The Rise of Magnus Carlsen (2023)

Magnus Carlsen, a twenty-year-old Norwegian, first rose to No. 1 in the global chess rankings last year.Photograph by Platon

In many ways, tournament chess is still played very much as it was a century ago. Players land their pieces with the delicate thump of baize on wood, then jot their moves on scoresheets and tap the clock forcefully, or gently, depending on the mood they wish to communicate to their opponents. Flanking attendants, called arbiters, make sure that nobody cheats. It’s still quiet enough at a tournament that, among the spectators, you can hear your neighbors’ breathing. But the game has changed in at least one fundamental respect: it is now monitored, and even shaped, by computers. Chess pieces are embedded with magnetic sensors that transmit their location on the board to a computer, which relays this information to the Internet. Online, chess programs provide running commentary, evaluating which player is ahead and whether the move he or she is making is brilliant or a blunder. In a modern tournament, just about the only people who don’t know precisely how well they are doing are the players.

But by the sixth round of the London Chess Classic, in December, Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian phenom, knew that he was behind. If he lost the game, having already been defeated in two earlier ones, he would probably lose the tournament. He was No. 2 in the world rankings, and a victory would give him a good shot at recovering the top spot; he had played inconsistently in recent months, falling from No. 1. There was talk that he was distracted, underprepared, and overexposed. Chess players trying to get out of trouble act a lot like students taking an exam that they haven’t studied for. Carlsen, who had turned twenty just two weeks earlier, often gives off a vibe of someone who is too cool to do his homework, but now he looked a bit panicked. He cupped his head in his hands, rocked his body, and stared at the board, trying to reboot his brain. At one point, it took him twenty-seven minutes to move a piece.

Carlsen’s problems had begun on his second move. Playing black, he had sent out his queen-side knight beyond his pawns—an unusual decision, given that his opponent, the thirty-five-year-old Russian champion Vladimir Kramnik, had already placed two white pawns in the center of the board. So Kramnik had a nice line of pawns where they would do the most good, and Carlsen had a poorly placed piece that threatened to block any attack he might want to mount. A database of nearly five million games indicated that, when these moves were made, white was twice as likely to win as black; Carlsen was already at a significant disadvantage.

Kramnik, one of the last players trained by the old Soviet chess machine, was eerily steady before the board—at times nearly motionless. Carlsen’s eyelids fluttered in a trance of concentration. He looked boyish in a crisp white shirt and a pair of slim-fit pants that had been given to him by G-Star RAW, the Dutch fashion company, with which he has an endorsement deal.

On the eleventh move, Kramnik traded a knight for one of Carlsen’s bishops—an exchange that Kramnik loves. Kramnik’s game is formidable, and his confidence in the endgame is particularly admired. Carlsen, who is largely self-taught, can play various styles; most often, he works toward gaining over-all control of the board, instead of trying to capture prized pieces. The Russian champion Garry Kasparov describes Carlsen’s style as “strangling pressure, not direct hits.”

Kramnik and Carlsen traded queens, then a pair of rooks. With many of the high-value pieces off the board, the real contest began: the march of the pawns. While Carlsen had been experimenting with his knight, Kramnik had been able to wipe out Carlsen’s center pawns and push his own forward. When a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board, it becomes any piece the player wants, usually a queen. Computer programs now gave Kramnik a commanding advantage. Carlsen had to forfeit his knight to stave off Kramnik’s pawns.

Meanwhile, west of London, Kasparov, who had flown from Moscow to sign autographs at the competition, landed at Heathrow. He turned on his smartphone, examined the game’s positions on the screen, and pronounced Carlsen’s situation “impossible.” Kasparov trained Carlsen for most of last year; Carlsen found him too intense, and ended the arrangement. Kasparov still seems to look out for Carlsen, though, as if worried about a careless nephew.

Chess is played on the board and in the head. As the game continued, Carlsen skirted disaster again and again, and Kramnik’s confidence appeared to fray. After taking Carlsen’s knight, Kramnik could have reasonably expected a quick win, and now it was clear that he’d have to settle for a slow one. Kramnik is said to resent the attention that Carlsen gets, and to take special pleasure in beating him. It must particularly rankle Kramnik when Carlsen adopts a blasé pose—declaring, for example, that losing at Monopoly upsets him more than losing at chess. Carlsen’s dislike of Kramnik might be even stronger. He blames his former tutor Kasparov, whom Kramnik dethroned in 2000: “Kasparov really hates Kramnik. And so by listening to Kasparov . . . it’s really hard not to get some of these thoughts myself.”

Kramnik kept advancing, and Carlsen stayed one step ahead of him. Kramnik drank his tea; Carlsen sipped orange juice. Carlsen managed to move a pawn down the board, forcing Kramnik to send his bishop to block it. On the sixty-second move, more than six hours after the game started, Kramnik erred. He likes to clean up the board before finishing off his opponent, and so he initiated an exchange of knights and rooks when he ought to have dealt with Carlsen’s pawn.

The two players were now down to only eight pieces: their kings, five pawns, and Kramnik’s stuck bishop. The computer programs still favored Kramnik, but they do not take into account momentum and fatigue; complex endgames confuse them. (Kasparov, who had just arrived at the tournament, looked at the game on a large screen in the V.I.P. lounge and said, “The computer is useless.”)

Eight moves later, Kramnik had a chance to make a move that would soon lead to checkmate—the computer programs saw it and Carlsen saw it.

Kramnik did not. He moved his king to the side. Carlsen immediately boxed it in with his own. Kramnik tested the boundaries of the prison, but he could not get out. The new reality dawned on him; the computer programs now called the game even. The two players jockeyed. Kramnik assayed with his bishop, and Carlsen countered with his king. They did this three times, resulting in an automatic draw.

Customarily, the players go from the auditorium to a nearby “analysis room,” where they discuss their game with the tournament’s commentators. When Carlsen ambled in, people put down their phones and laptops and applauded. His recovery had been more dramatic than many of his victories. Kasparov was amazed. “It happens,” he said, happily. Carlsen, with a lopsided grin, sat down to discuss the game. Kramnik never showed up. I saw his pretty wife rushing toward an exit, as if the building were on fire. Later that night, Carlsen sent out a tweet: “Good thing I didn’t resign.”

“At the time I started to play chess, I was a pretty much normal kid,” Carlsen recalled. We were sitting in an outlet of Costa, a British coffee chain, off the lobby of the Hilton hotel in Kensington. It was two days after his match with Kramnik. (Carlsen had won the next day’s match and therefore the tournament, regaining his No. 1 ranking.) He had arrived in London on December 5th and was scheduled to leave on the 20th. He has essentially been a full-time chess player since he was fifteen, and spends more than a hundred and sixty days on the road each year. When he is not travelling, he lives with his family in a house in Baerum, an affluent suburb of Oslo. He rents the basement from his parents. For this trip, some friends from the chess club at his high school had come with him to play in the open part of the tournament. Carlsen, who left school two years ago without formally graduating, had gone out with his old friends for pizza and bowling, but at most tournaments he is either alone or with his father, Henrik, who helps manage his career and, to an extent, his life. If Carlsen plays in a tournament in less than clean clothes, chances are that Henrik did not come with him. Carlsen spends evenings in his hotel room, streaming TV shows on his laptop—“The A-Team” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are favorites—and going on Skype and Facebook. Sometimes, he works out at the gym to relieve the tension of a match. When he is at home, he plays Wii Sports Resort and Mario Kart, and with his family he plays SingStar, a karaoke game; he also likes to tease his three sisters. I asked Carlsen if he wanted to go to college. “I have no interest,” he said.

The first time I met Carlsen, last May in New York, he had seemed even more introverted than you’d expect a chess pro to be. Henrik sat by his side, and Carlsen let his father do nearly all the talking. Carlsen barely made eye contact with me. By that time, Kasparov, among others, had called him the most promising player of his generation, but Carlsen’s reputation was limited to the chess world. In the months since, he had become a minor celebrity, thanks mostly to advertisements that he had made for G-Star. Carlsen has a baby face that is quickly solidifying into that of a young man, and he has the same loose sandy locks as Justin Bieber. Carlsen now makes more than a million dollars a year in endorsements and fees.

We met up again four months later, at the Cooper Square Hotel, in the East Village. It was Fashion Week, and Carlsen’s face—turned tough through strenuous furrowing of his eyebrows—glowered from billboards and magazines. An event called Magnus Carlsen Against the World had been put together by G-Star. He played against a team of three grandmasters. Each member of the trio suggested a move, and an online audience chose which one to play against Carlsen. Not surprisingly, Carlsen won. Many people in the chess world considered the contest vulgar. Simen Agdestein, who trained Carlsen as a boy in Oslo, and who remains an admirer of his playing, said, “The only point of that was to make Magnus more famous.” At the trophy presentation, the actress Liv Tyler, another G-Star endorser, gave Carlsen, who wore a G-Star cardigan and jeans, a silver plaque, and TV interviewers lobbed softball questions at him.

“There are lots of pretty girls in New York,” an interviewer said. “Any you’d want to meet?”

“I’m sure there’ll be some at the G-Star show,” he said, awkwardly.

Fresh from his comeback against Kramnik, Carlsen was a lot more relaxed. Well built, he was wearing a checked shirt over a T-shirt—both his own purchases—and he looked like a European college kid on holiday. Indeed, his next stop was a Manchester United soccer game. Most grandmasters start chess extremely young—the great Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, with whom Carlsen is sometimes compared, was four years old when he first played—and I assumed that Carlsen had begun at a very early age, too. He hadn’t. As a little boy, however, he had shown unusual mathematical aptitude, which is often found in chess talents. “He would be thinking ten to the second, ten to the third power, and he would go on and on,” his grandfather Kurt Carlsen, a retired chemist, recalled. Before Magnus was two, he could complete a fifty-piece jigsaw puzzle. By four, he had memorized the names and populations of most of Norway’s four hundred and thirty municipalities. He built elaborate models with Lego bricks. “My parents tell me I used to weigh them,” he recalled.

When Carlsen was about five, his father, who was then working as a supply manager for Exxon, brought out the chessboard. Henrik had played the game well as a young man. He wanted to teach his oldest child, Ellen, and Magnus, who is a year younger. But neither paid much attention, and Henrik grew frustrated and gave up. “I said to myself, ‘Maybe chess is not for them. It doesn’t matter—they can do something else.’ ” During these years, Magnus was more engaged by soccer and skiing, and the family already played hearts, bridge, and Monopoly; in those contests, Ellen and Ingrid, who is three years younger than Magnus, ganged up on him.

When Magnus was almost eight, Henrik made another attempt to interest the kids in chess. Magnus liked games, and this time, he recalled, he found it “just a richer and more complicated game than any other.” He soon beat Ellen, who quit playing. Magnus began consulting his father’s small collection of chess books. He read “Find the Plan,” by Bent Larsen, a standard introductory text, and more advanced books, like “The Complete Dragon.” (The title refers to a form of defense in which the pattern of pawns resembles a dragon’s tail.) He was the sort of child who studied what interested him and ignored what didn’t. School, which bored him, was quickly supplanted by chess. “During the whole third grade, I think it’s fair to say, I didn’t do my homework once,” he recalled. At breakfast, he sat down at his own table and tested chess moves on a board. He recalled, “I found it natural—I didn’t really have the need to socialize with my family over meals. Dinner I, of course, ate with them.”

After playing for a year, Magnus beat Henrik for the first time, in a game of “blitz chess,” in which each player has five minutes to make all his moves. Magnus began to play in local junior competitions. Henrik picked him up after ski-jump practice and ferried him to the chess tournaments. Carlsen’s family was not unlike those American families in which the parents are careful not to tell their children that they have to excel but the children sense it anyway. Håkon Åmdal, a friend of Carlsen’s from school, says, “My impression is that Magnus chose to play chess by himself, but he has this feeling that he satisfies his dad by it.”

“Well, of course it’s depressing. It’s supposed to be depressing. It’s a tragedy.”

Link copied

In March, 2000, Henrik arranged for Magnus, now nine, to spend a few hours every week with a chess teacher, Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen, a former Norwegian junior champion. Carlsen liked Hansen’s casual style; the classes were more like spirited bull sessions. The teacher, in turn, was struck by his pupil’s gifts. “Everything I said he understood so easily,” Hansen told me at the Sjakkhuset, or Chess House, in Oslo, where a biography of Carlsen—the second one—was for sale. “It didn’t take long before it got more and more difficult for me to win.” Hansen was particularly impressed with Carlsen’s prodigious memory for board positions and moves. Last year, when Hansen and Carlsen played together in the Siberian Olympiad, Carlsen pointed to a game that they were both watching and said to Hansen, “That’s a variation you showed me.”

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Trent Wehner

Last Updated: 01/26/2023

Views: 6268

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (76 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Trent Wehner

Birthday: 1993-03-14

Address: 872 Kevin Squares, New Codyville, AK 01785-0416

Phone: +18698800304764

Job: Senior Farming Developer

Hobby: Paintball, Calligraphy, Hunting, Flying disc, Lapidary, Rafting, Inline skating

Introduction: My name is Trent Wehner, I am a talented, brainy, zealous, light, funny, gleaming, attractive person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.