The manager – Carsten Hensel turns 50

by Diana Mihajlova
6/2/2008 – He looks after the interests of two of the world's top grandmasters: Peter Leko and Vladimir Kramnik. Professionally he studied law and psychology, became involved in sports event management, started to concentrate on chess and then landed where he is today. The rapid chess matches in Miskolc are largely his doing. Today is Carsten's fiftieth birthday. Interview by Diana Mihajlova.

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Hensel in Miskolc

An interview by Diana Mihajlova conducted on May 30, 2008

On the two occasions that I have met Carsten Hensel, first time last year at the Leko-Kramnik match and this time at the Leko-Magnus match, I could notice his impeccable manner of combining friendliness and professionalism, albeit somewhat reserved and distant.

Carsten Hensel, manager of Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko

But the chance to share a car for the couple of hours journey from Miskolc to Budapest provided me with the opportunity to discover an extremely sensitive, warm and straightforward person with an obvious passion for promoting the chess and, in this particular instance, his clients Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko. For a couple of hours I was regaled with a beautiful, spontaneous and highly insightful conversation about many aspects of the chess world.

Diana Mihajlova: I suppose I am the first to wish you a Happy Birthday?

Carsten Hensel: It is too early, it is only on Monday!

Well, early wishes for a Happy Birthday then! I hear it is the fiftieth, isn’t it?


We know that you manage two of the greatest players in the world, Kramnik, and Leko. But we know very little about you. Who is Carsten Hensel and how did he come about to be Kramnik’s and Leko’s manager?

To begin with – the reason I stay in the background is that I really do think that managers, in whatever kind of sports or profession, need to serve their clients and not their own egos. When I do appear on the public platform here or there it is because I have a good reason to do so: to protect Vladimir or Peter, or to do something good for a certain project. But never to satisfy my own ego. It is a part of the job and I believe that one of the most important abilities is to always know who you are and what you are doing – in order to survive in this business for as long as I did.

The team: Vladimir Kramnik, Carsten Hensel and Peter Leko

How long would that be?

For me it started in the nineties when I took on the task of improving the organisation and marketing level of the Dortmund tournament. A kind of breakthrough happened in 1992: At that time – and this was only possible with the help of Garry Kasparov – we managed to attract over eleven thousand spectators to a chess event, and almost two hundred journalists. This was proof that chess can be a media sport in Germany. I was contributing to this project throughout the nineties, and was getting to know the elite players, including Kramnik and Leko, a bit closer.

I understand you first started managing Leko and then, much later, Kramnik?

That’s right. My management of Leko started in 1998, and with Kramnik three years later. Of course we knew each other before then, so that the other important element in this kind of business, trust, was already at hand. And also I had some abilities that were needed to be a manager, like understanding contract law, organisation, communication and publicity skills. But also the ability to handle these kind of players. It is all about your client; it’s all about the big guy. You need to be very sensitive, and you should have a certain understanding, and know how to cope in this field. A lot depends, of course, on trust. But trust is just the basics. You also need to perform your job, to fulfil your duty, first of all, and then to follow a certain path that would lead deeper into the working material.

How can you balance the professional and the personal relationship with your clients; how far can you go into building an immediate friendship?

I have known Leko and Kramnik both for seventeen years. When I first met them, Peter was eleven, just approaching twelve, and Vladimir was seventeen. Over the years I got to know them better and better, so you can rightly suppose there is some kind of personal platform between us. But I do not overestimate that at all. I wish and hope that when this job, this career, comes to an end, that we will still have a fantastic personal relationship, as we always had and, as it seems, it is the case now. You have to distinguish the personal from the business side. Of course, when you know a person better, you can understand him better. But this should not distract you from doing a good technical job as a manager.

So, everything is working perfectly well, then?

Nothing works perfectly. It is a process. Even at this level you always need to find ways to optimise, to recognise when you have to take a decisive approach. The same goes for the chess player. He cannot play like a god, he will not make the best moves all the time, but he will try to go deeper and deeper into the game, seeking to optimise his performance, and this goes for the manager as well. Of course, it is clear that experience and energy are the most important points you need to have as a chess player, but I think also as a manager. Because it is not like in normal life, where you go to the factory or to the office. Here you cannot plan your holidays, you don’t have weekends.

The family: Birgit and Carsten Hensel

Actually you need to adjust your biorhythm to the biorhythm of the players, and to the requirements of the job. It means you work late, you often go to bed at one, two or three in the morning, and this becomes a habit. It takes a lot of energy, and you need to be very determined, apart from being well prepared for the technical side of the job and make good use of your experience. In the beginning you need to be careful; as the years pass you gain more confidence, but you always have to bear in mind that a mistake you make as a manager may not necessarily hurt you, but it can hurt a fantastic professional chess player. There are many examples in the chess world, but I do not want to mention names.

Managing Kramnik and Leko is a full time job, you do not do something else aside?

Yeah, of course it is full time job; otherwise something would be terribly wrong in the entire chess world. They are both in the professional circuit. It is very complex. It is not just to make a contract or to come to an agreement here and there. Both of them have a concept and a strategy that needs to be followed up. OK, you have good times and bad times, but it is all about optimizing and sticking to a certain level of discipline. It helps if you are well connected. The job requires a lot of communication, every day. You cannot just sit and wait. For instance, we are now in Hungary where this event in Miskolc is taking place. It has already been running for four years, and under the current contract it should run one more year. I have contributed a lot throughout that time. As a manager you cannot just sit and wait to receive the royalties under the agreement. You need to be active, looking for new sponsorship, organising and constantly searching for things that might be good for the client.

Your successful chess managerial career must have been based on some previous experience. What did you do before becoming Leko’s and Kramnk’s manager?

I studied law and I have also some psychology background. I worked for some time as a journalist and was involved later in event management, at quite a high level, so that I gained some knowledge of world championships in various disciplines. Initially I was involved in some high class sport events other than chess, like table-tennis, ice hockey, handball, ice skating… We have to admit that chess lags some twenty years back with regard to commercial development in comparison to other sports.

The process, the technicality in all these fields like promotion, marketing or media work, is basically always the same. I don’t want to go so far as to say that chess is a product. That would be too cheap. But in this profession of course it is that in a way. A product needs a market, but first you need a product in order to have a market. You have to bring it in a certain shape, so that you can sell this sort of product. Of course I don’t like the wording at all, but then there is no other wording because the procedures, the technicalities in business and in management, are practically always the same.

Considering that the occasion for this interview is the Leko-Carlsen rapid chess match in Miskolc, could you just tell me what are your impressions about this event?

The Lord Mayor of Miskolc thanks Carsten Hensel for his contribution to the event and presents him with a bottle of fine champagne for his 50th birthday, which would follow a few days later.

This match is generating a lot of interest. This was no surprise with regard to Peter Leko, because he plays the match every year. But Magnus Carlsen, due to his young age and the fact that he has become a shooting star in the last two years, he is of course very hot and guarantees a mass media impact at this event. What we saw in rounds three and four was just fantastic chess. Of course I don’t like the result because, Peter is minus 1 [the interview was conducted after round four]. We have to see how it develops, how it finishes. But chess-wise it is fantastic. It is an exhibition in the first place; it is an excellent show and people enjoy it. For Leko it is of course very important to have this kind of exposure in Hungary, to be given such a position in his own country. We are grateful for that to the city of Miskolc. Leko travels a lot, but it would be pity if nothing happened inside Hungary. It has been a great occasion to have these tournaments every year.

Thank you, Carsten, and once again: a very happy birthday!

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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