Magnus Carlsen: grandmaster flash

Magnus Carlsen earns £1m a year and is mobbed by screaming fans wherever he goes. Why? Chess… and attitude. Nigel Farndale meets the 22-year-old Norwegian who next month aims to become world champion

Nigel Farndale
The Observer, Saturday 19 October 2013 10.00 EDT

Over the course of an hour, on a cloudless afternoon in Oslo, Magnus Carlsen sinks from an upright sitting position to an open-legged slouch, to an almost full stretch, as if on a psychiatrist’s couch. And that, I’m sure, is where his opponents would like to see him, preferably after he has unravelled mentally, in the manner of one-time chess world champion Bobby Fischer.

Carlsen jokes that he’s only 22, so there is “still plenty of time for the crazy”. But for now the crazy seems a long way away. And before then the young Norwegian is likely to become chess world champion himself, when he has his first shot at the title in November. In one of the most anticipated clashes since Fischer-Spassky in the 1970s and Karpov-Kasparov in the 80s and 90s, Carlsen will be taking on the 43-year-old five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in India. Vishy, as he is known, has been in intense training for the match for three months. Carlsen has a much more relaxed approach. It is part of his genius.

You might think that an overused and ill-defined word, but no other will suffice. This genius is the reason Carlsen is known as “the Mozart of chess”. It’s not so much to do with his mercurial gifts – such as his ability to memorise thousands of games, or to beat 10 strong players simultaneously, blindfolded – but his style of play. He makes his moves more by intuition than analysis, feeling for them rather than thinking them through. And there is harmony in his moves – music, you might say.

Not surprisingly then, chess fans, too, might like to see Carlsen on the couch, or rather hear what he has to say and get inside that beautiful mind of his. For he is still an enigma, despite his very public rise from child prodigy to youngest world number one at 19 and finally, last year, becoming the highest-rated player in history.

I first met Carlsen when he was 13, at his grandparents’ house overlooking an inlet of sea, on the outskirts of Oslo. He had just become the world’s youngest grandmaster and had never done a newspaper interview before. He wasn’t shy and introverted quite, more… bored. His father, Henrik, an oil executive who was a keen though average chess player, filled in the gaps in our conversation and revealed that from an early age Magnus had been able to perform impressive feats of memory, reciting countries, populations and so on, but that it wasn’t until he was eight, when sibling rivalry drove him to beat his older sister at chess, that he really began to focus on the game. Back in 2004, young Magnus humoured me when I asked if I could play a game with him. It may not have been pretty, but at least it was over quickly, and he looked bored throughout. I have no intention of reminding him of that painful drubbing today.

The look of boredom is to do with his brooding features, a sulky mouth and a heavy, almost Neanderthal brow, which furrows when he concentrates. These looks, I should add, led to him being named one of “the sexiest men of 2013” by Cosmopolitan, and have earned him lucrative modelling contracts, appearing alongside the Hollywood actor Liv Tyler in advertising campaigns for the fashion brand G-Star. And they are combined with a slow-burn, lopsided smile that starts on one side of his mouth and creeps across his face like a shadow. He does that during matches, when he realises he has a checkmate in his sights. It must put the fear of God into his opponents.

I ask him if he ever feels sorry for them. “Not really,” he says in a low, measured voice, traceried with Norwegian. “But I find it more difficult to play opponents who I feel, for whatever reason, aren’t approaching the games with a sufficient level of seriousness. For instance, once at a big tournament I saw a player I was due to play the next day have a couple of drinks. Knowing that just ruined my concentration, because I thought how can I play seriously against someone who has drinks the day before?”

We describe him as a genius; does he think he is one? Carlsen sinks lower on the sofa. “No, I am not. I’m just really, really good at what I do. I’m fortunate to do something I love, but I’m not a genius.” How would he describe himself then? “I guess I’m pretty laid back.” As he says this he sinks lower still into the sofa, as if to illustrate what he means. Is it a pose? I don’t think so. The posture suits his personality, his languor. “But I am also determined when it comes to chess. I don’t like conflicts, apart from on the board. In general I am very different to how I am on the board.”

From the age of 13 he was a household name in Norway. Did he get picked on at school for that? “Not really. Some people I didn’t like, and they didn’t like me and would occasionally call me names, but it didn’t really bother me. I used to like provoking people and occasionally they would retaliate.” I ask him if his three sisters kept his feet on the ground, teased him. “Yes, they didn’t give me any special treatment.” His father told me that he could be stubborn. “Yes definitely, especially with my sisters, because they are also stubborn.”

An example of this stubbornness was his decision to forgo a university education. ‘My parents wanted me to go, but at some point I lost interest in formal education and they were OK with it. I wasn’t paying much attention so I wasn’t great at school.” That low boredom threshold again. Does he get bored easily? “Yes, in my later years at school I was bored, not necessarily because it was too easy, but because it didn’t interest me.”

More here.

Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
Tags: ,