The Boy King: An Interview with Magnus Carlsen

Spending some time with the best chess player in the world.
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At the age of 22, Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, is the no. 1 ranked chess player in the world. In February, Carlsen peaked with an Elo rating of 2872—the highest ever—as administered by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), the sport’s governing body. Second on the all-time list is Carlsen’s ex-coach, Russian Garry Kasparov, who became the youngest world champion at 22 in 1985 and held the title for fifteen years; Kasparov retired in 2005 and has since become an outspoken human rights activist, and one who has clashed often with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He remains very involved with chess, which at the moment means being very interested in Magnus Carlsen. “[He] conserves the mystique of chess at a time when every CPU-enhanced fan thinks the game is easy,” Kasparov says. “If he can rekindle the world’s fascination with the royal game, we will soon be living in the Carlsen Era.”

But a ranking in chess does not a world champion make. That title belongs to current world no. 8 Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand, 43, a five-time victor who has safeguarded his undisputed throne since 2007 (his first win came in 2000 but the title was split). And though it took a real stroke of luck, Carlsen has earned the right to stake his claim to outright chess sovereignty this November in India at the 2013 World Chess Championship versus Anand.

There’s something special about this one, even by world championship standards. For one, it’s Magnus’ first title shot, which has manifested as the most significant peak to Carlsen’s protracted and well-managed marketing crescendo, a triumph in both performance and image. Recall if you can or will a pre-2011 Lebron: a high-flying stat-sheet filler who’d earn multiple MVP’s before winning a kiss with a sweaty, champagne-soaked Larry O’Brien Trophy, and then another.  That’s Magnus, and Anand, in this equation, is something like this year’s San Antonio Spurs.

For Anand, whose play has steadily declined, this championship defense may be part swan song, part torch passing. He will stage his title defense against Carlsen in Chennai—the very place Anand calls home. The narrative is tidy enough; the question is how it will end. What’s clear is that Carlsen may yet be Anand’s most formidable—and bold—challenger.  In April, on Charlie Rose, Carlsen said: “You need to have that edge, you need to have that confidence, you need to have that absolute belief that you’re the best and that you’ll win every time. It’s just a feeling I had...[that] I’m probably going to be the best at some point.”

Should Carlsen prove prescient and win in November, he’d become the first chess player from the “West” to win the world championship since American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, which ended 24 straight years of Soviet chess dominance. At that time, Fischer’s quirky mega-ego, manipulative posturing in a press corps hungry for Cold War scandal, and brilliance on the board, proved the locomotive force chess needed to gain the international spotlight.

Fischer, of course, would go on to become one of chess’ foremost what-if men, never defending his crown; he’d wander Europe and Asia for decades, showing up every now and again to offer vitriol against, among other subjects, Jews and the U.S. (famously during 9/11). He’d die of Kidney failure in Iceland in 2008. Being the next Bobby Fischer is not an uncomplicated aspiration.

Perhaps aware of Fischer’s reputation, Carlsen, during a comedic interview with Rainn Wilson, said, “I’m only 21 years old so give me some time to develop the crazy.”  But Carlsen, besides being handsome and well-spoken, appears to have his head on straight, and is held fast by the type of close-knit familial and managerial support that eluded Fischer. Add it up and Carlsen, whose first name means “the great,” represents chess’ best chance is over 40 years to return to international mindshare without a fastidious, political spectacle—and instead with positional, hard-nosed chess playing.

The first part—the well-adjusted bit, the charisma—makes him interesting to talk to. The second part—the generational brilliance and maturity—makes him worth listening to.

JZ: You were recently on a trip to New York City.  Tell me some of the highlights.

Carlsen: I had a couple of really good burgers.

JZ: What do you take on your hamburgers?  Cheese, bacon...?

Carlsen: Yeah – everything that’s good and unhealthy.

JZ: I saw on Twitter that you were wearing a Shaquille O’Neal jersey at a Celtics game [in February].  Is that your favorite basketball player?

Carlsen: [He’s] one of my favorites.  I didn’t really start following until a few years ago, and when he was playing with the Celtics. I thought this is probably going to be his last season so it’s about time to get a jersey.

JZ: I happen to be from Boston, and you were right.  That was the end of his [playing] career.

Carlsen: I thought that in general the atmosphere in Boston was absolutely amazing, especially when they beat the Lakers, of course. At one point in the third quarter they made a three-pointer and then Jeff Green made a block and a dunk at the other end. The building was just ecstatic at that point. And also the next game I saw in Boston, where the Celtics beat the Bulls, which was absolutely brutal offensively for three quarters and then they somehow ground it out in the fourth. That was amazing.

JZ: How did that compare with Madison Square Garden?

Carlsen: I think probably the New York fans are a little bit more spoiled in a way. You can feel the same thing in football or soccer—that for the best teams in Spain and England, for instance, the public... they’re not really going to cheer at all when they play against bad teams unless they do something spectacular. Even if they’re winning by a few goals they’ll probably just say, “nah.” That’s normal and they’re not excited about it.  Maybe it’s a little bit of the same in New York, although they’re obviously not that used to winning there. They’re used to big stages and so on. It takes a little bit more to excite them.

JZ: Speaking of the big stage: you’ve got the world championship in November.  What are you doing to prepare for that match?

Carlsen: Well, right now I’m in the process of contacting people, finding out who will be helping me during the match. And probably there will be two training sessions—one at the end of July [or] at the start of August for two, two and a half weeks, and then another one later probably in late October.

JZ: What are these training sessions?  For someone that is just looking at chess from the outside, when you say a two and a half week training session, what does that consist of?

Carlsen: It just means that we’re a group of people that assemble at a place, preferably a good place where they are possibilities for sport and so on, and that the weather is good. And then we work on chess together for many hours a day and we also do some sports, [and] if we’re at the sea we go swimming and generally have a good time, and a good atmosphere.  And hopefully find some inspirations and some new ideas for the chess as well.

JZ: When you talk about your team – are you talking about your trainers or who potentially you’ll have as “seconds” at the match in November against Anand?

Carlsen: Both people who will be helping me during the match either as advisors or working hard as seconds.

JZ: If you win in November, you’ll turn 23 a few days after. When athletes win a big game [like] the Super Bowl, for example, there’s sort of a tradition of say [when an] announcer asks them, “What are you going to do now?” and they’ll say, “I’m going to Disney World...”  So put yourself in that mindset for a minute: You win the championship, [you’re] on top of the chess world, you turn 23 – What are you going to do to celebrate your birthday and that win?

Carlsen: I don’t know [he laughs]. I haven’t really thought that far ahead.  I’m never really been a big fan of these kinds of lavish celebrations before, but obviously a world championship – if I win that one – it’s going to be something special. We’ll see. Right now my focus in on winning [it] rather than how to celebrate it. But I know for sure that I’m probably going to have a break after the world championship regardless of whether I win or lose.

JZ: So you know, a lot of people are hyping it to be the most anticipated match since Fischer–Spassky in’ 72. Why has it taken the world over 40 years to remember the game of chess?

Carlsen: I don’t know. I think also the Karpov—Kasparov matches in the ‘80 and early ‘90’s were pretty exciting as well.

JZ: With Fischer [and] his demands before the match and the Cold War – that fed into it. This [championship] seems to have a lot more of a natural feel to it.

Carlsen: I’m definitely the first no.1 in the world since Fischer, and probably at least since Kasparov, who probably has the most potential to dominate for the foreseeable future. So that’s something unusual and hopefully exciting for people.

JZ: How much do you think marketing has to do with getting chess into the mainstream yet again?

Carlsen: I think with chess as with everything, marketing is the main issue.  I think the game has definite potential, it’s just about the way you present it and maybe make it exciting while preserving the qualities that make the game special. And we’ll see how that will work out. For me, the most important thing is to continue to play well and to be a positive figure and hopefully a role model for kids as well.

JZ: Speaking of the kids. They’ll probably want to know who your favorite chess player in the past is, and why.

Carlsen: That’s simple. I’ve never really had a favorite player, past or present. There are certainly loads of players that I admire; I try to learn from all of the great masters both of the past and contemporary as well.  I’m more interested in the games than the people.

JZ: Is there a particular game of the past, or even one of your own that you look back on fondly, or that you continue to learn from?

Carlsen: Um, nah. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. There are so many games that I’ve seen that I’ve learned from. I never – that’s also part of the same – never single out a particular player or a particular game.

JZ: What kind of music do you listen to?

Carlsen: More or less anything – both contemporary music and older stuff.  Depends on my mood.

JZ: Is there anything you listen to when you’re focusing on studying the game of chess, let’s say?

Carlsen: No, then I usually do without music [he laughs].

JZ: How about movies?  Any favorite movies you can name?

Carlsen: I don’t really watch too many movies.  I don’t have the patience usually to watch one, one and a half or two hours in a row.

JZ: I feel the same way.  [I’m usually] ready to get up and go somewhere.

Carlsen: Yeah. I watch some TV series though.

JZ: Can you give me an example?

Carlsen: Right now I’m just watching through all [the] Seinfeld episodes that I’ve seen so many times already. It never gets old for me.

JZ: Who’s your favorite “Seinfeld” character?

Carlsen: It’s hard to say, but it’s more or less a tie between George and Kramer. I just like everything about it. I’ve also watched all of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  It’s a bit of the same humor.

JZ: The Larry David connection.

Carlsen: Yep.

JZ: I read that you like to go ski jumping. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Carlsen: Actually I haven’t done that for many years, but I’m thinking about going back to doing that. It was an exciting thing to do when I was younger and at some point I think I reached my peak. If I was going to do that anymore I would have to spend more time on it and also to go for some really dangerous large hills. And I was really going to do that.

JZ: Is that popular in Norway? The thought of going straight down a hill and flying through the air terrifies me personally.

Carlsen: Yeah. Lots of kids try it at least. It’s fun.

JZ: In Norway how have you seen [chess] grow?

Carlsen: In a way that before I would know all of the people in the chess environment, and now there are people who are walking up to me on the streets, who are following all the top tournaments, that I’ve never met in my life. Even people who don’t actually play the game themselves, they follow me and other tournaments; and people who have never played in a club they play online and they get lots of pleasure from that. And I think there are also more kids interested to learn the game. At least I hope so.

JZ: Tell me why. What sort of influence can chess have on kids?

Carlsen: First of all my impression is that most kids think it’s a fun game, at least until they’re told otherwise by society. And I think it helps you to concentrate, to think ahead, to think analytically and so on. But again, most of all, it’s fun and when you have fun then you’re more interested in learning. That’s the main aspect for me, that it can be used as a learning tool for kids.

JZ: And you think society tells kids that they should do something different for fun?

Carlsen: Yeah. In my experience, when I went to school, and especially in after-school, and during breaks, a lot of people wanted to sit down and play chess up till a certain age when it was not supposed to be cool anymore and people wanted to do other things. Kids love games and chess is a game where you have to sit down and concentrate and it just helps in every way.

Illustration by Alex Roland.


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