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Magnus Carlsen explains his approach to chess

4/19/2014 – In an interview he gave to Le Monde, Magnus Carlsen looks back on winning the supreme title against Viswanathan Anand and talks about his vision and approach to the game. He elaborates on his work with Garry Kasparov and what he learned. He emphasizes one of Garry's strongest and least-appreciated abilities: his psychological understanding of his opponents. A must-read interview.
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Le Monde met up with Magnus Carlsen in a fascinating interview. There is also a
new up-to-date profile on the world champion for subscribers here.

We met you as the hope in chess in 2008, and meet you again as the world champion. What has happened in the meantime?

2008 was my breakthrough year. I won the great Wijk-aan-Zee tournament in the Netherlands and achieved further good results but after that my results stagnated a bit. At the end of that year, I got in touch with Garry Kasparov through Frederic Friedel, the director of ChessBase [a German company specializing in chess software]. He had been advising Garry to train me for a long time, but Kasparov had not been convinced by the idea. However, he eventually agreed. We had our first training session in February 2009 and others followed throughout the year, including a two-week one during the summer. In addition, we maintained contact both during and between tournaments.

Le Monde first met up with Magnus Carlsen in 2008 when they did a profile

Chess players are very closed-mouthed about their working methods to avoid giving clues to their opponents. Without betraying any secrets, how did these training sessions go?

Most of the work centered on the openings, where we tried to find new ideas and then Garry gave me information on the psychology of the players. He knows these things better than anyone. I was sometimes surprised at just how much he knew about his opponents. Even when it came to players considered unpredictable such as the Russian Morozevich or the Ukrainian Ivanchuk he was able to find patterns in their game.

And with elite champions such as Kramnik or Anand, he knew which positions they preferred, and which they were uncomfortable playing. Garry and I discussed many things. He had opinions I disagreed with at times. I listened carefully to his advice but took my own decisions. This explains in part why our collaboration ended after a year...

Though it was not the longest collaboration, Magnus Carlsen acknowledges he
learned a great deal from Kasparov. He was especially impressed by Garry's
psychological understanding of the players.

But, in retrospect, I consider it was a very fruitful collaboration: I learned a great deal from him, and the goal, which had been to become the number one rated player in the world, was reached.

The goal wasn't to become world champion?

This may surprise you, but taking the title had never been a top priority, and it was not part of any longterm plan. Actually, I wanted to become the world number one above all. It wasn't until the end of 2012 that I felt ready to participate in the Candidates Tournament which determines the World Champion's challenger.

You had never played a major one-on-one match and yet you outclassed Anand without apparent difficulty ...

At first, everything was not as easy since the first three games ended in delicate draws. The fourth gamed helped me by giving me a lot of confidence, even if it ended in a draw. And after my victories in the fifth and sixth games, the match was theoretically over: I just needed to resist with the black pieces because I knew I would have no problem with white.

The problem with Anand is that he is no longer the player he was seven or eight years ago. He did not want to take his chances and instead preferred to ensure draws. But when you play a world championship, you need to grab it with both hands and take risks.

Grabbing his chance at the world championship

Some have criticized you for play on the age difference between the two of you, dragging out boring positions waiting for him to collapse. Is that your view of chess?

Since my collaboration with Kasparov, my strategy is as follows: At a time when all players prepare themselves with software, my goal is not to see if my computer is better than my opponent's. In the openings, I just need to reach a position that gives me play. The idea is to be smart rather than trying to crush the other. I try to figure out where he wants to take me and I do my best to not put myself in positions where I could fall into his preparation. I try to play 40 or 50 good moves, and I challenge my opponent to do as much. Even if the position is simple and seems simple, I try to stay focused and creative, to find opportunities that lie within. Not to play it safe. It is important to know how to adapt to all situations.

In this sense, I have that in common with Karpov in his heyday: he believed deeply in his abilities, he was very combative and won a lot of games in tournaments because even when he was not in a good position, he felt he could still win, and played all the way. I'm somewhat similar in spirit: during a competition, I always believe in myself.

After your victory against Anand, we saw you kick off a Real Madrid game, you met the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and crush Bill Gates in a live game on television. Are you becoming a star?

This sudden fame is a surprise to me. It's a bit strange to see how much the world title has changed public perception about me, because I do not consider becoming world champion a greater feat than what I had already accomplished.

It was one of the most publicized games ever: Magnus Carlsen playing Bill Gates,
the richest man in the world

In Norway, the match had a huge impact: the games were broadcast live on television every day and this repeated itself for the Zurich tournament I won in February. More and more people are playing chess and the game is entering schools more and more.

In 2008, you had assured me you were a normal teenager. You grew up, you are world champion in a sport of the mind. Are you a "normal" man ?

I think I am, but I will let others judge...

Translation by Albert Silver

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