Scanorama: The Mozart of Chess

At 13, Magnus Carlsen became the world’s youngest grandmaster and the third youngest of all time. Today, at 19, he’s the youngest world No 1 in the game’s history.

The Norwegian wunderkind has stormed his way to the top of the chess world, and could become the youngest world champion ever.

Time’s running out, though, if he’s to depose Garry Kasparov, who rewrote the record books at 22.

The reigning champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, successfully defended his crown against Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov this year, which means Carlsen won’t get a title shot until 2012. Kasparov is now Carlsen’s advisor and coach.

Numero uno.

How did you and Kasparov team up?
A mutual friend told him about me in 2003. After we met at a tournament, he sent me a signed copy of his book. We didn’t start working together until December 2008 when the same friend initiated contact.

When did you realize that you could become the world No 1?
It’s been a dream of mine for quite some time, but it became a reality a few years ago when people started talking about it.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Maybe somebody else should answer this one, but hopefully I don’t have many weaknesses. I try to be strong in my opening, middlegame, and endgame.

How much do you practice?
It varies a lot from player to player as to how and how much you practice. For me, playing in tournaments and preparing for them is the best way to train. Last year, I played about a dozen tournaments.

I also read a lot about chess and play chess on the Internet. I’ve been working on openings with Kasparov, between tournaments. I’ve also been working with Olympiatoppen [an an elite athletic institute for Norwegian Olympic hopefuls], to learn more about conditioning and nutrition.

Do you play for a club? Can you play for our country?
There’s a Chess Olympics every four years, and in 2014 the games will be held in Tromso, Norway. There are also European and world chess team championships.
In Germany, for example, there’s Chess Bundesliga, which attracts many of Europe’s top grandmasters. And there’s the European Club Cup. I’ve played for Norway’s Asker, Germany’s Baden-Baden, and an Armenia’s Mika.

So, what’s next?
Right now, I just want to develop as a chess player. I will be playing fewer tournaments this year and spending more time on training and conditioning so that I play to the best of my ability in the tournaments that I enter.
Longer term, I hope to become world champion, but at the moment, there are too many uncertainties around possible world championship ties to waste energy on that.

Is chess financially rewarding?
Tournament organizers typically offer an appearance fee or prize money, or both. That’s enough to live on if you’re in the top 20, but there are hundreds of professional chess players out there.

My agent, Espen Agdestein, helps me attract sponsors to cover my costs and training with Kasparov. The contracts with my two main sponsors, Arctic Securities and Simonsen law firm each bring in about $170,000 a year. Ideally, we’d like to have a few more sponsors.

What is your earliest memory of chess?
I know I played chess when I was five, but I don’t really remember it. I have vivid memories of my first tournament, and I was eight then. It was very different from playing soccer with my friends.

Your greatest triumph?
Winning China’s Nanjing Pearl Spring tournament last fall, and the World Blitz Championship in Moscow later that fall. The Nanjing tournament went exactly to plan, and it’s hard to top that.

There’s a saying in chess that you must always be one move ahead of your opponent. Is that right?
Generally speaking, you should out-think your opponent or, when the analysis goes no farther, make a better evaluation of the situation.

Does thinking like a grandmaster prove useful outside chess?
In chess, the key things are memory, the ability to concentrate on the task at hand, and make quick decisions under pressure. I’m sure the same skills would also help at work, in school, and just in your everyday life.

Who’s your favorite opponent?
I love playing against the best, so the world champion, Anand, or his predecessor, [Russia’s] Vladimir Kramnik.

Black or white?
White, like most chess players.

Published in the November 2010 issue of Scanorama.

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