When Magnus Carlsen was five, his father gave him a chess set. “He told me, ‘If you’re a better player than me by the time you’re 13, that would be great’.” When he was 13 Carlsen was not only better than his father, he was also a grandmaster – the third youngest in history.
Chess has been many things: the preserve of nerds and geeks; a game for old men sat outside cafés in Venetian piazzas; a proxy for Cold War battles between East and West.
It has never been this though: young and cool. Carlsen, now 20, is not just one of the world’s best players – he became the youngest ever world number one last year – he is also a model who hangs out on the red carpet of fashion weeks with film stars.
He has become a celebrity in Norway, where he lives in the basement of the family house in Oslo (he pays rent to his parents and employs one of his two sisters to do the housework). It is a relaxed celebrity status though – there are a few requests for photos, the occasional pointing and staring in restaurants. “I don’t think a chess player could ever…” Carlsen pauses as he considers the right word. “I don’t know if you could call it ‘achieve’, but ‘get’ that status.”
Carlsen is at the vanguard of a new era of chess. It is, he argues, “becoming a young man’s game”. Most of his rivals are in their twenties. The reason, he says, is: “It’s much easier to acquire information these days. You can learn chess much more quickly.” While previous grandmasters had to learn at the feet of their predecessors, today’s champions simply need to know their way around a computer.
Most of Carlsen’s practice is done with a computer rather than a chessboard. He uses a chess programme with a database containing millions of old games. “I investigate some kinds of openings [attacking moves] and then search for games that have played in that direction before.” There are times during tournaments when he wakes at three in the morning, certain that he has come up with something new. “It’s still fascinating, the idea of finding something special. Of course, it’s not that much fun when you check the idea and find it’s complete rubbish,” he laughs.
At times Carlsen can look like a sullen teenager, staring at his feet and shrinking into his clothes. There is an awkwardness about him, a natural shyness mixed with an understandable reluctance to talk about himself. His smile, though sudden, is genuine and friendly. Chess – and the endless search for perfect moves – excites him. He wants to win but he wants to do it with style. (He happily admits, however, that he would take a scrappy win if it means winning a tournament.)
There are downsides to being a chess champion, though. It is almost impossible to play just for fun. When he was younger he would play with his friends, or with random strangers in parks. He used to play online – under a pseudonym – but even that has lost its appeal. The only people who would give him a decent game are his rivals.
Norway has taken to its new champion. Chess has become more popular and the government has encouraged schools to promote it, even going so far as to successfully bid for the Chess Olympiad, which will be held in Tromsø in 2014.
Although associated with superpowers, chess seems a good fit for Norway: considered, intelligent, understated.Later that evening, Carlsen is invited to a screening of a new documentary about Bobby Fischer, the child chess prodigy turned world champion turned conspiracy theorist. Carlsen knows the story of Fischer’s descent into madness well but after emerging from the dark of the cinema the child chess prodigy turned world champion looks distinctly glum. In the film, Bobby Fischer Against the World, one of Fischer’s friends describes how his extraordinarily abnormal ability was a reflection of an extraordinarily abnormal personality.If Carlsen is similarly cursed as well as blessed he hides it well. Chess may be his life but it is not his obsession. The next day he is off to Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final; a couple of days later he flies to Spain for a week-long holiday with his sisters. When travelling for tournaments he spends his nights in his hotel room watching DVD box-sets and films.
While Carlsen’s attitude keeps him balanced, some argue it has affected his chess. Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player who ever lived, coached Carlsen for several months last year but the pair failed to click. Kasparov believed that his young protégé had the potential to be even better than he was but claimed that Carlsen didn’t have the drive.
Carlsen starts to disagree. “I think we have different opinions on what needs to be done to be the best in the world.” Then he adds: “I don’t want to be the best in the world if it makes me miserable.”
Magnus Carlsen’s CV
1991 Born in Tonsberg, Norway
1996 Given his first chess set
2004 Beats former champion Anatoly Karpov in a game of ‘blitz chess’; later draws with Garry Kasparov
**2004*8 Becomes a grandmaster, the third youngest in history
2009 Leaves school before finishing his studies to concentrate on his chess career
2010 World number one, the youngest in history
2010 Begins modelling for G-Star