The opening game of a world chess championship is often tense and overly tepid. But there was fire on the board in London as the Norwegian champion Magnus Carlsen sacrificed a pawn for a venomous attack against his challenger Fabiano Caruana, only to throw away victory in a dramatic time scramble.
Eventually Caruana – who is bidding to become the first American since Bobby Fischer in 1972 to win the world title – was able to claim a draw. But he had to endure 115 moves and seven hours of slow torture before the players called it a night.
The day started with the Hollywood star Woody Harrelson, who was chosen to make the ceremonial first move on behalf of Caruana, knocking over the white king – much to the amusement of Carlsen. It initially appeared to be the first blunder of the championships, but the actor later insisted it had been a “joke”.
However, the Norwegian was not smiling at the finale. For after playing a near-perfect game as black for the first 34 moves in a sharp and unusual Sicilian, he failed to spot several knockout blows as his clock ticked down to the 40-move time control, including the fact that he could give up his rook for bishop for a winning advantage.
As he began to realise that victory had slipped away, Carlsen grimaced several times, although he kept trying for several more hours to conjure something out of nothing. He is the highest ranked player in history. But even the greats make mistakes.
Another 11 games will be played over the next two-and-a-half weeks and such is Carlsen’s popularity that 15 Norwegian journalists are in London to cover the event. Every move of this 12-game match will be shown live on NRK, Norway’s equivalent of BBC One, and 25% of the population is expected to watch at least one game.