The joy of Magnus Carlsen
The chess great wins another championship title and shows what it’s like not to be a tortured genius
Every World Chess Championship in which Magnus Carlsen, 31, has competed since his rise to champion in 2013 has happened to fall on or near his birthday, Nov. 30. Since then, he has had many happy birthdays.
In 2016 in New York, the Norwegian Carlsen fended off a strong challenge from Russian Sergey Karjakin and won the three-week-long match on his actual birthday–checkmating Karjakin when all he had to do was draw to win the championship. I watched as the room sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and Carlsen (usually simply referred to as Magnus) beamed, likely because of the chess more than his birthday. “He loves to win,” his dad Henrik Carlsen has explained many times.
This year Magnus celebrated his birthday one week into the world championship match, which took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, starting Nov. 24 in a best-of-14 format. The early celebration was fitting for this championship, which he essentially won midway through.
The match against Russian challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi was tight until Game 6, an epic battle that became the longest world championship game in history at 136 moves and almost eight hours. With less than two minutes left on his clock, Magnus coordinated a brilliant endgame that slowly crushed Nepomniachtchi. Chess engines, which do deep analysis and evaluation of moves, indicated the game was a draw until the very last moment.
That game, and the relentless excellence of Magnus, appeared to have broken Nepomniachtchi (often referred to as simply “Nepo”). The following game, Nepo had chopped off his characteristic man-bun for a fresh start, but to no avail. In subsequent games, Nepo, the fifth-highest-rated player in the world, made several uncharacteristic blunders.
In Game 9, Nepo moved a pawn that trapped his own bishop, an almost inconceivable error. Grandmasters streaming across the internet yelped. Nepo left the board for 18 minutes and came back looking emotionally drained—with that vulnerability in the eyes of someone who might cry. He went through months of preparation at the highest levels then made a rookie mistake. Nepo lost games 8, 9, and 11, and the championship.
Chess presents a wonderful chance to look at human greatness and how humans manage a spectacular gift. Magnus not only has what fellow top chess player Anish Giri called during the final game of this championship a “divine understanding” of the game, but he can cope with the immense pressure of chess at high levels. In press conferences over the years, Magnus talks a lot about “joy.”
Having that divine understanding of chess without the coping skills has led to disaster. Pop culture often focuses on tortured geniuses—even in the fictional Netflix hit about chess, The Queen’s Gambit. An American grandmaster once suggested that chess great Bobby Fischer, who grew increasingly haunted by paranoia to the point that he left chess altogether, needed to see a psychiatrist.
No one needed a psychiatrist after this year’s chess championship, but Nepomniachtchi himself said that he needed to figure out what happened to him internally. The championship was “more tense than I expected,” he said after the final, lost game of the championship.
“If I knew what was going on, I would fix it during the match,” he said. “I don’t think it has much to do with chess.”
Fabiano Caruana, the top American chess player who was the last to challenge Magnus for the world championship in 2018, was sympathetic watching Nepo’s mental crumbling in real time as he did live commentary of the match for Chess.com.
Caruana recalled the pressure of the Candidates Tournament, which determines who will challenge Carlsen, where he felt on top of his chess game, but then nerves took over. He could feel himself rushing in games and couldn’t stop.
After his championship win, Magnus said he might not play another championship, only because he finds it less of a challenge and less “pleasurable” than in the past. That’s not a retirement announcement: “I will continue to play chess, it gives me a lot of joy,” he said in an interview on a Norwegian podcast. He added that he would focus on pursuing a 2900 FIDE rating in chess as his next challenge, which would break the rating record he already set.
For years when championships come up, he has wondered aloud whether to play them, partly because of that “joy” factor. In this latest interview, Magnus said he would likely play the championship again if 18-year-old Alireza Firouzja—who many think has Magnus-level talent—was his challenger. That prospect “can be something that motivates me properly,” he said.
Magnus’ family has emphasized the importance of a balanced life to his chess career, so he is not consumed by the game. As a kid racing to the top levels in chess, he would read comics and play Monopoly with his sisters. He once said in a 2015 Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) that to be successful “you need to focus and spend time to get knowledge and understanding of different subjects. When I did that in school, I did very well. When I spent more time on chess than on school, I did less well.”
Contributing to his overall well-being in this championship was his team of seconds, or the chess experts who worked ahead of the championship to study lines of attack and defense and then to prepare for each game and respond to Nepo’s strategy around the clock during the championship.
The seconds were people not only smart at chess, but whom Magnus likes spending time with. It’s clear in a video that Magnus released after the match revealing his team, as he grins while introducing all the grandmasters and describing the team dynamics.
Russian grandmaster Daniil Dubov was on Team Carlsen, upsetting some Russian chess greats who thought he was betraying his country by helping Carlsen. Dubov shrugged, saying he had a good relationship with Magnus and “this is a match between people.” In the video of Team Carlsen, Dubov elaborates.
“I think it’s kind of important for him to actually like the guys,” Dubov said about Magnus. “For instance, the Russian team, it’s exactly the opposite. They would normally bring all the biggest guns in … if they’re fighting or if they’re friends or whatever. You just use all the power. Here … he likes us and tends to trust us, in general.”
Back in New York in 2016, a child asked a question at a press conference during the championship: Was Magnus nervous before playing?
“I find joy in playing,” Carlsen said. “In some ways that’s the most important thing.”
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