Magnus Carlsen was eight and a half when he won his first tournament. The Washington Post already issued an alert as early as 2004, naming the then 13-year-old the “Mozart of chess”. But to no avail. For Carlsen went on to win the prestigious title of International Grandmaster, reaping victory on victory to reach the top of the Elo chess-player rating system in 2010. He was 19. Even Kasparov had to wait till 20 to reach such heights. Last week in New York, the Norwegian chess player MagnusCarlsen beat the Russian player Sergueï Kariakine after twelve eventful games. Numéro publishes today its interview with this chest serial killer.
Numéro Homme: You were recently compared to a boa constrictor that slowly wraps itself round its enemy before suffocating it… Is this how we should define your game and your state of mind?
Magnus Carlsen: If by that you mean I don’t try and show off with flamboyant moves, but that I remain constant, playing move after move with concentration and creativity, then you’re probably right. I play until the very end, without any concessions. I never hide behind “safe” moves or supposedly immutable laws. Some people believe, for example, that if two players find themselves in an equal opening position it will necessarily result in a draw. Well I refuse to think like that. I refuse to believe that a result can be written in stone before the game is completely finished. Even if you’re in trouble there’s always a chance of winning.
Have you always had such self confidence?
I’ve definitely always believed in myself. I don’t think losing is something natural. When I was younger I sometimes got blinded by the respect I had for more experienced opponents. With time and success I’ve become bolder. This confidence is essential to maintain a high playing standard, and to unsettle certain players. But it’s not enough. As Bobby Fischer used to say, “I don’t believe in psychology, I only believe in good moves.” He’s right. It’s my moves that must intimidate my opponent more than anything else.
In general, do you usually have a good relationship with your opponents?
We pretty much spend our lives together, so we know each other very well and our relationships are excellent. After the matches we often discuss the games just played and the variety of possibilities and permutations available. And then sometimes we talk about something else. You know the kind of things intelligent people discuss…
Going back to the game, can you tell us about your training?
I prepare by studying openings, the latest trends, I try to imagine new moves. I do some tactical exercises…
That’s what you say every time! It’s a bit vague… Could we at least know if you have a similar lifestyle to a top athlete?
During tournaments I don’t go out, I don’t party, I don’t even do any tourism. It would be a waste of time and energy. When you play chess at my level, preparation is as physical as it is mental,
so yes, you can say it’s like an athlete.
It’s vital that I feel good in my body if I’m going to be in complete control of my faculties. In some tournaments you’re playing five hours a day for two weeks. The physical training is essential for when you enter that fifth or sixth hour of play.
I image your youth is an advantage. Are you never tempted to drag out a match to exhaust the oldies like Anand?
I’m always combative and that’s it. Youth isn’t always an advantage. I’ve been too impulsive in the past… Today I’m probably better
at taking advantage of its good sides, like the energy and the motivation. And anyway, at 23 I’m not necessarily the youngest player on the circuit anymore.
Talking of older people, didn’t you call up Garry Kasparov for help a few years back?
From 2005 onwards my aim was to establish a long-term collaboration with him, but Garry didn’t follow up. When I felt my game was flagging in 2008 – even though I was already one
of the best players – he finally accepted. We did several training sessions together in 2009. We also stay in touch during the tournaments.
Did he teach you a few of his tricks like a Jedi to his Padawan?
It doesn’t really work like that. I obviously didn’t learn all his “tricks” because they’re not something you can just learn, but rather something you acquire with experience. Some of them remain totally inaccessible because they’re intrinsically linked to that person, their character and their skill. But our sessions definitely helped. Together we analysed different dynamics, complex positions and the choice of opening moves. He also – and this is far from trivial – had a very clear notion of other players’ psychology. Most of my opponents at the time had been his a few years earlier. Garry knew the preferred positions of champions like Anand and he could establish the profile of unpredictable players like [Vassily] Ivanchuk. It might be the interpretation of facial movements, certain ticks… He taught me how to read the eccentricity of Ivanchuk and how to detect a method.
You talk of Kasparov with great respect. Did you have a poster of him stuck on the wall in your childhood bedroom?
Certainly not. I’ve never worshipped any kind of cult. I might admire a game or a talent, but not a person. Not that it’s stopped me from being interested in great players like Bobby Fischer, Emanuel Lasker or José Raúl Capablanca. When it comes to chess I’m a glutton for books about it. But I don’t read them to learn something or because I’m interested in the story, it’s just because
I like it, and that’s it.
Where does this unwavering passion for chess come from?
I have no idea.
Don’t you have a lingering childhood memory, a eureka moment when you first discovered the game?
I don’t remember. My dad wasn’t a bad player, he’d even taken part in a few tournaments. It was he who taught me to play when I was a kid. But back then it was just another game
among all the others. Chess didn’t have any particular importance in my eyes.
So what made you choose that path? You’re a big guy – didn’t you prefer playing football with your playmates?
Actually, little by little, I think I got caught up in it. I would win and I liked that. Mastering chess is a good feeling. I can train for hours on end without a chessboard. I’m not really playing against
myself or against my mind, I just analyse the possibilities and they’re infinite. But my cerebral activity never stopped me from doing sport too.
Did you beat your dad quite early on?
I was probably nine the first time I beat him. We didn’t play together all that often. He would just give me a few tips and would help me put them into action.
Wasn’t it odd to feel more intelligent than your dad at the age of nine?
At the time he was still a better player than me. I was just lucky.
What about other players your age?
I trained mainly at home. After my first tournament at eight
and a half I joined a chess club, but very quickly I became the best player. It wasn’t fun anymore. The other members weren’t as dedicated as me. So it was easier to play on the internet.
Do you still play online?
Rarely under my real identity. Most of the time I stay anonymous.
That’s not very fair-play for the other players, especially amateurs with no idea who they’re up against…
But I don’t always win! It all depends on what sort of game it is. If the time is limited to one minute per player, anything can happen.
Do you have a life outside chess?
When I’m not playing chess I have a normal life. I was brought up by my mum and dad in Belgium, Finland and Norway of course. We all followed my father who worked for the petrol company Exxon. My mum took care of the children. There were four of us. For me all those places were the same. There was always a football pitch where you could hang out. Now I live on my own in Oslo. When there’s no tournament I see my friends, I do sport, I go online… But to be honest I really can’t imagine doing anything else in life apart from chess.
But one has to make a living! Can you do that with chess?
Yes, I’m not complaining. The best players can count on the prize money when they win and their cachet when they take part in tournaments. With this sudden new-found fame I can also rely on important sponsors. For almost all the world’s top 50 players it’s possible to live quite well off chess. But actually it’s true that most of the players have to do extra work, like coaching other players or writing in specialist magazines.
Fame is an added pressure. Wouldn’t you ever be tempted to cheat to maintain your star status?
You’re joking right?
Why? Is it impossible to cheat at chess? You can cheat at Monopoly…
You’re right, it is possible, with help from powerful computer programs… Even though it strikes me as difficult not to get caught. But more than anything – and I’ll tell you a secret – chess
players have such over-sized egos that they wouldn’t be able to imagine for one second winning a game using anything other than their own genius.
I’ve heard that a computer could surpass the best players. Are they really better than humans?
The most powerful computers are clearly better than the major players. I took part in a match yesterday organized by a Norwegian newspaper. It was a simple concept: for each of my opponent’s turns, Norwegians could vote, via internet, for the moves suggested by three grand chess masters, but could also consult the best computer program. So ultimately my opponent was a computer. And it wasn’t easy.
Admit it, you lost!
No I didn’t. It was a draw.