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Champion called the 'Mozart of chess'
02:33 - Source: CNN

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Carlsen retains world title on birthday

Beats Russian challenger Karjakin

CNN  — 

As birthdays go, Magnus Carlsen’s 26th will take some beating.

The Norwegian’s Wednesday afternoon was spent in New York, taking on challenger Sergey Karjakin in a series of tiebreakers at the finale of the World Chess Championship.

Twelve matches, over a period of three weeks, couldn’t separate reigning champion Carlsen from the Russian.

Carlsen’s penchant for attacking play had been snuffed out by this rival’s reliance on sturdy defense, as the pair could only muster one win apiece.

And so a dramatic winner-takes-all sequence of fast and frenetic games was required to separate these gladiators of the sport. Carlsen – ranked the best player in the world – dominated the tiebreakers and, by winning the third, sealed his third consecutive title.

His day was capped off by the crowd serenading him with a lusty rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The grandmaster took home 60% of a prize purse of $1.1 million.

Talk about many happy returns.

“I was a bit tired but I had a bit of birthday cake,” Carlsen tells CNN, in response to how he celebrated. “It’s said in chess that you should not play on your birthday, as it’s bad luck, but so far I’ve yet to experience that.”

Organizers said a global audience of 10 million people experienced the match online. Many paid for the privilege of live-streamed video, though the majority followed for free by watching computer renderings of the board.

Those witnessing the first world championship match in New York since 1995 in person had the option of splurging on luxury boxes typically found at North American sports, where tickets for the VIP lounge cost up to $1,200 (a regular day pass cost a more modest $75).

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A new era

Chess hasn’t truly been in the spotlight since the 1970s and ’80s.

The epic Cold War match in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky in Iceland was dubbed the “match of the century.”

Then followed the 1984 clash between Anatoly Karpov and his bitter rival, fellow Russian Garry Kasparov.

Echoing that era, it wasn’t lost on many in the chess world that Carlsen’s opponent happened to be a Kremlin-backed Russian grandmaster, who is a supporter of president Vladimir Putin.

And while it might be a stretch to invoke comparisons to Fischer defeating Spassky, which arguably damaged the Kremlin’s use of chess as an ideological weapon – to say nothing of the theory of communist superiority winning out over capitalism – could Carlsen’s victory be seen as a wider triumph for the West?

The player himself doesn’t discuss such notions but is willing to talk – to an extent – about the suggestion that Microsoft was hired to protect Carlsen’s communications, because of worries that Russian hackers would infiltrate his practice sessions and tip off his opponent.

“I think it would be a bit much to say that we were concerned about hackers,” Carlsen clarifies. “We just wanted to have a secure system to use to communicate within our team, and I think taking some precautions doesn’t hurt.”

Big relief for ‘Mozart’

What doesn’t seem in question is that, in Carlsen, chess has a potential savior in this internet age where computers have often beaten human players – though he doesn’t play against them.

The game continues to thrive thanks to the moves being played out in real time, which gives a real sense of urgency to the coverage.

Carlsen became a grandmaster at 13 – half his lifetime ago – and his peak chess rating of 2,882 is the highest of all time.

Back home in Norway, his games are shown live and his success has even led to endorsement deals with a fashion house (his youthful good looks haven’t hurt on that front, either).

Carlsen hasn’t been called “the Mozart of chess” for nothing, but he admits he was happy just to get through the championship battle.

“At some points during this match, it was a struggle,” he says. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun. And it was just such a relief on the last day that I wasn’t thinking about the result.

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“I wasn’t thinking of anything else than the game and enjoying it. I think for now I’m safe. I’ll enjoy the game for the foreseeable future.”

The chess world surely shares his relief.