All the right moves
Date: March 15, 2014
Jane Wheatley

The world’s highest-rated chess player is doing his bit to make the game more popular. So how does Magnus Carlsen keep the rest of his life in check?

The brooding face of world chess champion Magnus Carlsen stares down from a plasma screen on the wall of a slick new clothing store in London’s Oxford Street: eyes shadowed beneath a forehead like a ledge, pugnacious nose, full lips not quite finished with childhood.

At 23, the highest-rated player in the history of chess is also the face of the G-Star Raw label, or as they put it, its “global brand ambassador”. Somewhere along the line the marketing department must have had a light-bulb moment and gone: “Chess and denim! Made for each other.” Suddenly, chess has become super cool. Last year, Carlsen was voted one of the world’s 25 sexiest men by Cosmopolitan magazine.

Just now the beetle-browed prodigy is a few feet away behind a screen, being interviewed by another journalist. I am next and, I admit, apprehensive. I have read he is easily bored (there is a theory that Carlsen sometimes deliberately loses the first few games in a tournament in order to make life more interesting); probably shy (in an interview for The New Yorker he barely made eye contact with the journalist) and possibly arrogant. It turns out he isn’t arrogant – just blessed with self-belief, which is different. Unusually for the anorak world of chess, Carlsen is a celebrity. He could easily have had his head turned by the attention, but hasn’t.

He is applauded for show pony tricks, checkmating Microsoft’s Bill Gates in nine moves on prime-time TV for example, or playing blindfold chess against 10 players at once in a shopping mall.

By the age of six he had remembered the flags and capital cities of every country in the world; at seven he could identify any brand of car, singing out their names when they were but distant specks on the highways of his native Norway. I add “query Asperger’s” to my list of questions.

It doesn’t start well. Carlsen is slouched in a chair preoccupied with his smartphone. He shakes my proffered hand without looking at me and returns to his screen. There is a chair beside him but it has a plate of canapés on it, as does the one next to that. A large chess board completes the cordon sanitaire around him. I go to move the first lot of canapés and he looks faintly alarmed, or annoyed, it’s not clear which. It’s just so we can have my recorder close to both of us, I explain soothingly.

Has he made friends on the circuit? “I have some, but they are not my main opponents,” he says. “It’s too hard to be friendly with them, they are more like colleagues, you could say.”He’s been watching the Australian Open tennis on his phone, he says, and just saw Stanislas Wawrinka beat Novak Djokovic. He likes all sport and plays it well – he could have been useful on the soccer field if the chessboard hadn’t won him over. He entered his first international chess tournament at the age of nine and these days is on the road 160 days of the year. In his downtime, when he’s not analysing chess games or working on moves, he plays online poker or watches sport. Is it lonely sometimes? “Sure, but I’m used to it,” he says. “I’m comfortable with my own company.”

Does it puzzle him, then, that top tennis players such as Djokovic and Andy Murray are close friends with each other? “I don’t think they are,” says Carlsen. “I don’t think they can be; they probably enjoy each other’s company but it’s just hard to … for any serious competitor to be close friends with the people you are trying to beat every day.”

He may be no. 1 – and there are those like legendary former world champion Garry Kasparov who claim that chess has entered “the Carlsen era” in which he will continue to dominate – but the margins at the top are very small and there are always pretenders to the throne. According to Simen Agdestein, Norwegian grandmaster and Carlsen’s former coach, his most serious rival at the moment is the Armenian player Levon Aronian, who could well be the one to challenge him for the championship this northern autumn. Agdestein is the author of Wonderboy, a biography of Carlsen. I ask what gives his former pupil the edge over rivals? “Other players have too much respect for him,” he says. “And Magnus is the master of taking advantage of that, he is an expert in the psychological game.” Carlsen also, famously, trusts his intuition. He may take 30 minutes to make a move but, as he told an interviewer in the run up to the world championship last year, “I usually know what I’m going to do after 10 seconds; the rest is double checking. Often I cannot explain a certain move, only I know that it feels right, and it seems that my intuition is right more often than not.”

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• 1990 Born in Tønsberg, Norway, on November 30.

• 1999 Plays first international tournament at the age of nine.

• 2004 Becomes a chess grandmaster at the age of 13.

• 2008 World ranking rises to No. 6.

• 2009 Hires former world champion Garry Kasparov as his coach.

• 2010 Hits No. 1 spot aged 19, the youngest in history.

• 2011 Drops to No. 2 in the world. Invites 16-year-old grandmaster Wesley So to train with him.

• 2012 Wins Grand Slam Masters Final and most other major events.

• 2013 In February, reaches the highest Elo rating to date of 2872.

In November, beats Viswanathan Anand to become world champion.

• 2014 Wins in Zurich, the first serious tournament since capturing the world title.

Eight qualifying players will compete in the Candidates Tournament in Russia in March.

The winner will challenge Carlsen for the world championship in November.

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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