Magnus Carlsen has everything you might expect of a superstar athlete: a modeling contract, endorsement deals, a dedicated female fan club, a growing bank balance and millions of fans watching his every move.
But Carlsen is a different kind of sporting celebrity. The 22-year-old from Norway is building his fame and popularity entirely on the brilliance of his own mind rather than physical brawn or dexterity.
Carlsen is a chess player, but he is not just any chess player. He is, according to statistical computations that determine such things, the best player in the history of the game and will be officially crowned world champion if he continues to dominate the reigning king, India's Viswanathan Anand, over the remainder of their ongoing match in Chennai, India.
Carlsen leads 4.5 to 2.5 after the seventh of 12 scheduled games ended in a draw on Monday, leaving Anand to stage a comeback of epic proportions to get back into contention. With the extraordinarily high standards involved at chess' elite level in which ties are very common, a two-point margin at this stage is the equivalent of a four-touchdown lead in the third quarter.
As the Scandinavian edges nearer to a world title, chess aficionados and the game's hierarchy can barely conceal their excitement. For decades, Russian players have dominated world-class chess and the game had long been mired in a dour and uber-intellectual image. Now there is a growing feeling that, with the right social forces and a charismatic champion potentially working in its favor, this could be chess' time to shine.
Save for a surge in popularity after Bobby Fischer's triumph over Boris Spassky in 1972, chess has stayed off the mainstream radar. But the world is a different place now and the technological revolution has allowed for a new kind of cool. Geek chic might be the most powerful phenomenon in modern marketing; heck, even LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kanye West have rocked the "nerd" look that was previously reserved for Steve Urkel.
But in 2013 it is not only OK to be smart, but "nerding out" – becoming heavily invested in cerebral hobbies or pastimes – is also no longer social suicide.
"We have found that the reputation of chess has changed a lot," said Jennifer Shahade, two-time U.S. women's champion and editor of the U.S. Chess Federation's website. "Geek chic has been a big thing, nerdy has become cool in its own way and that has resulted in chess being seen in a more positive light."
Carlsen might just be the poster boy for the revolution.
Chess officials have made some concessions to enhance the appeal of the game, too. The 12-game format of the current championship is brief enough to be manageable and a shortened tiebreaker format involving rapid-fire action of speed games was introduced in case matches remained deadlocked at the end. Given the way Carlsen has asserted his authority against Anand, it is unlikely that will be needed.
So is chess really a sport? It doesn't really matter, but the championship has certainly marketed itself like one.
Carlsen and Anand enter the arena in a gladiatorial fashion and compete by sitting in a glass cage. In the months leading up to the matchup, each conducted a rigorous regime of physical workouts, Carlsen embarking on a punishing cross-training schedule and Anand swimming up to a mile per day. And, believe it or not, live television broadcasts in India examine every move, although the announcers earn their money with each player allowed two hours for his first 40 moves.
Thankfully, there has been plenty of action. When Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov squared off for the title in 1985, there was an unbroken string of 17 games that were all drawn. Following four draws to begin this match, Carlsen's back-to-back wins in the fifth and sixth games set the tone for his likely victory and staved off the public relations nightmare of an unbroken run of stalemates.
Kasparov, one of the all-time greats, has launched a bid to become president of FIDE, chess' world governing body, and has promised a sweeping array of positive changes to modernize the game. He has made no secret of the fact he believes a Carlsen victory would be the best possible outcome.
Chess officials seem to agree.
"The world championship has been very exciting for us," said Jean Hoffman, executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation. "Both players are very popular, but with Magnus you see a new kind of player who transcends chess. He is attractive, he does modeling – having someone like that playing at such an incredibly high level can only help build the game."