Young and good-looking, Magnus Carlsen is the rock star of chess. Now the world champion with the gift of extreme concentration is the face of Porsche — so why hasn’t he passed his driving test?
I am playing chess with the world champion Magnus Carlsen, who has just won the London Chess Classic ahead of all his strongest rivals. After eight moves from each of us, no pieces or pawns have been exchanged. But then the 25-year-old Norwegian says: “You should stop now, as this is the best position you are going to get all game.”
In sparring games with his trainers, Magnus is known for what is called “trash talking” — “Too weak! Too slow!” he can be heard telling one of them, on YouTube. And as the “Too weak! Too slow!” opponent in that video was a strong grandmaster, I suppose this mere club player should be flattered to be the subject of the champion’s acerbic verbal put-downs.
It’s all part of this chess genius’s preternatural competitiveness, which he also displays in the less cerebral arena of the football field. More than a year ago, when I interviewed Magnus for the BBC, he told me how he really should have been sent off for some fouls he committed while playing for his local team in Oslo: “But the referees have too much respect for me.” When I ask if that is still the case, he reveals that recently a referee summoned the courage to book the national hero: “I deserved it. Although it was just a late tackle on a bad pitch.”
In chess there are no bad pitches — just the 64 squares — and no referees to disturb the flow. Or, as Magnus puts it to me: “There are no outside factors. I don’t think there’s such a thing as bad luck in chess. When you mess up, it’s always and entirely your own fault.”
This un-self-pitying attitude is characteristic of champions in all sports. So perhaps it is not surprising that Porsche, in its new global advertising campaign for the 911 sports car, has chosen Carlsen as one of its stars, along with the tennis player Maria Sharapova and a young, partly computer-generated Muhammad Ali, all appearing to battle against their own digitalised doubles, under the slogan: “Only the best have a chance against the best.”
It helps that Magnus — like Sharapova, and Ali in his prime — is good-looking. His earlier foray into brand advertising was as a model for the clothing company G-Star Raw, working alongside Liv Tyler and Lily Cole. This is not the conventional image of chess, often seen as a pursuit favoured by geeks. Magnus is keen to dispel that image.
Perhaps it would help if he himself learnt to drive but, as he admits, he has never applied for a licence: “The main obstacle is all those traffic lessons. It seems so tedious to me. I like the general idea of driving, but . . . the theory tests. There will always be something I would like to do more than that.”
I can’t help laughing at this remark. Even the most advanced driving theory test imaginable would be trivial compared with the complexity of what Magnus does in his head when playing chess. Not only does he have instant recall of any position from countless thousands of chess games played by his rivals and great players of the past, he told me last year he would have no great difficulty in playing 20 games at once — blindfolded.
But Magnus is not being falsely modest when he describes himself as “lazy”. He does what he wants, when he wants. In fact, this interview was twice postponed, partly because he tends not to wake up until what most people would call lunchtime. To be fair, as his preference is for very long struggles, to grind his opponents down with inexorable accuracy, many of his games in this month’s London Chess Classic — the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour — went on until after 11 o’clock at night, having started mid-afternoon.
The Norwegian, who is also a keen skier, prides himself especially on his endurance. He describes this to me as “the physical element in chess”, explaining that while “anyone can play one chess game for six hours, to play games of that duration for day after day after day . . . that’s something different”.
Magnus, even before his first birthday, would spend hours solving 50-piece jigsaw puzzles, engrossed. Clearly he has a natural aptitude for extreme and sustained concentration, quite apart from a prodigious talent that saw him become a grandmaster at 13 and the youngest ever world No 1 by 19.
This intense focus came to the fore in the most crucial game of the London Chess Classic, when he was paired against his most ambitious rival, the 28-year-old American Hikaru Nakamura, who was leading him in the Grand Chess Tour. Nakamura once tweeted: “I am starting to realise I am the only person who is going to be able to stop Sauron in the context of chess history.”
When he was informed that Nakamura had compared him to the evil ruler in JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, Magnus retorted: “I have never actually watched Lord of the Rings. If I had, and Nakamura had been a better chess player, I might have been more insulted.”
Although Nakamura was recently second behind Magnus in the world rankings, his record against the Norwegian had been dreadful, with no wins and 11 losses. In this struggle in London, the American was visibly straining all of his mental muscles to avoid yet another loss and retain his lead over Carlsen.
Magnus was equally determined to squeeze a win from what seemed an arid position, with only a few pieces left on the board. The Norwegian had barely a minute left on his clock, after the game had entered its eighth hour of play, when Nakamura finally blundered. At the end he looked shattered.
Magnus’s fans in the audience were also drained: the sight of his clock ticking down in the closing stages will have filled them with foreboding. One of the factors that makes top-flight chess so stressful is that if you exceed the time limit — typically two hours for 40 moves — you lose, regardless of whether you might be winning on the board. And in the very first round of the Grand Chess Tour, at home in Norway, he did exactly that — losing on time in a completely winning position against the Bulgarian former world champion Veselin Topalov.
The confusion on Magnus’s face was palpable as the tournament controller stepped up to the board to tell him he had lost on time. What had happened was that this tournament had a slightly different time limit, which had been announced to the players at the beginning of the round. Magnus, not for the first time, had arrived a little late and missed the announcement — though knowing him as I do, my suspicion is that he wouldn’t have been paying attention anyway.
This setback caused the first crack in Magnus’s previously impermeable carapace of confidence: he lost three further games in the tournament, including to the tail-ender, Jon Ludvig Hammer. It was the first time that Magnus had lost to a fellow countryman since he was a child. He and Hammer are good friends, but the way Magnus brusquely pushed away the microphone of a Norwegian journalist after the game revealed how upset he was.
Dominic Lawson takes on Magnus Carlsen, who was a grandmaster at 13, at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand
Chess fans speculated that perhaps Magnus was in love, or had otherwise been deflected by purely personal matters from his previously single-minded dedication. But when I asked him whether that was the case, he smilingly dismissed the idea that he had been affected by any romantic distractions: “No, I’ve not been in love. I wasn’t playing like a happy drunk. Just poorly.”
So his recent victory in the London Chess Classic and the tour as a whole was essential for the champion to reassert his superiority over a host of young challengers, notably the phenomenal 16-year-old Chinese prodigy Wei Yi. Magnus tells me, with his usual confidence: “I really like playing these young attacking players. I feel I can match them at whatever they do.”
It might seem odd that the 25-year-old Magnus refers to “young players”, but as he explains: “In terms of chess, I am an old guy”; that is, he developed his chess skills in the old-fashioned way, without much recourse to computers.
Nevertheless, Magnus’s image is now intimately connected to this aspect of the game via the Play Magnus app. I had the pleasure of a demonstration of Play Magnus during the tournament by none other than his father, Henrik, a strong amateur player who taught his son the game when Magnus was five. Henrik proudly showed me how the app mimics his son’s playing style, and has multiple levels, each based on his ability at different ages, from five upwards.
Of course, Magnus long ago left his father in his wake as a chess player (and showed him no mercy when they played each other in a tournament game in 2007). In some other respects, however, Magnus still depends on him — Henrik told me it is quite a job to get Magnus to remember such basics for travel as a passport.
There was no problem with his passport on this trip, Henrik told me, but added with a quizzical smile: “The suitcase he brought with him contained not his luggage, but just a heap of promotional T-shirts. When we opened it in London, Magnus just said, ‘Oh. Wrong suitcase.’ ”
So perhaps the world will be a safer place if Magnus never gets round to passing his driving test. When your brain is whirring constantly with the almost infinite depths of chess, behind the wheel of a Porsche is not where you should be.