Magnus Carlsen: I am a very competitive person

Many believe Magnus Carlsen has already attained the greatness linked to Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov. Many others insist he has already surpassed the feats of these great predecessors.

Published : Dec 13, 2019 14:32 IST

Half a decade at the helm: Magnus Carlsen has been the World number one in chess for the last five years and he says the honour is both a privilege and a blessing.
Half a decade at the helm: Magnus Carlsen has been the World number one in chess for the last five years and he says the honour is both a privilege and a blessing.

Half a decade at the helm: Magnus Carlsen has been the World number one in chess for the last five years and he says the honour is both a privilege and a blessing.

Magnus Carlsen is a game-changer. What Tiger Woods showed to the golfing world nearly two decades ago, Carlsen has done to chess in the past decade. In his relentless pursuit of excellence, he has made a generation of players believe it was possible for a world-beater to be young.

Since then, Carlsen’s fan following around the globe has grown manifold. Many believe he has already attained the greatness linked to Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov. Many others insist Carlsen has already surpassed the feats of these great predecessors.

Now 29, Carlsen has moved from being the youngest World champion to be the highest rated player on the all-time list. Many marvel at his hunger to win, his ability to create master-pieces on a chess board and the uncanny knack in squeezing out victories from positions where a draw looks the most probable outcome.

In this exclusive interview to Sportstar, Carlsen speaks about, among other topics, what it means to be a world champion, chasing records, rating points and being successful.

Magnus, we met when your reign as the World champion started in 2013. So let’s go back to that point in time. Five years, and counting, as the World champion. How has been the journey so far?

Well, there have been many tournaments. There have been World championships after World Championships. After that, there have been ups and downs. But mostly I would say it’s been a privilege. And it’s been a blessing to be able to experience this.

Drawing the line: Carlsen is much sought after everywhere, but he knows how much of attention to bask in without affecting his game.

You are acknowledged as the man who changed the dynamics of chess. You set a new high in rating and now stand over 100 points above even someone who is ranked 10th in the World. How do you manage to keep risking your rating and still stay way above the second-ranked player?

Right now, my rating I guess, is 2870. And it still feels a bit surreal to look before tournaments. I’m looking at the calibre of players and to look at the scores that I have to achieve to maintain, or increase, that rating feels a bit surreal. But I guess, there have been others, especially (Fabiano) Caruana.

Worthy rival: Carlsen refers to Fabiano Caruana as a worthy rival and says that the latter’s inconsistency has been his undoing.

He came quite close, but what’s been consistent for many years is his inconsistency at that level. I guess that’s what sets me apart.

You seem to play every game to win and are not known to settle for short draws, like most players from the earlier generation. Do you always strive to draw blood out of a stone?

I think my play has become a bit different lately. It’s been more about going for the throat early on than just trying to retain the tension. And I think for me, it’s been an evolution in the sense that I’m not an old player by any means, but I’m experienced. And maybe I don’t always have quite the same energy as when I was 20-21 years old. So it’s not as easy for me to grind out these long wins as it used to be. So now I’ve had to change my approach and try to go for the throat earlier on. And to be honest, it’s worked very, very well. I still try to maintain a balance of being able to do both. But I feel that it’s very, very difficult, and really very easy to lean too much, one way or the other.

For someone who is the highest rated, what does rating mean to you?

I don’t think about it too much, especially when I feel like I have a rating that I’m happy with. Like if I lose a few points or win a few, it doesn’t really matter because I know that I’m comfortably in the No. 1 spot. But, when it’s not going that well, when I’m starting to look over my shoulder at the others who are coming closer, it’s a bit different. Then I care more about what rating I win or lose. But, I think, in general, you can care about it before a game or after a game. But when you’re there playing, you don’t care about it. And it’s been the same with me of my streak of not losing any games for a long time. I think about it a bit before the game. But when I’m there, I still risk when I have to. It’s not like I make moves based on the fact that I don’t want to lose.

Managing stress: Carlsen has his own ways of taking his mind off chess and unwinding.

Magnus, do you chase records, like the one of 110 unbeaten games in succession, held by Sergie Tiviakov?

I don’t think it’s something you say about trying to achieve. But I think when you’re close, it’s sort of starting to feel more special. And for me, it’s just a symbol of how far I’ve come in the last year when I have not only been able to win a number of tournaments, win a number of good games, but to actually not lose as well. And certainly it gives me great confidence to take chances, knowing that I am not losing too often.

For someone so successful, what does success mean to you?

It means that not only can I do what I love, but I can also sometimes, you know, reap the rewards. I’m a very competitive person. So whenever I play, I want to win.

Since December last, you have won eight events on the trot. But thereafter, given the lofty standards you’ve set, there has been a slump in your performance. Does it hurt?

Yes. I would say that this slump or these few tournaments that haven’t gone that well, I would have taken it a lot harder if it hadn’t been for the streak of good tournaments that I had earlier in the year. Now it’s more of yeah, that tournament didn’t go that great, but it’s not that big a deal. I will come back in the next one. Still, I feel like this tournament (Tata Steel rapid and blitz tournament) was a great opportunity for me to show that I still got it, that I can actually post a very good result against the very best in rapid and blitz because that’s sort of been missing recently. And for sure, these last few results have made me very, very motivated to strike back.

How would you reflect on your first loss in tie-breaker, since 2007, after running into Ding Liren in the Sinquefield Cup?

First of all, the Sinquefield tie-break didn’t really hurt me very much because I won the last two games (of regular rounds). So I felt like I sort of salvaged a very bad tournament to indeed a decent one. And losing the tie-break, I mean, I never liked to lose but I felt like that was half a loss. Getting to the tiebreak, getting the shared first and the classical was a major win considering how the tournament had gone.

And the defeat to Wesley So in the Fischer Random World Championship final?

The defeat to Wesley was obviously horrible. It was just the wheels coming off and it’s happened to me in rapid and blitz before. I’ve had bad days and I think it’s like that for everybody. If you skid in rapid and blitz, it’s not one game like in classical where maybe you can lose, maybe you can even salvage a draw. In rapid and blitz, it’s so difficult to turn around. And that is what I will try, to be able to deal with disappointments that are inevitably going to come in a tournament like this and just to strike back.

Magnus, how do you manage to perform at such a high level in spite of the demands on your time wherever you go? With so much attention on you, how do you retain your focus on the job?

I try to get away a bit so as not to use too much unnecessary energy. One of my favourite quotes is, “the second worst thing that I know, is a lot of attention. And the worst thing is no attention.”

So I’m very happy with all the attention chess is getting. For me personally, when I feel like I have the energy, I’m very happy to give something back as well. Unfortunately, it also means that when you don’t have the energy to give there, you can’t really get away. So it’s a blessing and a curse. I mean, I try to do whatever feels right. But, in the end, I’ve created the best conditions for performing well and that’s always the most important for me.

And, before I let you go, what do you think of Viswanathan Anand’s form and longevity as an elite player, at 50, in today’s fiercely competitive chess world?

I’m extremely impressed that he’s still so good. And he was the favourite to take the last spot for the Grand Chess Tour Finals, which speaks of the consistency he has shown in the GCT tournaments this year. It’s wonderful to see that he’s still doing so well.

Some good words: Carlsen praises Anand’s longevity in the game and concedes that he can’t handle the knights as well as Anand does.

Obviously, in a historical context, he’s, at least, one of the top-10 players of all time. And it’s a privilege to still be able to compete with him. I played him, I would say at least 10 times this year, so he still gives me great battles.

And finally, what is that one chess-playing quality that Anand has and you wish you had?

I wish I was better at handling the knights. The way he handles knights is something I can never compete with.

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