Møte med Magnus



Chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen is predicted to become World Champion some day. But when the 15-year old is not baffling the world?s best players he is relaxing with his Donald Duck cartoons.


The auditorium is buzzing with youthful chatter. Ten teenagers, appropriately dressed in jeans and sweaters, tell jokes and compare cell phones. Sitting in front of them with his back turned is a skinny young boy in a black and grey sweatsuit, resting his head in his hands as if it were too heavy for him to hold upright. Little by little, a solemn silence fills the room. Nine boys and a girl switch their cell phones off, and each of them quietly begins to line up the pieces of a chess board. The jeans-and-sneakers crowd are ten among the top chess players in Norway under twenty years, and they have now joined forces in order to reach one single aim: to beat the kid in black and grey. Now they are to play against him, simultaneously, and what?s more: While the ten may look at their boards, their opponent is not allowed to see. While they each have one game to concentrate on, he is to play ten games at a time, while juggling ten invisible, developing boards in his mind.

Now, that may sound like a slightly unbalanced match to you and me and, well, anyone else. But there is no doubt about the concentration with which the ten top-trained players go to work. The boy they are trying to beat is 15-year old Magnus Carlsen, the world?s youngest ever chess Grand-Master, the so-called ?Mozart of Chess?, the prodigy predicted by World Champion Garry Kasparov to become his successor. And he won?t go down easily.

?D5?, the first player announces.

?C4?, Magnus responds immediatly, his head still in his hands. ?Next!?

And so it begins.


?It?s not as if I see any colours or anything,? he explains helpfully, a little more than two hours later. For some time I have stared intently at that peculiar head of his, trying to figure out its secret. Is it bigger, bumpier, different in any way from anyone else?s cerebrum? But no, all I can see is a perfectly normal mop of brown hair, underneath which a pair of cool eyes look gravely at me. All I can see is a regular kid in a sweatsuit, drinking a glass of water and fiddling with his watch. Carlsen continues:

            ?I see the boards in my mind. When I hear the voice of one of the opponents I?m playing, his board comes up. He makes his move, I make mine, and the next board appears.?

            Since the age of eight, Magnus has spent most of his days in the company of kings and queens. Practicing four or five hours a day may sound like a lot, but Magnus tells me that even when he is alone, games, boards and positions tend to pop up in his head, and new ideas and moves keep flowing through his mind.

            ?Right away, once I met him, I realized this was something else,? explains Magnus? trainer Simen Agdestein, until recently considered the best chess player in Norway. Now, bursting with pride, he informs me that his young pupil has dethroned him.

?Mental limitations just don?t exist for him. That thing he does with the ten opponents could mess up anybody?s mind. But Magnus plays just as well blindfolded as he does with his eyes open.?


And it has been quite a ride. Magnus Carlsen became International Master at the tender age of 12. At 13 he obtained the title of Grand-Master, the highest international title bestowed on a chess player, as the youngest player (ever). International fame was secured in 2004 when he beat former World Champion Anatolyj Karpov in blitz chess and forced reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov into a draw or remis. In their rematch, however, Magnus was quickly and mercilessly defeated.

            ?It?s a miracle that I survived,? a shaken Kasparov told the press afterwards.

            ?I played like a child,? his 13-year old opponent claimed, with apparent irritation.


It?s not the first time Magnus Carlsen has been underestimated. Rather than being offended, though, he looks on his prodigy position in the international chess circles with characteristic detachment.

            ?If they underestimate me because I?m so young, it?s all the better for me, he says. ?But I don?t think they do so anymore.?

            And the sky?s the limit.

            ?It would be nice to become World Champion,? he says calmly.

Yes, one would think it would.

?It is a natural aim for me now that I?ve come so far. My main challenger is the only strong Grand-Master my age, a 16-year old Ukrainean. I?ve played him once, and it ended in remis. It?s an obvious duel to come.?


Magnus always was a thoughtful child, his father Henrik Carlsen, also a chess-player, recalls. At a tender age he would sit by himself with his jigsaw puzzles and lego games. But there was something special about Magnus? way of putting the pieces together. 50-piece jigsaw puzzles were easily completed by the then two-year old. Giant trailers, spaceships and locomotives of lego with 40-page instructions would spring up at Magnus? touch. And at the age of five, Magnus had learned the capital, flag, area and population figure for all countries of the world. Then he started memorizing the same information about Norway?s municipalities.

            ?I was just a curious kid, and enjoyed looking at the maps,? Carlsen explains, many years later. ?I didn?t realize that my memory was exceptional before people started telling me so. I just knew that I could remember anything I wanted to.?

            Soon, chess pieces took the place of jigsaw pieces. Little Magnus would sit for hours, hypnotized by the black and white squares, and try out positions, moves and strategies.

            ?It was all very playful and experimental. I just moved the pieces around, cheated a little to make some scheme work. Sometimes I would ask my father Is this check mate? Often it was.?


In school, the pupil who never had to cheat on a test soon lost his early interest in mathematics, terming it ?too easy?. Now, he is more fascinated by the subjects that will not succumb to his memorizing powers as easily. Politics and history have caught his interest, especially the great wars and dramas of the last century.

            ?One has to think of other things than chess from time to time?, he admits. ?I enjoy good stories, like those my father reads to me and my sisters.? While reportedly stubbornly resisting any attempt of his parents? to make him interested in works of higher culture, the young chess master has found a friend for life in Donald Duck. The sailor clad bird is the only literary creation capable of captivating Magnus? attention, and has become his permanent evening read before switching off the lights. It is either the Disney fowl, or the heavy chess books written by other Grand-Masters which he constantly keeps on his nightstand .


But then life comes in more colours than black and white. Magnus spends his rare non-chess-playing days with his friends, playing football or skiing. His co-footballers have little concern about his chess career other than wondering at how much money he is making. But that is just the way Magnus likes it.

            ?All I ask is that they behave normally with me,? he says, with determination. ?My friends should respect that I?m a chess player, but other than that, I want to be treated like anybody else. In school and elsewhere people tend to point and stare and say that?s the boy who plays chess. I hate that.?

            He may be the only living teenager in our celebirty-ridden time to feel that way, but, according to Magnus himself, there is not an exhibitionist fibre in his body. Attention is never sought and often unwanted. Though it?s hard to imagine from the polite young man sitting in front of me with his legs crossed, Magnus occasionally withdraws when media questions become too silly or when journalists show up unprepared.  

            ?Obviously I did not become a chess player to bask in attention, from media or anyone else?, he states hotly. The watch bangs against the table. ?If I did, I would have become an actor or something. I cannot see why that should be so difficult to understand.?


After two and a half hours of playing his ten opponents Magnus Carlsen may, exhausted, count four victories, four remis, and two losses. Not bad, is his conclusion.

            ?I should have won a couple more, though?, he muses.

            For a young, competitive mind of infinite potential, winning or losing is a matter of strong emotions. Magnus? anger after a loss, is, however, only directed towards himself.

            ?I get extremely disappointed in myself when I know that I could have done better?, he explains. ?Sometimes, I become almost disgusted with my own game, and I keep thinking How could I play like that? How could I??

            Apart from the occasional outburst of self-rage, though, life as a chess wunderkind is not so bad.

            ?I do what I enjoy most in life, I have a nice, stable family to always come home to, and I have no complaints. I?m just living, really. You know, I?m just a regular kid, after all.?

            Garry Kasparov might disagree. And so might the rest of the world, in a few years? time.


The Mozart of Chess


Name | Magnus Carlsen

Born | November 30th 1990, in Tønsberg, Norway

Family | Father Henrik Carlsen, a chess enthusiast who started teaching his children the game of his heart when they were five years old. Mother Sigrun Øen. Three sisters, Ellen, Ingrid and Signe. His two oldest sisters are also chess players.

Profession | School pupil and chess Grand-Master.

Results | 2001: Winner of the Norwegian Junior Championship. 2002: International Master. 2004: Grand-Master. 2005: 10th place in World Cup, qualifying for the World Championship Candidate Matches as the youngest ever.2006: Winner of the Glitnir Blitz Tournament, Iceland.

Current rating | Considered the 63rd best chess player in the world by the World Chess Federation

Favourite Donald Duck character | Cousin Fethry, because ?he?s such a nice guy who always ends up making so much trouble.?


Inger Merete Hobbelstad is a freelance writer living in Oslo. She thinks the black and white combo is always becoming, whether on clothes, shoes, chess boards, zebras, or bathroom floors. ingermerete@gmail.com.



Intervjuet ble gjort i april 2006 og stod på trykk i Scanorama samme sommer.


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35, Oslo

Inger Merete Hobbelstad (f. 1980) er kulturjournalist, teateranmelder og filmanmelder i Dagbladet og burde egentlig være lut lei av å skrive etter endt arbeidsdag. Men den gang ei. Jo, og så har jeg mastergrad i Litteraturvitenskap med en oppgave som handlet om Homers "Iliaden". Hvilket jeg altfor sjelden får spørsmål om. Og så nås jeg på imh@dagbladet.no.