Magnus Carlsen: I'm not a freak, I'm just curious

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen found a calling in the sport as it is played by 'intelligent' and 'civilised' people; the Norwegian holds the top rank.

Carlsen with the Tata Steel Chess India trophy in Kolkata recently. He has won seven tournaments so far in 2019.   -  PTI

Like most parents, Henrik Carlsen and wife Sigrun Oen Carlsen hoped their children would have “as normal a childhood as possible.” Henrik, an IT consultant, and Sigrun, a chemical engineer, though secretly wished that at least one of their four children would be a genius.

As things unfolded, the Carlsens did not have to wait for long to discover the ‘genius’ at home.

Magnus, brother to elder sister Ellen and the younger ones, Ingrid and Signe, was destined for greatness.

As a two-year-old, Magnus was putting together 50-piece jigsaw puzzles. By four, he could name most municipalities of Norway.

When Henrik introduced a five-year-old Magnus to chess, the child did not show any great interest. He was more keen in making advanced Lego models, after going through pages of instructions meant for children at least 10 years older.

“I felt, 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.” These words from Henrik reflected the intention with which he introduced chess to his children.

It was only after Magnus turned eight that he showed interest in chess. By this time, the family had spent a year in Espoo, in Finland, and Brussels, Belgium, before turning to Lommedalen in Norway, in 1998.

Carlsen’s parents and two of his three sisters snapped in Chennai when the chess ace came for the World Championship against Viswanathan Anand in Chennai in 2013.   -  R. RAGU

 

Soon, Magnus was winning age-group tournaments. His father took the children out of school for a year so that they could travel through Europe as Magnus performed and caught the attention of the chess world as a “prodigy.”

Since then, the rise of Magnus was meteoric, to say the least. He became a Grandmaster at 13. The youngest World No. 1 at 19. The strongest player in history by surpassing Garry Kasparov’s rating record at 21. Youngest World champion at 22. Six months later, he attained the highest rating of 2882! What more, since July 2011, Magnus remains World No. 1.

READ| Magnus Carlsen: I am a very competitive person

For the uninitiated, the four-digit rating in chess is a reflection of a player’s playing strength. Higher the rating, stronger the player!

What makes Magnus a cut above the rest?

“I’m not a freak. I’m just curious. One of the things that first attracted me to chess is that it brings you into contact with intelligent, civilised people — men of the stature of Garry Kasparov, the former world champion, who was my part-time coach. There are very few unpleasant people in chess, which cannot be said of all professional sports.” These words from Magnus in 2010 summed up his opinion about the environment in which top-level chess is played.

Flying high: Garry Kasparov matching wits against Anatoly Karpov in a tournament in 1999. Kasparov’s highest rating was 2851. Carlsen has surpassed this with a tally of 2882, twice in his career.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

But a closer look at Magnus, the man, brings to the fore the contradictions in his personality.

He is known to concentrate for long hours over the board. But is easily bored. He is a self-confessed football fanatic. But calls himself extremely lazy. He is capable of calculating up to 30-40 moves ahead in ‘certain lines’ but doesn’t find it reason enough to be called a ‘genius’.

Unlike in the recent past, Magnus used his energy to sit long for a game instead of agreeing to early draws. He played on, and on, because he felt he was better than his rival and, due to a strong urge, wanted to prove it. Blessed with enormous patience, Magnus showed a tendency to involve his rival in positional debates, even in dull, drab positions.

READ| Magnus Carlsen: I try to land the first punch

The 2013 World championship match with Anand was a testimony of this approach of Magnus. There were games where he tested Anand’s energy and patience. As the contest went deep into the 12-game match, the difference in the energy level of a soon-to-be 23 Magnus and a going-to-be 44 Anand played a decisive role.

Like any champion, Magnus prepares hard and makes the most of the preparation. A nod of the head to agree for an early draw is not for Magnus. He is fine with working for his wins. He is persistent and has the heart to fight. He is not shy of taking the game deep into the endgame. He does not look equally impressive at all times but his search for victory continues.

It is this tireless approach that saw Magnus retain his rating domination that almost ended in January this year. The uninterrupted reign as the World No. 1 since July 2011 was briefly threatened when Fabiano Caruana came within three points in live rating.

It was due to his relentless pursuit of excellence that Magnus shook off an ordinary start at the Tata Steel Masters to win the title. He went on to triumph in Shamkir and in Karlsrude/Badan Badan — all in classical format.

As a result, Magnus gained a whopping 40 points to open up a huge gap between him and the next best. No wonder, Magnus ended the year at 2872 — 50 points clear of the second-placed Caruana. In fact, this year, he has won seven tournaments till the end of November.

This domination is almost reminiscent of the days of Kasparov who won 15 consecutive tournaments between 1981 and 1990. Magnus is fourth on the all-time list after winning eight in-a-row from December 2018. Alexander Alekhine (10) and Anatoly Karpov (nine) are ahead of the Norwegian.

Another standout quality of Magnus is his willingness to play select Swiss League events like Chess Olympiads, Grand Swiss etc., where his rivals are likely to be a couple of 100 rating points below him. That means, in the unlikely event of even a draw, Magnus stands to lose quite a few rating points. But it is also a reflection of his confidence that he turns out for Norway in a team championship without any hope of finishing among the medals.

In the chess world, the topic of Magnus being way ahead of the competition often comes up for discussion. The fact that he is currently rated 100 points over the World No. 7 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov speaks volumes of his dominance. The biggest reason behind his consistent, authoritative display is his undying hunger to search for a win.

If Magnus, too, had opted to play it safe, there was no way he could have surpassed Kasparov’s highest rating of 2851. In fact, his highest rating 2882 — attained twice in his career — is testimony of his hunger to raise the bar further. After all, he is not the best without reason.

As is common with all champions, Magnus wants to be the best in all formats. The versatility of Magnus can be gauged from the fact that he held the world titles in classical, rapid and blitz formats in 2014.

No doubt, in the classical format, he is almost unchallenged. But in shorter formats, he has serious competition.

During the Tata Steel event in Kolkata in November, Magnus did regain his number one spot in the rapid format but failed to displace Hikaru Nakamura from the No. 1 position in blitz ratings. “I am happy that I am once again No. 1 in rapid. And in blitz, I think, being No. 2 is better than No. 5,” said Magnus when asked what it meant to narrowly missing the opportunity to regain the World No. 1 spots in all three formats.

Carlsen (right) failed to displace Hikaru Nakamura from the No. 1 position in the blitz ratings.   -  RAJEEV BHATT

 

For Magnus, who holds several records including being unbeaten for over 100 classical games, since July 2018, records are among the reasons to stay motivated.

There is no doubt, Magnus knows his best is yet to come. One among the motivating factors is to be the first player to reach a rating of 2900. Currently, only Magnus looks capable of accomplishing the feat.

Given his approach, Magnus could well break the 2900-mark in 2020. In fact, Magnus has given enough evidence of his prowess of performing at a level not seen in world chess. He has won at least six titles by performing at levels of 2900+ as against his actual rating.

What makes Magnus gain rating is his strike-rate against those belonging to the elite. As he once said, “Whenever there are titles to be won, I want to have them. That’s my general mindset.” No wonder, he looks to win games and tournaments. There are several players among the elite who are not unhappy with draws. That’s what sets Magnus apart.

He is aware of what most of his rivals think of him. They are clearly aware, and partly envious, of all the attention he gets, everywhere he turns up. “I think it’s a huge advantage. My opponents are inevitably a little more timid when they play me. I just need to reassert myself and get back to a level of play that justifies their attitude.” These words from Magnus reflect his confidence when pitted against some of the other leading players.

The all-round capabilities of Magnus make him a fine ambassador of the sport. He is already being placed among the Greatest of All Time, alongside Bobby Fischer and Kasparov. Going by his run of success in 2019, few would argue with that. Triumphs in seven tournaments during the year underlines his domination in classical and shorter time-formats.

However, back home in Norway, Magnus had far less to cheer about. In November, at Oslo, Magnus faced Wesley So in the $125,000 Fischer Random world championship and crashed to a heavy 2.5-13.5 defeat. In this form of chess, devised more than a quarter of a century ago by former World champion Bobby Fischer, the pieces on the back row can be positioned in 960 ways. This leads players to come up with original over-the-board ideas.

Magnus, who admitted to being “deeply ashamed” of his display, said, “A lot went very wrong in a short amount of time.”

In the same week, Magnus announced he was officially withdrawing from the Norwegian Chess Federation (NCF). But the Magnus camp made it known that he would continue to represent Norway.

The background to this decision dates back to July this year when the World champion felt ignored by the NCF during the bidding process for the World title-match. Magnus promptly killed the idea of his title- defence at home pointing to the undesirable, added pressure of expectations,

The NCF, on its part, voted against a sponsorship deal of around $5.60 million, with a betting firm, Kindred. Magnus, a strong supporter of this deal, was obviously unhappy.

It is also amazing how Magnus has stayed away from all the attractions and distractions in pursuit of his goals. His fan-following is growing with every passing year and so are the demands on his time. Being mobbed by female fans, in the words of Magnus, “is a curse and a blessing.”

Last year, Magnus confirmed that he had broken up with Synne Christin Larsen, thereby putting an end to a one-year relationship.

 

In terms of wealth, the reported worth of Magnus is over eight million dollars. Analysts feel that together with his sponsorships, endorsements, appearance money, his venture that develops the chess app for children, a newly-formed chess club, along with his winnings, make him a candidate worth over $10 million!

Given his age, drive and enormous potential, Magnus is ready to set fresh benchmarks. His brand of chess has inspired youngsters around the world to play uncompromisingly. With youngsters in the age-group of 13-15 already hitting the headlines and making Magnus, at 29, look like a ‘veteran’, the champion is perpetually busy searching for new ideas to fox the competition.

With performers and champions becoming younger across sporting disciplines, chess, too, has found a path-breaker, who has caught the imagination of the young and the not-so-young in over 190 countries.

Clearly, Magnus is a bigger global star than what he is perceived to be.