Magnificent Magnus, the world's youngest grandmaster

by ChessBase
4/30/2004 – Two days ago a participant at the Dubai Open made his final GM norm with a performance of 2678. This news electrified the chess world because the player in question was just 13 years old. Magnus Carlsen of Norway is now the youngest GM in the world. He is also a bright and highly eloquent kid, as you can see in this remarkable in-depth interview.

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Magnus completed his final GM norm at the Dubai Open with a round to spare. At that stage he had chalked up an Elo performance of 2705, having scored 6/8 without losing a single game. Magnus is a classical chess prodigy, the youngest grandmaster in the world. He completed his GM norms earlier than any player but one in history, as you can see in the following statistics.

Player Final GM norm at
Bobby Fischer 15 years, 6 months, 1 day
Judit Polgar 15 years, 4 months, 28 days
Koneru Humpy 15 years, 4 months, 28 days
Peter Leko 14 years, 4 months, 22 days
Etienne Bacrot 14 years, 2 months, 0 days
Ruslan Ponomariov 14 years, 0 months, 17 days
Teimour Radjabov 14 years, 0 months, 14 days
Bu Xiangzhi 13 years, 10 months, 13 days
Magnus Carlsen 13 years, 3 months, 27 days
Sergey Karjakin 12 years, 7 months, 0 days

A few weeks before Dubai Magnus had played in a rapid chess tournament in Reykjavik, where he faced Garry Kasparov in the first round of the knockout. Showing no respect for the best player of all time Magnus had Kasparov on the ropes in game one.

Garry Kasparov vs Magnus Carlsen in Reykjavik

In this first game Garry escaped with a draw (!), in the second he outplayed his youthful opponent. It is typical for his ambition, self-confidence and maturity when Magnus says in his interview below "I was not at all happy with ½-1½ against Kasparov in the rapid chess game: I should have won as White. As Black I played like a child!”

To learn more about this incredible talent, we bring you an in-depth interview with Magnus Carlsen. It was conducted in Oslo, Norway, during the Easter holidays and well before the Dubai Open in which Magnus completed his GM norms. Speaking to Magnus is Hans Olav Lahlum, one of the driving forces in the Norwegian chess scene. Hans Olav (Elo 2244) is also an International Arbiter and the organiser of the international chess tournaments in Gausdal, Norway. He has also been the Norwegian national team’s leader in many international youth championships, tournament arbiter, and a member of the board in the youth chess association in Norway.

Hans Olav Lahlum interviewing Magnus Carlsen over Easter

Magnus and his parents have read and approved the interview (Norwegian version). It was first published in Norwegian on the 26th of March, on Norway’s leading chess news web site: Bergens Schakklubs hjemmeside, which is run by IM Eirik T. Gullaksen. The translation was done by Mathias Berntsen.

An interview with Magnus Carlsen

By Hans Olav Lahlum

Welcome home

Hans Olav: Let me start by congratulating you on behalf of the Bergen SK home page on your great progress since our last interview. And also I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do another one, with everything going on.

Magnus: Thanks, and thanks again! I still think it is both more interesting and much better to talk to chess playing friends than journalists…

HO: I’ll add “Welcome home” to complete the pleasantries. You have been traveling for many months now. How has the life as a 13-year-old chess professional been?

Before the interview Magnus insisted on some blitz chess against Hans Olav

A lot of traveling

Magnus: I can’t deny that there has been a lot of traveling lately, and more traveling by car than I really care for. This autumn we drove from Norway through Denmark, Germany and Austria to Italy, and then we drove around in the Balkans for some time, before we got to Greece where I attended the European Youth Chess Championship. And in 2004 I have until now participated in tournaments in the Netherlands, Russia and Iceland. But that part of my efforts to become a professional player has been inaccurately portrayed by the media. It is true that I have not been to school since last summer, and that I have been playing a lot of chess. But it has always been my parents plan to take a year off and show us, their children, the world. And this year was a good opportunity to do so, both for me, my sister and my parents. And I’m definitely going back to school again this autumn.

HO: Do you have any particular non chess related stories to tell from your travels this year?

Magnus: Strangely enough, Kosovo felt like the safest place we have been to – there were UN cars driving by every other minute. We had some problems with a customs border check post: Apparently it was a big problem that my little sister was sitting in the front passenger seat, and not in the back seat. And in Moscow we had some trouble with our visas. Eastern Europe is poorer than I thought. I have never driven through long tunnels without light before! But it all turned out very well. Other than that, there has been a little too much culture for my taste, but I always seem to find a way to sneak my self out of it. I just say I have to work on some chess preparations.

Magnus vs Hans Olav in a serious game

HO: You are far from the first chess players to experience “misunderstandings” in Moscow regarding visas. Luckily, you were too young to participate that time the Norwegian national chess team was held in the airport in Moscow because they refused to pay for their visas twice (they were already paid for). I’ve heard numerous unconfirmed rumors saying that while your sisters spent a lot of time in the marvelous Bolstoj-theater in Moscow, you were looking for an Internet café you could play blitz on the Internet. Do you have any comments about these rumors?

Magnus: I guess there is something true in them, but it was just for one day. I dodged a ballet show you can say I was not particularly looking forward to…

HO: Have you made any new friends during your travels?

Magnus: I cannot really say that I have. I have met many nice people, but there are not enough time to get to know the opponents, e.g. in the European Championship and in the World Championship – and then you have the fact that the language often limits the opportunities.

HO: Have you played any girls during the last year?

Magnus: Yes?!...

HO: And are there any girls you have gotten to know better?

Magnus: NO!!

Back to school

HO: Well, there goes that headline. Do not worry; I am sure I can make up something else. Are you looking forward to going back to school this autumn?

Magnus: I have not missed school yet. I do not learn much during ordinary classes. It is so much more effective when mom and dad are tutoring me. I do of course understand the problem a teacher with thirty students has; nevertheless, it is kind of frustrating and under-stimulating for me with all the waiting. I become unmotivated and I spend little time with schoolwork when it is like that. In spite of that I am among the best in my class in all the subjects except for drawing, crafts and other subjects not suited for us with ten thumbs. When I am at school I look forward to the time between classes and to going home, nothing else.

HO: My, oh my… I do unfortunately not have any other comforting words than that it gets better when you get to high school and a lot better when you get to the university! There are many like us who have felt exactly like that before. I hope elementary school does not break you, because education is very important. Speaking of education, do you have any particular plans?

Magnus: My mother and father have always been very clear about the importance of me getting an education besides playing chess. And that is my intention. I have no idea about what to study yet, but I have several years to make up my mind.

HO: And what about your classmates, do you miss them when you are away playing chess tournaments?

Magnus: Oh yeah, missing them is something completely different than missing the school. It is hard to maintain much contact with them while playing in tournaments abroad, because I do not have a cell phone. I do not think I need one yet, and I relax better without one. But I stay in touch with the boys in the class when I am home. I have been playing football with them several times this Easter, and I am far from the first guy to leave the field, if you know what I mean.

HO: So playing chess has not interfered with your physical activity?

Photo: Fred Lucas

Magnus: Nope! I play soccer as often as I can, and I also participate in other sports if possible. Since we came home from Reykjavik I have been relaxing at our cabin, going for long cross country ski trips, socializing with my family; having as good a time as possible without playing chess.

HO: What kind of music do you listen to?

Magnus: Like I have said before, I’m not that into culture, and I don’t really listen to music. But I hear lots of different stuff on the car radio when we are driving. And I still listen to “Knutsen og Ludvigsen” [Norwegian singer/songwriters] together with my sisters when we are home alone. I still think they are pretty funny!

Books and training

HO: You read chess book written by GMs in English – and (far more common among Norwegian chess juniors) Donald Duck pocket books. Do you read anything in between as well?

Magnus: I read schoolbooks when I have to. Other than that, I am often thrilled with books on new topics, but I sometimes have some trouble getting into them on my own. Actually, I still like it best when other people read to me. We often read together in my family. Right now, we are reading sagas from the Viking ages in Norway. Quite bloody stuff actually.

(A further discussion about the Viking area and its sagas is censored, partly because we assume that most of the readers do not really care about that stuff, and partly to shield the young readers from the gory details!)

The 12-year-old, still a lowly FM (Elo 2326) at the Barentssjakken 2003 tournament. Magnus won this game against IM Gennadij Kiselev of Murmansk, Russia. Photo by Finn Haug of

HO: From which chess book have you learned the most?

Magnus: Kramnik’s collection of games is impressing and very good. I have learned a lot from reading that book.

HO: Am I correct in assuming that Kramnik is your role model among chess players?

Magnus: No, not really. I’ve never really had any role models in chess. My favorite player is still myself ;-)

HO: You were taught chess and tutored by your father in the beginning, but it didn’t take long for you to beat him. Then you were trained by Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen, but you rocketed past him in a few months too. Currently GM Simen Agdestein is your coach, but you are in the process of outgrowing him as well. I’d very much like to point out that you do not need a very high Elo score to be a good chess coach. Most of my students are above me on the Elo lists, but is it a problem for you finding a coach in Norway?

Magnus: First, it was really me rather than my father who trained me in the beginning. Secondly, I still enjoy and benefit greatly from training with Simen. But I guess I have to think more internationally soon. I did some training with Peter Heine Nielsen (Denmark 2628) recently, and that worked out really well. I hope I will work more with him in the future!

HO: How often do you practice chess?

Magnus: That is almost impossible to measure. It can get quite intense when I prepare for and during tournaments. When I am at home and I am not participating in any tournaments, my training is very unsystematically.

HO: How often do you analyze your own games?

Magnus: When I am at home, I have no system for that either, I am afraid. But I try to analyze the games together with my opponent after we are done, also when I lose. I only say no to analyze with my opponent under special circumstances, like illness or if I am very tired. Okay, I might also say no, I have suffered an extremely irritating loss…

HO: Of all your games, with which one are you most happy?

Magnus at the "Barentssjakken 2003". Photo by Finn Haug

Magnus: I do not have one particular game that stands out – yet. But I was very happy with my 19-move victory against Sergei Dolmatov in Moscow (Aeroflot Open). I never thought it could be so easy to beat a player rated almost 2600.

Future ambitions

HO: Last time I interviewed you was on your 12th birthday (11.30.2001), and back then, your ambition was achieving an Elo of 2650. Now you are thirteen years old and only 100 points away from your 2650 goal. I also heard that you upped the rating ambition to 2700, is that true?

Magnus: My ambitions grow in correspondence with my rating. So I guess I have to say 2750 to you today!

HO: Last year you had many and great ambitions. Many people smiled when they heard you were aiming for IM norms and a rating of 2400 that soon, and I guess I was one of them. When the year was over, you had passed 2450 and I had lost count of all your IM norms! But you did not get a medal at the Norwegian Championship, and you failed to reach your goal of winning both the European Youth Championship (EYC) and the World Youth Championship (WYC). How happy are you now about your efforts and achievements in 2003?

Magnus: Everything considered, I think it was a very good year! Although I must say that I was disappointed with my efforts in the Norwegian national Championship. I started of badly, and did not even get an IM norm. I lived far away from the venue together with my family and my friend Brede. It was nice and all (as always), but it turned out that it was far from optimal when it comes to serious preparations. During the European Youth Championship, everything worked well up until the two last rounds. Then everything fell apart. I got sick only a few days after the EYC, and I was quite ill during the WYC. I ran between my bed and the playing hall during the first part of the WYC. Despite everything, I actually played quite well when I was ill, but when I got well, I was totally out of energy. Becoming an IM was my main ambition, and I am naturally very happy about reaching that goal.

HO: So are the rest – I am sorry “the rest of us in the chess scene in Norway” as well! This year has been even more sensational: In three months, you have achieved two GM norms, passed 2550 on the rating lists, drawn against Kasparov in a rapid match, and beaten Karpov in a blitz game. What are your ambitions this year?

Magnus: My main goal for this year is still to become a GM, and I am confident that I’ll make it. Other than that, I just try to have fun while playing chess and to play as much as possible. And then we will just see how it goes. I had great hopes for playing in the World Championship, but I am now at peace with the fact that it just will not happen. Prior to this, we got some feedback from Mr. X (a highly ranked FIDE official) who was very optimistic about my chances of getting a wild card, but it just did not turn out that way. When they announced the list of participants, I was not even listed as a reserve.

HO: Luckily, you will have other opportunities. But if you by a miracle would get and opportunity to play in the World Championship this year, will you go there even though it is in Libya?

Magnus: I don’t think I’ll get such an opportunity now, but YEAH – I’d love to play in the World Championship! My mother was first very skeptical about the fact that the championship was to be held in Libya, but I had just managed to convince her otherwise when FIDE said no. I would not have been afraid of traveling to Libya; I expect that the contestants would be kept quite isolated.

[In the meantime a Norwegian chess news site is reporting: "IM Magnus Carlsen has been chosen to participate in the upcoming World Championship in Libya. Magnus was not included in the original 'List of Qualifiers', but since several other players declined the invitation, Magnus was handed one of the free spots." We can confirm this, as the FIDE participants list now includes Magnus as a "President’s nominee".]

HO: This autumn there is the chess Olympics. Were you disappointed about not being picked for the Norwegian team back in 2002?

Magnus: I know that a certain individual [an anonymous Norwegian GM, who also happens to be Magnus’ personal coach] was trying hard to get me a spot on the Norwegian national team, and now it is easy to see that I could have performed just as well as the last person to be picked for the team, but I cannot really say that I am disappointed. Even though I was hoping to play in the Olympics, and I’m sure it would have been lots of fun, there is a tradition in Norway for picking players who are rated 30 points higher and ten years older.

Best in Norway

HO: Whom do you regard as being the three best chess players in Norway today?

Magnus: 1) Simen Agdestein 2) Magnus Carlsen 3) Einar Gausel.

HO: And which ambitions do you have for this year’s national team, playing in the Olympics?

Magnus: I do not in any way claim to play at the first table. Simen has much more experience and routine than me, and if he is playing I think he should play first board for us. I hope and believe that our team this year will be a strong one. And if I play at the second board, I’ll face many strong opponents as well, and I’ll have lots of fun. But unless the results change dramatically, I’ll not accept playing second fiddle to any other person than Simen in the Olympics!

HO: And what about this years National Championship (NC) in Molde (Norway)? There has been much back and forth when it comes to which GMs who will participate. Will you play, and if so, what are your ambitions?

Magnus: What is the latest you have heard regarding GMs participating in the National Championship? (A confidential conversation occurs, and it stays that way.)

Magnus: Of course I do hope that all of the GMs will participate in the National Championship. I’d rather not be the one who is rated clearly highest, but I assume that I’ll play as long as either Simen or Gausel also play. And then my ambition is to become the Norwegian Champion, even though that might be very difficult, especially if Simen show up.

HO: Right besides us the Open Norwegian Championship is currently being played. Both your father and sister are playing, and you drop by almost every day, but you withdrew from the tournament before it started. Does this mean that you will play fewer tournaments in Norway in the future?

Magnus: I still love to play in Norway, but I have been playing a little bit too much lately, and I felt tired when I came back from Reykjavik. I was not very motivated for playing in a tournament where I was top seeded, there was too much pressure. Instead I had some Easter vacation, and concentrated on the rapid and blitz tournament instead. (Both of which he won, ahead of several GMs and IMs). And I also enjoy just walking around during the tournament talking to friends and watching others play chess.

The first GM norm

HO: I have always said that you are a wise young man. Please continue to take care of yourself so you do not wear yourself out. The Corus tournament in Holland was your international breakthrough. Would you like to tell us about that tournament?

Magnus: As far as results go, I guess that the Corus result is my best so far, and I was mostly happy with my play there as well. The first GM norm was naturally a great moment. Together with my final IM norm in the Politiken Cup (2003), I think that winning group C in Corus has been the greatest moment of my chess career this far.

HO: You played fantastically in that tournament, and many people other than me were filled with awe when we were following the internet coverage of your games. Congratulations again on that one. But several of your opponents were apparently playing far worse than they normally do. Did you notice that they had a harder time playing you than playing each other?

Magnus Carlsen at the Corus Wijk aan Zee tournament in Holland

Magnus: No, I did not notice that. But then again, I never asked. It suited me just fine that the other GMs were out of form. To get a result as good as the one I got, I need the margins on my side, and they were absolutely on my side in Corus!

HO: And the second GM norm came only a few weeks later, against very strong opponents and with unfamiliar conditions in Moscow (Aeroflot Open). What do you have to say about that tournament?

Magnus: My performance was a little lower than in Corus, but I was just about as happy with my games in Moscow as I was in Corus. I was not outplayed by anybody, even though I played strong opponents. And my openings were good, with both colors.

HO: 4.5/5 with the white pieces in Moscow was incredible, but your play as black was rather poor?

Magnus: Yes and no. 0.5/4 is not a lot, but looking at that score alone is misleading. Three of my losses as black came as a result of me blundering late in the game. My openings as black worked, really.

Ups and downs in Reykjavik

HO: However, things did not turn out that well in Reykjavik – why?

Magnus: I cannot deny that my results in the main tournament were disappointing. I got off with a bad start and fumbled somewhat in both my first two games as white. Both then things went better up until the seventh round, where I blundered away a promising position against Korneev. The next round I again lost unnecessarily, this time to Stefansson. Did you see that game? I had a great position early on, and I should at least be able to hold the draw towards the end, but it is practically hopeless to defend such positions when you are short on time. It was a tournament of missed opportunities for me, but I have a feeling that I had been playing a little bit too much prior to that tournament.

HO: But then you struck back in two rapid matches against Karpov and Kasparov. And all of a sudden, you were like “Help, the camera men are coming…”

Magnus: Yeah, that thing was suddenly blown all out of proportions. The media clearly had not been made aware of the fact that there are more surprises when you are playing rapid chess, and that the results from the long time control games are the ones that can make you a GM. I was not that happy with my rapid play. Karpov impressed me though. He played really well, and I could only hope for a draw up until he suddenly blundered his bishop in the bishop endgame. Up until that point I had a bad position with opposite colored bishops, and that does not sound god when you are facing Karpov, does it? He is really strong in endgames like that. And I was not at all happy with my 0.5-1.5 against Kasparov in the rapid chess game: I should have won as White. As Black I played like a child!

"I played like a child!"


HO: You have had to learn to live with cameras and media around you, and now they are even going to make a documentary about you. Did this disturb you when you were playing the tournament on Iceland?

Magnus: The person who is making the documentary (Øyvind Asbjørnsen) has been with us before, and he knows a little about chess, so things are easier when it comes to him. When we were playing in Iceland, the Norwegian TV crews came when the rapid and blitz chess was starting, and then we were playing in shielded areas, so I did not really notice them when I was playing. I’d love to have less contact with the media. Since we came home from Reykjavik, we have in fact had almost no contact with them, other than a newspaper buying us dinner. And it is ok to say no occasionally too.

HO: Are there any particular questions you are tired of getting from journalists?

Magnus: Can I name three? Thanks! “Why do you play chess?” “How old were you when you started playing chess?” “What do you have to do to become a grandmaster?”

Time controls

HO: To make an example I will include all three, that way we can hope that you will not hear them again… Time controls are still a highly debated topic in the chess world. Do you have anything new to add to this?

Magnus: 40 moves in two hours and then one hour for the rest of the game as you are using here (the Open Norwegian Championship) is a good time control. Alternatively, you could have an arrangement with increment that results in 6-7 hours per game. The FIDE time control can be practical for me if I play two tournaments in a short time, as I will be doing past Easter when I will be playing the Dubai and Sigeman tournaments. In addition, in the big championships I have to play with the FIDE time controls. Other than that, I try to avoid the FIDE time controlled tournaments. Chess gets so much more interesting when you have longer time controls.

HO: You are playing far more varied openings than most 2500-players. To which extent do your spectacular sacrifices come as a result of your opening preparations?

Magnus: The tactical combinations I have played are all improvised. I have not won a single game at top level as a direct result of opening preparations. However, I have often seen similar positions before, and it really helps if I have looked into a similar kind of position earlier. I prepare as good as I can with ChessBase for each game, and I am determined to vary my openings.

HO: During our last interview, you said that the thing you disliked the most about chess was losing. And being only 13-years-old, you will lose important games every now and then. Do you cry or feel depressed when you make a bad move and as a result lose a game after five or six hours of play?

Magnus: Yeah, I can still get really angry with my self when I lose! But mostly it passes quickly. Moreover, if I get angry with myself I never take it out on the opponent. It is all about the next game, the next round. After my loss in the first round in Moscow, I tried to just play and not think about my chances for a GM norm, and that worked out so well that I got the GM norm in the end after all!

HO: One of the many similarities between chess and life is that the today’s losses can be tomorrow’s victories if you just look ahead and learn from your mistakes. What is the worst moment of your career this far?

Magnus: When it occurred to me that I had made a blunder in the last round of the European Youth Chess Championship in 2003 and in the World Youth Chess Championship in 2002! The feeling I get when I realize that I have made a blunder is still terrible!

The best in the world

HO: Oh yeah, most chess players know that feeling too well. (Further details from the story of me waiting 54 minutes to see if the opponent would spot the mate in three, for later to win the game, are for the sake of the readers left out). So, who are the top three players in the world born in 1990 or later?

Magnus: I would not be that far behind Karjakin (the Ukrainian wonder kid, born 12.01.1990, the youngest to become a GM, 2580 FIDE vs. Magnus 2552) if FIDE had not taken lots of rating points away from me by using the wrong K factor, in violation of their own rules! But I still think he is somewhat better than I am, so the rating difference between us has something to do with us after all. I think of myself as a clear number two, and I do not see any clear number three. However, there are several up and coming talents in this age category.

Strength and weakness

HO: What is your greatest strength as a chess player?

Magnus: I guess I am best in open positions where I am the one who has the possibilities to attack And I calculate pretty well, especially short tactical variations.

HO: And your greatest weakness as a chess player?

Magnus: I do believe that what I first and foremost need right now is experience. And I still have to work on avoiding getting into time trouble. I am told that I am good at keeping a straight face when I am in time trouble, but I still tend to panic – especially if I am starting to struggle after having a superior position.

Gotta get the last GM norm in Dubai!

HO: Just after Easter you are to embark on a long car trip. First stop is Dubai (Dubai Open) and then you are traveling directly to the Sigeman tournament in Sweden/Denmark. What are your ambitions for these tournaments?

Magnus: That goes without saying, doesn’t it? It would be very convenient to secure the third and final GM norm in one of those tournaments.

HO: Ok, enough questions for today and on the behalf of the Norwegian chess scene I would like to thank you for answering all these questions!

Magnus: Thank you!


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