Magnus Carlsen: Am I tired? What a stupid question!

8/9/2012 – In June this year the Norwegian GM won YAST – yet another super tournament. Can one grow tired of all this glory? "I like to win and I want to keep winning," he says in this indepth interview, conducted for the Russian news portal WhyChess by Eugeny Atarov. Magnus describes his feelings during some of the key games and tells us how his life revolves around fame and chess.

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Magnus Carlsen: Am I tired? What a stupid question!

By GM Eugeny Atarov (text and pictures)

Magnus accepted the winner’s trophy and gently hugged it. It seemed, at that moment, that he was absolutely happy. A touching picture that in no way fits the story of a 21-year-old genius who’s tired of winning.

But is it possible to get tired of winning? To get tired of being the top chess player not simply “in terms of rating”, as was said with mild contempt in the Tretyakov, but in actual fact. Carlen still manages to find chances where it seems there shouldn’t be any. If you judge in terms of dedication then no-one in the chess world comes close to him. But the Norwegian has not only great desire, but also ability, which he continues to demonstrate with a rare consistency: the 7th Tal Memorial is already the 14th major international tournament Magnus has won in the last five years. And people talk about his being “tired”!


Evgeny Atarov: First of all, my congratulations on another success. How do you feel after winning your second Tal Memorial in a row?

Magnus Carlsen: Thank you! I feel wonderful. I like situations when everything’s in my hands. During the tournament the situation frequently got out of control, but… before the last round for the first time everything was extremely clear for me: if I won then I’d most likely share first place.


Things actually worked out even better than I thought.

During the game it seemed as though McShane didn’t have the slightest chance, despite the fact he had the white pieces and also had chances of staking a claim!

It was clear that Luke got very nervous. In such situations you always have to keep a cool head. I managed, and as a result I took first place here.

From some point onwards it seemed as though you were less worried about your game than whether Aronian would convert his edge against Caruana…

Approaching time trouble the result of both games was more or less obvious, so I spent more time watching Levon win his game.

Final round games of the Tal Memorial

Would you have been upset if Caruana had escaped and you’d only finished second?

No doubt, but during the game I simply wasn’t thinking about that. I think Caruana had a good tournament. Was he worthy of first place? I don’t know.

But if we’re being plain – were you?

I managed not to lose a single game at the tournament. I think that even if I didn’t show all I was capable of I still squeezed all I could out of what I had.

I realise what I’m now going to ask is a stupid question, but tell me, in the last few years haven’t you already got tired of all these interviews and photo sessions… How many of them have you done this year?

I don’t even know. A lot… Am I tired? Giving an interview is simpler, after all, than playing a game or preparing. I see it as just as much a part of my work as playing chess. It isn’t a strain. Moreover, nowadays I’m clearly told: you have to speak with such and such a person, travel to do this program or be filmed.

What do you feel when you once more finish first in a major tournament? “Not again?!” Does it excite you as much as it used to?

I really like winning, and at that moment I’m truly happy. I can say that about almost any tournament I’ve won in the last year. For me winning a tournament is the best thing that can happen to you. It’s no laughing matter. I like to win and I want to keep winning.

So everything they say about your having stopped getting pleasure out of winning is nonsense? You still feel joy after a victory?

Yes! Perhaps things look a little different today, but you saw how it was after the game against Tomashevsky: I was genuinely upset when I wasn’t able to win. I’m still fired up to win each game, and each tournament I play in.

And what did you say to yourself before the start of the tournament: that you had to win it?!

Of course before the start of every tournament I think I need to win it. But I… (Magnus sank into thought, choosing the model to compare himself to. It seemed as though he was about to say he wasn’t a robot!) I wait to see how everything goes for me, but… you can’t plan that you absolutely have to win! You could see that this time as well. I think such thoughts can wreak havoc. It’s enough to look at Morozevich, who after five games had +3 but almost finished the tournament on a minus. Or take Caruana, who played brilliantly in the middle of the tournament, beat Kramnik and then flunked the finish – escaping against Radjabov but not against Aronian. In general, everyone knows that anything can happen.

As for myself, at no point during the tournament did I feel I was the favourite, and perhaps that helped me to play better here than I could have expected…

Do you think people somehow played differently against you than usual?

I started very tentatively… A tough draw with White against Kramnik, then a tough position against Morozevich. At that point I was finding taking decisions very hard and I was slightly inhibited, but then I warmed up. In the second half of the tournament I was already playing at my usual level. I even regret the tournament was so short – I’d happily have kept playing! If there were as many rounds as in Wijk aan Zee I’d have had more chance of confirming that I was worthy of victory.

Aronian also said something similar…

Neither of us had played for a long time. He at least had the match against Kramnik, while I hadn’t sat down at a board since Wijk aan Zee. Four months is a lot.

How did you rate your form before the start?

Normal, of course taking into account that I hadn’t played for a few months. But I quickly got some practice. The idea of organising the draw as a blitz tournament was a good one. I had a chance to get some good training and a feel for play.

However, when I sat down at the board in the first round against Kramnik I realised it wasn’t going to be easy. A mistake in the opening – and I ended up in the role of defender. It was good I managed to escape. Then the next round and again a terrible mistake in the opening, after which…

…you miraculously survived?

I wouldn’t say that. Yes, my position was bad, but it wasn’t won for White. There was still a lot of work to do. I couldn’t have simply resigned in that position.

[Event "7th Mikhail Tal Memorial"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2012.06.09"] [Round "2"] [White "Morozevich, A."] [Black "Carlsen, M."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E35"] [WhiteElo "2769"] [BlackElo "2835"] [PlyCount "117"] [EventDate "2012.06.08"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 d5 5. cxd5 exd5 6. Bg5 h6 7. Bh4 c5 8. dxc5 g5 9. Bg3 Ne4 10. e3 Qa5 11. Rc1 Nd7 12. Nge2 Ndxc5 13. a3 Bxc3+ 14. Nxc3 Nxc3 15. Qxc3 Qxc3+ 16. Rxc3 Ne4 17. Rc7 Nxg3 18. hxg3 Rb8 19. Bb5+ Kf8 20. Kd2 Kg7 21. Rhc1 Rd8 22. Re7 Kf6 23. Rcc7 Rf8 24. b4 a6 25. Bd3 a5 26. bxa5 Ra8 27. Bb5 Rxa5 28. a4 Ra8 29. Kc3 h5 30. Kb4 h4 31. Re8 Rxe8 32. Bxe8 Be6 33. Bb5 d4 34. gxh4 gxh4 35. exd4 Bd5 36. f3 Rg8 37. Rc2 Ke7 38. a5 Kd6 39. Bc4 Bxc4 40. Rxc4 Rxg2 41. Rc5 h3 42. Rh5 h2 43. Kc4 Rc2+ 44. Kd3 Ra2 45. Ke4 f5+ 46. Kf4 Kd5 47. Rxf5+ Kxd4 48. Rh5 Rg2 49. Rh7 Kd3 50. Ke5 Ke2 51. f4 Kf1 52. f5 Ra2 53. f6 Rxa5+ 54. Ke6 Ra6+ 55. Ke7 Rxf6 56. Kxf6 Kg1 57. Ke5 h1=Q 58. Rxh1+ Kxh1 59. Kd4 1/2-1/2

Yes, you fought like a lion! What helped you in that struggle?

It was the normal story. The main thing is not to lose your objectivity. To take all your chances. To a certain degree the fact that I had to work hard in those games helped me to get back to normal sooner. After that I was already playing at my level.

But still, can you explain it: why does Morozevich win such positions ten times out of ten against others, but not against you. What’s the secret?

The answer’s simple: you need to make one move at a time. I calculated a lot of variations and nowhere was White winning material immediately. I tried to find chances and found them… As I already said, the position wasn’t a hundred per cent lost. Perhaps 80%!

20% is enough for you against Morozevich?

I didn’t say that. It was just one single game… I simply fought until the end, and perhaps Morozevich didn’t do all he could have done.

And what should your opponents do in order to crush your resistance. Out of the opening you often get unimpressive positions, but then…

There’s no secret. I’m simply a practical player. When there’s a tense situation on the board it’s hard to remain precise until the end, and mistakes inevitably creep in. That was how it was with Morozevich, and the same happens with others. It happens to me as well. I can hardly call myself an ideal player. Again, there’s opening preparation.

By the way, in this tournament everything was more or less okay with the opening. Okay, in the two white games against Kramnik and Caruana I had problems, but in the other three I managed to get very interesting positions, particularly against Grischuk. Perhaps things didn’t work out so well against Aronian, but he headed for a draw. With Black, meanwhile, I only had practical problems, and solving them calmly wasn’t too hard. And in the end I scored both of my wins with Black.

What was the decisive moment for you? The win against Radjabov?

That was a very important win, but the key was probably the game against Grischuk. If I’d played a little more concretely coming out of the opening Black might have had very serious problems. Still, we played an interesting game. Black, it seemed, had already won my bishop on g3. I also sacrificed the exchange and at some point I could have ended up a full rook down, but I rated White’s chances very highly. When I found that idea I simply couldn’t resist playing it. And look, people talk about me as a player who doesn’t care about beauty. That’s not true. It’s simply that during the game each person sees beauty in different things. I like the beauty of the endgame, but I also get pleasure from finding ideas like those against Grischuk.

[Event "7th Mikhail Tal Memorial"] [Site "Moscow RUS"] [Date "2012.06.12"] [Round "4"] [White "Carlsen, M."] [Black "Grischuk, A."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "C84"] [WhiteElo "2835"] [BlackElo "2761"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "2012.06.08"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. d3 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. a4 b4 9. Nbd2 Bc5 10. Nc4 d6 11. Bg5 h6 12. Bh4 Bg4 13. Ne3 Bxf3 14. gxf3 g5 15. Bg3 Nd4 16. Bc4 Nh5 17. c3 bxc3 18. bxc3 Ne6 19. Rb1 Nhg7 20. Bd5 Rc8 21. Kh1 Kh8 22. Rg1 Qf6 23. Bc4 a5 24. Rb5 h5 25. Rxa5 h4 26. Ng4 Qe7 27. Qf1 Ra8 28. Rxc5 dxc5 29. Nxe5 Qf6 30. Qh3 Rxa4 31. Bd5 Ra6 32. Bc4 Rd6 33. f4 Nxf4 34. Bxf4 Qxf4 35. Nf3 Rg6 36. Rg4 Qc1+ 37. Rg1 Qf4 38. Rg4 Qc1+ 39. Rg1 Qf4 40. Rg4 Qc1+ 1/2-1/2

And do you have an explanation for what happened at this tournament? So many decisive games… There hasn’t been anything like it in a Category 21 tournament!

I don’t have an explanation at all. For some reason people were throwing themselves at each other. There were both a lot of mistakes and a lot of interesting ideas. What was going on? I don’t know. A battle! People didn’t want to waste the white pieces, so they went all in. They also played fiercely with black. I didn’t count but it seems to me there were more wins with black than white.

But again you don’t have an explanation?

And what kind of explanation could there be?

It seemed to Vlad Tkachiev and me that after the Anand-Gelfand match for the crown was pretty nondescript the “pretenders” for the future throne had already started a race for the vacant spot. Did it seem like that to you?

Perhaps it’s clearer to those on the outside. I didn’t feel any additional pressure after the Anand-Gelfand match. Personally I think Anand remains one of the world’s best players. Perhaps he doesn’t want to play as much as before, but his class remains. I consider him a “real” World Champion, regardless of the fact that the win against Gelfand in the match wasn’t convincing at all. But that’s a peculiarity of chess: your play can be not particularly convincing in tournaments and then once a year (or in actual fact once every two years – E.A.) you defend the title of World Champion and the chess world continues to consider you the king.

Do you think that’s enough?

I’m not going to say what I think about it. But of course the win against Gelfand made little impact on the chess community. Boris is of course a tremendous chess player, but… the current Gelfand isn’t a player of the class to have claims on the title!

When you didn’t take part in the World Championship cycle did you feel under any pressure because you were bringing disharmony to the chess hierarchy? On the one hand Anand is the World Champion, while on the other you’re already into your third year at the top of the rating list?

It’s not my problem! I simply play chess. No, that doesn’t put me under any pressure. All I expect are wins and to get pleasure from the game. And if someone thinks something about me, if someone’s dissatisfied with something… that’s not my headache. I hope someday I’ll become World Champion – and I’ll make all these people happy. But even if for some reason that doesn’t happen it won’t stop me getting pleasure from chess. I’m sure of that.

The kind you got at the Tal Memorial?

Yes, it was a top-class tournament and I’m happy I managed to win it.

Your future plans?

I was planning to play in Bazna but the tournament was, alas, postponed. I don’t think that fact will change my life. I’ve got a lot of different obligations besides chess now.

Isn’t it an inconvenience that you attract so much attention?

No, I’ve long since got used to it. I take it for granted. My manager tells me what I need to do and when. I do it. No problem. He does what’s best for me. Lately, of course, I’ve had more and more such activities.

Yes, there are posters with your image plastered across all of Europe’s airports…

I’ve seen them. In Norway there are even more, and not only in airports.

You took part in a few talk shows in America, and a program on CBS!

What can I say, I liked it. They’re interesting people and they showed a lot of interest in me. I never thought there’d ever be such great interest.

Doesn’t that get in the way of your simply playing chess and being the best?

It definitely doesn’t get in the way of playing chess. I still find plenty of time to work and for chess tournaments – that’s allocated in my schedule for the next month and year. As for “being the best” – I don’t know. I try to do everything in my power!

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