Magnus Carlsen has climbed another chess mountain

Chess can be a confusing sport in terms of the logistics of (a) how to play it and (b) how it’s internationally organized. Magnus Carlsen, for example, has seemingly been on the scene forever. He became a grandmaster at 13, he’s been profiled by The New Yorker, he’s been profiled by the BBC, he’s been called “the Justin Bieber of chess” (for the good parts, not the bad ones), about 1/5th of his country tuned in to watch him become world champion,  he got to world No. 1 at age 19 (and 32 days), he once had an Elo rating of 2861, and 60 Minutes has profiled him:

Whoa, this kid is basically the same age as Jennifer Lawrence, with perhaps more accomplishments. We should discuss getting them together.

This is a good read on the actual finals, in which Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand, who is 43 (21 years older than Carlsen) in Game 10 of the best-of-12. The first two games were apparently fairly boring; the two participants had spent so much time studying each other and perceived move patterns beforehand that they were afraid to go “off book.” Carlsen started to win — and make it more interesting — by relying more heavily on psychology in later games. For example, after he’d make a move, he’d sometimes get up from the table and walk away. That was un-nerving to Anand, who made a few calculated errors in later games (for example, in Match 10, Anand had strong pawn position but screwed up a few moves at the end, allowing Carlsen a second queen). There’s some discussion of this here, including how Carlsen’s ‘creative move structure’ can throw off opponents.

After climbing this final chess mountaintop, Carlsen apparently decided to dive into a body of water in India somewhere:

This rundown has a bit more scientific chess talk. I was checked out on some of it, but there are interesting elements.

Garry Kasparov, probably the best-known name in the chess world aside from Bobby Fischer (who died in ’08), had said this year’s world chess championships had the potential to re-energize the sport. (By the way, I believe fully it’s a sport. It involves strategy, psychology, and it’s physically daunting for those involved. So, yes, I’d vote sport.) Kasparov is 50. Some are painting Carlsen over Anand as a generational shift (as Anand was 43, as noted above); this is in part because Carlsen and Kasparov have already played — in 2004, in Iceland. Carlsen was 13. The first match was a draw, and Kasparov won the second.

Kasparov briefly trained — or consulted with — Carlsen in the late 2000s, but they ceased that partnership around 2010-11. A rematch might be interesting for the chess world; Kasparov was definitely hovering over these finals. In terms of other rivals for Carlsen as he begins his reign as World Champion, there aren’t a ton; here’s a summary of essentially his entire career. He has lost to Luke McShane, as well as going down in 22 moves to Anish Giri:

Carlsen himself considers Levon Aronian to be his main rival; here’s a breakdown of Aronian’s career. (And yes, he dates an attractive female chess player.) This article in The Guardian talks about how Carlsen’s erratic chess-playing form can actually give hope to rivals. One interesting person referenced (sorry for sounding like such a chess noob here) is Sergey Karjakin, who has sponsorships and is viewed as potentially the next great Russian chess prodigy. His current world rank appears to be No. 11 among active players. Vladimir Kramnik is another name to consider; he’s currently world No. 3. He was the undisputed world chess champion from ’06 to ’07.

While reading through a bunch of chess-related resources to write this post, one notable thing popped: in the world top 100 rankings, only two of the top 30 are USA-affiliated. Russia has nine in the top 30, and countries like Italy, France and the Ukraine all have multiple. Is chess not really popular in the U.S.? I grew up in a mostly upper-middle-class background. I played it — some at home, some at school. Later in life, I actually taught it as an after-school activity. I was never very good at it, although I got to a spot where I could beat my dad pretty consistently, and I guess that’s something. In 2009, USA Today said the sport was ‘making a comeback’ in U.S. schools; here’s a press release with some detailed stats about who plays chess, and where chess players come from. Here are a couple of bigger, long-form reads about the decline of chess in the U.S.: The New York Times covered it, as did The Atlantic. 

If you check the press release, there’s a pretty strong correlation between those who play chess and high-end reading materials/lifestyle choices; there’s a cart-horse issue there, to be sure, but I doubt it can be argued that chess requires you to work out different aspects of your brain and your ability to process strategy. Almost every business school class I’ve sat in involving strategy uses a chess metaphor, or chess on the front of the syllabus, or something like that. It’s a relatively affordable game, too — a board and pieces — and should probably become a broader part of American curriculum, especially with all the talk of the U.S. not teaching critical thinking skills enough.

It even teaches you life lessons.

Point is, a Norwegian 22-year-old defeated an Indian 43-year-old somewhere in India earlier today, then jumped into a body of water to celebrate. It was just another notch in his whites-and-blacks belt, and maybe it changed the entire game of the chess world, and maybe it didn’t. What it should teach all of us is that even though it’s not as sexy as dunks and crushing hits, or even as interesting as the dominance of a Roger Federer (whom Carlsen has been compared to), it’s a sport that gives back a ton to its participants. We should all be embracing it, and the glory that is Carlsen’s young career.

Ted Bauer


  1. There are a few minor errors or inaccuracies in this post. 2861 was not Carlsen’s highest ELO rating (that was 2872); rather, he was the first player ever to have such a high rating (akin to breaking the sound barrier, which doesn’t mean faster speeds aren’t possible).

    Secondly, Carlsen himself said that the psychological aspects of the match were of little consequence, at least for him. Anand referenced them and congratulated Carlsen for bringing out his errors, but all-in-all, you (and the author of the linked article) have made too much of Carlsen walking away from the board, which was unlikely to significantly affect Anand; it’s not at all an unusual thing to do, and Anand himself did it quite frequently as well. Carlsen’s excellent play on the board is what put the pressure on.

    Thirdly, although the picture does not show it well, Carlsen did not dive into a mysterious body of water. He was thrown into the hotel pool as a celebratory gesture.

    Finally, while Carlsen’s play has been erratic in the past, it has not been so recently. He could not have won the Candidates Tournament with erratic play.

    • These are some interesting points. Thank you for making a couple of clarifications here and there. I do appreciate it.

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