The Profile Dossier: Magnus Carlsen, the Mozart of Chess
"When you have fun, then you're more interested in learning."
Chess is psychological warfare, and Magnus Carlsen thrives in the chaos. He doesn't beat his opponents outright, but his style feels more like a "strangling pressure."
Carlsen, 30, became the second youngest world chess champion in 2013.
As a child, Carlsen showed an aptitude for intellectually stimulating games. Before he was two, he was able to complete a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle by himself. By age four, he had memorized the names and the population size of most of Norway's 430 municipalities. He used his legos to build elaborate structures.
At age eight, Carlsen's father re-introduced him to the game of chess. After playing for a year, Magnus beat his dad for the first time in a game of blitz chess, and he started to play in local junior competitions shortly thereafter.
Carlsen had an exceptional memory, and he would sharpen his early chess skills by playing by himself for hours on end—moving the pieces around, searching for combinations, and replaying games and positions.
In 2001, Carlsen's family hired Norway's top player, grandmaster Simen Agdestein, to coach the young player. Agdestein said Carlsen was “the best natural player I had ever seen. He would play with almost perfect form. You would just say, ‘Whoa!’”
At a 2004 tournament in Reykjavik, Carlsen beat Anatoly Karpov, the former champion, in a game of blitz chess. A month later, Carlsen became a grandmaster at age 13, making him the second youngest in history.
At 30 years old, Magnus Carlsen is the current World Chess Champion, and he's not slowing down. Here's what Carlsen's remarkable rise can teach us about the games of both chess and life.
On becoming a chess champion: Carlsen is a largely self-taught player in the world of chess. He went from an introverted and awkward teen to a minor celebrity. By 2011, he was making more than a million dollars a year in endorsements and fees. This profile documents Carlsen's life from a young chess maven to world chess champion.
On playing drunk: In this Reddit AMA, Carlsen answers some fascinating questions, including: How many beers would you need to drink for a Master to be able to beat you? In a surprising answer, he reveals that being drunk doesn't necessarily have to affect your game. "There is no answer to this question... even extremely intoxicated my chess strength and knowledge is still in my bones," he says.
On developing your intuition: How do you develop your intuition? By putting yourself in stressful and high-pressure situations over and over and over again. When he plays blitz, Carlsen doesn't have time to sit and analyze and agonize over a move, he just has to move. It helped him develop his instinct, his tactical eye, and his confidence.” "Chess is repetition, repetition, repetition," Carlsen says.
On becoming the best: In this interview with Peter Thiel, Carlsen explains what it takes to reach the top of his game. The secret? An unyielding passion to learn. "I would constantly be sitting at my board reading some chess books, playing online, playing in tournaments whenever I could," Carlsen says. "And I think to become really good in chess, you really need that."
On the inner-workings of his brain: At just 21 years old, Carlsen competed against 10 players simultaneously while he had his back to the boards. He kept track of the positions of 320 pieces blind. He defeated all 10. "One of the most amazing things in chess is that you don't really need the board, you can just keep it up here," he says pointing to his head.
On training for a chess match: No amount of theory can ever match what you learn from the practical. Before the world championship, Carlsen says, he and his team would work on coming up with new ideas and strategies, but as he got closer to the match, he began playing as many chess games as he could. "I played thousands of training games," he says.
On defeating Bill Gates: In this video, Carlsen and Bill Gates play a game of blitz chess. It took Carlsen 1 minute and 19 seconds to defeat Gates. It was a total of nine moves to checkmate. "Oh that was quick," Gates says, as he leans back in his chair.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Physical exercise can strengthen your brain: Although you could argue chess is an intellectual sport, Carlsen believes in the power of physical movement. During tournaments, he goes on a 30 to 60-minute run each day or he reserves an hour or two for soccer, basketball, tennis, hiking, or skiing. He's even more active during the rest of the year when he's not competing. Why? Because the physical activity allows his brain to wander. “Running is a time where I can go through game strategies," he says. Research suggests that people’s most creative ideas strike when they’re not actively thinking about anything — that’s why showering, running, meditating, or any sort of rote activity can spark inspiration.
Making the right move doesn't guarantee success: Here's what I love about chess: It's a game of logic that requires you to understand the existing context while simultaneously planning strategically for the future. You could make the right move, but if you don't understand the implications of the move, you could get yourself into trouble. It's the same in life: If you do the right thing without understanding why it was right, you might still fall short of reaching your long-term goal. If you're trying to get a job in media, and you're getting prestigious internships in college, none of it really matters if you're ignorant to the fact that media companies are going through a cycle of layoffs. Chess, like life, doesn't exist in a vacuum. The context changes and you have to respond adequately.
You learn more from the losses than the wins: Carlsen hates losing, but he understands he needs it to fuel his growth. When he loses, he finds the concrete error of his own doing and keeps it in mind for the future. But there's an important nuance — he doesn't dwell on the mistake. "I think over time you’ll definitely learn more from your losses, even if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t like to go the old Soviet style of painstakingly analyzing your loss," he says. "I think over time, you learn from them anyway.” Keep this in mind for every area of life: When you fail, you grow. When you grow, you get better. And if you get better, you eventually win.
Develop a positive mindset: Carlsen approaches a high-pressure game the same way he approaches any unnerving situation: with confidence. "Self-confidence is very important," he says. "If you don’t think you can win, you will make cowardly decisions in the crucial moments, out of sheer respect for your opponent. You see the opportunity but also greater limitations than you should. It is better to overestimate your prospects than underestimate them." The way you approach a task will often determine how you feel while you're in the process of completing it.
Learn, don't idolize: Because Carlsen is young, interviewers love to ask him about his idols. He explains that he's learned a lot from Vladimir Kramnik, Garry Kasparov, and Bobby Fischer, but he doesn't idolize a single one of them. "It's never really been my style, according to my philosophy, to idolize players, to try to copy them. I just try to learn and get the best from the great masters, contemporary and from the past," he says. Learning allows you to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of a player while forming your own original style. Idolizing forces you into blindly worshipping imperfect humans. Learning, on the other hand, allows you to observe, synthesize, and pave your own imperfect path.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it’s OK to lose. I don’t. You have to be merciless."
"I spend hours playing chess because I find it so much fun. The day it stops being fun is the day I give up."
"When you have fun, then you're more interested in learning."
"If you want to get to the top, there's always the risk that it will isolate you from other people."
"Without the element of enjoyment, it is not worth trying to excel at anything."