Everybody must get stoned

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

Have you ever played the Frankenstein-Dracula variation? The Monkey’s Bum? The Nescafé Frappé Attack? These are all real chess openings, and each has some merit. That is more than can be said for the Bongcloud, which begins with the moves 1 e4 e5 2 Ke2.

This daft opening exploded in popularity last year when it was championed (in jest) by grandmaster and Twitch streamer Hikaru Nakamura. In fact the Bongcloud has hung in the air for much longer than that. According to one origin story (which appears genuine, but who knows?) an online persona named Lenny_Bongcloud was already playing it more than a decade ago.

The Bongcloud has impeccable memetic credentials. Besides the evocative name (you’d have to be high to want to play it), it is similarly (in)effective against any of Black’s first moves. Advancing the king so early is ostentatiously awful, but it doesn’t quite lose by force, so playing it amounts to a kind of highwire act with some taunting and teasing thrown in.

In the spirit of a prank, Magnus Carlsen played the Bongcloud against Nakamura in the latest Magnus Carlsen Invitational online tournament. There were giggles all round, but Nakamura had the good sense not to become a stooge for his own joke. After 1 e4 e5 2 Ke2, he shot back the equally silly 2… Ke7, soon to be christened the ‘Double Bongcloud’. After the moves 3 Ke1 Ke8 4 Ke2 Ke7 5 Ke1 Ke8 6 Ke2 Ke7 the game ended in a draw by repetition.

The game was played right at the end of the preliminary stage, in which both Carlsen and Nakamura had already made the cut, so its competitive significance was minimal. All the same, some viewers (including Fide officials) felt that this display from the players deserved a verbal stoning. One rule from the Fide handbook is often invoked in such situations: ‘The players shall take no action that will bring the game of chess into disrepute.’ Others feared that young minds would be sullied by this grotesque pantomime.

These concerns of ‘disrepute’ have nothing to do with how quickly the game was drawn. The point is that the moves in the Double Bongcloud are patently ludicrous, which is antithetical to the spirit of the game. (By contrast, I drew a game with Nakamura in 2015 after the moves 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Be3 Ng4 7 Bc1 Nf6 8 Be3 Ng4 9 Bc1. It was a dull, unoriginal game, but a draw suited both of us and the moves are coherent. Incidentally, one should not infer that the result was prearranged — I expected nothing of the sort when I sat down at the board.)

But the context is crucial. The Double Bongcloud game was played online in Carlsen’s own event, outside Fide’s jurisdiction. Recalling the epic battles fought between Carlsen and Nakamura in recent months, many fans enjoyed the moment of levity as much as the players did. It was a cheap laugh, but not one that did any harm. And I’m sure the kids will figure that out for themselves.

People like to say that chess is a science, an art and a sport rolled into one. Carlsen and Nakamura embraced the fact that it can also be a performance.

Ian Nepomniachtchi–Hikaru Nakamura
Magnus Carlsen Invitational, March 2021

A beautiful finish from the same event. After 23 Rxf8+!, Black resigned on account of Kxf8 24 Bxe7+ Kxe7 25 Rxg7+ Kf8 26 Rf7+ Kg8 27 Nf6+ Kh8 28 Nxh5 cxd4 29 Nf6 and mate follows on h7.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments