Magnus Carlsen: Chess’s Modern Day Mozart

Chess remains almost entirely unchanged, played as it was a century ago. Players lay their pieces out with the soft thump of baize on wood, jot their moves on paper, and tap the clock forcefully or gently, depending on the mood they wish to convey.

Chess remains almost entirely unchanged, played as it was a century ago. Players lay their pieces out with the soft thump of baize on wood, jot their moves on paper, and tap the clock forcefully or gently, depending on the mood they wish to convey. Yet the game has changed in at least one respect: the rise of child prodigies. With more younger players competing than ever before, chess has become a sport for all ages. Magnus Carlsen, current World Chess Champion, World Rapid Chess Champion, and World Blitz Chess Champion, earned his Grandmaster (GM) norm––the highest rank a chess player can achieve––at just the age of 13. Out of the 1500 grandmasters, the four-time World Champion’s performance both on and off the board deserve the most recognition.

The Norwegian’s journey began with his 2004 Group C victory at the annual Corus Chess Tournament, also referred to as the Tata Steel Tournament. Following the win, Carlsen was automatically promoted to Corus Group B the following year. Unfazed by the transition, the Norwegian shared first place with GM Alexander Motylev, qualifying him to play in the Corus Group A in 2007. The chess prodigy continued to fill his trophy cabinet as a 15-year-old by winning the Glitnir Blitz Tournament and coming second in the prestigious Biel Grandmaster Tournament, where he beat the tournament winner GM Alexander Morozevich twice in previous rounds.

Nonetheless, when Carlsen played in the top group of the Corus tournament for the first time at 16 years old in 2007, he finished in last place with nine draws and four losses, tallying a mere 4.5 points. Up until this point, Carlsen had an aggressive playing style: one that was characterized by “a fearless readiness to offer material for activity,” according to Norwegian GM Simen Agdestein. In any scenario, Carlsen unhesitantly gave up pieces if it meant more action on the board. While he found success as a youth with his risky style, such methods were not suited against the elites of the chess world. Carlsen often relied on the Evans Gambit, an opening well-known for its fast-paced yet unpredictable nature to avoid boring matchups. He was also heavily reliant on the Smith-Morra Gambit, where a player deliberately sacrifices a pawn at the start to quickly develop attacking chances.

As Carlsen struggled to find success at the highest level, he strived to become a more versatile player. Aware of his weak and repetitive openings, Carlsen mastered several other styles, most notably, the Sicilian Defense. With a repertoire that places an extra pawn in the center, the opening revolutionized Carlsen’s playing style; his main forte was now the middlegame and endgame, in which he attempts to outplay his opponents with positional means. Shortly after the adjustments, Carlsen saw his efforts pay off. In the 2008 Corus Group A, a year after his attempt at the top group, Carlsen finished in first place with GM Levon Aronian and achieved a personal best of 2830 career points. This was just the beginning of success at the highest level.

Fast forward to 2014, and Carlsen has already won multiple renowned tournaments, including the London Chess Classic, the Linares International Chess Tournament, and two World Chess Championships. Yet, his universal playing style isn’t the only factor that contributes to his global success. While chess players are subject to a constant torrent of mental stress, Carlsen’s composure and the absence of soul-searching after mistakes put him one step ahead of his opponents. During his first World Chess Championship Final against defending champion GM Viswanathan Anand, challenger Carlsen was the less experienced player; yet, his unmatched concentration allowed him to take advantage of minor mistakes from his opponent in Games 6 and 9, emerging victorious overall. Moreover, heart monitors during games prove why Carlsen remains the best of the bunch. For example, during Game 3 of the Chess 960 World Championship Finals against five-time United States Champion Hikaru Nakamura, Nakamura had a heart rate of around 130 beats per minute (bpm) while Carlsen was at around 70 bpm in the final moments––his ability to perform under pressure is truly second to none.

Yet, while Carlsen is recognized for his talent, his efforts outside of the game often go unnoticed. With the Covid-19 pandemic canceling major chess tournaments, he launched The Carlsen Tour, a $1.5 million series of 10 online tournaments, providing hours of entertainment for fans worldwide. The first event of the tour reportedly amassed more than 115,000 viewers. In a time when sports have stalled, the outbreak has provided Carlsen with the perfect opportunity to put into practice his vision of promoting chess to a greater audience. Moreover, like many professionals in the chess community, Carlsen has recently joined Twitch, a live streaming service, to interact with his fans and regularly stream chess games. Since the pandemic, viewership of live chess games has skyrocketed. On Twitch, people watched approximately 41 million hours of chess from March to August 2020, four times the total hours compared to the previous six months. When asked about the reasoning behind his efforts, Carlsen simply stated, “We’re trying to grow chess” and give the fans “something to look forward to.” In concert with Carlsen’s Twitch efforts, chess is certainly having a moment in the limelight, additionally boosted by the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. With a miniseries booming on Netflix and a star like Carlsen introducing millions of young people to the game, chess’s future looks bright.

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