A packed house watched Game 1 on Friday at the South Street Seaport

An hour-and-a-half after the first game of the World Championship had ended, and 45 minutes after Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian World Champion, and Sergey Karjakin, the Russian challenger, had left the building, Woody Harrelson decided it was time to go.

Harrelson, the two-time Academy Award nominated actor, had been at the World Championship to make the ceremonial first move. But his presence was not just a photo-op: the actor has a genuine passion for the game.

Throughout the day, as Carlsen and Karjakin battled inside their glass-enclosed playing area – looking a bit like fish inside an aquarium, said one attendee – Harrelson took on all-comers, first at a table inside the VIP lounge, then on the terrace outside the lounge overlooking the East Side River, and finally moving inside again when it became too cold. All the while, Laura Louis, Harrelson’s wife, sat patiently by his side, sharing the fate that many women who have husbands who also love chess have suffered: being a chess widow, at least for the day.

Harrelson was by no means the only notable boldface name either in the world of entertainment or business who came out on the first day to watch the match unfold on the third floor of the Fulton Market building in the South Street Seaport.

Adrian Grenier, the actor and star of the HBO series “Entourage,” who had hosted the opening ceremony at the Plaza Hotel the night before, was in attendance. The actress Lucy Liu swept in and out.

Ken Rogoff, the Harvard economist, came in off a flight from St. Louis, where he had been promoting his latest book, “The Curse of Cash.” Rogoff, a true polymath, as he is also a grandmaster whose ability was once praised by Bobby Fischer, went on air in the venue’s on-site studio to discuss the game with Judit Polgar, the match’s official commentator.

In the large L-shaped VIP lounge, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman who had traveled from Russia to support Karjakin, gave interviews with media organizations from around the world (BBC, Bloomberg, NRK, and more), and mingled with corporate leaders, including Dmitry Mints, the chairman of 01 Properties, and Andrey Filatov, the president of the Russian Chess Federation and chairman of Tuloma Investment Company.

In pockets of the lounge, businessmen and aides-de-camp surrounded the main representatives of the two principal sponsors: Andrey Guryev Jr., the chief executive of PhosAgro, and Michael Stanton, founder of EG Capital Advisors.

A display from S.T. Dupont, a French luxury brands manufacturer, and a sponsor, beckoned next to one wall, not too far from a well-stocked open bar from Beluga, another sponsor.

Grandmasters, several of them originally from Russia, munched on canapés, running through possible moves in rapid-fire bursts as onlookers tried to follow. Frank Brady, the biographer of Bobby Fischer, held forth on a couch, as chess fans stopped by to pay their respects.

And many children, brought there by their parents to get a glimpse of the World Championship, played on boards dotted around the giant room, mostly oblivious to the game broadcast on large electronic screens and also distracted by two mimes hired to entertain the guests.

The day wore on and day turned into dusk. Carlsen and Karjakin traded pieces and headed toward and a peaceful and relatively uneventful draw, but the crowd remained robust, fueled by an unending source of food and alcohol.

It was only when the game had finished and the press conference was over that people started to head for the exits. Eventually, even Harrelson reluctantly decided to leave. As he walked out, a few lingering guests and staff asked for a few final photos with the star.

Would he be back? Yes, he replied, he very well might. He had really enjoyed himself. He paused to inspect the commemorative pins and merchandise for sale. There was an unmistakable grin on his face. 


Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of WorldChess.com. He is a FIDE master as well.