An otherwise meaningless game during Monday’s preliminary stage of the $200,000 Magnus Carlsen Invitational left a pair of grandmasters in stitches while thrusting one of chess’s most bizarre and least effective openings into the mainstream.
Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura of the United States had already qualified for the knockout stage of the competition with one game left to play between them. Carlsen, the world’s top-ranked player and reigning world champion, started the dead rubber typically enough by moving his king’s pawn with the common 1 e4. Nakamura, the five-time US champion and current world No 18, mirrored it with 1 … e5. And then all hell broke loose.
Carlsen inched his king one space forward to the space where his pawn had started. The self-destructive opening (2 Ke2) is known as the bongcloud for a simple reason: you’d have to be stoned to the gills to think it was a good idea.
The wink-wink move immediately sent Nakamura, who’s been a visible champion of the bongcloud in recent years, into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Naturally, the American played along with 2 … Ke7, which marked the first double bongcloud ever played in a major tournament and its official entry to chess theory (namely, the Bongcloud Counter-Gambit: Hotbox Variation).
“Don’t do this!” cried the Hungarian grandmaster Peter Leko from the commentary booth, looking on in disbelief as the friendly rivals quickly settled for a draw by repetition after six moves. “Is this, uh, called bongcloud? Yeah? It was something like of a bongcloud business. This Ke2-Ke7 stuff. Please definitely don’t try it at home. Guys, just forget about it.”
Why is the bongcloud so bad? For one, it manages to break practically all of the principles you’re taught about chess openings from day one: it doesn’t fight for the center, it leaves the king exposed and it wastes time, all while eliminating the possibility of castling and managing to impede the development of the bishop and queen. Even the worst openings tend to have some redeeming quality. The bongcloud, not so much.
What makes it funny (well, not to everyone) is the idea that two of the best players on the planet would use an opening so pure in its defiance of conventional wisdom.
This bongcloud has been a cult favorite in chess circles since the dawn of the internet, a popularity only fueled by Bobby Fischer’s rumored deployment of the opening in his alleged series of games with Nigel Short on the Internet Chess Club back in 2000. But its origins as a meme can be traced to Andrew Fabbro’s underground book Winning with the Bongcloud, a pitch-perfect parody of chess opening manuals and the purple, ponderous language that fills their pages.
That’s not to say, like, say, Michael Chang’s underhand serve against Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open, there’s no place for it at the elite level. Carlsen used it last October in the first game of a speed chess final win over the American grandmaster Wesley So, who confessed to its psychological effects in the aftermath: “It’s hard to forget the game when someone plays f3 and Kf2 and just crushes you. That’s so humiliating.”
Then later: “If you lose a game against 1 f3 and 2 Kf2 it’s just very psychologically draining.”
Of course it’s Nakamura who has become the player most associated with the bongcloud. The 33-year-old most recently won a rapid game using it against the American grandmaster Jeffery Xiong last year during the $250,000 St Louis 27-round Rapid and Blitz. He’s even streamed a speedrun series where he attempted to reach a 3000 rating with a new account using only the bongcloud.
The combined visibility, culminating with Monday’s viral moment, have lifted an obscure meme opening out of the shadows. As of Wednesday, it’s been added to the opening databases at lichess and chess.com. Of course, not everyone will be a fan: no less than Short himself appeared to describe the bongcloud as an “insult to chess” this week.
Chess will return to Serious Business once again in the next few months. The eight-man candidates tournament to determine Carlsen’s challenger in this year’s world chess championship will resume in April in Yekaterinburg following last year’s abrupt suspension. Then in November, Carlsen will embark on the fourth defense of the title he’s held since 2013. The stratospheric stakes of those events all but preclude scenes like Monday’s, which as commentator Tania Sachdev put it amid the delirium, is too bad. After all, it’s only a game.
“It’s kind of nice,” Sachdev said, “to see these two players having a laugh like this.”