Magnus Carlsen: Move fast, play young

At just 19, Magnus Carlsen is the highest-ranking chess player in the world. As he arrives in the UK for a historic tournament, Simon Usborne meets him

The world's best chess player is hunched over a board in the bar of his London hotel. The pieces are lined up in neat rows, ready for battle, as Magnus Carlsen prepares to take on a man (me) whose grasp of the rules is the only thing between him and the imaginary title of the world's worst chess player. "Now I see the same as you," says Carlsen, 19. "We are equal."

Six moves and three minutes later, I ask Carlsen, who earlier revealed he can sometimes see 40 moves ahead, if victory is in sight. "No," he replies. "That would require quite a lot of cooperation from you." I make a rash move with my knight. "Now I have got the cooperation I wanted." Carlsen takes out the pawn protecting my king, sliding his queen next to it. "Checkmate."

It is the easiest and quickest win Carlsen will enjoy this week, but it won't be the first. Tomorrow, the Norwegian prodigy they call "the Mozart of chess" will do battle at the London Chess Classic at Olympia, Kensington. The biggest tournament to kick off in the capital for 25 years will see four British grandmasters take on some of the world's top players. But there is no doubt who has top billing.

In a game beset by images of bespectacled, pale-faced masterminds duelling in grey Eastern Bloc gymnasiums, Carlsen is seen as something of a saviour. Sure, he has the air of the nervous savant – a sense of simmering brilliance behind restless eyes – and he speaks shyly and laconically. But he is fresh-faced, has good hair and is handsome enough that, were his story to get the Hollywood treatment (and well it might) Matt Damon would be a shoo-in for the starring role.

"Carlsen is a vital part of raising the profile of chess," says Malcolm Pein, an accomplished player and director of the London Chess Classic. "Chess has always been very popular – in Britain 4 million people play regularly, which is more than play cricket, but what we lack is good role models for young people who play in clubs and schools."

It was only when his older sister, Ellen, got good at chess that Carlsen himself started to show an interest in the game. "I was always competitive growing up," he says. "And I really wanted to beat her – that was my first goal." Carlsen dispatched Ellen when he was eight and was soon peering over chess tables at national tournaments. He beat his dad, Henrick, aged 10 and, in 2004, stunned the chess world by defeating former world champion Anatoly Karpov and drawing a game against the king of the game, Garry Kasparov. He was 13. "Actually I wasn't very happy as I had a winning position," Carlsen says of the Kasparov clash. "But looking back, I'm not sure I appreciated what I had done."

It was a breakthrough year during which Carlsen entered the game's elite as one of its youngest grandmasters. His astonishing rise lead the Washington Post to make the Mozart comparison, one he now hears all the time. "I don't think it's very accurate," he says, bristling slightly. "Of course Mozart was a great genius so in a way it's nice, but it's wrong to think you can learn chess or music just like that. I worked very hard."

Kasparov was so impressed by Carlsen's dedication and extraordinary talent that, in 2005, after retiring as arguably the greatest player in the game's history, he invited Carlsen to Moscow, offering his services as a coach. For the second time in his short career, Carlsen raised eyebrows among chess watchers. "I said 'no'," he recalls. "I was developing in my own way and didn't feel I was ready for that kind of systematic coaching."

Kasparov, who has called Carlsen the "future of chess", made a second approach in January this year. This time, Carlsen agreed and many credit the partnership – Carlsen says they have concentrated on aggressive openings, Kasparov's trademark – with propelling the boy to the pinnacle of the game. "Everything Kasparov says is worth something in chess," Carlsen says. "It's great to work with him but also demanding. He expects a lot."

Carlsen's success has earned him celebrity status in Norway, where he lives with his family outside Oslo. He makes regular appearances on chat shows and is frequently mobbed by fans in a country not known as a power in the game. "In Norway, we are not good at many things, so when you win you become popular," he says. "And now chess has become popular, too, and people are changing their idea of the game." Pein hopes the Carlsen effect will come to bear on London this week as he seeks to win support for his bid to host the 2012 world championships.

In the meantime, Carlsen analyses the board after his eight-move rout. "Your previous move was rather weak because, additionally, I could have taken the knight or the queen," he says with deceptively gentle tone – Carlsen is a ruthless warrior on the board, who speaks of the "determination to destroy your opponent" necessary to be the best. He softens the blow by telling me he once beat a player in five moves. "We were nine," he adds, "but the other boy actually turned out to be a decent player." There's hope for me yet.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence