Two years later
THE NEXT WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP
AND THE FACT THAT EVERYONE
IS TALKING ABOUT IT— EXPLAINED
By Eleni Gataki, Senior Chess Correspondent, BBC
The upcoming World Chess Championship, which will start on March 15, is going to be the most viewed in history. By a lot. This is a biannual event that, in evolving formats, has been occurring since before any of us has been alive (the first championship took place in New York City in 1886). And yet, it is safe to bet that most people haven’t heard about the World Chess Championship until this year. So, what changed, and what are the five factors suddenly making a chess match discussed almost as much as the Super Bowl? Well, let’s start from the obvious:
NOLAN SAWYER, THE CURRENT NO. 1 CHESS PLAYER IN THE WORLD
Chances are, if you’ve heard of only one chess player in your life, it’s Fischer, Kasparov, or Sawyer. The grandson of former world champion Marcus Sawyer, Nolan Sawyer (22) has been a phenomenon since his childhood. You’ve probably seen pictures of him looking adorable and vanquishing opponents four times his age at 8 years old, or you might have heard of his terrible temper and that story about him beating (not only at chess) disgraced player Malte Koch (although this is just an unsubstantiated rumor), or you might be familiar with him from the year he made Time’s 100 Most Influential People list at the age of 15. The fact remains, you’re likely to have heard of him. And his notoriety has only been increased by . . .
MALLORY GREENLEAF, WHO . . . EXISTS.
Soon to turn 21, Mallory Greenleaf is currently ranked No. 5 in the world . . . and yet she is the world champion. It might seem counterintuitive, but whereas the world champion is determined by a specific tournament, the ranking is a combination of all the games a player undertakes.
But don’t let Greenleaf’s “lowly” No. 5 fool you: the only reason she’s not ranked higher is that her path to chess was very unusual. A high school graduate from New Jersey with a GM father, Greenleaf played in unrated tournaments from ages 5 to 14, then returned to chess at 18, just in time to triumph in the last World Chess Championship, which took place two years ago in Venice, Italy. Greenleaf defeated Sawyer on the twelfth match, after eleven draws. As the first woman to not only qualify for but also win a chess championship, she made headlines. For her chess abilities, sure, but also because . . .
NOLAN SAWYER AND MALLORY GREENLEAF . . . WELL. IT’S UNCLEAR.
Rumors regarding a possible relationship between the two players abound, but they have not been confirmed, as both Sawyer and Greenleaf have refused to answer questions about their private lives. That said, they are regularly photographed together holding hands. According to her Instagram post, when Greenleaf dropped off her sister at Brown University last fall, Sawyer was present. Sources close to the two have revealed that they live together in the same Tribeca apartment that was once Marcus Sawyer’s. And then, of course, there was the long hug between them that happened in front of the cameras after Greenleaf defeated Sawyer in the World Championship (noteworthy, in a sport whose players usually limit themselves to a handshake). There is also the fact that three months ago Sawyer appeared to lean in and playfully bite Greenleaf’s ear while walking away from the final game at the Linares International Chess Tournament, in which he defeated her. Plenty of clues have given rise to speculations, but whether Sawyer and Greenleaf are soon to be the first family of chess, or are just good friends, is still unknown. And yet . . .
NOLAN SAWYER AND MALLORY GREENLEAF WILL BE PLAYING AGAINST EACH OTHER.
When Nolan Sawyer dominated this year’s Challengers tournament, therefore adjudicating a spot as Greenleaf’s opponent in Montreal, the possibility that the next World Championship might be a romantic affair became titillating. Could the two be just good friends? Yes, undoubtedly. But what if they aren’t? What if in addition to being adversaries, they also brush teeth side by side in the morning and know the other’s go-to take-out orders? What if they can read each other’s minds over the chessboard, or they have inside jokes about the other’s weaknesses?
The idea is simply fascinating. And it’s probably the reason so many people have shown interest in chess in the last two years: first they were drawn by the brilliance of these two talented players, then they decided to learn to play chess themselves, and then they realized that . . .
CHESS IS COOL, ACTUALLY.
The sale of anything chess related— sets, timers, accessories, tutorials, online classes, apps— has soared following the most recent World Championship, and the wave is here to stay. What’s most notable is that interest in chess is, for the first time in decades, higher among women than men. Furthermore, there are currently more women and nonbinary people in the FIDE Top 500 than ever before. “It’s because we feel that the environment is less and less hostile to us,” GM Defne Bubikoğlu, Greenleaf’s main trainer and owner of chess club Zugzwang, told us. Her club has been thriving, officially surpassing Marshall, New York City’s historic chess club, in membership.
IN CONCLUSION . . .
We don’t know how the World Championship will play out. But we do know that because of the circumstances surrounding it, more people will be tuning in than ever before, and for the first time in decades, chess players are becoming household names. And whether the more juicy, romantic aspects of this championship are true or simply rumors, the fact remains that they make for compelling narratives.
And if you “ship them hard” and “want to believe,” you might enjoy this little clue: three weeks ago, at a charity event, Nolan Sawyer— who is a notoriously bad loser— did not stop to take questions from journalists. But eyewitnesses reported that when asked how he felt about the possibility of Mallory Greenleaf accruing enough points to take the No. 1 spot from him, he simply smiled before walking away.