CHECK MATES | Magnus, at his office in Oslo, with his mother, Sigrun, and father, Henrik, a keen chess player himself who developed his son’s skills at an early age by not playing down to his level.Photography by Colin Dodgson for WSJ. Magazine
Magnus Carlsen’s Parents on Raising the World’s Best Chess Player
The family of the unmatched chess prodigy gave him time to find his passion, but never went easy on him
By ALEX CLARK
June 26, 2014 2:26 p.m. ET
HOW DO YOU SPOT a chess prodigy? Is there a moment—perhaps when he makes a boldly brilliant move out of nowhere or plasters his bedroom with pinups of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov—when it all becomes clear?
Well, that wasn’t quite how it happened for Henrik Carlsen and Sigrun Øen, parents of 23-year-old Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian who became a grandmaster at 13 and the youngest-ever world No. 1 at 19, and whose peak World Chess Federation rating (2,882) is the highest in history. Last November, Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand to become the World Chess Champion, a title he will defend against Anand later this year in a yet-to-be-decided location—possibly Norway.
Carlsen’s route to chess took a little longer than his subsequent stellar progression might suggest. Henrik, 52, a keen chess player himself, remembers introducing the game to Magnus and his older sister, Ellen, now 25, when his son was turning 5. But after a month or two, Henrik says, “I gave up, basically, in the sense that we continued to play chess occasionally, but I didn’t have any ambitions.” He knew that legendary players such as Capablanca and Kasparov had understood the game—he clicks his fingers—”just like that.” Magnus and his sister, he says, “learned the rules quickly, and they could capture a piece, but to get two or more pieces working together, which is what chess is about, this spatial vision took a long time.”
At the time, Henrik reconciled himself to the fact that chess would simply be an enjoyable family pastime. “I felt, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but it doesn’t matter. Because, I mean, we loved our children. Chess was something we could do together, just a hobby, like playing cards or anything else.” In the meantime, there were signs that Magnus had the aptitude and the determination to perform impressive mental feats. Sigrun, 51, recalls her son sitting for hours with puzzles or making advanced Lego models, patiently working his way through pages and pages of instructions meant for children a decade older. “He had the ability to sit for a very long time, even when he was small,” she recalls.
This quality has contributed in no small measure to his success; chess commentators draw attention to his ability to wear down opponents, to wait patiently for them to make the tiniest mistake. Magnus himself maintains that he is an aggressive player but that audacity isn’t always what’s called for. “When you play against the best people in the world, they see through your plans, and you cannot win with a swashbuckling attack all the time,” he says. “You just need to take what’s there.”
His parents are eager to point out that he wasn’t an obviously faster learner than his sisters (he also has two younger siblings, Ingrid, 20, and Signe, 17) but that he kept on going, focusing his attention on a specific subject, such as car brands, until he knew it inside out. When I ask Magnus about his childhood proficiency, he replies simply: “I didn’t particularly know if I was good at it or not; I just tried to do it.”
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