Hans Olav Lahlum: organiser, novelist (2/2)

by Johannes Fischer
9/14/2015 – Hans Olav Lahlum is one of Norway's most prominent chess personalities. As TV commentator he helps to make the game popular and as organizer he helped Magnus Carlsen at the start of his career. In the second part of a detailed interview Lahlum talks about organizing chess tournaments, Magnus Carlsen and his career and how he managed to enter the Guinness Book of Records.

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Olympic Ambassador Hans Olav Lahlum at the Chess Olympiad 2014 (Photo: André Schulz)

As an organizer you played an active part in supporting the career of Magnus Carlsen. For instance, you allowed him to play in the Gausdal Classics when he was still very young – ignoring the habits of the Norwegian Chess Federation at that time. Do you still remember the first time you met Carlsen?

I remember him briefly from his first Norwegian Championship in 1999. He was eight years old and finished in the middle of the Under 10 class. I noted him for the first time when he returned to Gausdal with his father, to play in the Elo-group (and go skiing). This was January 2000 and he was nine years old. He lost against his father and blundered in too many games but he showed great talent and had many interesting ideas.

Magnus was one reason I decided to continue organizing Gausdal for the next years. His participation in IM- and GM-tournaments at Gausdal was never really controversial, but I really had to fight hard to get the Norwegian chess federation to send him to the U10-World Championship.

Traditionally, in Norwegian sports people are very careful to let children participate in national and international tournaments. Chess was no exception and a lot of officials were skeptical to let children play in such tournaments. In fact, because of the strict rules about tournament participation for players below the age of 14 the Norwegian Chess Federation decided not to apply for membership in the national sports federation last year. There seems to be a fear within Norwegian sport life that losing too early will be too hard for children around 9-13.

Magnus Carlsen as a young talent (Screenshot from the documentary
"The Last Big Title" by Benjamin Ree)

Magnus successfully challenged this view as he played tournaments with hard competition when he was a child and learned a lot although he lost many games.

How did it feel to see him progress to become World Champion and the player with the highest Elo-rating ever?

Truly great, obviously. It was an unreal dream coming true for me and other volunteers of Norwegian chess. Although Simen Agdestein around 1990 had demonstrated that a Norwegian could reach the world’s top 20, the competition at the top became more intense during the next ten years and the idea that a Norwegian could become World Champion seemed a wild dream when I took over Gausdal around 2000.

In how far did chess in general and chess in Norway change through Carlsen?

For chess in Norway Carlsen’s success obviously has led to a revolution, especially in regard to media attention and interest from outside the chess community. Newspapers are still important, but the main thing today is television. Having a world class athlete is very important for a “new sport” to succeed in national television, but that is not enough. Magnus gave chess a chance to appear on TV and we stayed there partly because of Magnus, and partly because we found a group of about ten people in the chess community who were able and willing to communicate chess in a way that would interest the average sport fan.

Commentating chess on TV is not the same as sitting in the commentators room during a chess tournament. We realized that two GMs talking to other chessplayers about long and complex variations would be interesting for a few hundred strong chessplayers in Norway, but way too difficult and absolutely uninteresting for the rest. We discussed this situation with each other and the television channels and succeeded to make the moves not only understandable but also exciting for many people who have never played a single tournament game in their life. When talking about the moves we tried to make it very basic and slow, and when we used chess terms we explained them in simple language. And we spoke not only about the moves, but also about chess history, personalities, how to teach and train chess etc. – with a lot of anecdotes and in general sport terms. We succeeded, many people became interested and wanted to learn how the pieces move but there are also a lot of people who follow the program without knowing the rules of chess.

Hans Olav Lahlum commentates (Photo: Linnea Syversen)

On the TV Channel for which I commentate the only sport more popular than chess is soccer. Obviously, they are interested to send more chess especially as making chess programs does not cost as much as reporting about other sports. Now, in 2015 on 50 days we will have four hours or more of chess on national television. However, there are still challenges as only top tournaments starring Magnus are interesting for the television channels and national newspapers.

Inside the Norwegian chess community the first Magnus wave did not cause that much of a change. However, the number of club and federation members has increased in the last two years, and this year 671 players took part in the national championships – a new record. It remains to be seen whether we will also have more players in other tournaments, but I am optimistic. Distances remain a challenge in a big country like Norway, but we are, of course, still privileged because the economy is very good.

A few weeks after the national Championship, more than 100 Norwegian players went for twelve days to Denmark to play in the Politiken Cup. And we have a small number of up-and-coming young players who are obviously inspired by Magnus and the television situation. This year, the top three in the Norwegian Championship were all teenagers. Two years ago Johan Salomon, who was 16 at that time and had an Elo of less than 2300 declared that his goal was to have 2700. Twenty years ago no 16-year old Norwegian would have said such a thing. But Magnus has been close to 2900 and Hammer is close to 2700. It remains to be seen whether Johan can indeed reach 2700, but with 18 he won his first GM tournament and made his first GM norm. Magnus fundamentally changed the mentality and opened doors for younger players.

As far as chess all over the world in concerned, the Magnus wave is smaller. But I still hope and believe that a creative young star from a small nation increased the interest in chess. In Western Europe this definitely seems to be the case – after all, Magnus is the first World Champion they had in about 70 years.

Simen Agdestein, Norway's first grandmaster at the Norway
Chess tournament 2014 (Photo: Norway Chess)

Before Agdestein and Carlsen Norway was not much of a chess country. Are there any historical reasons that made the Carlsen phenomenon possible or do you think this was just pure chance?

Basically the story of World Champion Magnus Carlsen is the story of a genius succeeding in his own right and due to his own efforts. When he came to us, the Norwegian chess milieu still was small and no way qualified to get a World Champion. Still, I somehow if this genius would have become a better player if born in another country. Apart from the tradition not to compete too early, Magnus somehow fitted the Norwegian chess community and his time in a perfect way. He was allowed to play chess for fun, and to develop his creativity, without being pressurized to score good results and to undergo too rigorous training sessions.

Henrik Carlsen with his four children (Screenshot from "The Last Big Title")

We had a reasonable number of international title tournaments, and he was soon invited to play in them – in the top class of the Norwegian Championship, for the national team etc. He went to a school for top athletes and thus could play a lot of chess without neglecting school. Most importantly, Magnus had parents who were able to support his chess and to help his development. They really should write a book about it.

Henrik Carlsen (Screenshot from "The Last Big Title")

Moreover, the economy in Norway was good and we had good possibilities to play in strong tournaments in other countries. Magnus first became a favorite for organizers in other Scandinavian countries, then he became a favorite of organizers in Western Europe, and finally organizers all over the world invited him.

What do you think one can one do to promote chess further – in Norway and in other countries?

Appeal to the average sports fan and other onlookers outside the chess community. That simple and that difficult. Compare the question about the change in Norway.

Hans Olav Lahlum promoting chess (Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen)

As an organizer you often come up with new and creative ideas. If you had unlimited funds and time – what kind of chess event would you like to organize?

As chess organizer I consider myself an honest working horse more than any kind of creative genius. If creative at all during my tournaments, I am when I use my writing abilities to publish round reports. My basic tournament concept is in fact rather traditional – classical time limits and nine rounds in eight days. I believe chess has a great future as quality sport, but not as a speedy computer game. However, in our national championships in Norway we have a tradition to combine a serious main tournament with various quicker tournaments in the evening.

Hans Olav Lahlum as organizer (Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen)

One favorite of mine is what we call teamtalkingchess: Each team has four player but plays six games of rapid chess and the players of one team are free to discuss games and to exchange games whenever they want to. It is true it looks a bit messy but it is a lot of fun. There is also a lot to learn, e.g. if you have one trainer and three young players in a team.

I was happy to see Magnus visiting the Norwegian Championship this year and playing teamtalkingchess with three of his friends. I am a little surprised that this format has not been used more in other international tournaments.

Magnus Carlsen during a Teamtalkingchess event at the Norwegian
National Championships 2015 (Photo: Erling Tenold)

If I had unlimited funds instead of another tournament with a field of ten players I would prefer either a strong 256 players knock-out cup or an eleven round Swiss with prizes big enough to attract top ten players.

If you take a look at the international tournament scene – what do you think about it? Is there anything one could improve or you would do differently?

Many things can be done differently and for sure some things can be done better. Traditionally, in comparison to many sport events chess tournaments have been rather open but I worry that we risk this openness with things such as the zero second rule or other unnecessary laws and regulations that make it more difficult for players and organizers of open tournaments. Too often average players have to follow rules and regulations that are made for top players. Fortunately almost no organizer adopted the zero seconds rule, and succeeded to be rather inclusive in regard to age, physical fitness etc.

The gender gap is less striking than 20 years ago, but still much too big for a sport which should be so well suited for women. 12 to 15 years ago I was deeply worried about the attempts to shorten time limits. However, here a fairly good compromise was found, and I think it is good that we have tournaments with shorter time limits and longer time limits.

Chess presenter Hans Olav Lahlum (Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen)

The general economic situation is often a problem because in most countries it is still a tough struggle to find big sponsors. Another problem that is related to this is the fact that compared to other sports there is a much smaller share of paying players and a much larger share of professionals. Many players who are ranked as number 2000 or 2500 in the world, who work full time and play two tournaments a year, still consider themselves professionals and will only play international tournaments if the organizers cover all expenses. When I organize a GM-Open for players with an Elo of 2150 or better, I often get more players for whom I have to pay than players who pay – while some players below 2150 write to me and ask whether I can cover their hotel costs. It is obviously difficult to organize such a tournament without financial loss.

On the other end of the scale too many top tournaments are closed affairs in which a small group of six to ten players play against each other for the fiftieth time. Some very serious and strong players who are not part of the top thirty almost never get the chance to enter this pool and to play against top ten players.

I was very much against the attempt to organize the World Championship as a knock-out tournament, and I favor the current concept, in which eight players play a challenger tournament which is followed by a World Championship match. But keeping the organization of the World Championship aside I wish we had more cup tournaments and more strong Swiss tournaments such as the Gibraltar Open.

As far as the closed supertournaments are concerned I think organizers should vary more, and invite more entertaining players instead of just calculating the Elo-average.

What event that you organized makes you particularly proud?

All and none, somehow. More than any particular tournament, I am proud to have organized more than 20 GM-tournaments and more than 50 international tournaments in Norway.

Hans Olav Lahlum (Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen)

And what game and result of yours makes you particularly proud?

Actually I have a 1-1 score with two draws against Magnus, but this is a curiosity. He was aged 10 and 11 then, and the games are not too memorable. In the nineties I was trainer for several young players who are now titleholders. Although he was still not a GM, I believe I played a fair game of some theoretical value when defeating one of them in the Norwegian Championship 2001. For some moments I became a little bit angry as he refused my draw offer with a dubious move in the opening, and suddenly I had a promising and interesting position. For sure I should have been able to win faster, but it is still a memorable game for me.


To finish, let’s turn to a really long interview. You entered the Guinness Book of Records by doing an interview with the Norwegian TV station VG that officially lasted 30 hours, 1 minute and 44 seconds. How did this interview come about?

Reportedly because some person at VGTV in a brainstorm meeting got an apparently wild idea about making the world’s longest interview. Some other person said something like “Strange idea. Maybe we could try to invite this strange Lahlum guy?” And then a third person called me right away. I was still sleeping after writing too long on a book the evening before, so I just picked up the phone, listened for something like 30 seconds, said “interesting idea, I am positive” and then continued to sleep.

Were you not afraid to run out of topics?

That actually became a serious problem in the final hours. We had planned topics for 27-28 hours to assure the record, and it turned out that improvising with new ideas at that stage was not so easy. I was awake for something like seven hours after the interview, and could well have continued if we had more topics and more preparation.

Hans Olav Lahlum at the beginning of the interview

One practical problem, however, was that the journalist asking me questions was about to fall asleep in the last four hours. At some stage it probably is easier to stay awake when you answer questions and don’t ask them. Still, I definitely had the advantage of being an experienced chess player. I found it easier than expected to keep the concentration hour after hour. After about 19 hours I always waited for fatigue thresholds – which never came.

30 hours later

What was the most memorable moment in that interview?

After all it was the finishing moment – and to read the comments on the internet afterwards. We were informed during the interview that very many out there were interested, but how many and how interested I understood only in retrospect. Very many people watched it. And some people are still watching it now, two years later on. Yesterday I learned about a young fan claiming he had seen all of it three times. Of course, I have never taken the time to see it myself…

Anything important you did not mention in this interview?

There are many more interesting things we could have talked about, but I fear this is already much too long for most of your readers…

Thank you very much for your time and your insights!

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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