- He needed a break after his tiebreaker loss in the 2018 World Championships, but Fabiano Caruana is back in action as the American chess resurgence continues.
After losing at the World Championships to Magnus Carlsen, American chess star Fabiano Caruana had no desire to play the sport to which he has devoted his life. Sure, immediately after the tiebreaking finish in November, Caruana had to fly back to the U.S. for a welcome home gala at Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis, complete with exhibition games, then back to London almost as quickly for the Grand Chess Tour (he came in third). Then, and only then, could he put chess away.
"Sometimes, after a match, you want to break," Caruana said from St. Louis, before embarking on the U.S. Chess Championship—his first major tournament since the worlds—which begins Wednesday. "But this was the longest I felt like taking a break."
It has been a whirlwind year for the 26-year-old Caruana. It started with winning the Candidates Tournament last March in Berlin, which granted him the opportunity to take on Magnus Carlsen, the brash Norwegian and three-time time defending world champ. It was the first time since Bobby Fischer in 1972 that an American had an opportunity to compete for the world title. It also marked the culmination of an American chess resurgence, with three Americans ranked in the top 15 globally and a plethora of young prospects on the way.
Carlsen and Caruana were the two top players in the world, and their 12-match competition in London played out that way. The first 12 games all ended in a draw, the first time in the championship’s history that happened. A tiebreaker format went to Carlsen.
"I had the feeling that he felt comfortable going into a rapid tiebreaker," Caruana said. "I also thought I had a decent chance. But I wasn't playing anywhere near my best."
For Caruana, the entire experience was unlike anything he's faced. Though he and Carlsen are frequent sparring partners, the fishbowl environment at the College in Holborn was unique. "It took a while to get used to all the attention and being in this glass box," Caruana said. (The two were literally in a soundproof glass box.) "I was feeling the pressure. It brought out many flaws, which I noticed. I think that's what happens with any big event."
Before the 2018 World Championships, SI TV released a feature on Caruana and his preparation for the match against Carlsen. Subscribe or begin a free seven-day trial to watch “Your Move” on SI TV.
There were hopes that a Caruana victory could catapult chess back into the mainstream, a sort of Fischer-esque multiplier effect. Many hoped that Caruana would find himself on the Tonight Show, on the front page of The New York Times or on the cover of SI, like Fischer did in his prime. That did not happen. (It is worth noting that the match received coverage from every major outlet, including SI, but front-page news it was not.) And though Caruana admits that popularizing chess in America would have been "easier" had he won, it's not like his loss did anything to set it back. (Indeed, there was no live blog of Carlsen's first winning match in 2013 like there was of the 2019 tiebreaker on SI.com.)
Caruana will be the favorite at the U.S. Championship. He remains the second-ranked player in the world, slightly behind Carlsen. But, like last year, U.S. chess remains on the rise. Wesley So, a 25-year-old originally from the Philippines who now resides in Minnesota, is ranked ninth. Hikaru Nakamura, billed by SI as the next Bobby Fischer back in 2001, is ranked 16th. Samuel Shankland, ranked 25th, is the defending champ. There are five junior players ranked in the top 35 best young players.
All that has Caruana hopeful about the future of chess in America. His next chance at taking Carlsen's crown will be in 2020. "I intend to get there," he said. "But if I don't, I'm sure there's another American player."
That Caruana could express such confidence in the chances of an American chess player—whether it's him or someone else—might be his biggest victory of all.