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Fabiano Caruana: Possibly the best tournament performance in history (credit: Frans Peeters)

In Vladimir Nabokov's chess-based novel The Luzhin Defence, the world champion is called Salvatore Turati. It always seemed to me odd that Nabokov should have chosen him to be Italian: it has not been since the 16th century that Italy could boast of chess pre-eminence.

But now fact has finally caught up with fiction. A month ago at the Sinquefield Cup in St Louis, Missouri, 22-year-old Fabiano Caruana simply massacred a field of the world's top players, leaving even the world champion Magnus Carlsen trailing way behind. Garry Kasparov, a man not given to describing others with superlatives, proclaimed that this was "the most impressive tournament performance in modern history, when you take into account the standard of the opposition and the sheer quality of Caruana's play."

It was astounding. Caruana won his first seven games off the reel (at this level draws almost always predominate), nearly won the next two and only in the final round did he settle for a relatively sedate draw. On the internationally recognised world rating system this rocketed Caruana to clear second place and within sniffing distance of Carlsen-something that would have seemed incredible beforehand. The general assumption was that the awesomely competitive 23-year-old Norwegian would have no threat to his supremacy for the foreseeable future.

One should not read too much into a single performance, but Caruana had also annihilated the field in July at the immensely strong Dortmund tournament. Perhaps it is his modesty and quietness that prevented his rivals from appreciating just what a mighty force he was becoming. Unlike the openly self-confident Nordic alpha male Carlsen, who almost physically imposes himself on his opponents (though his superb mental gifts do the heavy lifting), Caruana is slight in build and height and diffident of manner. Actually, he somewhat resembles Brains in Thunderbirds (for those whose memories go back that far).

But while there is no doubt about Caruana's astonishing and seemingly natural ability to calculate he also has an immense aptitude for hard work. In an interview two years ago he said: "You have to work constantly without giving yourself breaks or concessions." Perhaps this was something inculcated at the outset by his Italian-American father, Lou. When Fabiano was four the family moved from Florida to Brooklyn, where he took up the game in exactly the same neighbourhood as the late Bobby Fischer. At the absurdly early age of ten he beat a grandmaster in a tournament in New York-much younger than even Fischer could boast-and from that moment on his life was directed totally towards chess. His family left the US when he was 12 so he could train with the best ex-Soviet chess coaches. Indeed, it was while living in Budapest and being trained by grandmaster Alexander Chernin that at the age of 14 Caruana became the youngest-ever grandmaster of US origin, beating the record held by Fischer which dated back to 1958.

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