Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin are engaged in fierce rivalry in a contest that remembers classic tournaments down the years

Chess has dropped almost completely from the public eye in the four decades since Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky waged their Cold War proxy battle in Reykjavik. This months world chess championship match in New York City will do little to reverse that course despite the organisers best intents, but early returns suggest the taut showdown between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Sergey Karjakin may not be as straightforward as initially suspected.

It marks the first time New York has played host to a world title match since 1995, when Garry Kasparov retained his title against Viswanathan Anand on the 107 th-floor observatory deck in the south tower of the World Trade Center. For the past week Carlsen and Karjakin have faced off in a sound-proof studio within a sleek purpose-built arena on the third floor of the Fulton Market Building, only four blocks east from where the towers once stood. A one-way mirror lets spectators to watch the players in action, by themselves save for two silent arbitrators, lending a terrarium-like feel to the spectacle. Costs range from $75 for general admission to $1,200 for VIP lounge access, where ticket-holders can suck down vodka cocktails and rub elbows with grandmasters, financiers and the odd celebrity. Woody Harrelson, an avid player himself, spent most of the first two days taking challenges from passers-by on the outdoor balcony overlooking the East River while Carlsen and Karjakin faced off inside.

The best-of-1 2-games match began on Friday, with each contestant awarded one point for a win and a half-point for a draw. So far Carlsen and Karjakin have drawn all four games theyve played and enter Thursdays fifth meeting deadlocked at 2-all. Whoever reaches six and a half points first is likely to be declared the champion, earning the wins share of a approximately $1.1 m prize fund.

Carlsen, who is 25, was already regarded as the worlds best player even before he saw off Anand for the championship in Chennai three years ago and is the closest thing to a starring in the athletic today. Hes done ads for Porsche, modeled for G-Star Raw alongside Liv Tyler and Lily Cole and enjoys a massive presence in his native Norway, where NRK is broadcasting video games in prime time. He is handsome and media developed, perhaps too so, dedicating off the air of an unthreatening playboy. His peak rating of 2882 is the highest in history, a phase frequently cited by those who have called him the greatest player ever.

Karjakin, 26, earned the right to challenge for the title in March by making it through the Candidates Tournament in Moscow, where he defeated a series of higher-ranked adversaries, among them Brooklyns Fabiano Caruana. He was born in Ukraine, where he became an international grandmaster at 12 years old( a record that still stands ), but adopted Russian citizenship in 2009. He is wedded with a son, an avowed supporter of Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Crimea, and speaks with a stutter that surfaces more in English than his native tongue. He is ranked ninth in the world.

Karjakin is a player in the classical mold known for his resilience. Carlsen is known for his adaptability, which enables a panache for the unpredictable not commonly seen among top players.[ Carlsen] has practically no flaws, the Russian said at last weeks pre-match press conference before more than one hundred credentialed media.

Any expectations of the political intrigue and paranoia associated with the sports golden age were not disillusioned. Israel Gelfer, the vice president of the world chess federation, spoke on behalf of the governing body merely because Fide president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was barred from entering the country due to his ties to the Syrian government and the Central bank of Syria. At one point Carlsen fielded a question over the rumors that hed enlisted Microsoft for cybersecurity consultation over fears Karjakins team were trying to hack his preparations. No fewer than two questions were posed about Fischer-Spassky, never mind that Carlsen and Karjakin were years away from being born when the Match of the Century took place.

This time around in New York, the chess eventually went off , no doubt to the organizers relief, and it didnt take long for the first astound. Carlsen, handling the white pieces, played the seldom-used Trompowsky Attack in Fridays first game, a seldom-used opening hed afterward confess was at least partly inspired by the name of Americas freshly minted president-elect. The Norwegian played fast and it seemed like hed outprepared his competitor, but Karjakin managed to scratch back to force a largely forgettable draw after 42 moves. Karjakin played the far more familiar Ruy Lopez in Saturdays second game, inspiring a Morphy Defense from Carlsen. That also ended in a draw, this time on the 33 rd move.

After Sundays rest day the players reconvened for Game 3, a white-knuckler of a competition that watched Karjakin recover from a misstep on his 30 th move before defending brilliantly as Carlsen tried to press his advantage and depict first blood. But after seven tense, excruciating hours, Karjakin managed to salvage a draw when the champion missed a move in the endgame that would have assured checkmate.

Moments afterward, they agreed to a depict after 78 moves. That left a short turnaround for the following days game, where Karjakin recovered yet again to force a 94 -move marathon that ended in another depict and kept the match level.

The resilience that Carlsen had praised on the eve of the match has proven the critical talking point as the match enters the middle act: Sergey has studied the game very well, is very knowledgeable and, most of all, hes extremely resilient in defense. Hes very, very good in find resources even in difficult positions, receiving stances he can defend.

For me, its a matter of when I get the chance, Ill try to punch him until he ultimately knocks over.

It seems inevitable that Carlsens blows will find their target, but for now the Russian underdog is very much in the fight.

Read more: