.

What is your favourite Rolling Stones song?

Probably “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Pick one country from each continent that you would most like to travel to.

I definitely want to visit Australia, I’ve wanted to go there for a long time. In Asia I would say Singapore, I’ve heard that it’s beautiful and has amazing weather. In Africa, South Africa or Egypt. I’ve pretty much been everywhere in Europe, so I’ll have to pick a place I haven’t been, so I’ll say Finland. I’ve been everywhere in North America. In South America, maybe Peru.

What’s your favourite Disney movie?

Either Finding Nemo or Finding Dory.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been trying to do a book a month, and in the past month I haven’t read anything. The last book I read was Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book on poker. My favourite book of the past year was The Three-Body Problem [by Liu Cixin]. I only read the first part, but I thought it was really interesting.

Cats or dogs?

Cats.

Excluding the family members, who is your favourite Simpsons character?

I don’t really know The Simpsons too well. Mr. Burns?

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

No.

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