Magnus Carlsen: “We’re trying to grow chess”

by ChessBase
11/13/2020 – In a lengthy interview with Jon Tisdall for the US Chess Federation website, world champion Magnus Carlsen touches on a number of topical issues in the world of chess — his role as promoter and organizer, playing online and the future of classical chess. Carlsen also talks about his deal with Unibet and how this sparked problems between him and the Norwegian federation. | Photo: Lennart Ootes / Altibox Norway Chess

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Excerpts from an interview by Jon Tisdall for the US Chess Federation official website

Magnus Carlsen’s endorsement of a proposed deal for federation funding from a cooperation with gambling giant Kindred sparked massive national controversy, and this was eventually followed by him becoming an ambassador for Unibet. Gambling is run by a state monopoly in Norway, and is both a thorny and touchy subject. Magnus remains active, supportive and a representative of the Norwegian federation. His lack of ‘membership’ was a protest against the heated and hostile rejection of what he felt was a unique and unmissable chance to finally fund the chronically impoverished organization.

As always, Magnus speaks his mind and pulls approximately zero punches. He also repeatedly reveals the high standards he demands of himself over the board, virtual or physical.


About being a Unibet ambassador - is it going to focus on fantasy football because of your success? It seems to be the perfect medium for the sponsor, you applying mental skills that aren’t chess to a different kind of contest.

It’s as simple as it [being] something that I find very interesting to talk about, and to some extent promote as well. And there is a lot of overlap with people who like to gamble and like to play fantasy football. There’s a very obvious connection to make there.

You say on the fantasy football podcast that you’re not much of a gambler, which might surprise people when you’re a Unibet ambassador. How much ‘math’ is involved in what you play?

I think fantasy football has a lot of similarity with poker and with betting, in that you make decisions based on stats and then that gives you a better chance to be lucky. So to me it’s not the gambling aspect of these things that makes it interesting for me, it is more about trying to make good decisions, to make better decisions than others do, basically based on having a lot of the same data.

Obviously in the short term there is a huge amount of luck, there is no denying that, but I think that over time these are definitely — I think fantasy football is definitely in the same category as betting or poker, [which is] to a huge extent a skill-based game.

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen giving a simultaneous exhibition blindfolded during this year’s Altibox Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger | Photo: Lennart Ootes

The future of chess

The format of your (online) tour (sets of rapid matches) — a lot of people are talking about it being a testing ground or public demonstration of what you would like to see the actual world title format change to. Any truth to that?

Yeah, I guess I have been pretty open about, not necessarily for the championship title, but about my opinion about how you would determine the best player in the world, and certainly this goes some way to showing that.

Do you think the COVID-19 situation has permanently changed the status of rapid and blitz events now?

I think so. But I also think it’s just not realistic to expect people to play long games online. I also think it is not realistic to expect people to watch it with great interest. So I think the rapid format is excellent for online play because you keep at least some semblance of high quality chess and it also doesn’t take too long. You get more games in a day and that way you get more excitement possibly.

You don’t think it will impact over-the-board play when it comes back? That things will speed up more in general?

I don’t know. I think in general the future of classical chess as it is now is a little bit dubious. I would love to see more Fischer [Random] Chess being played over-the-board in a classical format. That would be very interesting to me, because I feel that that particular format is pretty well suited to classical chess as basically you need a lot of time in order to be able to play the game even remotely decently. And you can see that in the way that Fischer [Random] Chess is being played now when it is played in a rapid format.

The quality of the games isn’t very high because we make such fundamental mistakes in the opening. We don't understand it nearly enough and I think that would increase a lot if we were given a classical time control there. So I would definitely hope for that.

For classical chess over-the-board, I guess it has a future, but I think you have to accept it as it is. There are going to be a lot of draws when the best players in the world play classical chess over-the-board. There is no way around it, if you don’t change something fundamental that is simply not going to change. It is a little bit sad but I think it is very, very hard to do something about.

Read the full interview on the US Chess website

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.


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Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/16/2020 11:31
Didn't read the whole comments but some brief lines...

but what i would like to add, that Fischer Random chess is Extremely powerfull to determine a chess player who relies on his theory or a player who tries to play for fun and luck and glory!... Fisher Random chess to me is the Future of CHESS. I write this as Master in Economy in Marketing and a Master after Master in International Accounting.... let' say i have a feeling where the difficulty lies...(based on my studies) and i feel Fisher for many GMers is another challenge...and that's what i like!
tom_70 tom_70 11/15/2020 10:57
@fgkdjlkag , I've played at least 20 games of it. Maybe even 30. It's been a few years since I tried to like it. There is no need to get butthurt if someone doesn't like it. I consider it a temporary aberration of the game. In 100 years, nobody will be playing it. But you can bet your last nickel that people will still be playing classical chess.
physica physica 11/14/2020 11:54
Quite strange interview. “We’re trying to grow chess”. In what way may I ask? Luring people to play themselves or watch pros play online? I guess the latter is the motive of his thought. However, chess has always been a marginal sport and cannot really budge from its current position. The popularity has increased somewhat by online streaming and it's not all good being aware of harmful reasons the streaming is so popular nowadays.

The future of chess? Well, obviously he cannot say it's going downhill. The foundation of chess fanbase will always want to see classical chess. So turning chess to fast time controls for a new generation of fans 1) lets the oldies down 2) is against the quality of play which should be unquestionable in the end in any serious sport.

FRC is an idea but so far all top players have been insisting to know the opening positions beforehand which takes everything back to square one. And opening variety is much more narrower (forced) than in symmetrical normal chess. People will be screaming 959 more versions of Leela and SF trained for each of the starting positions. It will buy some years before top players would be on the same line of preparation if the openings are preknown. If the whole set of 960 positions would be in use in random then it could shake things up but I could see any other player refusing this term except Carlsen because it would play right in his strengths.

More interesting idea could be random forced normal chess openings thus handicapping the preparation of the players like in 90s and before. No human could memorize entire theory to draw. At least it would indicate that a player truly masters variety of openings and not just couple of them, general skill of play.

And if the classical WC title is to be respected, then restoring Karpov-Kasparov grade terms would be enough. Play like 2-3 classical games as tie breaker in a day (time control e.g. 60min+increment) would be short-lived.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 11/14/2020 09:01
Finally Carlsen realizes the draw of Fischer Random. A few years ago he made comments against the game and that he didn't know why anyone played it. If it took years for the WORLD CHAMPION to realize this, it shows how remarkable, forward-thinking, and unintuitive this invention was, but it also shows that it takes time to appreciate.

As usual some vacuous comments against Fischer Random. I'd like to know how many games the detractors have played. It seems that usually someone will say they played 1-3 games and they don't care for it. Um, if someone had played 1-3 games of regular chess they would also not enjoy it. The comment below about "never" watching it, of course one is not going to enjoy it.

@genem, the point of Fischer Random is literally to get rid of opening theory, so that the focus is on opening principles. Having the same position for even 1 year, is enough to get games in which a top player finds a novelty and wins on the spot against another top player, NOT because of a difference in the GM's chess understanding or knowledge, but because the other player was able to memorize a line that the other did not find with his engine. Why should I have to memorize a dictionary before I sit down to play a game of chess, lest I be at a disadvantage?

The classical setup is not going to "continue onward" as some think it will. Quoting Carlsen: "I think in general the future of classical chess as it is now is a little bit dubious."
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 11/14/2020 02:06
Have to agree with tom_70 on this one..
tom_70 tom_70 11/14/2020 12:09
I admire Magnus and think he's an excellent world champion who has done a lot to bring attention to the game. But I have to disagree about Fischer random. I don't care for it at all. I never watch it, no matter who is playing. I think Fischer random appeals to the world class players, because classical theory has advanced so far, it's hard for any of them to make progress.
That is not the same situation that the overwhelming majority of chess players find themselves in.
genem genem 11/14/2020 11:45
Magnus said:
{... you need a lot of time in order to be able to play the game even remotely decently. And you can see that in the way that Fischer [Random] Chess is being played now when it is played in a rapid format.

The quality of the games isn’t very high because we make such fundamental mistakes in the opening. We don't understand it nearly enough and I think that would increase a lot if we were given a classical time control there. So I would definitely hope for that.

Another major aspect that would finally give us all high-quality FRC or chess9LX games would be to - "Discard the 'Random' from Fischer Random Chess!" Instead, pick one of the more sensible non-classical start setups, and reuse it for a year or 5 years or so. This would let us watch opening quality grow, without there being enough decades of setup reuse to reach the kind of over-analysis that the one endlessly reused classical setup has reached.

The classical setup will continue onward, as it should. But if we reuse one chess9LX setup for 5 years, chess9LX can teach us far more genuinely new stuff about chess opening principles than classical chess has left to teach us.
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 11/14/2020 03:02
Minnesota fats: kudos to you. I did the same :)
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/14/2020 01:20
Carlsen is the best player at the moment, and he does his uttermost best to promote the game, so no negative things should be mentioned here. I agree. ! [@IntensityInsanity).
He is a good champion that deserve credits and does his best to promote the game!.
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/14/2020 01:18
@ intensity , i removed my comment, as it was not nice.

Live is gift. Let's be nice to each other!
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 11/13/2020 09:36
No Magnus, that is not how to wear a mask!
Mr Toad Mr Toad 11/13/2020 04:44
Wise words from Carlsen, it's hard to argue against anything he says here. A great champion who has already done so much for the game.

Fischer did his bit for which we should be grateful. Don't forget that he continued to fight for better conditions until the final deadlines fell through. He fought against the system tooth, claw and nail. He was not given the necessary support by officials in the chess world because, for one reason at least, they did not believe that the status quo could be changed.

One could argue that they were the ones who quit not him.

Russian chess would have benefitted greatly if they had taken up his cause but did not want to be seen supporting an American. His tirade against America was the nail in the coffin. One man fighting against the two most powerful countries in the world: Not going to end well no matter how much he had to offer.

At least we can now see Carlsen affirming the relevance of his Fisher Random innovation.
Keshava Keshava 11/13/2020 03:48
We are fortunate to have such a world champion! Just think how much Fischer could have grown chess if he had not quit it in 1972.