Fabiano Caruana: hip hop chess

At the press conference that served as the opening ceremony for the World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, being held in London at the time of writing, the American challenger was reminded by a chess journalist that Carlsen had been described as “the Mozart of chess”. He was asked what similar comparison he would make of himself. His reply was:

My musical tastes lie more outside classical music, so I would probably pick someone either in the hip hop or the rock genre. This comparison to Magnus was made a long time ago, when he was a very talented up-and-coming player, and I think it was very fitting because of his great talent in chess.

(Fabiano Caruana, 8 November 2018)

The second part of Caruana’s answer shows that he may not fully appreciate the reasons for comparing Carlsen with Mozart, which have as much to do with the elegance and apparent simplicity of his play as with the fact that he was a child prodigy. Carlsen as a player reminds many of his great predecessor as World Champion, José Raul Capablanca, whom I compared to Mozart in my post Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur.

It is true that Caruana was less of a child prodigy than Carlsen: in his first chess tournament, he lost every game. On the other hand, he developed fast, earning the grandmaster title a few days before his fifteenth birthday (Carlsen became a grandmaster aged thirteen). But his suggestion that his play might be better compared to hip hop or rock is suggestive. For a start, it recalls the player he is most regularly compared with, the only American chess World Champion, Bobby Fischer.  Fischer, an unpredictable genius over the board, considered himself a great rock singer, as I pointed out in Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?.

In part, Caruana’s answer simply refers to his musical tastes, which he also described in a pre-match interview for The Guardian:

He [Caruana] grew up on classic rock and spent many tournaments listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin during his downtime, but has taken a shine to hip-hop in the last few years. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he says. “But it changes all the time. When I’m bored and I have nothing to do, I’ll just listen to random pop music.”

(Interview with Bryan Armen Graham, The Guardian, 7 November 2018)

Nevertheless, I see no reason not to ask: what would “hip hop” chess look like?

Hip hop chess

HHCF logoBefore going further, I must point out that there indeed exists a Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF). It is a California-based charity which uses chess and other disciplines to help children’s academic and social development in some of the most deprived urban areas of America and elsewhere. Its work is clearly brilliant, and I urge you to read about HHCF here.

However, to stay with hip hop as a music genre and the playing style of Caruana: in hip hop, an essential effect of the music is its non-stop urgency: a rapper has to obey the rules of rhyme and metre, impress the audience with verbal dexterity, and create the impression of unstoppable force, often with a shocking or sudden punchline as the end-point. Here’s an example from Kendrick Lamar, the artsit mentioned by Caruana above. It’s the end of “King’s Dead” (an appropriate title for a chess rap), from the soundtrack to the 2018 film Black Panther:

Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven and not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under
All hail King Killmonger
Red light, green light, red light, green light
Red light, green light, they like, we like
Fast cars

Now here is one of Caruana’s great wins. It was played in Dortmund in 2014, against the Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Ponomariov. The devotee of hip hop in this game cultivates on the chessboard a “rapping”, non-stop urgency in his play, with threats maintained on both sides of the board simultaneously. Ponomariov, having to rush his defensive pieces from one side to the other, ended up with the following position:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39.
Caruana vs Ponomariov, 2014, move 39. White to move.

Black’s bishop and rook have been decoyed to the far side of the board from the black king. But Caruana’s next move, which of course he had foreseen several moves in advance, comes like a Led Zeppelin power chord:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39...
Caruana plays 39.Re7!! [R-K7!!]
To Ponomariov’s credit, he did not resign immediately, but allowed the combination to unfold on the chess board (Fischer once described his opponent’s resignation in similar circumstances as “a bitter disappointment”). Like a non-stop rap, Caruana has given up his rook only to have the chance to give up his bishop:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 40b
After the black queen takes the rook, Caruana plays 40.Ba6!! [B-QR6!!]
The ending is a wonderful checkmate:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 41
After the black king takes the bishop, Caruana plays 41.Qa8# [Q-QR8 checkmate]
“King Killmonger”, indeed!

So, who will win? Mozart or hip hop?

Carlsen-Caruana World Championship 21 November 2018
Caruana and Carlsen commence battle in the 2018 World Championship

Of course, I cannot predict the outcome of the current title match: World Championship matches can take surprising turns; I covered one of the most surprising of all time in my post Music in Glavinic’s chess novel. As I write, the first four games have all been drawn, although in my judgment the World Champion has had the edge whenever there has been an edge to have. All of us who follow the game hope to see a genuine clash of styles: the classical, cool calm of Carlsen (who has already tested Caruana through an endgame that lengthened the first game to 115 moves played over seven uninterrupted hours) against the unpredictable “hip hop” of Caruana. The match is not unlike the 1927 World Title match when the Mercurial Alexander Alekhine defeated the first “Mozart of chess”, Capablanca, to the astonishment of most onlookers. Notoriously, Alekhine avoided ever giving Capablanca a rematch.

Perhaps Caruana should remember, though, that the title that denotes a rapper of distinction – the one at the top of the game – is made up of a significant two-letter acronym: MC.

Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

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