The worst move in chess

Earlier this year, the current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen deliberately played the worst opening move possible against the American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura… who then deliberately played the worst possible response.

Serious players of chess study opening moves very carefully. The set of standard opening moves are collected in “chess opening books.” These books examine the relative strengths and effects of openings like Ruy Lopez, the King’s Indian Attack, and the French Defence. It helps to guide both players in the first part of a chess match: if they move their pawn here, my best response is to move my bishop there, and so on.

You don’t have to follow those patterns, of course. If you make a move that deviates from an opening before that opening sequence has fully played out, you are going “off book.” At high levels of play, this can actually be a canny tactic: jolt your opponent out of the familiar, put you both in undiscovered territory. But it’s also a big risk, because novel moves are usually novel for a reason: most of them are pretty bad. They might weaken your position, endanger your pieces, or give your opponent clear avenues of attack.

The worst opening move began its life as a kind of joke. It was a deliberately bad novelty. The game begins normally, with both players advancing their king’s pawns. This is called an Open Game, and it’s perhaps the most common opening sequence in chess. But then white does something different. They move their king forward one space. Now the king is exposed. It blocks your own queen and bishop. The powerful castling move is no longer available. This is an awful, awful move. This is the Bongcloud Attack.

החבלן, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why would you ever make such a move? Well, it certainly throws the game into undiscovered territory. Or you may want to show off by deliberately putting yourself in a weaker position. Or, sometimes, it’s just a good joke. The move, after all, is so named because you would have to be high to play it.

Hikaru Nakamura is an American chess grandmaster who likes to play the Bongcloud Attack in online games, and he has had some success doing so. Magnus Carlsen is the reigning World Chess Champion. A giant of the game, he has been the top-ranked player for longer than anyone in history except Garry Kasparov. In March of this year, the two of them faced off in a rather bizarre match.

It was the preliminary round of a tournament. Both Nakamura and Carlsen had already qualified for the next stage, so it did not matter who won. Carlsen cheekily opened with the Bongcloud Attack. Nakamura dissolved into laughter, seeing his own signature move in play. And then he responded… with his own Bongcloud Attack.

This was the first sighting of the infamous Double Bongcloud, the most embarrassing opening sequence in chess. Carlsen and Nakamura ended the game in a draw by toggling their kings back and forth, laughing together the whole time.

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