Text by Nigel Farndale
There’s perhaps one person left in the world who seems broadly unimpressed by chess megastar Magnus Carlsen – and he’s slouched opposite me. It’s early autumn, and I’m with the man himself in the glass-walled Oslo offices of investment firm Arctic Securities, one of the many companies that help him bring in around NOK10 million a year in sponsorship money. He’s gradually sinking further into his chair – not because he’s being rude, just because he’s being himself.
A few months after our interview, just before his 23rd birthday, Carlsen will beat Indian Viswanathan Anand 6.5-3.5 in Chennai to become the first “Western” world champion since Bobby Fischer in the 1970s, earning a phone call from Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg thanking him for “putting Norway on the world map”. It will be hailed as the biggest chess face-off since Fischer-Spassky in 1972, and British grandmaster Nigel Short will credit Carlsen with making chess cool again.
“I’m fortunate to do something I love, but I’m not a genius.”
The “Mozart of chess”, as he is often described in the media, was the world’s youngest grandmaster at 13; the youngest world number one at 19; and the highest-rated player of all time at 21. He can memorise thousands of games and has beaten 10 high-level players simultaneously, blindfolded.
Yet he spends much of our interview underplaying the ever-growing myth surrounding him. First off, he says, he’s no Mozart. “No, I’m just really, really good at what I do,” he says, in deep English laced with a faint Norwegian accent. “I’m fortunate to do something I love, but I’m not a genius.”
His trademark move is to get up and wander around during games, often looking at other people’s matches. While most chess players look like they’re entranced by the board, he often looks like he’s thinking about what he’ll eat for dinner – yet he makes very few mistakes, methodically grinding down opponents. Along with his almost unlimited range of opening moves (most top players have a signature opening), it’s been dubbed the “Carlsen effect”. Anand, the world champion from 2007-2013, seemed to visibly wilt in their championship games, making uncharacteristic errors.
I ask Carlsen if the pacing is a matter of gamesmanship. Chess, after all, lends itself to psychological warfare – Mikhail Tal’s infamous hypnotic stare, for example, or the kicks that Tigran Petrosian administered under the table to his rival Viktor Korchnoi. “No, the pacing is partly to take my mind off the game, letting my mind wander before getting back to the game with a fresh perspective,” he says, giving some insight into the way he seems to outlast opponents. “If I study a position for an hour then I am usually going in loops and I’m probably not going to come up with something useful,” he says. “I usually know what I am going to do after 10 seconds, the rest is double checking. Often I cannot explain a certain move, only know that it feels right, and it seems that my intuition is right more often than not.”
Does he ever feel sorry for opponents? “Not really,” he says. “But I find it more difficult to play opponents who I feel, for whatever reason, aren’t approaching the games with a sufficient level of seriousness. For instance, once at a big tournament I saw a player I was due to play the next day have a couple of drinks. Knowing that just ruined my concentration, because I thought how can I play seriously against someone who has drinks the day before?”
The answer seems slightly at odds with the boyish figure opposite me, but then he’s a complicated mix. For all that he’s sometimes painted as brooding, unpredictable and edgy, as in his moody portraits for G-Star jeans alongside Liv Tyler, he’s also a model professional. He’s dutifully wearing a grey blazer emblazoned with his sponsors’ logos, and seems happy to perform the stunts his sponsors ask of him (in fact, next time he wants to play 20 players blindfolded). “I guess I’m pretty laid-back,” he says. “But I am also determined when it comes to chess,” he says. “I don’t like conflicts, apart from on the board. In general, I am very different to how I am in chess.”
I first met Carlsen when he was 13, at his grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Oslo. He had just become the world’s youngest chess grandmaster and had never done a newspaper interview before. He wasn’t so much shy and introverted as simply bored.
His father Henrik, an oil executive who was a keen though average chess player, filled in the gaps in our conversation, telling a story that’s now well-known in Norway. At two, Magnus could solve 50-piece jigsaws, and by four he was assembling Lego kits designed for 14 year olds. But it wasn’t until he was eight, when sibling rivalry drove him to beat his older sister (he has three sisters) at chess, that he really began to focus on the game, spending hours poring over old games of former champions as his parents watched on, amazed at his prodigious memory for board positions and moves.
Today, for all the slouching, he is articulate and dryly funny when he wants to be, with a slow-burn lopsided smile that spreads across his face. And his matter-of-fact default mode seems to have served him well in navigating the shift from child prodigy to global superstar. A household name in Norway by 13, people would occasionally call him names as a teenager, “but it didn’t really bother me. I used to like provoking people and occasionally they would retaliate.”
Confessing to a stubborn streak, he says he persuaded his parents to let him leave school without graduating because, “at some point I just lost interest in school. I wasn’t paying much attention so I wasn’t great.”
Nowadays, when he’s not on the road (he spends around half the year travelling), he lives with his family in the Oslo suburbs. He rides the metro, listens to Jay-Z, goes to nightclubs and watches Curb Your Enthusiasm, because he says he doesn’t have the patience for most movies. He’s also just signed up for the gym, and is a keen skier and football player, though he admits he’s lazy and often sleeps in until noon. “I’ve recently started playing for a football team here in Oslo,” he says. “I play at left back where I can do least damage. I’m a Real Madrid fan but a little less of one since the signing of Gareth Bale. It was too much money. I don’t get it.”
He doesn’t have a girlfriend because he says he doesn’t have the time, though he smiles, saying, “I’m hoping after the world championships I’ll be able to change that”. Any admirers should forget chess-based chat-up lines, though. “I really don’t like it when I go out and girls start talking to me about how they played chess with their grandfather as a kid, I can’t stand that. It’s boring. I want to talk about whatever else.”
He’s unlikely to have too many problems – with that furrowed brow and surprisingly buff body, which he showed off in recent shots playing beach volleyball, he’s been compared to everyone from Matt Damon to Justin Bieber, and was recently named one of “the sexiest men of 2013” by Cosmopolitan magazine.
Yet he’s still oddly surprised when people recognise him in the street. “My sister told me she went on Instagram yesterday and found a picture someone had posted. The caption said, ‘Good start to the day, rode the bus with Magnus Carlsen and he was as tired as I was.’ I didn’t even know that someone had taken a picture of me. It’s nice to reach a level of celebrity where strangers take your photograph.” He rolls his bear brown eyes and does his slow grin, to show he is joking.
By the time we finish the interview, he’s slouched so low he’s almost horizontal. Strangely, it’s more charming than off-putting. A month or so later, after fulfilling his destiny and celebrating until 5am, a journalist will ask him how it feels to be world champion. And Carlsen will say, “Ah... well... It’s okay.”
See our story on another Norwegian superstar, Lars Mikkelsen, here