Mikhail Botvinnik was the face of chess in the late 1940s through the early 60s. The Russian was World Chess Champion for most of the time between 1948-63.
He was 50 years old when he was defeated by 23-year-old Mikhail Tal in Moscow in 1960.
Today, chess favors the young. Case in point — the 2016 World Chess Championship between reigning champion Magnus Carlsen, 25, and challenger Sergey Karjakin, 26. It is the youngest championship in history.
“Mikhail Botvinnik was 50 when he played Tal,” World Chess Federation (FIDE) vice president Israel Gelfer said Thursday at the World Chess Championship press conference. “These players (Carlsen and Karjakin) are 52 combined.”
Carlsen was quick to point out a discrepancy.
“Everyone is calling me 26, but I’ll be turning 26 in three weeks,” the Norwegian said with a rye smile.
Carlsen hopes to be celebrating more than his birthday come Nov. 30 as his title defense begins Nov. 11 at the Fulton Market Building in the Seaport District of New York City. The winner of the 12-round series is the first player to reach 6.5 points. Game 12 is Nov. 28 with tie breaks (if necessary) on the champion’s birthday.
“At the moment he’s world champion,” Karjakin said. “In a few weeks we will know who is the best and will answer the question (of who’s best).”
Carlsen became chess grandmaster when he was 13 years, 148 days, making him the third-youngest grandmaster in history. Karjakin, of Russia, though, is the youngest grandmaster at 12 years, 7 months.
Gelfer and FIDE hope the success of these two prodigies gets more young players involved in chess. Some 600 million people worldwide play chess and FIDE’s goal is to have the sport grow to 1 billion.
“We all hope more young people, more young chess players will watch this match, will follow the match and we will have a new generation of players,” Gelfer said. “Hopefully, one of them will become a future world champion.”
The matchup itself isn’t the only selling point for the game of chess. There is a reason the World Chess Championship is back in New York City for the first time since 1995 when the legendary Garry Kasparov defeated Viswanathan Anand: star power.
There was a black and white gala event at the Plaza Hotel on Thursday evening to kick off the three-week tournament. The guest list included those from the world of TV and film in Adrian Grenier, Sienna Miller and Woody Harrelson, and music in the shape of violinist Isa Caroline Holmesland and composer Nikola Melnikov, as well as Carlsen and Karjakin themselves.
“I feel it’s our job to roll chess over to pop culture,” World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon said. “We have amazing people to make the (ceremonial) first move each game. You will see the first move done by somebody who represents something important, whether it’s a celebrity or a non-profit organization we think is important.”