New World Champion Magnus Carlsen Could Change the Face of Chess

Article published on Nov. 11, 2013
Article published on Nov. 11, 2013

How would you imagine a typical chess world champion? Quite likely a middle-aged man from one of the former Soviet republics, wearing spectacles and an old-fashioned suit. Forget it. The face of chess today is that of new world champion Magnus Carlsen. Surprisingly, this is a face that can be found on the cover of GQ as well as in chess journals.

On Fri­day 22 No­vem­ber, eight days be­fore his twenty-third birth­day, Nor­we­gian chess player Mag­nus Carlsen be­came chess world cham­pion. He de­feated Viswanathan Anand, twenty years his se­nior and play­ing on his home turf in the city of Chen­nai in the south of India. The Nor­we­gian won three and drew seven of the ten games.

As well as main­tain­ing his sta­tus as world num­ber one, Carlsen works part time as a model. His looks have been com­pared to su­per­stars such as Justin Bieber and Welsh foot­ball wiz­ard Gareth Bale, not ex­actly what you ex­pect from a chess grand­mas­ter

All in good time

Carlsen’s youth has landed him many ac­co­lades. He be­came  the youngest player ever to be ranked world num­ber one on 1 Jan­u­ary 2010 at the age of 19 years and 32 days. At thir­teen he be­came the sec­ond youngest grand­mas­ter ever after Russ­ian Gary Kas­parov, and on Fri­day he be­came the sec­ond youngest world cham­pion. It there­fore comes as a sur­prise to learn that Carlsen has not loved chess all his life. His fa­ther’s first at­tempt to spark his in­ter­est in the game failed mis­er­ably. Carlsen was five at the time and al­ready show­ing signs of a phe­nom­e­nal mem­ory and dy­namic prob­lem solv­ing abil­ity. But the an­cient game was ini­tially of no in­ter­est. Foot­ball and ski­ing were more his thing.

It all changed three years later. Sud­denly, lit­tle Mag­nus was en­chanted by chess. His ini­tial mo­ti­va­tion was very basic – to beat his elder sis­ter. Soon he was beat­ing much older chil­dren and then adults. When he was thir­teen, he be­came a grand­mas­ter and forced chess leg­end Garry Kas­parov into a speed chess stale­mate.

Every­body knew a star had been born. Lubomír Kaválek, a Czech-Amer­i­can grand­mas­ter, called him the Mozart of chess be­cause his game was not only suc­cess­ful but also beau­ti­ful and imag­i­na­tive. British grand­mas­ter Nigel Short praised his har­mo­nious, ver­sa­tile style that he com­bines with a fierce will to win.  

Many dif­fer­ent play­ers in one

Carlsen is con­sid­ered one of the most cre­ative chess play­ers of all times. His style of play can­not be clearly de­fined. De­feated world cham­pion Viswanathan Anand said that the young Nor­we­gian can be many dif­fer­ent play­ers. Carlsen does not seem to pay too much at­ten­tion to open­ings, so no­body knows what to ex­pect from him in the early stages of the game.

Un­like many other play­ers, Carlsen is not ob­sessed with strate­gic and tac­ti­cal prepa­ra­tion or com­puter analy­sis. In­tu­ition, imag­i­na­tion and im­pro­vi­sa­tion make him unique and often un­pre­dictable. Mid­dlegame is where Carlsen is re­ally strong, ap­ply­ing ‘stran­gling pres­sure’, ac­cord­ing to his for­mer tutor, Garry Kas­parov.

Com­put­ers that analyse games in real time are fre­quently puz­zled by his moves. They can cal­cu­late zil­lions of pos­si­ble moves but they are in­ca­pable of see­ing how un­ex­pected, un­usual moves make op­po­nents ner­vous, con­fus­ing them as to whether the move was a blun­der or an in­ge­nious trap. 

His abil­ity to see things dif­fer­ently and make un­usual moves is ac­com­pa­nied by his unique at­ti­tude. The way he ap­proaches chess is quite para­dox­i­cal. As a child he did not un­der­stand why peo­ple were mak­ing so much fuss about his spec­tac­u­lar wins in si­mul­ta­ne­ous games. Later he claimed to be more trou­bled by los­ing at Mo­nop­oly than at chess.

On the other hand, he is known to be a fierce com­peti­tor who sees the game as a kind of war. In a CBS TV doc­u­men­tary he ad­mit­ted he en­joys watch­ing his op­po­nents suf­fer as they gaze into the eyes of in­evitable de­feat. Al­though his face is rounded and boy­ish, the in­ten­sity of his eyes strike fear into the heart of his op­po­nent across the table. His habit of strolling to neigh­bour­ing chess­boards be­tween moves to check see how other games are de­vel­op­ing may be a fea­ture of Carlsen’s psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare.

Grand­mas­ter, model... and movie star?

He even did it to Kas­parov when he was only thir­teen, claim­ing that he knew what move Kas­parov would make next any­way so there was no point sit­ting at the desk. As a child, Carlsen used to play with a foot­ball while wait­ing for his op­po­nents’ moves. This could be per­ceived as ei­ther ar­ro­gance or a sign of ge­nius, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive.

Of course, hav­ing a young su­per­star is a gift for any sport and an op­por­tu­nity for mar­keters. Carlsen has al­ready mod­elled for a Dutch de­signer cloth­ing com­pany and has been of­fered a role as a chess mas­ter from a far­away galaxy in Star Trek 2. He had to turn the role down be­cause he was un­able to se­cure a work per­mit in time.       

Some chess lovers hope that Carlsen’s fame will make chess pop­u­lar among young peo­ple again. A cen­turies old game may ap­pear ob­so­lete in the age of so­phis­ti­cated com­puter games, but more than 600 mil­lion peo­ple play it world­wide. Eu­rope is a chess strong­hold. It is taught at schools in sev­eral coun­tries. Be­tween 2010 and 2012 in the UK, for ex­am­ple, chess was rein­tro­duced into 175 pri­mary schools.

Chess is al­ready com­pul­sory in pri­mary schools in Ar­me­nia. In Sep­tem­ber 2013, a sub­ject called skill-build­ing chess, de­vel­oped by one of the great­est fe­male play­ers of all time, Judit Polgár, was in­tro­duced in schools in Hun­gary.

Young­sters like to em­u­late the rich and fa­mous, even when they move black and white pieces on a wooden board. Mag­nus Carlsen could prove to be a breath of fresh air for the world of chess. Hav­ing ap­peared on the front page of GQ mag­a­zine and with his great sense of hu­mour, it seems that Carlsen can offer the chess world a lot more than his prodi­gious tal­ent alone. Per­haps he can ful­fil that elu­sive chal­lenge of mak­ing chess cool.