Chess legacy is a Magnus opus

Imagination is more important than practice for three-time world champ Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen at the Norwegian Ambassador's residence last Friday, when he played against 16 opponents simultaneously and beat them all. Though his international rivals have closed the gap, he is confident of preparing well in his bid for a fourth world title next year. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Magnus Carlsen stands in the centre of the room surrounded by four long tables and 16 opponents. A thunderstorm rages outside but indoors, the reigning chess world champion is all Scandinavian cool as he strolls across the grey rug, stopping briefly at each chessboard before moving one of the white pieces.

Seventy minutes later, and to little surprise from the 50 or so guests of Norway's Ambassador-designate to Singapore Anita Nergaard, Carlsen has beaten all 16 players, despite the presence of a book titled How To Be Lucky In Chess next to one player.

Underneath the dapper exterior - the Norwegian, with neatly coiffed hair and hip glasses, is wearing a light pink shirt with black trousers and a matching jacket - lies a ferocious competitor who takes nothing for granted, not even an exhibition contest.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, the 26-year-old, who suffered a shock early exit in last month's World Chess Cup in Tbilisi, Georgia before rebounding to capture the Isle of Man Open last Sunday, said: "The feeling of losing is stronger than the joy of winning.

"Sometimes when I lose games, I just want to give up and do something else. But then I find the motivation again and go on.

"Losing is a huge blow to your whole sense of self-worth. You put so much into the match. There aren't any outside factors. If you lose it's your fault. There aren't any team-mates to blame, you cannot blame the conditions on that particular day.

"It's all you and psychologically it's hard to cope with, especially when you're not used to losing."

It is an unfamiliar feeling for Carlsen. According to the World Chess Federation website, he has lost 123, or just under 12 per cent, of his 1,052 career matches (winning 439 and drawing 490).

Befitting a child of two engineer parents, Henrik and Sigrun, Carlsen was a chess prodigy who loved the rational and orderly world the game offered. He earned his grandmaster title at 13, became the youngest world No. 1 in 2010 and has held the world crown since 2013.

He also owns chess' highest Elo rating of 2,882 (set in May 2014). Russian legend Garry Kasparov held the previous record of 2,851 (set in 1999).

No wonder that Pok Wern Jian, who teaches mathematics at National Junior College and was one of the 16 players - including six-time national champion Kevin Goh - selected to face Carlsen on Friday evening, was nervous.

Pok said afterwards: "It was very intimidating. Every time Magnus moves a piece, he does so with such confidence and you feel like he's already seen how he's going to beat you."

Trophies and accolades, however, serve merely as placeholders to the chess-obsessed Carlsen. Not only does he routinely test himself on his Play Magnus app - "it's hard to sit down and focus on a mobile screen so I usually get outplayed or get tricked", he said - but he also goes online under a pseudonym and competes against random players.

He added: "If you feel like you're approaching perfection in chess, you're not being self-critical enough."

Unlike many of his peers, Carlsen does not spend hours every day poring over databases of chess matches - "more practice doesn't necessarily lead to better play, more knowledge doesn't mean you can achieve more," he said - and tends to rely on his instinct and imagination instead.

It has proven to be a winning formula for Carlsen, whose grandfather Kurt was a chemist. Besides his tournament winnings, he earns about £1 million (S$1.79 million) a year from sponsorship deals.

He will seek a fourth world title next year, although there have been signs he is vulnerable as Armenian Levon Aronian, the winner of this year's World Cup, has closed the gap in terms of ratings points and form.

Carlsen is unconcerned though and said he will be well prepared to defend his championship title. A voracious reader who is fascinated by military history and political figures, he attributed his recent tournament win to a book, Timman's Titans: My World Chess Champions by Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman, that he had just finished.

"It was very inspiring to relive some of the great ideas from the past," Carlsen said. He added: "World titles are great but most of all I want to leave behind the quality of my games, my ideas. That's what I want to be my legacy."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline Chess legacy is a Magnus opus. Subscribe