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 rank 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).
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.