Fabiano Caruana did not start playing chess in Brooklyn, New York when he was five years old because his mom thought he’d be a future grandmaster, or that he’d one day play for the World Chess Championship, just like fellow Brooklynite Bobby Fischer did back in the early 1970s. No, Caruana’s mom thought chess would calm him down and keep him focused in school.
“I was having trouble with concentration,” Caruana, 26, tells TIME, “and the idea was that maybe chess would help with that. It was more of a remedy.” Before long, this cure for little-kid hyperactivity took Caruana much further than his Lego buildings and origamis ever could. Within a year, he was winning tournament games against kids who were in junior high school and older. “His first instructor told us he was trying to teach her chess concepts,” says Caruana’s father, Lou. “We knew he was special.”
Starting on Friday in London, Caruana will become the first American since Fischer, who won the world chess title in 1972 and held it until 1975, to challenge for the World Chess Championship. Caruana faces Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champ since 2013, in the 12-game match that will be played over three weeks at The College, a 10,000-square-foot venue in the city. Chess rarely attracts much mainstream attention in the United States. But chess pundits expect that a Caruana victory could spark an explosion in chess interest America hasn’t seen since Fischer’s heyday. “You do like your winners, don’t you?” says Mark Crowther, the U.K.-based founder and editor of The Week In Chess.
In March, Caruana earned the right to face Carlsen by beating out seven other top players to win the Candidates Tournament in Berlin. “Fabiano has the power to be better than Carlsen,” says Crowther. “There have been very, very few players you can say that about. I honestly don’t know who’s going to win this match. It’s a total toss-up.”
Caruana forged a circuitous path to representing the U.S. on chess’ grandest stage. His family decided to take Fabiano out of school and move to Spain when he was 12 in order to compete in more high-level tournaments and train with top instructors. Since his mother is Italian, he could compete for Italy’s chess federation. “It was not an easy decision,” says Caruana’s father Lou of taking his son out of school. “The plan was always to do it for a year or two and see how it works out. Is he loses a year of school, so what? He’s smart and can catch up. We could always correct things if it wasn’t going in the right direction.”
Initially, Caruana didn’t support the plan. “I wasn’t really keen on the idea of going to Europe when my parents suggested it,” he says. “I had friends in Brooklyn; I had a life in Brooklyn. But once I started playing chess pretty much full time, it just became a normal part of life. Me and my dad would just go from tournament to tournament in different countries. I missed out on social things in school and everything, but I was able to see the world as a young kid, which is very rare.”
Lou, a former data processing consultant who also earned income from real estate holdings, says he spent as much $100,000 on chess travel and instruction for his son in those early years in Europe. The investment paid off: Before his 15th birthday, Caruana became the youngest chess grandmaster, at the time, in the history of both Italy and the United States. Caruana admits early success swelled his head a bit. “You don’t think you need the work, which is always a mistake,” Caruana says. “I would take excessive risks and do crazy things to win a game, and commit suicide.”
Caruana overcame his growing pains, however, and started earning a living playing chess. At the same time, he eyed a return to the United States. In 2014, he turned in a dominant performance at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, beating out Carlsen and other elite players to win the tournament. The Sinquefield Cup is named after Rex Sinquefield, a financier who pioneered the first index stock funds back in the 1970s – and has invested north of $50 million over the past decade to building one of the world’s premier chess clubs in St. Louis. With St. Louis now a budding epicenter of global chess, Caruana moved back to America in 2015, and switched federations from Italy to the U.S. Caruana now lives in St. Louis. “For a chess player,” Caruana says, “it’s the best place to be.”
To prepare for his match against Carlsen, Caruana spent some time this summer training at Sinquefield’s country home in Missouri. Besides playing hours of chess with fellow grandmasters, he jogged and shot hoops and played tennis to keep in peak physical shape. “Chess requires a lot of stamina,” says Caruana. “You’re sitting down and you’re playing six, seven hours at a time. You’re burning a lot of calories and you can easily get mentally tired. If your physical form is not good, then you’re likely to crash at some point.” Caruana doesn’t stick to a strict diet, though he does try to avoid excessive sugar, to avoid the high and inevitable come down.
In the weeks leading up to the World Chess Championship, Caruana has trained in Spain, where he’s done yoga and swam in the Mediterranean to keep his head clear. He’s also played games for up to eight hours a day. “The goal is get you thinking about chess 24/7 in preparation for the match,” he says. “It’s playing quick games, slow games, anything that will get you in that mode where you calculate very quickly. Your mind is working in the best possible shape.”
Caruana knows that Americans are blessed with plenty of sports and entertainment options. So why would even casual observers of chess have a stake in his three-week match with Carlsen, never mind those who don’t play the game? “It’s sort of like boxing or MMA,” Caruana says. “It will be a fight that is blow for blow, with each of us trying to get the upper hand, trying to impose our will on the other guy. It’s not a physical sport. But if people are into these one-on-one duels, chess is in a way similar to that.”