Magnus Carlsen on his chess career

by ChessBase
3/15/2010 – The German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel is the largest and most influential in Europe. At irregular intervals it turns its spotlight on chess. Today's edition has an unprecedented three-page interview with the world's number one player, with questions regarding general intelligence, chess talent, work ethics and his chess trainer Garry Kasparov. Interesting new insights.

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"I am chaotic and lazy"

Interview by Maik Grossekathöfer

SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, what is your IQ?

Carlsen: I have no idea. I wouldn’t want to know it anyway. It might turn out to be a nasty surprise.

SPIEGEL: Why? You are 19 years old and ranked the number one chess player in the world. You must be incredibly clever.

Carlsen: And that’s precisely what would be terrible. Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way. I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champion is that he is too clever for that.

SPIEGEL: How that?

Carlsen: At the age of 15, Nunn started studying mathematics in Oxford; he was the youngest student in the last 500 years, and at 23 he did a PhD in algebraic topology. He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess.

SPIEGEL: Things are different in your case?

Carlsen: Right. I am a totally normal guy. My father is considerably more intelligent than I am.

SPIEGEL: Aha. How many moves can you calculate ahead?

Carlsen: That depends on the game situation. Sometimes 15 to 20. But the trick is to correctly assess the position at the end of the calculation.

SPIEGEL: You became a grandmaster at the age of 13 years, four months and 27 days; and there has never been a younger number one than you before. What is that due to, if not to your intelligence?

Carlsen: I’m not saying that I am totally stupid. But my success mainly has to do with the fact that I had the opportunity to learn more, more quickly. It has become easier to get hold of information. The players from the Soviet Union used to be at a huge advantage; in Moscow they had access to vast archives, with countless games carefully recorded on index cards. Nowadays anyone can buy this data on DVD for 150 euros; one disk holds 4.5 million games. There are also more books than there used to be. And then of course I started working with a computer earlier than Vladimir Kramnik or Viswanathan Anand.

SPIEGEL: When exactly?

Carlsen: I was eleven or twelve. I used the computer to prepare for tournaments, and I played on the Internet. Nowadays, children start using a computer at an even earlier age; they are already learning the rules on screen. In that sense I am already old-fashioned. Technological progress leads to younger and younger top players, everywhere in the world.

SPIEGEL: Is being young an advantage in modern chess?

Carlsen: As a young player you have a lot of energy, a lot of strength, you are very motivated. But young players are often not good at defending a position; they cannot cope well when fate turns against them. The fact is simply that experience is a central issue. One of the most important things in chess is pattern recognition: the ability to recognise typical themes and images on the board, characteristics of a position and their consequences. To a certain degree you can learn that while training, but there is nothing like playing routine. I have always made sure to get that. I am only 19, but I have certainly already played a thousand games in the classic style.

SPIEGEL: When did you start playing chess?

Carlsen: I must have been five and a half or six years old. My father taught my oldest sister, Ellen, and me the rules. Unlike Ellen, I was not particularly interested; I was bad and soon stopped again. It was not until I was eight that I started occupying myself with chess again.

SPIEGEL: What exactly did you do?

Carlsen: I took a board and recapitulated games for myself which my father showed me at the time. Why was this or that move made? I discovered the secrets of the game for myself. It was fascinating. Then, after a few months, I also read books about openings.

SPIEGEL: Where did this enthusiasm for chess come from all of a sudden?

Carlsen: I don’t know. No more than I can tell you why I wanted to do 50-piece jigsaw puzzles when I was not even two years old. Why did I want to know all the common car makes at the age of two and a half? Why did I read books about geography at the age of five? I don’t know why I learnt all the countries of the world off by heart, including their capitals and populations. Chess was probably just another pastime.

SPIEGEL: There was no crucial experience?

Carlsen: I saw Ellen, my sister, playing. I think I wanted to beat her at it.


Carlsen: After the game she didn’t touch a board again for four years.

SPIEGEL: When did you start playing tournaments?

Carlsen: A little later. My father said, if I trained a bit more I could perhaps take part in the Norwegian championships of the under 11s. I thought to myself: Oh, that might be fun. My result was okay. I won the tournament the following year.

SPIEGEL: Your father is an ambitious club player. When did you first defeat him?

Carlsen: Just before my ninth birthday, in a game of lightning chess.

SPIEGEL: You later attended a sports school. Did the ice hockey players, handball players and cyclists there tease you?

Carlsen: Look over there, the chess freak? No, that didn‘t happen. Quite the contrary. Last summer they voted me pupil of the year.

SPIEGEL: In your chess class, were you trained as systematically as the former Russian child prodigies?

Carlsen: No. I’m not a disciplined thinker. Organisation is not my thing; I am chaotic and tend to be lazy. My trainer recognised that and as a rule allowed me to practise whatever I felt like at the time.

SPIEGEL: You are a sloppy genius?

Carlsen: I’m not a genius. Sloppy? Perhaps. It’s like this: When I am feeling good, I train a lot. When I feel bad, I don’t bother. I don’t enjoy working to a timetable. Systematic learning would kill me.

SPIEGEL: How were you able to stand maths lessons then?

Carlsen: When I was 13, my parents took me out of school for a year. They travelled around the world with me and my sisters, and on the way they taught us. That was fantastic, much more effective than sitting in school. I do understand that it is a problem for a teacher having to look after 30 pupils. But the slow speed was quite frustrating for me. I didn’t miss school at all.

SPIEGEL: Which countries did you visit?

Carlsen: We travelled by car to Austria, Montenegro, Greece, Italy and Hungary. The countries in the East are poorer than I thought, by the way. In Rome I visited St. Peter’s Basilica and saw a football match at the Olympic Stadium. Wonderful. When we were in Moscow, my mother and my sisters went to the Bolshoi Theatre, I didn’t.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

Carlsen: I ask you, ballet! That’s boring. I sat down in an Internet café and played chess on the Web. Later we were Dubai, that’s where I fulfilled the last norm that was necessary to become a grandmaster. And in Lybia I played the world championships.

SPIEGEL: For a long time you were the hunter in chess; now that you are the number one, you are the hunted. Do you notice that?

Carlsen: Certainly. The pressure has increased, everyone wants to beat me. I also notice a growing responsibility for having to structure the game, because my opponents refuse to do so. They are more cautious than they were just a year ago.

SPIEGEL: How do you deal with that?

Carlsen: Without any problems so far. I still sleep soundly and long. I feel sorry for players who are always lying awake at night, brooding over their games. Some colleagues literally become depressive during a long tournament. I enjoy playing squash or tennis to switch off; I watch television series on DVD.

SPIEGEL: We hear that you know the first three seasons of “Dr. House” by heart.

Carlsen: It can’t be three. I’ve only seen two of them.

SPIEGEL: During tournaments you sometimes stay in a bleak hotel for weeks. You are 19 years old – you don`t have the impression to miss your youth?

Carlsen: No.

SPIEGEL: Do you go out for a drink at night too sometimes?

Carlsen: Rarely. I prefer to chat with friends on the Internet or play poker online.

SPIEGEL: For money?

Carlsen: Of course. For what else?

SPIEGEL: Do you win?

Carlsen: If I take a game seriously, I do. If not, I sometimes lose. But that doesn’t matter. What is important is that I have a life beyond chess.


Carlsen: Chess should not become an obsession. Otherwise there’s a danger that you will slide off into a parallel world, that you lose your sense of reality, get lost in the infinite cosmos of the game. You become crazy. I make sure that I have enough time between tournaments to go home in order to do other things. I like hiking and skiing, and I play football in a club.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a favourite club?

Carlsen: Real Madrid, the royals.

SPIEGEL: Many football players use music to get in the mood before a game. Do you do that too before sitting down in front of the board?

Carlsen: Oh, yes. If I am feeling gloomy before a game, I listen to gloomy music.

SPIEGEL: Such as?

Carlsen: You probably won’t know it, a song by Lil Jon. A silly rap song, but it does me good, I loosen up. I listen to music on the Internet, but don`t download any songs. It’s all totally legal. Many people may find that boring, but I think it is important.

SPIEGEL: For a year now you have been working with Garry Kasparov, who is probably the best chess player of all time. What form does your cooperation take? Kasparov is the teacher, you the pupil?

Carlsen: No. In terms of our playing skills we are not that far apart. There are many things I am better at than he is. And vice versa. Kasparov can calculate more alternatives, whereas my intuition is better. I immediately know how to rate a situation and what plan is necessary. I am clearly superior to him in that respect.

SPIEGEL: How is he useful to you?

Carlsen: He still has loads of unused ideas for openings. And the fact that he has played against most of my opponents himself is invaluable. He senses what mood they are in, how they will open the game. I can’t do that.

SPIEGEL: How long do you want to work with him?

Carlsen: The cooperation has now entered its next natural stage. We reached our goal of becoming the number one considerably ahead of schedule.With that a major goal had been reached. We decided that in the future I should be responsible for all career decisions, without constant guidance from Garry, before and during events.

SPIEGEL: You split up?

Carlsen: No. We remain in contact and I have the opportunity to confer with Garry regularly. I will also attend training sessions with him. I want to stress: the last 12 months have been of immense value to me, and I continue to listen to Garry‘s advice.

SPIEGEL: Viswanthan Anand, the current world champion, is worried that you will dominate the scene for years to come. He thinks it is time you met a girl at last. How is that going?

Carlsen: I get a certain amount of fan mail from younger women.

SPIEGEL: Do you answer it?

Carlsen: It depends.

SPIEGEL: On what?

Carlsen: That is private and confidential.

SPIEGEL: Mr Carlsen, thank you for this interview.

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