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On Chess: In world championship chess, winning comes down to the smartest guy

Fabiano Caruana
St. Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana of St. Louis is playing in the 2018 World Chess Championship.

What does smart look like? The World Chess Championship has always been about who is the smartest. And if you look back on our champions, there's a history of what smart has looked like.

In the 1700s, the aristocrats were considered the smartest, the power of their fathers flowed from their soft hands into the pieces. And the low-born simply could not resist the patriarchal wisdom with which the well-dressed were endowed. Until the guillotine was invented.

Then the proles started crushing it. They often looked like ragamuffins, unkempt and literally bent out of shape. And they were poor. We called them savants and geniuses and we imagined that they had a romantic connection to the sublime. Like priests, they offered us a way of thinking about knowledge and its acquisition as a spiritual pursuit.

Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana (left) poses near the site of the first World Chess Championship, held in St. Louis in 1886.
Credit Austin Fuller | Saint Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana (left) poses near the site of the first World Chess Championship, held in St. Louis in 1886.

The warriors

If you've driven past the commemorative banner at 18th and Olive streets, you'll know that the first official World Chess Championship was in St. Louis in 1886. The smartest guy in that bout ended up being Wilhelm Steinitz, whose father was a tailor and who started to play chess at age 12.

Then the warriors came: the Soviets and Bobby Fischer. These men were about pain; both the taking and giving of it. Chess started looking like a sport. It started looking professional. But still, these guys had an aura about them of something deeper, as if they were in touch with truth and beauty.

Players who remember that time - and I am one of them - wax heavy about the hierarchy of the game. You had to give players above you respect. After all, they were stretching themselves up into rarified air, a place where they became clean. Studying chess was a way to commune with them, a ladder to get closer. Like a theocracy, like Hogwarts, your ranking indicated how close you were to that higher something.

Still a guy

The computer crushed all those delusions. The zeros and ones showed not only that we didn't know the truth, but also that the computer didn't either (not yet anyway).

What does the smartest human look like today? He's still a guy, even if we can see a woman taking the crown in the foreseeable future. He's incredibly fit. If he can't run at least a six-minute mile, he isn't going to be able to focus for five hours. His head coach is the computer. He's been playing since he was about 5. He never went to a "normal" school. He's on the extreme end of the IQ bell curve.

The further we push our intelligence, the more it starts looking like an athletic event. But still, the champion will not only have to show precision, a memory of tens of thousands of games, and an incredible calmness under fire, the champ will also have to play moves of such sublime beauty and intuition that we will have to bow down to him. Those moves will give us solace and a perspective into what the human mind can be.

To watch two very smart dudes play in the World Chess Championship happening now, visit uschesschamps.com.

Born in the Chess Desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Jesse Kraai taught himself the game with the help of books, an antiquated information system. He also has a Ph.D in philosophy and is the author of Lisa, a chess novel.