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Sunday, January 22, 2017
The New King of Chess
Article from The New Yorker
When Magnus Carlsen became the world chess champion a few days ago, I don’t think anyone in the chess world lost money. All bets were on the almost-twenty-three-year-old Norwegian’s beating the reigning grandmaster, Viswanathan Anand. With play in Chennai, India, Anand had the home-court advantage, but, at nearly forty-four, he is getting old for top-level chess, and Carlsen gained momentum as the match went on. He didn’t lose in ten games. Perhaps the biggest surprise was in the last one, when Carlsen, with the prize in his grasp, played to win rather than accepting what looked to be Anand’s offer of a draw, which would have clinched it for Carlsen anyway. He could have been the world champion a couple of hours sooner.
Or even a year earlier. Carlsen, whom I wrote about for the magazine in 2011, had skipped the previous world championship in 2012, objecting to the way in which the qualifying matches were conducted, and so, as it turns out, forewent the chance to be the youngest world champion ever.
But, in the meantime, his FIDE rating, the chess world’s mathematical system for ranking tournament players, had continued to rise, and even before he and Anand settled into their chairs, his was the highest in history, surpassing even that of Garry Kasparov, who, starting in 2009, had coached him for about a year—before Carlsen decided that the passionate Russian got him too hepped up to enjoy the game. (Kasparov, for his part, threw his hands up at Carlsen’s casual approach to training, telling me back in 2011 that he “was not in a position to make him change his personality.”) But Kasparov was always impressed by Carlsen’s intense will, and, after the Chennai match, told me that he wasn’t surprised that Carlsen went for the outright victory instead of settling for a draw in the final game: “He likes to play, he likes to win, and he had the better position. He’s a maximalist like Fischer, and he expects to fight to the death.” (In this particular game, Anand salvaged a draw.)
With the years, Carlsen’s play has increasingly seemed to defy categories. He still goes light on the sort of deep opening study that helped make Kasparov and Anand dominant. If you want to attack hard, you have to prepare hard, which Carlsen has made clear just doesn’t float his boat. But he has also eschewed the heavy focus on the computer programs that have trained his generation (and are training the grandmasters of the next). The software cuts through the millions of permutations that each chess position offers to show the player the best move. Despite his ad-hoc approach, Carlsen seems so good at so many things now, it’s not clear to chess commentators where it’s going to end. He’s like a great baseline tennis player who just keeps returning the ball deep and with power until he forces an error, but rarely makes any of his own. “He’s gotten a little older,” notes Mig Greengard, who works with Kasparov and tweets as @chessninja, “but as far as the actual games, I don’t think he’s really different now. He’s just more.” That Carlsen still hasn’t peaked he finds “frankly terrifying.”
Carlsen embodies millennial cool (well, for a chess player) with his fondness for junky food and mass media, his clothing endorsement, his toehold in the world of movie-star glamour. The day after his victory in Chennai, the Times of India reported, he went bowling. But he remains huggable; it’s not hard to imagine him making his bed because his mother tells him. His sisters and he pal around; the oldest, Ellen, was a presence in Chennai, too. He also is straightforward in a way that is at once appealingly modest and jaw-droppingly arrogant when he speaks of his talent. When I asked him how he had changed since I wrote about him, he sent back a comment to me via his manager that took me back to our time together. “The style and level of my game is about the same,” he said. “I feel I know a lot more, but it’s not easy to make that evident on the board. Fortunately it’s good enough to win most tournaments and the WC title.”
Thus passeth the crown.
D.T. Max is the author of “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.”
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