British Esquire, January 2012
The Young Master
Magnus Carlsen is a 21-year-old guy who loves football and does a bit of modelling in his spare time. He’s also the best chess player in the world. In a sport famed for its eccentric geniuses and ranting lunatics, how has he managed to stay so sane? And can it last? By Tim Lewis
You can go many places with the youngest, brashest and most exciting chess player on the planet and not be recognised, but this it turns out is not one of them. We walk into the private cinema at the Soho House members club in London and immediately heads swivel, ribs are nudged and stage whispers announce his arrival. This early summer evening, we are here to watch a preview screening of the HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World. We had hoped to slip in unnoticed but had clearly underestimated the interest in the 21-year-old from Norway known – to his slight irritation – as the Mozart of chess.
“Can I grab you for a couple of minutes afterwards, Magnus?” asks the man from the website ChessVibes. Jon Speelman, the wild-haired English grandmaster who was once ranked fourth in the world, leans in with another request as we take our seats.
Magnus Carlsen is, in fairness, not hard to spot in a sport where haircuts and dress have not changed perceptibly since Fischer’s heyday in the early Seventies. His chestnut fringe has a Bieber sweep, his face a resemblance to a grumpy Matt Damon, and his clothes are studiously G-Star Raw, the Dutch fashion line for which he has modelled for the last two seasons, alongside actresses Liv Tyler and then Gemma Arterton. Tyler even asked for some one-to-one tuition, which he gave her in Washington Square Park, overlooked by hustlers and hobos, during a break in New York Fashion Week. Chess is said to date from India in the sixth century, but this might be the closest it has come to being cool.
We settle down to watch the film, which follows Fischer’s descent from the most dominant player in the world and a decorated Cold Warrior into deep paranoia and eventual insanity, railing against Jews and America. It is not comfortable viewing. Carlsen starts fidgeting early and halfway through his foot begins to involuntarily kick the seat in front of him, to the restrained annoyance of the woman sitting in it. His abilities are often compared to Fischer’s – he is, for example, the first Western player to be ranked number one since the American abdicated the position almost four decades ago – and he would not need to be reminded of the links between chess and madness. As someone who has dedicated his life to an infinite pursuit – there are more possible games of chess than atoms in the universe – is he thinking, “Might this be my fate too?”
It is a while before I will find out the answer. After the film ends, Carlsen diligently fields all entreaties, before looking a little shell-shocked and asking to go back to his hotel. He suggests we pick up the conversation in Oslo in a couple of weeks. This is not a surprise as ours has been an elaborate courtship; his manager Espen Agdestein is keen that we spend time together to become comfortable before starting the interview proper. Carlsen can be shy with strangers and has a rather spongy handshake that he typically offers while staring at his shoes. As well as our film date, we will go to Wembley to watch a combustible Manchester derby in the FA Cup semi-final; he loves football, in particular Real Madrid, and talks about it with more pure joy than he ever does chess.
So, a fortnight later, we reconvene. We are now sat across from each other at Oslo Schakselskap, one of the oldest chess clubs in the city. It is 5pm on a rainy Sunday afternoon and the place is deserted. Between us sits a board with old-fashioned, baize-based pieces and a game clock with twin faces, and on the wall is a portrait of every world chess champion since the 19th century. Fischer glares down, of course, as does Paul Morphy, the original chess prodigy who quit the game in his early twenties and was found soon after walking the streets of New Orleans talking to himself. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first undisputed world champion, is there too, the man who said that he played God, gave him an extra pawn and still beat him.
It turns out Carlsen enjoyed the film more than you might have guessed. “The special thing about watching the Bobby Fischer movie was the actual footage of him, because I hadn’t seen that before,” he says, his English accented but precise. “His story became more real: he started out normal and eventually succumbed to his own demons. It’s clear his dominance came at a price. It did make me think whether this could happen to me.”
Carlsen pauses, weighing up his words, “But 99 per cent of chess players don’t do that. It could happen, I would say almost 100 per cent not to me, but to someone else it could happen.”
Despite his precocious achievements – he was the second youngest grandmaster in history aged 13, the youngest world number one at 19 – there is little about Carlsen that hints at obvious monomania. Many of his interests are those of a typical 20-year-old: speaking with friends on Skype, playing online poker and belting out cheesy pop songs on SingStar with his family. He likes Lil Jon and has an obsessive knowledge – literally almost every episode – of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He has an offbeat sense of humour when he relaxes, too. At the FA Cup semi-final we talk about why so many Norwegians follow English football teams: “Many of my friends support Liverpool because that’s who their parents liked in the Eighties. Talk about a father visiting his sins on his children,” he says.
Carlsen could complete a 50-piece jigsaw at the age of two, and was always unusually gifted at maths, but he was not properly introduced to chess until he was nearly eight. Initially he remained more interested in playing football and ski jumping (“You have to start very young” is his advice) but within a year he was beating his father, a keen amateur player and supply manager for Exxon. He started practising with the best chess teachers in Norway, became less interested in his schoolwork and enrolled in the country’s elite sports academy (from which he would never officially graduate).
There is an endearing insouciance in Carlsen. Very little knocks him out of his stride; at Wembley, when we are caught in the middle of a ruckus between the two sets of Manchester fans, he appears completely unfazed as we are barged out of the way by police officers to break up the scuffles. Later on, after listening to 90 minutes of relentless invective in the stands, I ask if he has added any new swear words to his English vocabulary. “Not really,” he says laconically. “They were not too original.”
Carlsen is known even now for having a less obsessive approach to chess than many of his rivals. He often sleeps past midday and admits, “Yeah, I can be lazy at times.” He once claimed that losing at Monopoly stung him more than being beaten at a game of chess. In Oslo, he qualifies the comment: “I’m not saying that losing at Monopoly means more to me than losing at chess, it’s just that I might get more annoyed because with chess I usually know what I’ve done wrong,” he says.
There is something about this picture that does not wholly ring true, however. Carlsen is a ruthless competitor who is known for crushing opponents, “strangling” them in the words of Garry Kasparov. “The time when I first became really impressed with Carlsen was the Turin Olympiad in 2006,” says the British grandmaster Nigel Short; Carlsen was 15 at the time and his opponent was British number one, and former world number four, Michael Adams. “I just felt this tremendous power whilst he was playing. It was tricky ideas in the opening, strong combinations, astute play tactically. Adams is someone who defends very well, but he didn’t have a chance. Seeing this I felt, Aha! This boy, I knew he was good, but it was the first time I knew he really was some awesome talent. It’s not a run-of-the-mill talent.”
Carlsen started out as a very aggressive player; he seemed determined almost to test out the limits of his own brilliance. He is particularly fond of a little-remembered game when he was 13 years old against the Greek grandmaster Vasilios Kotronias. He did not even win the match – most encounters at the highest levels of chess end in a stalemate – but he created a sequence of moves that he had never seen before and could never duplicate again.
“You can play good games and you can win, but flashes of true inspiration are very hard to come by,” he says now. “It feels like making a big scientific discovery in a way. It doesn’t happen very often, at least not with me.”
Carlsen has since had to temper his attacking urges, partly because the competition is more intense now but also because he is probably the most studied chess player in the world. “It would just be insane,” he says. “In football, in the old days they would play with six attackers and results like 5-5 were much more common than they are today. In chess, you could say that in the old days they used to play with six attackers but now of course they don’t.”
What defines Carlsen’s playing style now is an uncommon intuition. He has never had his IQ tested, and does not think it would show up anything spectacular; he once speculated that the English grandmaster John Nunn, who in the early Seventies was the youngest student at Oxford University since Cardinal Wolsey 500 years ago, did not become world champion because he was “too clever”. Carlsen acknowledges that many of his opponents prepare more thoroughly than he does. “Very analytical, intelligent people will probably work out everything till the end, but in chess that is not always possible,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t know why I make a decision. I’m thinking and suddenly my hand is reaching for a piece without it being a conscious process.”
For such a high-wire strategy to pay off, you need to have put in the hours and Carlsen has certainly done that – “many more than 10,000,” he says, referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that predicts excellence in a chosen pursuit. He is also blessed with a prodigious recall for old games and strategies. “To me, he is like a little encyclopaedia,” says Agdestein, his manager. “If he has read something about sports a couple of years ago, he remembers it. But if you ask him to go and buy bread, milk and butter he will have forgotten it by the time he reaches the shop. It has to be of interest.”
There is little doubt that Carlsen is a genius – every person I speak to about him without fail uses that word – but his emergence still raises some questions. How has he managed to reach the top of perhaps the world’s most complicated intellectual pursuit, while taking it only marginally more seriously than a game of Monopoly? How has Norway – “a nothingness in chess terms” according to Short – managed to produce the sport’s most preternaturally gifted competitor? And if Carlsen is this destructive, seemingly without breaking sweat, how good would Bobby Fischer have been if he’d had a few rounds of Mario Kart to break the tension?
Fortunately Carlsen is a genius, so I ask him to offer an explanation for how he manages to make it look so easy. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I will probably be able to give you a better answer in 20 years. I sometimes think about it but I cannot come up with a good answer. Um,” he pauses interminably, and I leave the silence hanging awkwardly, “no.”
Chess players hate being asked to deconstruct their success. When Garry Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985, at the age of 22, he was bombarded with questions about his diet, his private life and, always, how many moves ahead he could see. “I soon realised my answers were disappointing,” he recalled last year. “I didn’t eat anything special. I worked hard because my mother taught me to. My memory was good, but hardly photographic.” As for the outsider’s obsession with how a grandmaster can seemingly play out his own and his opponent’s strategy in his head ahead of time: “It’s the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears in the Tour de France.” That is, time-consuming and ultimately irrelevant.
The ability to “see” moves in advance is, for the most part, a defining characteristic of how computers play chess, and it is impossible to discuss Carlsen without considering the seismic shift the sport has experienced in his lifetime. From the end of World War Two until 2000, every world champion – with the exception of Fischer – was rolled out by the Soviet production line. This dominance was built on intense preparation and access to massive archives, where games were assiduously recorded on index cards (indeed, Fischer learned sufficient Russian to access key periodicals). But it all changed when computers began to flex their super-human processing power: in 1997, Kasparov was beaten soundly by the IBM’s $10m mainframe Deep Blue; today, for less than £50, you can buy a home PC programme that details every competitive match ever played.
In one sense, Carlsen owes everything to computers. It is the new, widely available software, even more than his outrageous talent, that has allowed a chess backwater like Norway to produce a world number one. However, he has a conflicted relationship with them, too. They are indispensable to his training and match preparation, but he is wary of becoming too reliant on them. He distrusts their godlike perfection and he finds the way they play soulless and uninteresting. He prefers to play, as Kasparov used to say, “by smell, by feel”; to make mistakes but also create moments of beauty. This vulnerability, counter-intuitively, might just explain what gives Carlsen the edge of over his contemporaries right now. Just as Fischer’s unpredictable and impetuous brilliance was the only approach that could crack a half-century of Soviet logic and discipline, so Carlsen’s intuition is a rare and decisive tool in an age when the best humans are overwhelmingly beginning to play more like machines.
Not long ago, Carlsen and Agdestein were relaxing by a swimming pool in Mexico after a tournament. Carlsen was doing lengths, while Agdestein, a decent club player, was taking on the chess programme on his iPad – and losing badly. Carlsen grabbed it off him and started to play. “He’s quiet for 20 minutes and then finally he won and I could see that he was very happy,” Agdestein recalls. “On the way back from the pool he said, ‘Man, it felt so good to beat that computer.’”
In 2009, Carlsen engaged the services of Garry Kasparov as an advisor. The combination of the brightest young talent and the grandest of grandmasters – and two players who believe in the primacy of human creativity – was an irresistible one. At one point, Carlsen did not lose a game for more than six months and he only lost to one person – former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, twice – in over a year. He topped the world rankings for the first time in January 2010 and he looked to be on a path to eclipse even Kasparov’s most stubborn all-time records. But then, in the spring of 2010, Carlsen ended the arrangement. The split was not acrimonious, but it slowly emerged that there had been a clash of personalities and approaches between the laid-back Norwegian and the fastidious Russian.
“It probably got too intense,” says Carlsen. “Kasparov always searches for the truth and he would keep going until he was 100 per cent satisfied or completely exhausted. He wanted to find the ultimate truth, but the problem was that this was much more important to him than it was to me.”
After he stopped working with Kasparov, Carlsen’s form pretty well fell off a cliff. He appeared distracted and unengaged, and his play became uncharacteristically erratic. In October 2010, at the Chess Olympiad, he was beaten five times in nine games, including a suicidal performance against Michael Adams that Nigel Short describes as “cheeky; contemptuous actually”. Then in January, Carlsen twice lost to players younger than him, with 16-year-old Anish Giri from Holland humiliating him in just 22 moves. As he surrendered his number-one ranking, newspapers and chess blogs were unsparing: he only reached the top because of Kasparov; his style was too attritional and prone to fatigue; he spent too much time modelling. “Magnus Carlsen’s aura of invincibility has cracked,” chimed the Guardian.
Carlsen reveals now that the crisis became almost existential. “I always have some doubts before a game about my preparation, but when I start things are usually fine,” he says. “But it is a much worse experience when you have played a game and you think afterwards, ‘Am I really as good as I thought? Can I really do this?’ For a while I thought I was the man to beat and definitely the best in the world but last autumn it was different. I felt that there were people who, in parts of the game, were better or at least as good as me.”
More controversy was to follow. In May 2012, the reigning world chess champion, 41-year-old Vishy Anand from India, will defend his title in Moscow. His opponent is the winner of an eight-player showdown called the Candidates Tournament. Carlsen would have started as favourite but, just as the cracks were starting to show in his game, he announced his withdrawal from the elimination series. His issues were two-fold: first, he did not believe that Anand deserved to stand outside the qualification process; and second, he disagreed with the unrigorous method for selecting the challenger. Again, the blogs posed an alternate view: Carlsen was chicken.
Nevertheless, Carlsen did not back down and the Candidates Tournament is actually taking place as we drink tea in the Oslo chess club. It’s nice to speak to him, I say, but wouldn’t he prefer to be in Tatarstan? “Not really,” he replies, shifting in his seat a fraction. “It’s not been hard for me to watch. Well, it’s been hard to watch some of the games because they are unbelievably boring, but not because I want to be there myself.”
Wisecracks aside, Carlsen insists he does not have the slightest regret. He maintains that the world rankings are a more accurate indicator of the best player than a one-off tournament; he even claims, slightly outlandishly, that “being world champion has never been a huge goal for me anyway”. But no, he did not duck the challenge, he just felt it was a point of principle. “You take eight players and decide that the luckiest one of them is going to be the challenger for the world champion,” he says, “and I feel that’s wrong.”
Events, in this respect, appear to have proven Carlsen’s fears: Anand’s opponent in May will be the world number 15, 43-year-old Boris Gelfand. But, either way, you can’t help feeling that the principal loser here is Carlsen himself. “Magnus is not someone who is very afraid of challenges, he’s very confident in his ability,” confirms Nigel Short. “His concerns were very valid and I can understand perfectly well why he was extremely annoyed with [governing body] FIDE. But had I been in his position, I would be saying, ‘OK, these guys are a bunch of fucking idiots, they have arranged things unfairly, but sod them, I’m going to win this championship.’ That would be my attitude.”
Then, just as quickly as Carlsen’s form deserted him, it returned. A turning point was a victory against his archrival, 36-year-old Vladimir Kramnik, at the Wijk ann Zee tournament in January. Carlsen had just been thrashed by the teenager Giri and his performances were limp, but Kramnik always brings out his belligerent side: it is never just a chess match, he admits, “it’s war”. In the past they have exchanged a very polite form of trash-talking, and it is rumoured that the Russian is envious of Carlsen’s popularity. On this occasion, even though Carlsen was playing the black pieces, he began to dominate the long, scruffy exchanges and eventually forced Kramnik into a zugzwang, where every move he made just dug the hole deeper. When Kramnik resigned, Carlsen rose from the board and punched the air.
“It was a combination of relief and genuine excitement and happiness,” he says. “It was not a beautiful game or anything, but it came after a really tough loss and I really needed to win it. It’s the same when Real Madrid play Barcelona. I became a Real Madrid fan because they play excellent football, but against Barcelona I don’t care one bit if they play horrible football if they win. I’m usually not particularly happy if I win a bad game, but if I win a bad game against Kramnik, it still feels great.”
Carlsen tries and comprehensively fails to suppress a broad smile. “I don’t have any special problems with him as a person, but it’s easier to hate – not hate – but sit down at a board and feel that I’m going to beat the shit of this guy.”
Chess rivalries are strange things. Garry Kasparov, a Jew from Azerbaijan, and Anatoly Karpov, the strait-laced Soviet, famously detested each other, and yet after their 1985 encounter, they spent a few minutes deep in conversation. When asked why, Kasparov explained that Karpov was the only other person in the world who understood what had taken place between them. Carlsen knows precisely what he means. “Playing chess is a bit lonely in way,” he says. “You are always making your own decisions, it’s only you. And when you make mistakes, it’s only you that has to suffer.”
This month, Carlsen and Kramnik – as well as Vishy Anand, Michael Adams and Nigel Short – will be in the UK to play the London Chess Classic, an eight-man round robin that the Norwegian has won for the last two years. For Carlsen, exiled from competing for the top prize in chess for at least another two years, it is an opportunity to prove that he remains the dominant player in the game – and to make the world title look like an anachronistic irrelevance.
“It’s a little bit of ‘No show without Punch’ really,” says Malcolm Pein, the director of the London Chess Classic, who also organised an abortive bid for London to host the 2012 World Championship. “I think Magnus wants the governing body to understand that they need him and he’s quite relaxed about not needing them. Kasparov always used to speak about the match that needs to happen. This is the match the public wants and this will be the match the public usually gets – and that’s Anand versus Carlsen. Our impression was that Boris Gelfand is a lovely bloke but he’s not as interesting as Magnus. Unfortunately our governing body is run by a man [FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov] who believes in aliens, so it’s a bit tricky.”
Pein deadpans, “They’re yellow by the way.” What? “Aliens. They are yellow, apparently.”
As Carlsen, who grabbed back his number-one ranking over the summer, concludes, “Eventually the youth is going to take over.” Certainly anyone who thought his recent blip might develop into a Fischer-style meltdown looks likely to be disappointed. You sense that even Anand accepts his eventual downfall – he has stated that the best hope for other chess players is that Carlsen finds a girlfriend and becomes distracted. Carlsen remains tight-lipped, but his manager is more forthcoming. “You never know that could be a good thing as well,” says Agdestein. “It’s part of life.”