When Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen lean over the chessboard at Chennai’s Hyatt Regency on Nov. 9 for Game 1 of the World Chess Championship, it will mark the coming together of the sport’s first superstar with its first sex symbol. It will be arguably the most closely watched contest since the 1972 Cold War confrontation in Reykjavík, Iceland, between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky.
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Anand, 43, the reigning champ, may be the only chess player in the world who risks being mobbed in the street, at least in his native India. Millions of his countrymen watched on live TV — yes, live TV! — when he first won the title in 2000. That’s still the highest sporting achievement by an Indian, and it led to a huge revival of chess in a country that claims to have invented the sport. Millions of Indian kids now forced by their parents to take chess lessons have Anand to blame.
If Anand has the greater fan following of the two, Carlsen, 22, has more groupies. The Norwegian with the smoldering good looks and six-pack abs has been featured in advertising campaigns as a clotheshorse alongside the likes of Liv Tyler, and turned down a small role in the most recent Star Trek movie.
As they prepared for the championship, the two grand masters granted highly unusual access to photographer Misha Friedman, himself a former competitive player at schoolboy level in the USSR in the 1980s and in the U.S. in the 1990s. Friedman recalls reading about the great duels between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, and being fascinated by the idea of chess champions preparing for a battle of wits. The images he captured of Anand and Carlsen reveal that it’s as much physical as psychological. Anand pumps weights, Carlsen plays volleyball: even in this brainiest of contests, brawn matters.
Carlsen is the hot favorite: he’s ranked No. 1 in the world by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, and may be the best player in the history of the sport. Chess skills are measured by a complex formula known as the Elo rating system, and Carlsen’s rating of 2872 last February was the highest ever recorded. Only six players have topped 2800, and Anand’s best is 2817. (Fischer’s was 2785.)
But the world championship is as much about temperament and tenacity as about technical skill, and it would be foolish to rule out Anand, a five-time winner of the competition, now with home-turf advantage. If he wins, he may never be able to walk in the streets again.
Misha Friedman is a photographer based in New York. LightBox previously featured his work on Tuberculosis in Ukraine.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor of TIME International. Follow him on Twitter @ghoshworld.