How Magnus Carlsen is Making Chess Cool and Wearing His Rivals Down

While Kasparov had his aura, it's Carlsen's resilience under pressure and deep understanding of the game that make him the opponent everyone hates to face.

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Nov 22 2016, 4:25pm

Flickr Creative Commons: Frans Peeters

When his son Magnus turned five, Henrik Carlsen sat down and told his wife, Sigrun, that he felt the boy had the potential to become a grandmaster. An amateur chess player himself in Norway during his teens, and by his own admission something of an "ego dad," Henrik recognized in his son some of the attributes needed to succeed in chess, even before Magnus had started school.

"He was a very curious kid," Henrik said. "You could get him interested in anything, really. But it seemed like he had the talent for chess. He had the intellectual curiosity, a good memory, good visualization skills and he had the ability to focus. He would sit for hours at a time doing something and hardly notice if we spoke to him."

Initially, Henrik kept his son occupied during the long, dark Norwegian winters through card games, Lego sets and memory tests challenging his recall of the world's flags or Norway's municipalities. At age 5, Magnus was introduced to chess, but while initially mildly interested, he preferred skiing and soccer. His fascination with the game was really piqued three years later, while watching his father play his older sister Ellen.

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"That really got me interested," Magnus told VICE Sports. "Beating her was my main motivation and in the process, chess just captured me. I spent most of my free time reading books about it or just moving the pieces around by myself and thinking about the game."

His father recalls that what really entranced his son was the vast number of different ways to play the game. Compared to the cards and Lego sets, chess seemed full of infinite possibilities. "He realized that it was kind of a universe of its own that you could explore and didn't dry up in any way," Henrik says.

Within a few months, Magnus had beaten his sister, much to her annoyance. By age 9, he was beating his father. Success on a wider scale did not come immediately, but it did come quickly. In his first tournament as a nine-year-old, a Norwegian junior event, he finished 13th. By age 10, he was as good as any junior player in Norway, and by 11 there was just one player his age in the entire world who was better, a precocious Russian by the name of Sergey Karjakin, who himself was on his way to becoming the youngest grandmaster in history.


Today, Carlsen and Karjakin are locked into a tie in the Chess World Championship: two of the game's most prodigal talents going head to head for a cool $1.1 million over a total of two and a half weeks and 12 grueling games, the first seven of which have ended in draws.

Carlsen, 25, is recognized as the strongest player in the history of chess. He became world champion in 2013, defeating Indian superstar Vishy Anand in Chennai, and again in a rematch twelve months later.

His achievements are particularly remarkable given the relative paucity of Norwegian elite players. As of November 2016, Carlsen is Norway's only player in the world's top 100, compared with five from France, six from England, seven from the United States, and 24 from Russia.

In the process Carlsen has transformed his sport's image. "He's not a slightly plump and nerdy looking male but he's someone who could easily be an athlete," says Fred Friedel, who founded the database and news website ChessBase with former world champion Garry Kasparov, and has known the Carlsen family for over a decade. "His name doesn't end in 'ov' or 'vitch,' he's not another Russian, and he's been all over Silicon Valley with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. He's galvanizing mainstream interest in chess and bringing new people to it."

The World Chess Federation says that more than a billion viewers are expected to tune in for the Carlsen-Karjakin match either on TV or online over the course of these two weeks. That might be a generous forecast, but the match is expected to draw a large audience. For the first time, a major chess match is being streamed in virtual reality, and while many spectators will be chess aficionados, some will be drawn to the clash by Carlsen's unique global profile. He has a modeling contract with G-Star Raw, his own app Play Magnus in which users can compete against a simulated version of the world champion at different ages, and he was even offered a role in J.J. Abrams' 2013 Star Trek movie. His annual earnings from sponsorships alone easily top $1 million.

In many ways, Carlsen is fortunate. His predecessor Garry Kasparov, the youngest-ever world champion who reigned from 1985-2000, is considered one of the most charismatic chess players in history, a man who could reduce elite grandmasters to trembling wrecks of nerves simply through his mere presence at the board. But Kasparov spent almost his entire career in the pre-Internet age, his achievements consigned to a few inches of newspaper print or niche magazines.

"It's not the same aura as Kasparov," Friedel says. "That was absolutely unique. I remember one grandmaster telling me about the first time he played him. He was like, 'I'm sitting there and I'm saying to myself, 'Sergey, you mustn't be afraid. Don't look at him!' Kasparov just exuded this dominating air. Magnus is much more laid-back, but every time he plays he gets attention from tens of thousands of people in real-time, across the world. And it's done tremendous amounts for him."

Carlsen's ascent has coincided with a rise in popularity for chess. Over the past decade an increasing number of apps, websites and social media platforms have made it possible to play against anyone in the world, at any time, with the click of a button. Meanwhile, the sport has undergone something of an image makeover, with a growing movement of youth towards the top of the game. Six of the world's top ten players are under 30. Physical training to cope with the intense emotional demands of elite matches, which regularly last in excess of four hours, is now commonplace.

"There have been studies measuring the blood pressure and pulse rate of chess players during a game," Friedel says. "And they're sitting there and their pulse will go up to 160, the body's building up adrenaline, blood pressure and heart rate are going up, but they're not moving. They're just sitting there staring at a board, and so the body has to be capable of dissipating that adrenaline to stay calm and focused."

Part of Carlsen's training program before and during the Karjakin match has involved sessions of soccer, tennis and basketball.

"During a world championship match, stress and tension really peak and it can be hard to get a good night's sleep," he told VICE Sports. "Exercise and diet are as equally important as chess preparation. I have a team during the match including my head coach, manager, father, doctor and a chef who help me be at my best. You have to look at all the little details. During the match itself it's all about having a familiar atmosphere to try and keep you relaxed with things like walks, sport and card games."

Carlsen's almost nerveless play and ability to stay focused during lengthy matches have marked him as a talent who could reach the very top since he was 14. But while past greats like Kasparov and the mercurial former American world champion Bobby Fischer have thrilled chess fans with their daring attacks, brilliantly intricate combinations which risk all in search of dramatic victories, Carlsen's talent is unique, a combination of patience, tenacity and resilience which combine to make him the most feared player in the game.

Garry Kasparov could reduce elite grandmasters to trembling wrecks through presence alone. Photo: GFHund/Wikimedia.

Chess is a game played both over the board and in the mind. Two years ago, Carlsen faced Anand in a highly anticipated rematch in Sochi. With the contest poised at 2.5-2.5, the match hinged on the crucial sixth game. Playing with the white pieces, Carlsen soon established a dominating position, but then he made an enormous blunder. If Anand could spot the right move, he would win instantly.

Carlsen knew immediately he was on the verge of defeat. In the commentary box and online, everyone waited with baited breath for the Anand's decision. But Anand missed his chance, instead opting for a mild and unthreatening play. Immediately afterwards, he saw he could have won.

"They were both shattered psychologically," Carlsen's coach Peter Nielsen said. "It's been a long match, a huge amount at stake and suddenly it's turned on a knife-edge. However, Magnus played on and was able to win a good game while it was clear that Anand was very much affected by it. So Magnus is incredibly strong psychologically. He has this naturally tenacious streak. You see so many tournaments where he has to win the final three games to have a chance of coming first, and he does it surprisingly often."

Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik once attributed Carlsen's success and strength as a player to his physical conditioning and his ability to avoid key "psychological lapses" both throughout lengthy games and a gruelling two week long match. Carlsen's own take is slightly more subtle. "I don't think anybody is able to keep concentrated during a whole game," he says. "The key thing is to sense when to be fully concentrated."

While Kasparov had his aura, it's Carlsen's resilience under pressure and deep understanding of the game that make him the opponent everyone hates to face. "He's the best because throughout a game, there's a lot of decisions he makes moderately better than the opponent," Nielsen says. "It creates this sustained pressure over a long time, and it makes him capable of outplaying the very elite players through simple means which no one previously thought was possible."

No one quite understands how Carlsen gained his feel and aptitude for chess. While the Russians have long dominated chess due to programs which focused on accumulation of information, and detailed preparation, Carlsen describes his talent as a combination of intuition and a feel for the vast varieties of patterns which underpin chess in an almost poetic way.

"Playing chess well is not just about memory," he says. "That helps but it shouldn't be overestimated. You need to be able to study past games and recognize the critical moments and the important differences. You get an intuition based on experience and knowledge of all the patterns. When playing I normally intuitively know which move is the correct one. Most of my thinking is about verifying my initial instinct."

Carlsen has always been keen to play down his own intelligence. In an interview with Der Spiegel he once said, "Maybe it's good that I'm not the smartest person on the planet. Look at John Nunn (a British grandmaster), he was one of the top ten players, and one of the greatest talents of chess, but he never became world champion because he was just too smart. He had so many other things that occupied his mind. Me, I'm just about chess."


The master at work. Photo: Ralf Roletschek/Wikimedia

Henrik and Sigrun were not always so convinced about the benefits of chess taking over every aspect of their son's life, instead visualizing him perhaps going to university and pursuing a career in banking. But by his mid-teens, they knew it was unavoidable.

"Until he was 16, we always told Magnus that he had a great hobby but he should focus on education," Henrik says. "I always felt his discipline, logic ability and number-crunching ability could have served him well in the finance world but he wasn't that interested. He's never really been interested in personal finance. He's very competitive and he lost motivation with school from 16 onwards, and we just let him make his decisions. Typically in Norway, the children decide a lot for themselves. He always liked the fact he was very good at chess and he was making progress, it made a difference to him and he thinks about it all the time. I'm not sure it's even voluntary, his mind just subconsciously returns to chess."

The long hours spent thinking about the game and analyzing its intricacies as a child have perhaps given Carlsen the discipline and patience that allow him to simply wear many opponents down.

"He's an incredibly annoying opponent," Nielsen says. "His practical strengths are at a completely new level which people have difficulty coping with. He has a vast amount of patience. Some people want to win immediately but he has no problem winning after six hours. There will be positions where most players will agree to a draw but he'll see some small things and keep playing for another three hours, applying this moderate pressure for a very long time with simple but exact moves. People crack and then they get paranoid about playing him because positions they think they could draw against anyone else, they feel they can't against him."

Carlsen himself believes that he now benefits somewhat from his status as world champion, as opponents sometimes play his reputation rather than the position. "I think I sometimes profit from being the best as opponents trust my moves and don't try to play the sharpest lines to refute them, even though that's sometimes what the position on the board demands," he says.

While Carlsen is a product of a new generation in chess, a cohort of Information Age players who grew up surrounded by computers far stronger at the game than any human, he has a remarkable disdain for utilizing the latest technology. Chess computers are programmed to compute infinite numbers of variations after every move, quantify them and select the one which most improves their chances of winning. Almost all elite players are entirely dependent on them, spending hours upon hours searching for new ways to gain an advantage in the crucial opening ten to fifteen moves of the game.

Carlsen largely ignores them, choosing to play video games or online poker while his competitors are mining the databases. "The computer engines these days and the free flow of information on the Internet mean that all the top players knows almost everything, " he says. "So when I prepare for my opponents, I try to focus largely on ways to take the game away from the well-trodden paths which everyone knows. I believe I'm the best player and I want to play the other guy, not a computer."

Nielsen explains that while virtually every other player wants to gain an advantage in the opening moves of the game, Carlsen is focused largely on the surprise factor, preferring to take his opponent into the unknown, even if it means he has to defend.

"He's very flexible, he will adapt to the circumstances and he's very good at turning defense into a win," he says. "He doesn't care much about the opening simply because he's the best player and if they sit and play computer moves by memory, it's not in his advantage. In general we have so much confidence in Magnus' strength, we don't have to fear the opponent."

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