The tiny band of Grandmasters competing in the Premier League fantasy football are chasing a sliver of hope: To beat Magnus Carlsen at a game other than chess.
The 29-year-old reigning world champion, who trumped over 7.2 million managers worldwide to top the FPL table briefly late last year, is on a 110-game unbeaten streak (as of Monday) in the classical format of chess. Carlsen is now tied with Sergey Tiviakov's record of number of games without a loss after his round 3 draw against Jeffery Xiong at the Wijk aan zee tournament in the Netherlands.
"The good thing is that unlike chess, FPL is about probabilities and some luck. So at least in our heads we think we stand a chance against him," Carlsen's coach Peter Heine Nielsen explains.
This FPL sub-league of chess players created three seasons ago by Nielsen has a grand total of 13 members today. Anyone can join, the sole criteria being one has to be a Grandmaster. Globally, the count of Grandmasters stands at under 2000 today.
Bio needed an update pic.twitter.com/Wc7z0FUVuj
- Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) December 14, 2019
Carlsen makes no secret of his football fanaticism. After attending the 2016 European Championship opener in Paris, which featured a stunning late goal from Dimitri Payet, Carlsen ambled out of the stadium in a maroon t-shirt that carried the opening lines from the Payet anthem, 'We've got Payet, I just don't think you understand' in white, bold, sweeping letters, towards a waiting reporter.
Even before a query could be strung, Carlsen pinched his t-shirt, raised his arms like a music conductor, and in a false baritone, broke into the song he was wearing. He didn't wait for questions. He didn't want any. Carlsen rounded off his rendition with three short claps before joining a lumbering, smiling Nielsen, who waited behind him.
Last December, before he took apart Anish Giri from the black side of the Sicilian Rossolimo at the Tata Steel tournament in Kolkata, Carlsen climbed to the terrace of the Bhasha Bhawan, the building within the National Library premises that housed the playing hall. Barefoot and shirt un-tucked, he dribbled, smacked the ball, waited for it to ricochet off the wall, roll softly and land under his outstretched toe. It's his preferred way of unwinding between rounds - following or playing football. Often both.
"Even between breaks at the World Rapid and Blitz Championships (in December last year) and just about any free time he managed to sneak, Carlsen would check Premier League results," says Norwegian chess journalist Tarjei Svensen, who has known Carlsen for over two decades now and follows all his games closely.
"He's just a genuinely huge fan of the game. He's also very serious and competitive about FPL. His phenomenal memory of details must be a huge bonus. Of course, the fact that he's a genius can't hurt."
Carlsen went on to win both rapid and blitz titles to finish the year with a triple crown, 10 tournament wins and zero losses in classical chess.
Even the initial idea of setting up a league for Grandmasters can, in a way, be traced back to Carlsen.
"Five years ago, Carlsen asked me join him in the Norwegian league he was then a part of alongside Hammer (Jon Ludwig) and other friends," explains Nielsen, who began working with the World No.1 player in 2013.
"Two seasons ago I thought to myself, 'why not have a fantasy league for Grandmasters'? I knew other chess players who were already hooked to FPL so it just seemed like a good way to connect outside chess, have fun and lots of friendly banter like in any office league."
Carlsen's team Kjell Ankedal began FPL Gameweek 1 placed 1,031,442nd in the world and showing flashes of what his peers primarily attribute his stunning FPL run to - 'thinking ahead of the curve'.
At the ESPN office, colleague and FPL fanatic Arjun Namboothiri gushes over Carlsen's new strategy which he has been using since Gameweek 6: Staying patient, not being antsy in exhausting his free transfers, and saving up one each week and using it over the next. It lent Carlsen greater odds at building a better team.
In a season where getting captaincy calls right have been an endless struggle for most FPL nerds, Carlsen has had nearly brag-level success. His decision to captain Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne raked him 74 points as opposed to an average of 41 points, as early as Gameweek 2. From finishing in the top 3000 two seasons ago, Carlsen stepped into the world's top 10 for the first time in Gameweek 15 this season and moved to the No. 1 spot in Gameweek 17, necessitating a prompt Twitter bio change. His stay at the top lasted two days before former Liverpool player Nick Tanner unseated him.
"Chess players have this really strong urge to not fare badly at anything they do," says Polish GM Radoslow Wojtaszek, who currently occupies the second place behind Carlsen in the Grandmaster league.
"Of course my FPL player missing a penalty is slightly less disturbing than me losing a chess game, but still it can make me feel quite miserable. Among us (Grandmasters), we're fiercely competitive but I found myself rooting for Carlsen when he was close to the number one spot.
"He has been amazing at picking captains while I've been pretty horrendous. My worst decision possibly was having Son (Hueing-Min) as captain and him being sent off. I still kick myself over not getting Jamie Vardy early enough. It's puzzling how I managed to do that since I really like the guy and his autobiography had such a huge impact on me."
Unlike Carlsen, who describes himself as a 'part Opta-mist' (for his reliance on Opta Sports' data for picking players) and part optimist', Wojtaszek, who is just in his second FPL season, is still warming to big data.
"In the first season I was playing largely by my instincts without giving it too much thought," he says. "This season, I took it a bit more seriously, spending a few hours before each Gameweek. I don't use Opta, but before taking decisions I do surf a few stats sites."
Carlsen spends a whole lot of time on FPL, one that Nielsen calls 'more diversionary than intrusive'.
"Between games, between rounds, during walks, it's what he's looking up and thinking about. It helps keep his mind fresh. Honestly, that he's so good at FPL can be annoying for the rest of us. I mean how do we beat a guy like that?"
Wojtaszek is moderately ambitious: "In chess, well, I'm not giving myself much of a chance against him. But being No. 2 (in the Grandmaster league) is some hope. Or at least a safer answer."