Sean Ingle – The Guardian
The chess world champion reached the landmark during a highly successful year and now has his sights set on a record unbeaten streak in chess, he tells Sean Ingle.
Magnus Carlsen, the chess world champion from Norway, taking part in simultaneous games with 21 opponents at the Four Season Hotel – he beat them all in just over an hour. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
“I’m not a highly cultured guy,” says the world’s strongest chess player and, for a brief giddy moment before Christmas, the No 1 Premier League fantasy football player on the planet. “I don’t think I do too much different from other people during my downtime. I play and watch football, and some NBA games. And I spend time working on my Fantasy Football team, obviously.”
But for all Magnus Carlsen’s grandmasterly levels of self‑deprecation, there is no doubting that December 2019 was an extraordinary month, as the man called “the Mozart of chess” in his early teens hit the highest notes on and off the board.
Professionally, victories in the world rapid and blitz chess championships earned the 29-year‑old Norwegian the triple crown, alongside the classical world title he has held since 2013. Meanwhile two goals from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah against Watford also propelled Carlsen to the top of the official Fantasy Premier League rankings, ahead of 7.3 million people, an achievement that quickly went viral.
But Carlsen is dismissive of suggestions that it has anything to do with his extraordinary brain power, which meant that by five he could recite the populations of all 422 (now 356) Norwegian municipalities and name every capital city in the world – and that by 13 he was a grandmaster.
“It was a great and fun feeling when Salah netted that second goal but I am not pretending that it’s a metaphor for anything else,” he is. “Because even if you are good – which I do not claim to be – you also need to be extraordinarily fortunate to be first overall.”
There was no magic secret, Carlsen insists, just a combination of watching a lot of football, poring over the stats, and trying to identify players that others may have undervalued. “It’s sort of like sports betting,” he says. “You can give yourself a better chance by looking at the data … But you still need to follow your gut feeling too – and be fortunate.
“And while things have gone a bit south since then, I still feel like having served myself into No 1 in the world is something I will always be very proud of.”
But he confesses that the overall experience has been “mixed” because people kept giving him advice – or begging him for tips. “I was half thinking: ‘I’m competing against you!’” he says, smiling. “And also I am I’m not kidding myself into believing I am in a position to give other people advice. I am just a fan who enjoys playing.”
We are talking on Wednesday evening in London, where Carlsen is playing a simultaneous display against 21 businessmen and talented children for his Norwegian sponsors Arctic Securities. Beforehand he jokes to his audience that he is looking forward to crushing them all – even the kids. He is as good as his word, smashing them all in just over an hour – despite stopping to give his youngest opponent, a six-year-old boy, some advice and encouragement.
When it comes to the games, only one opponent’s play causes him to break stride. Suddenly Carlsen stops, fiddles with a piece, eyes rapidly blinking as he works out combinations in his head. But soon enough his opponent stumbles into a pitfall and another game is chalked up. No one is surprised. After all, on a previous visit to London he took on 12 players simultaneously while blindfolded and thrashed them all.
For now, his sole focus is on the first big tournament of the year, the Tata Steel Chess event at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands which begins on Saturday. He has another record in his sights: that of the Dutch-Russian grandmaster Sergei Tiviakov, who went unbeaten for 110 classical games in a row, albeit against lower‑quality opposition.
Carlsen’s streak in the format now stands at 107 despite facing mostly super grandmasters – he has not lost since July 2018. “I was very happy to get to 100,” says Carlsen. “But comparing my streak to Tiviakov’s is to some extent comparing apples and oranges. And it’s like being No 1 in Fantasy. It doesn’t mean that much, but still it’s a nice anecdote.”
So what explains Carlsen’s brilliant form in 2019 which has once again taken him well clear of his rivals? He cites three factors: absorbing by osmosis the new strategies from AlphaZero, the Google neural network that taught itself to be the best chess programme in the world, plus a combination of momentum and opening novelties originally devised for his world championship match against Fabiano Caruana in 2018.
“I absolutely believe in momentum,” he says. “I think in chess as in most other competitive areas confidence is crucial and it is also fragile. I think it is very hard to obtain and very easy to lose, at least if you have some sense of reality.”
Carlsen cites one stunning victory over the top Dutch grandmaster Anish Giri last April in which he sacrificed a pawn as being influenced in part by what he has learned from AlphaZero. But it is clear he derives more satisfaction from the way he mentally broke down Giri again a month later in 23 moves. “He surprised me in the opening. And I just decided that I was going to play something very dubious since I knew that was going to be unpleasant for him psychologically – in other words I had confidence to play the man and not the position,” he says.
“And I could see him for the next hour just agonising,” he continues with growing relish. “He realised that his position was probably good but it would be very hard to prove it. So I was still in the driver’s seat, because I was not afraid and he was. I didn’t really care about the result – I was just making a very good decision psychologically and it showed.”
Another factor might be domestic happiness – his relationship with Elisabet Lorentzen Djønne, a 24-year-old criminology student, has been known about in chess circles for months but Carlsen made it public only last week with an Instagram post, saying: “Been a great year on and off the board, on to the next one!”
Such is Carlsen’s global popularity that he has modelled for G-Star Raw and appeared on the Simpsons, while three million of Norway’s population of five million watched at least some part of his world title match against Caruana in 2018. Carlsen is said to be worth about $10m, some of which he has spent on the chess apps Play Magnus and Magnus Trainer and in acquiring the site Chessable. “It’s really about trying to bring chess to more people,” he insists “I don’t have any aspirations of being a chess mogul, I just want to keeping playing – that is what I’m good at.”
Later this year he will celebrate a decade as world No 1, while his best Fide rating of 2882 is the highest in history. But he bats away suggestions he might be the greatest of all time, insisting that his former mentor Gary Kasparov, a Russian who dominated the sport during the 80s and 90s, should be still considered top dog.
“Kasparov had 20 years uninterrupted as the world No 1,” he says. “And I would say for very few of those years was there any doubt that he was the best player. He must be considered as the best in history.”
Suddenly Carlsen starts to smile. “But I feel like time is on my side,” he continues. “I’m not 30 yet. If I were to be considered the best in history at 30 I would have had to start dominating at 10.”
A question of whether he fears losing motivation at some point is met with a shake of the head. “To me, replicating successes is as satisfying as obtaining it in the first place,” he replies. “And I’m still hungry.” And with Carlsen still the undoubted master of his domain, would anyone dare bet against Kasparov’s record looming ever nearer in his sights?