At 22, Magnus Carlsen looks set to complete the penultimate stage of his transition from prodigy to world champion as he begins a three-week long tournament in London that will determine the next challenger for the world chess championship.
By Malcolm Pein
6:29PM GMT 11 Mar 2013
The Candidates tournament is being staged at the IET by the Thames. Eight of the world’s leading players will face each other twice, with white and black. The prize fund is a healthy, at least for chess, €510,000.
To make some sense of these arcane chess rating statistics, it is necessary only to deduct the same number, 62, from Kramnik’s rating and in the style of snakes and ladders, not chess, one tumbles all the way down to world number 14, which is Peter Svidler, five times Russian champion, self confessed cricket anorak and one of the other seven players vying for the right to challenge Vishy Anand, the Indian incumbent and the 15th in a line that begins with Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886.
Since capturing the world number one slot, Carlsen has won nearly every event he has played in, bullying the opposition with a combination of strategic mastery, and, in games that sometimes go to a seventh hour, superior physical endurance.
Carlsen also has a mastery of the endgame which led former world championship semi finalist and England international Jon Speelman to coin the phrase the “Carlsen effect”. Writing in New in Chess, Speelman explained: ‘ He plays on forever, calmly, methodically and, perhaps most importantly of all, without fear: calculating superbly, with very few outright mistakes and a good proportion of the ‘very best’ moves. This makes him a monster and makes many opponents wilt’.
England’s first ever grandmaster Tony Miles described Garry Kasparov, the man thought by most to be world’s greatest ever player as: ” a monster with 1000 eyes ” but Carlsen does not exhude the kind of mental energy that Kasparov, who retired in 2005 and trained Carlsen from 2009-10, was famed for. When you face Carlsen, it’s not a 1000 eyes but more like 1000 emotionless and calculating computers, working in parallel, that one is up against.
It’s hard to grasp the all encompassing knowledge Magnus possesses, but this anecdote gives some insight into his incredible brain. Last year I met him in Dublin where I was to commentate on a simultaneous display he was giving against 12 lawyers for his sponsor Simonsen Law. He could have defeated them playing blindfolded but that might have been hard work and Magnus had stopped off between Sao Paulo and Bilbao, cities which were co-hosting the Chess Grand Slam, which of course he won.
While we were waiting for the lawyers to show, I mentioned that I was playing a tournament in Norway the week after in a small fishing town called Harstad in the north of the country. I had played there once before in 1995 . I described how the journey to the fringes of the Artic Circle was so tiring I had fallen asleep during one of my games. Quick as flash, with the slightly self-effacing smirk he produces when he knows he is going to freak you out, Carlsen turned to me and said: ” Was that the Botvinnik game” ? That’s chess code for: the game you lost like an idiot while playing against the Botvinnik Variation of the Slav Defence.
It gradually dawned on me that he had total recall of a game I played in a totally insignificant tournament 17 years previously. It wasn’t even a good game, I was, in the phrase adopted by England’s last world title challenger Nigel Short ‘tonked’ by a Finnish grandmaster. Like most jobbing ex chess pros, I can remember many of the games I have played but I could barely remember this one, there was nothing at stake. Magnus hadn’t even learnt the rules when it was played. I was so shocked, I couldn’t ask him how he could possibly know about it, never mind remember the detail.
He seems to have total recall. As well as chess, Carlsen can reel off any statistic on the NBA, La Liga or the Premiership. He follows Real Madrid and plays a lot of sport to maintain his physical fitness, an attribute many believe will give him an edge in a gruelling 14 round tournament.
As well as being a genius he can also be infuriatingly absent minded. After the London Chess Classic in 2010, Magnus decided he wanted to watch Spurs against Manchester City and a loan of two season tickets was arranged. After the match they remained in his jacket pocket and returned with him to Norway.
Despite his fame and success Carlsen has not convinced everyone in Norway that chess is a professional sport. After he finished way ahead of all his rivals in polls conducted by Norwegian tabloids Dagbladet and VG, a Norwegian sports official declared that chess could not be a sport as ” the pieces are not heavy enough” one chess wag retorted ( wag not WAG ) that badminton probably had a problem on that basis.
Like Carlsen, Anand won Sportsman of the Year in his country and was presented with the award by Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni. However, at 42 Anand is past his peak and also has become a father, something that suggests he senses his time is up. Anand has slipped to sixth in the world rankings and for much of 2012 struggled to win a single game.
There is a sense in the chess world that Carlsen’s time has come. He declined to participate in the last world championship cycle as he objected to the short four-game head to head match format. The Candidates format, with 14 rounds is more likely to follow the form book.
Carlsen’s agent Espen Agdestein the brother of his former trainer Simen, who played football as well as chess for Norway, rates his chances highly but is also realistic: “He is well prepared and has good chances but of course it’s a tough tournament and another player can always play incredibly well. It’s important to remember he is only 22 and can always come back. Many of the others are under more pressure, they know it’s their last chance.”
Carlsen is well on the way to being a global superstar, a process that would have accelerated had work permit problems not prevented him from accepting a offer from film director J. J. Abrams to play a chess player from the future in the movie Star Trek Into Darkness.
The Carlsen brand is now increasingly established, particularly in the USA after he appeared on the Colbert Report and lost a game of rock paper scissors to the host. The influential program 60 Minutes devoted an entire feature to him, but off the board his biggest coup was undoubtedly being selected as the face of Dutch fashion brand G-Star where he took to the catwalk alongside Liv Tyler giving the game a touch of glamour it has cried out for since the heady days of Bobby Fischer in his pomp.