Magnus Carlsen: His career at 28

by Johannes Fischer
11/30/2018 – Today, on November 30th, 2018, Magnus Carlsen celebrates his 28th birthday, carefree, as World Champion, after successfully defending his title two days earlier in a match against Fabiano Caruana by a 3-0 win in the rapid tiebreak. Carlsen is already considered one of the best players of all time, but a few numbers show how impressive his career has been, and provide a handy gateway into the ChessBase archives. | Pictured: Magnus Carlsen in the ChessBase office in October 2017 | Photo: Nadja Wittman

Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen Endgames of the World Champions from Fischer to Carlsen

Let endgame expert Dr Karsten Müller show and explain the finesses of the world champions. Although they had different styles each and every one of them played the endgame exceptionally well, so take the opportunity to enjoy and learn from some of the best endgames in the history of chess.


Highlights of a chess career

Magnus Carlsen was born on November 30th, 1990 in Tonsberg, Norway, as the second child of Henrik and Sigrun Carlsen. He learned to play chess at the age of five and shows serious interest in chess at age nine. Soon he is rushing from success to success, year after year... 

1999 Carlsen plays his first chess tournament.
2000 Carlsen becomes Norwegian champion Under-11.
2001 10-year-old Carlsen participates in the European Team Championship for the Norwegian club Asker SK in September.
2002 Carlsen is second in the World Youth Under-12.
2003 In August, Carlsen is awarded the IM title.
2004 From January to April Carlsen gets three GM norms and becomes grandmaster at the age of 13, 4 months and 27 days — behind Sergey Karjakin he was the second youngest grandmaster of all time.
2005 Carlsen is tenth in the World Cup and qualifies for the 2007 Candidates Tournament.
2006 Together with Alexander Motylev, Carlsen wins the B tournament in Wijk aan Zee.
2007 Carlsen wins in Biel and comes to the semi-finals of the World Cup, where he is eliminated by Gata Kamsky.
2008 Carlsen wins the A tournament in Wijk aan Zee with Levon Aronian. During the Chess Masters in Bilbao in September, he is ranked #1 on the unofficial live world rankings for five days.
2009 Carlsen starts working with Garry Kasparov. In October, Carlsen wins the tournament in Nanjing with 8 out of 10, 2½ points ahead of Veselin Topalov, earning an Elo performance of 3002.
2010 Carlsen is the official number 1 in the world for the first time in January. In March 2010 he ends his collaboration with Kasparov.
2011 In July, Carlsen finally establishes himself as the world's number 1 and has been leading the world ranking list ever since.
2012 At the world blitz and rapid championships in July, Carlsen finishes in second place in both tournaments.
2013 Carlsen wins the Candidates Tournament, played in March, ahead of Vladimir Kramnik. Decisive was the tiebreak of the larger number of games won. In November 2013, Carlsen beats Viswanathan Anand to become 16th undisputed World Champion in chess history.
2014 In May, Carlsen arrives at an Elo rating of 2882 points — the highest Elo rating a human has ever achieved. In June, he wins the World Championship in rapid chess and the World Championship in blitz chess and is thus World Champion in classical, rapid and blitz simultaneously. In November, he defends his title in classical chess in the rematch against Vishy Anand.
2015 In October, Carlsen defends his title as World Rapid Chess Champion, but at the Blitz World Championship he lands "only" in sixth place.
2016 Carlsen defends his world title against Sergey Karjakin. After 12 classical games, Carlsen wins the rapid tiebreak on November 30th, his 26th birthday, 3-1.
2017 In December, Carlsen again becomes World Champion in blitz chess.
2018 In January, Carlsen wins the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee after a tiebreak against Anish Giri. It's Carlsen's sixth win in Wijk aan Zee, and no other player has won this tournament as many times. In November 2018, Carlsen defended his world title in the World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana by a 3-0 victory in the rapid tiebreak after all twelve classical games were drawn. In the Elo list of December 2018 Carlsen remains number one at 2835, but only three points ahead of Caruana.

Carlsen has also provided a boost to the profile of chess worldwide, but especially in his native Norway, where a chess boom has seen millions of people follow his World Championship bouts against Anand, Karjakin and Caruana. Carlsen has worked as a model for the fashion brand G-Star and also appeared in advertising for other companies like Porsche. And in 2016 the documentary 'Magnus' was released, describing Carlsen's career up until he won the 2013 World Championship title.

Concentration | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Carlsen attaches great importance to physical fitness and is known to fight to the end in almost all his games. He likes to forego theoretical duels to instead strive for a playable position in which he can put the opponent under pressure in the middlegame and endgame. In so doing, Carlsen has already changed modern chess — even though he is only 28 years old.

Happy Birthday!

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


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".


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/5/2018 06:19
@ maxharmonist: Yes, I indeed forgot the 1954 Botvinnik / Smyslov match... This gives 5 matches which have been decided by the "draw odds to the Champion" rule...
maxharmonist maxharmonist 12/5/2018 02:16
"other WCs didn't have the luxury of having a tiebreak system save their titles for them"

The recently introduced system is obviously less advantageous to the Champion than all other previous systems. Anand and Carlsen had the worst situation in that respect compared to all previous title holders, as the only Champions since Steinitz to never have played any of their title matches with draw odds. The last time draw odds "won" a title match was in 2004. To Petrarlsen's list Botvinnik vs Smyslov 1954 can be added. But post a bit more about Carlsen being a lesser Champion and about what an advantage he has compared to other Champions thanks to not having draw odds and maybe you will be able to convince yourself about these matters.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/5/2018 08:30
@ Daniel Quigley:

Yes, but several World Champions benefited from the "draw odds to the Champion" rule (I checked rapidly and perhaps I missed some; at least Lasker / Schlechter - 1910 -, Botvinnik / Bronstein - 1951 -, Kasparov / Karpov - 1987 -, and Kramnik / Leko - 2004 - were won by the defending Champion thanks to the "draw odds to the Champion" rule, with an equal score). And the "draw odds to the Champion" rule is more advantageous to the Champion that the present tiebreaking system, because the defending Champion wins outright in case of a tie, without having to play a tiebreak.

So it isn't possible to affirm that Carlsen's 2016 and 2018 match "don't count" because of this tiebreaking system.
Daniel Quigley Daniel Quigley 12/5/2018 06:26
Actually, Carlsen has only won one successful WC match while being WC. The other two were ties. This is even more significant because other WCs didn't have the luxury of having a tiebreak system save their titles for them. One win in a world championship match in five years since gaining the World Championship is about average then. For the lesser-ran WCs.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/3/2018 09:10
We already saw that comparing the level of play of players from different times is not doable for the reasons some already mentioned, even though we can reasonably estimate that the more time advances, the stronger a champion is as a heavy tendency.

Petrarlsen seems to be saying that, if you want to compare resilience of a champion, regardless of level of play, time of reign is also an irrelevant criterion - the number of times a champion defended and kept undisputed title being the relevant criterion on that matter. I agree (if I interpret correctly Petrarlsen here).

I would give one to Karpov for Fisher's forfeiture - Karpov had to win the necessary to qualify as a challenger
and forfeiture by one of the players when the conditions offered are reasonable and the player is able to participate should be considered as a decisive match.

Of course, some players may have reasonable reasons not to be able to defend title, death (as in the case of Alekhine) being one of them.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/3/2018 07:51
@ Daniel Quigley (3/3):

Globally, it seems to me rather obvious that if a player defends his title successfully 3 times in a 5 years' period, like Carlsen, it is much more significant, for example, than a player who stays Champion for an 11 years' period, if, during this period, this player doesn't play a single match, as Lasker did during the end of his period as a Champion (this without meaning at all, as for Capablanca, that Lasker is a lesser Champion than Carlsen).
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/3/2018 07:50
@ Daniel Quigley (2/3):

Once more, Capablanca and Carlsen are a very topical example: Capablanca was Champion for 6 years, but without EVER defending successfully his title; only because it happened he didn't play any World Championship match in this period. So what does these 6 years prove? Nothing, as he didn't defend his title during this period. While Carlsen already successfully defended his title 3 times; the 5 years between his first title and the 2018 match are really meaningful, because he defended succesfully his title during this period. (I don't mean by this that Carlsen is a greater champion that Capablanca; only that it is meaningless to say that Capablanca held his title for 6 years, while Carlsen is only at 5 years.)

Another example: Petrosian became Champion by beating Botvinnik in 1963, successfully defended his title against Spassky in 1966, and finally lost his title in 1969; he was Champion for 6 years, but, in my opinion, to directly compare these 6 years with Carlsen's 5 years isn't correct as there were only 3 years between his first title and his last (and only) successful title defense, while, for Carlsen, there are 5 years between his 2013 title and the 2018 match.

Last example: to argue, for example, that Fischer, as being Champion for 3 years, would have demonstrated more than a modern-days Champion who would be Champion for one or two years (losing his title in his first title defense) wouldn't be a correct reasoning: Fischer didn't play a single official game after his 1972 match; he didn't demonstrate more as for the length of his "reign" that any Champion who would have won only one single match.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/3/2018 07:50
@ Daniel Quigley (1/3):

"You are distinctly in the minority if you dispute any of these 27 years."

No, Lasker was indeed Champion for 27 years. But what I meant is that he didn't defend his title for the last 11 years of his period as World Champion ( the way, to the best of my belief, Lasker's last match before the 1921 match was in 1910 - the Lasker - Janowski match...). So, even if, for example, he would have had an accident an suffered an enormous level's loss in 1912, he would still have stayed World Champion until 1921: the real period for which he demonstrated his World Champion level was between 1894 (year of his first World Championship title) and 1910 (his last successful title defense, against Janowski).

And I think that this is very important to compare today's players with players of the past, because, nowadays, World Championship matches occur much more frequently; the Champions cannot anymore keep their title for years and years without defending it.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/3/2018 07:31
If Carlsen would be teletransported in the past as is, he probably would totally dominate all championships because he has learnt from the past experience.

The closest we could come to compare players from different times is analysing precision as compared to what computers would have played but even then, we must remember that is easier to be precise when your adversary is less precise and also that an imprecision that goes beyond or close to beyond capabilities of human is not necessarily the sign of a lesser player than a more precise player (I think about Tal). Also, opening should not be taken into account (maybe it is not), because it is a lot of memorization from computer preparation.

Dumkof, below, did pertinently remind that, using these non-perfect but indicative criteria, Carlsen tops everyone from the past and the present. Which still does not tell us how Capablanca or Fisher would have played if they had been born in 1990 - taking advantage of past experience and computers. And we'll never know. Elo only indicates ranking between contemporary players - it is a relative measure, not an absolute measure as would be, for example, the time to run 100m. You cannot say Capablanca played X and Fisher Y and then see if X is bigger than Y or the opposite. Chess permits only to compare relative results of players who are contemporary.

In addition, Dr. Zeiss, below, made an interesting comment on how other players adjust to Carlsen and the consequences of that - which makes his life harder.

I am not scandalised by the fact that, when two very high-level players in classical arrive to a tie result, that the best player be determined by rapid chess. Rapid chess still has something of classic chess and is a good test for the capacity of a player to get deep understanding of a position in a relatively short, but not that short, time. It is reasonable to assume that the player who wins the rapid match is, overall, a better chess player.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/3/2018 06:48
@ Petrosianic: "The only challenger who was "handpicked" was Tchigorin in 1889."

Until 1948, they were no qualifying system, so all the challengers were "handpicked". And, obviously, to bring money doesn't mean that you are the most talented (...Janowski certainly wasn't, for example...).
Petrosianic Petrosianic 12/3/2018 05:28
"I stand by my numbers though. Kramnik was widely recognized as WC from 2000-2006"

Widely, yes. But he was not Undisputed Champion during those years. There was no Undisputed Champion from 1993-2006. (And Khalifman, Pono, Kasim and Topalov were NEVER Undisputed Champions). It's true that almost nobody disputed Kasparov's title when he held it, but the fact that the International Chess Federation didn't recognize it is not a trivial objection. Kramnik was an Undisputed Champion, but only for 1 year.
Daniel Quigley Daniel Quigley 12/3/2018 05:24
Maybe Kasparov should be at 15, 1985-2000.
Petrosianic Petrosianic 12/3/2018 05:22
"Lasker was WC from 1894-1921. You are distinctly in the minority if you dispute any of these 27 years"

The last one is disputable, since Lasker resigned the title in 1920, and insisted on playing the 1921 match as the challenger. History has largely ignored that, but ignoring it doesn't make it go away.
Daniel Quigley Daniel Quigley 12/3/2018 05:16
I agree with maxharmonist's first comment. I should have said "widely recognized" rather than "undisputed", since "undisputed" has a specialized meaning in World Chess champion discussions.

I stand by my numbers though. Kramnik was widely recognized as WC from 2000-2006, Anand from 2007-2013, Carlsen from 2013-now, FIDE "World Championship" tournaments notwithstanding. (I don't think chess history will ever consider Ponomariov, Khalifman, Topalov, or Kasimdzhanov truly legitimate WCs just for winning a FIDE Swiss tournament that was billed as that. Matches make champions.)

Lasker was WC from 1894-1921. You are distinctly in the minority if you dispute any of these 27 years. Not sure what "last 16 years" of no title defense for Lasker means. He played a WC match in 1911 and would have presumably played another before 1921 had not WWI intervened. Still, that is only ten years, not sixteen, only the last few of which might Capablanca have arguably been the stronger player. Twenty-seven years as world champion even if extended a few years by the war is still not a feat close to being matched.

I don't see Carlsen matching Lasker's 27 years, not unless he digs a whole lot deeper as he further matures. I think before it's all said and done Carlsen may catch Alekhine, even probably losing to an Euwe-like player at some point, incentivizing Carlsen to reclaim the crown a few years later. We'll see.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 12/3/2018 04:31
the combativeness in WCc matches is long gone since the great K- K matches .... look at sevilla -- the 23rd game was won by karpov and 24 th by garry ....he tied and retained his title ; the earlier matches were similarly combative, the war of attrition .... lacklustre games are played in the classical section ... and players wait for rapid/blitz/armageddon to score wins .......

the right format will be conducting the WCC as a double round tournament ....... the advantage is every game will be fought easy draws it happened in the Mexico championship .......
Petrosianic Petrosianic 12/3/2018 03:51
The only challenger who was "handpicked" was Tchigorin in 1889. The others all had to bring their own financial backing. Capablanca didn't "hand pick" Alekhine. Both Rubinstein and Nimzo challenged first, but they couldn't get the money up.
maxharmonist maxharmonist 12/3/2018 07:20
"decades ago there were years where kasparov was a lock to win everything he entered. the same can be said of karpov or fischer at their top. has carlsen dominated tournaments in 2018? hardly"

Carlsen has played six top tournaments the 9-10 months before a title match. He won three and finished second in the remaining three, and then won the title match. How many tournaments did Kasparov, Karpov and Fischer play before their title matches? It's easy to, as always, look at the absolute peaks of Fischer and Kasparov, and then conclude that Carlsen can't be one of the best players if he during a "bad" year isn't better than that. But try comparing his "bad" 2018 with the best years of Petrosian or Smyslov or Tal or Spassky or Kramnik or Anand or Euwe or some of the "normal" World Champions, and Carlsen's results are quite impressive.
maxharmonist maxharmonist 12/3/2018 07:09
@ Petrarlsen:

Indeed, and I also wonder how one can place Kramnik ahead of Carlsen as undisputed WC for 6 years. He was undisputed WC for one year, disputed for seven. Carlsen will have been undisputed WC for seven years at the time of his next match, which will be his fifth title match in seven years. Four times World Champion is already quite hard to beat, without having any of the advantages of Champions of the past (draw odds, rematches, handpicking opponents etc etc)
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/3/2018 05:38
@ Daniel Quigley:

I think it would be more logical to use, for each World Champion, the time between his first World Championship title, and his last title.

For example, Capablanca was Champion for 6 years, but he didn't play any match during this period; this cannot be compared to Carlsen who, in 5 years, already defended his title 3 times. Even if Capablanca had suffered a dramatic loss in level just after his 1921 title (which wasn't the case, but this is only an example), he would still have kept his title until 1927, thus for 6 years.

Same thing for Lasker; there were "only" 16 years between his first title and his last successful title defense (in 1910). And then he didn't play any World Championship match until his match against Capablanca, 11 years later (1921).

And, also, as before 1948 the Challengers were "handpicked" by the Champion, a successful title defense was much less significant than after 1948 : the fact to be able to defend successfully one's title didn't necessarily mean at all that the Champion had beaten the "best player on Earth" besides him, and, sometimes, far from it (for example, the 1910 Lasker / Janowski match, in which Lasker won 8 games with 3 draws and no losses featured a considerable difference in level between the Champion and the Challenger).
Daniel Quigley Daniel Quigley 12/3/2018 03:30
By the measure of how long World Champions can maintain their title as undisputed WC, Carlsen has quite some way to go:

Emanuel Lasker 27
Alexander Alekhine 17
Garry Kasparov 14
Mikhail Botvinnik 13
Anatoly Karpov 10
Wilhelm Steinitz 8
Viswanathan Anand 6
Vladimir Kramnik 6
Tigran Petrosian 6
José Raúl Capablanca 6
Magnus Carlsen 5
Boris Spassky 3
Bobby Fischer 3
Max Euwe 2
Vasily Smyslov 1
Mikhail Tal 1
LLeow LLeow 12/2/2018 08:57
very superficial article. you can do much better than that.

i have always been a huge carlsen admirer, but the reality is that today he is at best the first among equals. perhaps not even that:
- pointing to his 2014 rating of 2882 as the highest rating ever achieved by a human overlooks the rating inflation known by everyone. a more objective measure might be to go back in time and calculate the difference in rating between the top player and average of the top 10 players.
- decades ago there were years where kasparov was a lock to win everything he entered. the same can be said of karpov or fischer at their top. has carlsen dominated tournaments in 2018? hardly. he is at best the first among equals.
- has anyone calculated performance ratings for the year to date? it is likely that caruana or ding might top that list.
- carlsen himself might agree since he has said(jokingly?) that his favorite player is himself from three or four years ago.
- if carlsen is not clearly the world's best player, then why has he been the world champion for the last five years? he has won fair and square, and to his credit he tries very hard to win in roughly equal games that top GMs would agree to draws. it is not his fault that FIDE foolishly seats the title holder directly into the world championship match. botvinnik was champion on and off from 1948 to 1963 because FIDE gave the incumbent huge advantages. these advantages have been reduced, but carlsen is still the beneficiary of FIDE's terrible blunder, which is the equivalent of FIFA seeding france directly into the final match in the 2022 world cup. the other reason carlsen retains the world championship is his great prowess at faster time controls, allowing him to enter tiebreaks with high confidence.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 12/2/2018 05:56
@ Keshava: I am nearly sure that accuracy is already always calculated from the end of the opening phase.

But I don't think that this means that Carlsen is per se a better player than the World Champions of the past; chess knowledge has improved over time (in particular with the computers), and it seems in my opinion rather normal that the champions of today would have a greater accuracy that the champions of the past.
maxharmonist maxharmonist 12/2/2018 11:15
Quite horrible “article”. The highlights of 2012 were second places in two speed chess events, not winning four classical super tournaments? Not one of the dozen super tournament wins 2010-12 are mentioned by the way, but sixth place in a blitz tournament in 2015 :-)
Keshava Keshava 12/2/2018 10:51
@dumkof, since opening theory extends sometimes close to move 30 and the average game is still 60 moves then many of the top players of today would be judged to be more accurate overall than the greats of yester-year. Openings are just more accurate as judged by an engine (because much theory has been derived from engines). I think that they should do the study from the point where opening theory has ceased. Then I have no idea what they will find. Still, accuracy is only part of the picture. Carlsen will lose his #1 status in classical as soon as Caruana wins one more game against anyone. If current trend continues then he won't get it back anytime soon since Caruana has been having better results against other top GM's as of late. I think Carlsen will continue to dominate in Rapid and Blitz for some time however. He has strange powers there.
Rambus Rambus 12/2/2018 07:34
2785 in 1972 vs 2835 in 2018? Allowing for 46 years of rating inflation, the 2835 will be eaten alive!
JuventusLION JuventusLION 12/1/2018 07:24
Agree goeland,
Very weak and "rushed" article with nothing really important to read.
dumkof dumkof 12/1/2018 07:12
According to computer analysis of countless master games of different eras, Carlsen is the best player of all time. His move accuracy, especially in the endgame, is the best. His average error rate is the lowest etc.
Move correlation with the suggestion of the best engines (on supercomputers) is probably the only objective way to compare players of different eras.
And here, Carlsen tops everyone.

Elo ratings are only good at indicating the relative strength of the active players in a narrow period of time.
Classique Classique 12/1/2018 06:57
Botvinnik's job was to stay alive.
fixpont fixpont 12/1/2018 06:21
he is the best, but becoming the best and being the best in the long run, is much much harder today in the computer era, than it was before, his job is harder than Kasparov's, Botvinnik's or Capablanca's
Dr Zeiss Dr Zeiss 12/1/2018 12:14
Regarding Carlsen's evolution as the highest ranked player two important factors need to be pointed out. (1) Endgame mastery, more exactly an unforeseen combination of will and skill to win even the drawn endings, is what brought him his highest elo rating and made him a feared opponent. But objectively, you cannot expect that to continue forever against the best players of the world. And indeed, it seems that during the last few years Carlsen's top opponents have learned to defend those endings better. So it is not the case that Carlsen's skill in the endgames has diminished. It is just that his opponents are now able to resist better and achieve those draws. (2) The role of opening theory. Because of his mastery in both middle and end games, Carlsen has done much less work in the openings than other top players. His two latest World championship matches show that well prepared opponents have had no troubles in equalising with black. The conclusion is that other top players are inevitably getting closer and unless Carlsen is able to ”reprogram” himself it is very unlikely that he can ever achieve his peak rating again.
goeland goeland 12/1/2018 08:43
Not a bad article but very factual with no real insights or thinking. More like a wikipedia article
Archnimzo Archnimzo 12/1/2018 05:02
For me, he is the best.