There’s a contradiction at the heart of chess that dominates the game’s relationship with the world.
Chess was designed to offer no competitive advantage to its players. Everyone gets the same pieces, there’s no luck involved at all. In this sense, chess is a contest of equity. It’s one that erases distinctions between players beyond the four corners of a board.
But because chess is so dependent on skill, because the game has more possible moves than atoms in the observable universe, a firm grasp on its nearly-infinite permutations requires countless hours of study and practice. That means true mastery of the sport is locked behind years of schooling and tutoring. Resources are scarcely available to the vast majority of people. Despite many exceptions, and the efforts of clubs and players around the world, chess has never broken free of the stuffy pretensions we’ve attached to it.
The two most important chess players on the planet faced each other in the prelims of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational on Monday. Over a few short turns, they produced perhaps the most revolutionary moment in the game’s history.
And it was so, so stupid.
The tournament’s namesake, Norwegian Grandmaster and World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, had the white pieces for the game. His partner in destiny was American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. His wildly popular Twitch streams over the past couple years have helped bring the game to a whole new audience. What came next is part of an ongoing culture war at the highest levels of the sport. But first, we should just revel in the absurdity.
Carlsen opened with 1. e5, easily the most popular first move in the game. Nakamura responded in kind, moving his king-side pawn up two spaces as well.
This position is one both these men have played literally tens of thousands of times. In most chess matches at this level, the first half-dozen or so moves come from muscle memory. Both players rapidly set up lines of attack analyzed beyond the point of death over decades and decades. I cannot stress this enough: it is literally impossible for players like Carlsen and Nakamura to fuck up at this point unless they are deliberately trying to sabotage their chances of winning. Even a purposefully bad move can’t do much damage. Something blindingly stupid, like 2. Ke2, simply cannot happen.
With his second move, Magnus Carlsen moves his king to e2.
Opening moves are limited enough that popular ones wind up getting names. If, for example, Carlsen had used his second move to put a pawn on f2, that would be called the King’s Gambit, in which white offers a pawn sacrifice in the hopes of establishing uncontested dominion over the center of the board.
King to e2 gets a name, too. It’s called the Bongcloud Attack, and yes, it means what you think it means.
Historically, the Bongcloud has been employed by world champions like Mikhail Tal and Bobby Fischer as a sort of psych-out move. It is so painfully anti-theory that it’s meant to give an outclassed opponent an advantage. When played seriously, it’s a way for a player to say “I’m so much better than you that I can wipe my ass on move two and still beat you.”
More recently, the Bongcloud has gained popularity (along with its name) as a staple of online chess, which is another way to say it’s a meme. Nakamura himself is responsible for its surge to prominence. He regularly employs it when he streams blitz chess against random online players. Nakamura’s approach to the game is guided by a simple, yet radical maxim: he thinks chess should be fun. That Bongcloud-heavy approach (which he is very good at by the way) is the reason his streams are so popular; he makes a concerted effort to rebel against the notion that chess is meant to be a thing of erudite dignity.
And it really is a rebellion. I’ve mentioned chess is stuffy, but it’s difficult for an outsider to imagine how stuffy. As an example: Ukranian grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk caused a minor controversy a few years ago with what the chess world saw as an extravagant celebration when he checkmated Magnus Carlsen in a 2015 tournament. This is the celebration we’re talking about.
This is like a supercharged version of MLB’s unwritten rules debate. This is why the commentator started yelling “don’t do this!” when Carlsen deployed the Bongcloud against his friend. But Nakamura didn’t mind, he just bent over laughing.
So how does the 18th-best chess player on the planet respond when the reigning champ hands him this much of a freebie in a tournament? Naturally, he played the Bongcloud himself.
What we have here is a Double Bongcloud. It is the stupidest possible opening position. At this level of the game, it requires that two grandmasters collectively flip off the entire sport. It is a glorious sight to behold.
With move three, things look like they’re coming back down to Earth. Carlsen moves his king back to its starting square, and Nakamura follows suit right after. Castling is off the table now, but besides that all we’ve seen is some harmless fun before a marquee matchup really gets going….
With move four, Carlsen played the Bongcloud again.
We have now witnessed a Triple Bongcloud. We have slipped through space and time into a dimension of absurdity never before encountered in the sport. Nakamura laughs again as the commentators struggle to come to grips with the Lovecraftian horror unfolding before their eyes…
And then he plays a fourth Bongcloud.
As men possessed by the mighty hand of fate, Carlsen and Nakamura have no choice but to see this game to its natural conclusion. They bring their kings back to their starting squares one more time, and one more time, they play the Bongcloud.
We have now witnessed a Sextuple Bongcloud. Mercifully for the pretentious, repeating the same move three times in a chess game results in an automatic draw, so these two have to stop at six consecutive Bongcloud Attacks. The whole thing takes about a minute. But in that minute, we witnessed a powerful missive against what chess has always been.
There’s important context to cover here: by this point in the prelims, Carlsen and Nakamura had already secured their places in the upcoming knockout round. Since this level of chess is as exhaustive as any other sport, it’s common practice for players in their position to sort of stroll their way to a draw. But because this is chess, there are unwritten rules to how these things are supposed to be done. So normally you see a heartless line of the Berlin Defense meant to preserve the illusion of competition in an otherwise resolved affair.
Functionally, there’s nothing unusual about the match Carlsen and Nakamura played. But when such prominent players so flagrantly break the unwritten rules of the game, it trips up everybody dedicated to preserving the notion of chess as a discipline beyond plebeian notions like fun and accessibility.
Glory to Carlsen. Glory to Nakamura. Glory to the immortal Bongcloud.