A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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In the final round of the most important chess tournament of the year, two super grandmasters—two of the fiercest, most competitive chess players alive—apologized to each other. Fabiano Caruana, the American, had the white pieces against Ian Nepomniachtchi, the Russian. To understand why they apologized, we have to understand the unusual situation they found themselves in: they both had to win.

Needing to win is normal for many sports, but it’s not typical for chess. In most chess tournaments, wins are worth one point, draws a half point, and losses are worth nothing. Players care about their overall score above all else, which means that draws are common. Yes, it’s better to win—but it’s even worse to lose. Losses don’t just put your score behind in the tournament but also ding your overall rating and world ranking—while a draw will have a less dramatic effect, and still count toward your point total. Unfortunately, draws are typically more boring for an audience. The goal of an elite chess player, though, isn’t to entertain—it’s to get the best result they can. (The one exception is the American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who started playing the best chess of his life when he embarked on a career as a professional YouTuber.)

But Fabiano and Ian were not just playing any tournament, they were playing the FIDE Candidates Tournament. The point of the tournament is simple: the winner gets the privilege of challenging the World Chess Champion for their title. No one else does. So, while in most tournaments getting second place is respectable, here it’s the equivalent of winning a set of steak knives. Yes, technically the second-place winners received €79,500. But for the highest levels of this sport that’s not much. Consider: the loser of the 2023 World Chess Championship still won $990,000 just for trying.

That loser, by the way, was Ian Nepomniachtchi, the same player who apologized in the stunning finale of the candidate’s tournament in Toronto at the end of last month. Ian has won the Candidates the last two times running—and lost both of his ensuing World Chess Championship matches. His opponent, Fabiano Caruana, also won the Candidates in 2018. He was the first American to win since Bobby Fischer. He, too, lost the championship the following year.

So both veterans were hungry. They were desperate to win this tournament, to have another shot to finally attain their sport’s ultimate crown. The problem was, going into the final round, they were both losing, by a mere half a point, to the seventeen-year-old Indian grandmaster Gukesh Dommaraju, who had shocked everyone in the previous round by grabbing the lead. As long as Gukesh drew his final game against Hikaru—which had already happened by the time Ian and Fabiano were nearing the end of their own game—then one of them had to win if they wanted to catch up to Gukesh and play him in a tie-breaker round. Otherwise, the teenager would win the tournament and get to play for the World Chess Champion title.

That’s the complicated, dramatic context behind a five-minute YouTube video posted by ChessBase India titled “Nepo Apologises to Caruana After Their Intense Final Game at the Candidates 2024.” The video opens with a close-up of the two players, staring at the board, eyes squinting, bodies slumped. Ian makes a disgusted face, and then makes a move and taps the clock. Caruana writes the move down, looking exasperated. They are both realizing that there’s nothing left in the position. Neither one can see any way to squeeze out an advantage. It’s what’s known in chess as an equal, drawn endgame. Unless one of the players makes a bad move, which at this point the game has simplified enough that they’re not going to by accident, there’s nothing either can do to win.

The video uploaders have added maudlin strings and piano as background music, swelling with sadness—but the silence between the notes, between the players, is far more affecting. Ian smirks, frowns, and then his face breaks—he looks like he’s going to cry. The players keep making pointless moves, both looking dejected. Caruana then says “Sorry,” and offers his hand. Ian shakes it. “Very sorry,” Caruana repeats, as the room claps. The tournament is over—the players have agreed to a draw. As the top YouTube comment points out, “Hearing ‘sorry’ instead of ‘good game’ after a game sounds so heartbreaking.”

They both spend a little time discussing the position—“I don’t know what I did in the opening” Ian says. “I should do anything but this.” “Maybe Queen A5 instead of E7,” Fabiano replies. You can hear his voice tremble. They toss out more ideas, using chess lingo to suggest possible moves and paths the game could’ve gone down, perfectly picturing the previous positions in their minds. They are so passionate about their profession that they want to understand exactly what happened in the game they just played, even though they’ve both, by drawing, watched their chance at what they’ve worked at for two years—for their whole careers—slip away.

And then Ian, his hand covering his face, says, “I’m very sorry.” “My fault,” Fabiano replies. He gets up and walks away, looking disgusted with himself. Ian slumps down into the table, his head in his hands, wallowing in his de facto defeat.

In the game, over the course of several hours, Fabiano had outplayed Ian. He had, at times, what is known in chess as a “winning position,” and he knew it. It was on him. If he could find the right moves, he would win the game. Ian, however, is known as a master defender. And instead of rolling over, even though it would make no difference for his own chances since he now had no chance of winning this game, Ian fought back. He made tricky moves, and Fabiano failed to spot the best way forward. At the same time, Fabiano never erred so much as to let Ian back in. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? They draw—and both lose in the process.

It’s this lose-lose situation that Ian apologizes for. He knows that if he had let down his guard a little more, and fought a little less hard, his friend would’ve had a chance to move on. Ian, on the other hand, didn’t have a chance. But Fabiano replies, “My fault,” because it was. It was on Fabiano to convert his winning position into an actual win. It’s Ian’s job to compete as hard as he can, to not roll over. And it’s Fabiano’s job to secure the win.

Fabiano, meanwhile, apologized to Ian when he offered the draw because he knew in doing so that he was not just ending his own chance to win, but also Ian’s. It was, in effect, an offer to have both of them resign. But he saw no other choice—at that point in the game, there was no way for either of them to win without the other giving up for no reason. And for both players, their dignity, and the dignity of the game, was more important than letting their opponent move forward.

I’ve written in this column about pointless or empty or deceptive apologies. This is a case, of course, where neither apologizer did something morally wrong—they are saying sorry in a similar sense to when we say “sorry for your loss” at a funeral. But in the case of the funeral, unless something has gone horribly awry, you are not the cause of the person’s pain. You are not responsible for it.

In this case, the two chess competitors were responsible for each other’s pain. The apology is not just an acknowledgment of suffering (“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well”) but also an acknowledgment of being the one to cause it. Their apologies demonstrate a tragic and beautiful mutual understanding—no one knows the pain they’ve caused each other better than the other.

So even a two-word apology can communicate so much more than mere regret or remorse. It can demonstrate empathy of the highest order.