"Let the kid own the process and the result" - Henrik Carlsen

by Sagar Shah
8/6/2019 – At the Lindores Abbey tournament in Scotland in May 2019, IM SAGAR SHAH travelled from India to cover the tournament. Apart from doing the daily reports, he was able to interview Henrik Carlsen — father of the World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Henrik has been by Magnus' side right from the time he was a beginner to him becoming a World Champion. Their journey is a story worth sharing with the chess community.

Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen Master Class Vol.8: Magnus Carlsen

Scarcely any world champion has managed to captivate chess lovers to the extent Carlsen has. The enormously talented Norwegian hasn't been systematically trained within the structures of a major chess-playing nation such as Russia, the Ukraine or China.


On my way to the Lindores Abbey Chess Stars 2019, I had around 14 hours of travelling from Mumbai to Frankfurt to Edinburgh. I figured the best way to use my time would be to read Simen Agdestein's book on "How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster." Agdestein was Carlsen's coach, helping him go from talented youngster to the GM title. I downloaded the Kindle edition of the book on my mobile phone and read through it during the trip. I could be sure that the facts were more or less authentic as it came from such a close source. Mainly, I wanted to learn more about Magnus' childhood and how he became such a strong player. As I read through the pages I began to realize that Magnus' rise to the top was not only due to his talent or the training he had received. While his talent and love for chess helped him to keep climbing, a lot of his progress was thanks to the decisions that were made by his parents and family — particularly his father Henrik. I was amazed by the risks that Henrik had taken and how he tried to ensure that Magnus was as independent as possible in his decision making. 

I was not sure if Magnus would be travelling to Lindores accompanied by his trainer or his father (or no one), so when I saw Henrik at the venue, I was quite pleased. This was my chance to interview the man who had 'created' the World Champion.

I approached Henrik on the first day of the tournament and we agreed to meet on day two, auspiciously during the fourth round: Anand vs Carlsen. When Magnus' game began, I looked for a good spot where the interview could be done peacefully. Within the premises it was difficult to find a quiet spot as there were big screens with commentary every where. There was no choice but to do the interview under the unpredictable Scottish weather! As you can see from the video, sometimes it drizzled, suddenly there was sunshine and at some point there was also quite a violent wind! Well, Henrik braved all of these and the result was an interview that is well worth your time! 

Interview with Henrik Carlsen by IM Sagar Shah at the Lindores Abbey Chess 2019

Interview with Henrik Carlsen 

Sagar Shah (SS): When Magnus was young, you wanted to teach him chess because you loved chess. At first he didn’t really find chess interesting. How did you deal with this?

Henrik Carslen (HC): Well, that’s not entirely correct. Magnus was around 4½ years old and his sister was 6 and I thought they would have some talent for chess based on what they did and how they behaved in general. But I think I had a misconstrued conception about how easy it would be for children to learn chess. So I wouldn’t say Magnus was disinterested. I just feel that chess is a difficult game and it took time for Magnus to learn anything more than the fundamentals of how the pieces were moving. For example, getting two pieces to work together is very difficult. As a chess amateur I had read books about prodigies who pick up chess like that [snaps his fingers]. I don’t believe those stories any more. More than rudimentary knowledge of chess takes quite some time.

When Magnus got  this interest in chess in the autumn of 1998, it became his thing and it took a year or probably a year and a half until I got back any ambition on his behalf. I think it was very good, because chess became his property and his motivation.

Chess is something that Magnus has owned right from his childhood. His father has had minimal intervention. | Photo: FIDE World Rapid and Blitz 2017

SS: So you didn’t push him. Chess was something that he pursued on his own?

HC: Yes. That is my impression. Magnus has told me later, and even one of his friends felt the same, that I was very interested about his chess. But that was because I was passionate about the game of chess. All said and done I think Magnus got a feeling that chess was his hobby and he was calling the shots from an early age. That was important.

SS: The early few years in a child’s development are important, because if as a parent you over-press the child can lose interest in the sport.

HC: From our background, that is the northern western European background, you have to be very careful about being too pushy with children. The main thing that my wife and I have tried to do is to not to put any obstacles in his way. Not do anything damaging to his interest and passion for chess. We have of course allowed him to play a lot of tournaments, but it has always been his passion, his interest and his initiatives that have driven his chess. Our role has not been to make him a star. Our role has been to not stop him from becoming a star if he wants to. A lot of eager parents are over pushing and making their calls, and the results, their results. But it is not about them, it is about the child.

SS: When Magnus was around 11 years old, he was already the strongest player in Norway not just in his age category but also in age categories above him. He was dubbed as the next big thing from Norwegian chess. While press and media coverage is good for a player, it could also be detrimental to him. What is your take? How did you handle it?

HC: Yes, but you know, it’s already different times now. We are talking about 2001 maybe, 2002. It’s 18 to 19 years ago. And a lot has changed in this period. Media was not so pervasive and all encompassing as it is now. Magnus at the age of 8½ years was mentioned in a newspaper article once or twice, with a sentence or two, but apart from that he didn’t get much media coverage. In Norwegian chess magazines, they would always have something about him from the age of nine, and I remember once he was also on the front cover at this age. But apart from this he did not experience the invasive media that young stars have to face today. I think this is quite difficult to handle. By 12-13 years of age Magnus started to get a lot of media attention, even quite a lot by today’s media standards, but it was such an ingrained part of him that he wanted to play chess, he loved it so much and he wanted to keep making progress, but still it was his results, not mine, not the nation’s.

Not just Magnus but the entire Carlsen family became celebrities in Norway | Photo: Mads Stostad/NRK

SS: So basically, the media was not really an issue back then?

HC: I would say he handled it well. But nowadays I would say it is a problem. The earlier the players are exposed to the media, the bigger problem it is I think. My advice to journalists is that, you have to be very careful while writing about these young people. If you do it, it should be focussed on the passion of chess and not results. That would be my message! [smiles].

SS: Point taken! What about sponsorships? You have the talent, the drive exists, but at some point you start running low on funds. At that point it is critical to have a sponsor.

HC: I think we were a bit fortunate, coming from Norway, being a rich country, we came from a middle class background. Until some point we could spend money on Magnus without doing harm to our other kids. But Magnus, through his main trainer at that time Simen Agdestein already got a sponsor when he was eleven. And this was not our initiative, it was Agdestein’s. At the age of 13, Magnus had Microsoft as his sponsor. They covered a lot of his expenses related to travelling. This made it easier for us to make Magnus follow his passion because it didn’t hurt the family financially.

Yes, we were fortunate, but I think he would have been allowed to play chess even if we didn’t get a sponsor, because we could afford it. Already by the age of 13 or 14 he started to make good amount of money from chess. It went so smoothly, Magnus being a strong chess player and coming from a Norwegian background. I think we were fortunate in this respect.

Sponsors were never really a problem for Henrik and Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: What was your profession?

HC: I am an engineer. My wife is also an engineer. I worked in the oil industry for many years and then as a consultant for SAP and then I have been working for my son.

SS: You had to give up your work to accompany Magnus to tournaments. Is this true, or you were still working while with him?

HC: I managed to combine it well. I was a part-time consultant and I would go to tournaments with Magnus. And this was quite a nice situation because frankly I like going to tournaments with Magnus, more than I like my job! This is because I am passionate about chess and when I have a son who is strong in addition to that passion, it is just an ideal situation to be in. In the end, it was not such an important decision to prioritize his chess career. Most of what I have done in my life is kind of middle of the road, while my son can perform in chess at the highest level. I found that quite inspiring. Either me or my wife were mostly at home with the kids through most of their upbringing and this way when my wife started to work, I could be at home with the kids, when I was not at the tournaments. So, as a family we kind of managed it well and we are happy with how the things turned out.

SS: In 2003, you and your family made a very bold decision to rent out your apartment, hire a van and to travel across Europe for a year.

The Carlsen family at Areopagos in 2003 | Photo: Henrik Carlsen 

HC: But it was not a bold decision! [smiles]. Both me and my wife had a dream of travelling with our children. Although Norwegian schools have passionate teachers, it is difficult to get individual attention. So we had the idea that it would be good to home-school our children, at least for half a year or a year. And we used this opportunity travel for a year, homeschool the children, visit historic and cultural places in Europe and combining this with Magnus being able to play in tournaments! You could say that if Magnus was not a chess player we would not have done this, but the main focus was never on chess! By having the entire family come along and focussing on schooling on the go, it was never just about Magnus’ chess. We were happy that we were all travelling together as a family!

It was interesting to see how Magnus played a lot in autumn, trying to push himself, trying to improve but not really getting there. Then he took a month’s break in Christmas and when he came back after Christmas, it had all matured and he started playing like a grandmaster. He soon became a grandmaster. Magnus has credited this one year of travel and the maturing process as so important for his development as a chess player. In this way, once again, we were very fortunate that everything fit in well as a family and all the girls were also very happy about this trip we took.

SS: It’s wonderful that all of this worked out so well. But do you think going to culturally and historically rich places and learning things on the go is a viable way to educate children? Because everyone feels like going to school/college is important, you get the certificate, you get the degree.

HC: I think it would make best sense to combine the two. It is interesting to note that while we had the ambition of homeschooling our kids, in reality the kids were a bit reluctant to have that much of schooling while we travelled across the continent. Our ambitions were not fulfilled and we had to downgrade them.

But here’s the interesting bit. After this one year, when the kids went back to the school next year (they didn’t miss an academic year and were admitted to the next class) all the teachers felt that they had learned so much, they had become so mature. There was not even one complaint from any of the teachers. And that’s when we realized that this has been a good learning and maturing experience. Me and my wife were so happy about this and it was so illuminating for us. The entire family has such nice memories from that half year when we travelled in Europe. The next half was spent going to more and more chess tournaments because we began getting a lot of support from the organizers and the sponsors.

Salzburg 2003. The one year on the road, nomadic journey was quite a revelation for the Carlsen family | Photo: Henrik Carlsen 

SS: Did Magnus finish his education at a later point?

HC: He went out of high school and enrolled into the Simen Agdestein chess academy within the top athlete school. Magnus was spending most of his time at the tournaments and he couldn’t fulfill the minimum requirement criteria that was required from him and hence he couldn’t formally finish high school. There was not a lot missing to complete his high school, but it just wasn’t a priority anymore. If he wants to do that in the future, that is an option, but he has never seemed to regret that. It is important to note that when Magnus chooses a subject, he delves into it quite deep and becomes knowledgeable about it. Hence it is all about choosing and prioritizing what he wants to do.

SS: Did the fact that he didn’t finish his high school affect you back then. Because now it wouldn’t affect you, he is already the World Champion. But back then, did you feel he should have finished his high school?

HC: It’s a good question. When Magnus was in secondary school, we thought that it would be good continue education in parallel to chess so that you can have balance in life and opportunity. But it became clear when he was in high school that he really wanted to become a chess player and he clearly could make it as a professional player. Already at the age of 15 and a half he was above 2700 on the live rating. He had made up his mind anyhow and as parents we did not challenge that.

SS: Was there anytime that you got angry on Magnus after a chess game?

HC: When Magnus was eight and a half, I dropped him at a tournament and came back after a few hours. He had lost a couple of games by then and it was clear that he had played under his level. I remember, while going back home in the car, I was on the verge, or I think I did ask a critical question and I immediately regretted it. At that very point I understood that this is his process, his results. I am only here to help him and support him. He is trying to do his best. Why should I ever criticize anything that he does. I think he appreciates this fact that I don’t push him for results. If you want to praise your children, you should praise their efforts, but results is something that you shouldn’t focus too much on. Negative results should never be highlighted or discussed as negative from your perspective. They are doing their best. What more can you ask? That’s clearly enough.

SS: You have so much faith that Magnus is giving his best. How does this faith develop?

HC: I understand your question. But for Magnus this was simple, because he was so passionate about chess. If he was not passionate about chess then we would not have done all of this. We would have given chess less priority. His passion ensured that no pushing or expectations were needed or called for from our end. It would just be detrimental, because all of this came from inside of him.

SS: Was there any period when Magnus lost interest in chess and you had to intervene or do something to bring it back?

HC: Not really. We regarded chess as his hobby and he was free to choose his activity level unless it interfered too much with his school. Well, from the age of 15, chess did clash a lot with his school, but by then we had accepted the situation. If you are as passionate about chess as Magnus is, then coming from Norway is an advantage, clearly not a disadvantage, because it’s easier to give the child the freedom to develop in his own way and at his own pace.

Here’s one example that proves what I am saying. Magnus had a short cooperation with Kasparov and some of his trainers when he was 14 and then Kasparov or his trainer asked Magnus to do a homework, Magnus agreed. After a few days I asked Magnus if he was going to do the homework. He replied that he had done a bit of it. “But you had assured him that you would do the homework”, I said. Magnus was not happy with this. He did a little bit more of his homework and then didn’t complete it. The cooperation between Magnus and Kasparov stopped because Magnus wanted to be in control of what he was doing. No pushing! At that point when this happened, I felt like saying no to a cooperation with Kasparov when you are 14, doesn’t sound like a good idea. But it’s your hobby, so I have no comments or complaints. It was all his decision. Gradually, I began to understand that Magnus seems to understand what is the best for himself. So, hands off with that idea. [smiles]

Magnus always wanted to be in control of what he was doing

SS: The other day when he got the book of Mikhail Tal (Checkmate: Love story of Mikhail Tal and Sally Landau) he was so interested in it, I think he had never heard of that book, he started reading it in the opening ceremony…

HC: He has finished it! (with laughter)

SS: Really! He finished it! The way he consumes information is quite unbelievable.

HC: When he is interested!

Magnus got the book Checkmate - Love story of Mikhail Tal and Sally Landau. And he finished it off in two days! | Photo: Sagar Shah

SS: And chess is his interest.

HC: Yeah, but he is interested in a lot of other things. But chess is probably the main interest in his life.

SS: When Magnus made his final GM norm in Dubai 2004, and became a GM, how did you feel?

HC: Well, that was great! And I was in awe. Yes, he got his grandmasters norms, but I still couldn’t fathom that he was this good! I have the feeling that his opponents slightly underestimated him. I think that often happens with young players. The older grandmasters cannot appreciate on how they should treat these young kids, because the kid typically has a different profile. The kid must know something that I don’t know, because I know a lot that the kid doesn’t know. So, it’s not a level playing field. In some parts I am above, in some parts the kid is above. How to approach this. Even as an amateur chess player, I appreciate this. When I am facing a 2000 or 2100 player who is 10 years old, I am quite baffled. The question that comes to me is how should I play, while against someone who is older, you do not really think this way. So I suppose Magnus got some traction from being young. But he was clearly playing at a very high level. The fact that he could make his final GM norm with one round to spare, was unbelievable. I was living in a dream!

Magnus in Dubai in 2004, when he made his final GM norm. Can you recognize all the famous personalities in this photo? | Photo: Henrik Carlsen's archives

SS: The way he beat Vladimirov in that tournament was quite amazing!

HC: Yes, that was quite a good game! I was just thinking about it! [smiles]


SS: And then this journey of becoming World no.1 from a GM. At some point you must have thought that he may stop progressing, or he may stagnate, but Magnus just kept rolling on and on.

HC: You know, he had his bumps. For eg. From the age of 13½ to 14½ he was struggling quite a lot. Because he wanted to beat all the grandmasters but he was still not quite strong enough. He lost a lot of games and also a lot of rating points. I think he lost around 50 Elo points in a year. I was quite worried because I didn’t know how these losses would impact the young boy. But every time Magnus lost a game, he would come back with more power for the next game and say I am going to beat this guy, I am going to now beat this guy and so on! He didn’t give up and then when he was 14½ years old, he understood how these 2700 GMs, or at least the 2650 GMs, how they play and he started to perform at an Elo of 2700+ in every tournament that he played after that.

It took around a year of struggling with the GMs. First he could beat a lot of them because he was the new guy on the block, but then the GMs started to treat him slightly differently, and Magnus was over-pushing at times, sometimes just making mistakes and he lost a lot of games. After a year he had understood how this works and from the European Championships in 2005 in summer, he started playing at a high level. It became clear that he had taken that stride.

You know, but still people would tell us that he is too superficial, he needs to have a proper repertoire, learn the openings in detail etc. but we heard this at all stages of his development. It never came in between his growth! He went all the way up to world no.1 at least in the live rating list, with no fixed repertoire and have a wide variety of openings. So he very much found his own way.

Of course, during 2009 his work with Kasparov, that also helped him to go from being one of the best players in the world, even though his openings were clearly worse than others, into a player who was more or less their equal in the opening. Clearly Magnus has got help from a lot of trainers since he was young, like Torbjorn Ringdall when he was nine. Simen Agdestein when he was 11, and then Kasparov when he was 18. The last one was important to bring him to the next level.

SS: When Magnus became a world class player, and started to have a manager, how did you feel?

HC: Well, it was me who contacted his manager! It was becoming quite a lot to do apart from travelling with Magnus. Specifically, we needed some sponsors for the Kasparov cooperation in 2009, because that was quite expensive. That was when Espen Agdestein, the brother of Simen Agdestein, volunteered to do some work for us. He was the right guy to do the job. It went very well and after two years, he took over as the manager, which involved talking to the media and doing some other work. As a father, I found this very helpful and reassuring, because then I could return to my role as a father and not to be his business manager. Being his business manager was not something that I liked very much. It was not easy to combine it with being his father!

SS: Here (at the Lindores Abbey 2019), you are present with Magnus. What is your role?

HC: I try to look at the practical details. Timing, food, drinks and being an intermediate to the media and also enjoying the chess! [smiles] That reminds me! How’s his game going? [Henrik takes out his mobile phone and checks the game Anand vs Carlsen] They have an equal ending so, yes, they are still playing.

SS: We come to Magnus becoming a World Champion. Right now, it’s been more than five years since he became the World Champion. But back in 2013, when he had to play the World Championship match in India and he faced a formidable opponent Anand, what did you feel as a father?

HC: Prior to the match, we were a bit worried. Magnus would have to play on Anand’s home turf. He would have to travel to a country where he had never been before, quite different circumstances than what he was used to in Norway and Europe. But, as it turned out, it was just such a fantastic experience. Being his first World Championship match, which is the best you can do as a chess player, and playing in this exotic environment, with so many enthusiastic spectators and media, I think we had to pinch our arm every day during the championship. Of course, it helped that he won in the end. I think it was quite difficult for Anand to play on his home soil and when he lost that fifth game, it became clear that it is going to be extremely difficult for him to make a comeback. The World Championship 2013, is clearly the experience of my life which is unreal, fantastic and memorable. I have been so fortunate to experience this. I think also Magnus has special memories from Chennai.

Henrik and Magnus have covered a huge chess journey - from being a beginner to a World Champion! | Photo: Sagar Shah

SS: When he became the World Champion, did your mind go back to the time when Magnus began playing chess, and you could relive the entire journey?

HC: Not really. I tried to thank people who had helped us along the way. For me it had mainly been a pleasure and joy and I think even for the rest of the family, the girls, they appreciated all that they have been able to experience in chess and travelling. Nowadays you can see them commentating on Norwegian television. They are accepted as a part of the chess family and I think It hopefully brings them more benefits than problems.

Carlsen's three sisters - Signe (left), Ellen and Ingrid. Two of them are even rated players! Can you guess who? | Photo: Amruta Mokal

SS: Nowadays when Magnus is winning one tournament after another, does it get repetitive for you. Or you still feel excited whenever he gets down to play.

HC: Well, for me, the repetition part, I don’t mind that at all [laughs]. You have got the point that we were so spoiled until 2014, 2015. But then results have been more up and down for a few years, although he has remained world no.1, he has stayed the World Champion etc. But recently his core team has been more uncertain about his performance with relation to any tournament. Well, nowadays, suddenly he is playing the best chess of his life once again. And you get the feeling of “Wow!” again! Ok! Thank you! We will see how long it lasts, and try to enjoy it, because he has clearly been on the road.

SS: What are your future plans now? Your individual rating is around 2075. Do you have plans of restarting your chess or would you accompany Magnus to more tournaments?

HC: Well, that’s up to Magnus! He is 28 now. He doesn’t need or want his father to have such a role throughout his life. So I expect gradually to have more time for my chess career. [broad smile]

SS: And once you begin, would you have a rating aim in your mind or you would just like to enjoy chess?

HC: I won’t talk too much about my chess career [laughs].

One of those rare occasions when it was Magnus who was kibitzing his father's game and not the other way around! | Photo: Biel Chess 2018

SS: Henrik, it was a pleasure talking to you. I have seen many parents out there, but hardly anyone who has been as level headed and calm as you are. If you had to give an advice to all the chess parents out there what would it be?

HC: Kids are individuals, hence making a general advice for everyone would be too difficult. But if had to give one then it would be “Let the kid own the process and the result.” This is really my advice.

SS: You have practiced it!

HC: I tried! 

The interviewer with the interviewee: IM Sagar Shah with Henrik Carlsen

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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