Magnus Carlsen, an unlikely chess master

Magnus Carlsen, an unlikely chess master
Adam Thomson

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He moonlights as a model, naps on the job, skips homework – and snuffs out every rival

At five years old – an age by which any aspiring grandmaster should at least have made a start – Magnus Carlsen showed little interest in chess. His father, a keen amateur player, stowed away the family chessmen and assumed that was that

He was wrong. This week, in a tournament held in the Russian town of Sochi, the 23-year-old Norwegian retained the world championship he first won almost effortlessly last year. Appearing in a casual blue jacket covered with the logos of his sponsors, Carlsen said in modest but self-assured tones that he was “happy and relieved . . . it was a tough match”. Sunday afternoon’s victory against former champion Viswanathan Anand confirmed what many have long suspected: that the man who won is the best chess player there has ever been.

It was when he was 13, still baby-faced and turning up to tournaments with Donald Duck comic books in his hand, that Carlsen took chess’s highest official title of grandmaster. He topped the world rankings six years later, in 2010, and this May achieved a rating of 2,882 points – the highest of any human in history. His meteoric rise prompted Garry Kasparov, a former world champion, to predict: “Before he is done, Carlsen will have changed our ancient game.”

For a professional chess player, he is utterly atypical. Most develop an obsession for the game within a couple of years of learning to talk; Carlsen was eight by the time he finally came around to it. Most eschew other activities; Carlsen loves football and skiing. As a boy, he practised ski-jumping. He supports Real Madrid, often attending matches, and follows basketball’s Boston Celtics. He even models for G-Star Raw, a Dutch fashion company known for
urban jeanswear.

His vocation transports him to a fiendishly complicated universe of time, space and material balance. So huge is the number of possible chess games that, by comparison, all the particles in the known cosmos seem like a few jangling pieces of change. Computers have become an indispensable tool to professional players trying to navigate these constellations of possibility, and to the theoreticians who help them. “When you watch professionals play the opening, you assume that they are calculating variations,” says Frederic Friedel, co-founder of Chessbase, a software company. “A lot of the time, they are just trying to remember computer lines.”

Not Carlsen. When he plays, often in ripped denims, he fidgets and slouches. A few moves into the eighth game of last week’s match against Mr Anand, he propped his square jaw on his left hand – and appeared to take a nap. But the most remarkable thing about this largely self-taught player is his unorthodox approach to the game. He sidesteps almost all of the computer wizardry that others consider essential. Paying far less attention to opening theory than his rivals, he is happy to go down paths that may offer no advantage yet have the benefit of dragging opponents out of their “openings book”. Once beyond the reaches of computer-aided openings, Carlsen starts to turn the screw.

Peter Heine, himself one of the world’s top players, is Carlsen’s most-trusted assistant. “Magnus believes in his pure chess strengths,” he told the FT this week. “You shouldn’t be able to do that in today’s world and none of us thought it was possible. Luckily, we were wrong.”
When preparing for a match, the world champion has better things to do than homework. “We play a lot of basketball,” Mr Heine says.

He has a seemingly innate understanding of where to put the pieces – as if chess were his mother tongue

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Away from the chessboard, Carlsen is surprisingly normal. The son of two engineers, he was born in Tonsberg, south of Oslo, and grew up with his three sisters. Friends say he has a good sense of humour. Last year he moved into a flat in central Oslo; before that he lived in the basement of the family home.

Carlsen never went to university. But in 2003 his father took a break from his managerial post at Exxon and the family embarked on a year-long, 10,000km road trip around Europe to broaden the children’s horizons.

Today Carlsen is single and rich, but his manager Espen Agdestein says he “has never bought an expensive thing in his life”. Flashy cars? He has yet to acquire a driving licence. At home, he does not even use a chessboard.

What Carlsen does possess, however, is a phenomenal memory. By the age of five, he had memorised the names and populations of all 430 of Norway’s municipalities. “His favourite board and pieces are the ones in his head,” Mr Heine says.

Carlsen’s style is positional, relying more on the accumulation of tiny advantages than the attacking pyrotechnics of, say, Kasparov. For his victims, that means slow asphyxiation as he methodically snuffs out their hopes.

Just ask Judit Polgar, one of the greatest chess players of all time, who has found herself more than once on the wrong end of Carlsen’s merciless technique. “When I played him, it felt like I was drowning,” she told the FT.

What mesmerises the chess world is that even with the game’s unfathomable complexities, Carlsen has a seemingly innate understanding of where to put the pieces – as if chess were his mother tongue. Asked in 2012 how he played so well, he replied, “I don’t know . . . the game somehow comes naturally”.

What next? Having arrived at the top, it is tempting to think that the only path runs downhill. But Ms Polgar thinks otherwise. “What is frightening is to see him close to 2,900 points,” she says. “I think he can play much better.”

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