At 24 years old, Magnus Carlsen is the world’s best chess player. He became a Grandmaster at 13 and has been proclaimed a genius throughout the world. So what drives Carlsen? We met up with him in New York to find out.
Giuseppe Lettieri loosens his tie and wipes a bead of sweat from his brow.
“He destroyed me slowly. Like a cobra. It’s a specialty of his. Magnus Carlsen is more than a genius. I don’t have the words to describe him.”
It’s 30°C and sticky. We’re sitting on red leather sofas in the legendary Marshall Chess Club in Greenwich Village, and the atmosphere is charged with excitement. Charged with history. This is the place where Bobby Fischer shone. Where Stanley Kubrick and Howard Stern were bamboozled. The open windows let in the scent of cherry blossom.
Carlsen has taken off his jacket. He’s been playing simultaneous games against 12 opponents from around the world, beating them one after another. Elite player Giuseppe Lettieri was the opponent who lasted the longest. For more than an hour, Carlsen paced between the boards, biting his lip and moving pieces at lightning speed.
He has it all
“No-one can figure out why he’s so good,” says Espen Agdestein, Carlsen’s manager. “He has all the characteristics you need to play chess, plus a few more. It’s miraculous.”
A good memory and an analytical mind are important. As are extensive practice, the desire to learn from mistakes and an interest in mastering new strategies. Espen Diretrichs, a brain expert and professor of neurology, says strong motivation in one particular area can develop the brain to extremes. Carlsen’s creative artistry has earned him the nickname “the Mozart of chess.”
“I usually surprise my opponents,” Carlsen says. “I like creativity in chess. But perhaps the most important reason for my success is that I enjoy reading about chess theory and chess history – and I remember what I read.”
Carlsen is convinced that talent hunters should look for those who are extremely interested, not just those who find things easy.
“Look at Kasparov and Fischer. They were chess history experts,” Carlsen says.
He also believes you have to overestimate your abilities in order to progress.
“Studies show that realists are also prone to depression. If you don’t overestimate your abilities several times over, you just see dangers and not possibilities. If you doubt your abilities, you’ll never improve.”
Not a straight way to the top
Carlsen is confident now, but at the age of 13, after sensationally becoming the youngest ever chess Grandmaster, he ran into problems. Suddenly, things just started to go wrong.
“I thought it was a combination of bad luck and making poor choices,” he says. “In hindsight, I can see that I just wasn’t good enough. If I’d been enjoying myself, there’s no guarantee that I would have done what I needed to do to take that next step. If you don’t believe in yourself and have negative thoughts, it doesn’t matter what you can do – you won’t be able to put your skills into practice.”
The previous day, Carlsen was spellbinding several thousand business leaders at the Sohn Conference at New York’s Lincoln Center. Wearing a blindfold, and with a clock ticking on stage, he had to win three games in nine minutes. Gasps of admiration could be heard from the audience. One of Carlsen’s opponents was actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, a star of US crime show The Wire. The other two were financial heavyweights with excellent chess skills.
“Don’t you mean board two?” Carlsen asked from behind the mask when the move from Akinnagbe is called from board one. Although he couldn’t physically see the game, Carlsen was fully aware of what was going on. Carlsen says he puts each game in a dedicated slot in his brain, rather like a slide projector.
Chess is much more than a job to Carlsen. “It doesn’t feel like working,” he says. “Of course it’s how I earn money, but I just think about it as a way to have fun. Sometimes, it feels as though it’s my life. Especially at tournaments. The whole atmosphere. The excitement. I find myself thinking ‘this is where I want to be’. It draws me in!”
Following his victory in the World Chess Championship, the elite of the Norwegian sporting world, including the likes of Petter Northug and Suzann Pettersen, nominated Carlsen as sports personality of the year. But unlike many top athletes, he has no help from a coach.
“In the final analysis, I have to rely on myself,” he says. “I don’t use a mental coach, although that could be useful, but I don’t have problems with motivation or my approach to games and tournaments. I am highly focused.”
However, Carlsen does have some tricks and routines to get the best possible level of performance. If he’s playing in a tournament a few time zones away, he will arrive 3–4 days ahead to recover his energy. Two hours before game time, he must not be disturbed at any cost.
Carlsen stays fit through running and yoga, as well as playing basketball, tennis, and soccer with friends. This physical regime separated him from other top players a few years ago. But now, he says, many of them work out.
“Before, I rarely saw other players get on the treadmill prior to a tournament or have a massage after the game – now it’s commonplace. The players are professionals, and they’re concerned with their physical as well as their mental condition. If you exercise, you get more energy, and that will take you further in long games and tournaments.”
In 2013, Carlsen made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He has modeled clothes, posed with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Vladimir Putin, Cristiano Ronaldo, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. But he is certainly not starstruck.
“I admire events more than people,” Carlsen says.
And if he could choose anyone in the world to spend an evening playing chess with?
“If I could meet anyone I was that drawn to, there would probably be better ways to spend the time than playing chess!”