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Family matters led to Magnus Carlsen becoming king

Mountain View, California: New world champion Magnus Carlsen has revealed the secret to his chess success — sibling rivalry.

The Norwegian grandmaster, who has a World Chess Federation (FIDE) rating of 2872 — the highest in history — won the World Chess Championship when he beat reigning title holder Viswanathan Anand in Chennai in November last year.

Gulf News caught up with the 23-year-old at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley, where he attended a discussion with entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, the co-founder of eBay, as part of a Churchill Club business and technology forum.

Carlsen said he was inspired into taking up chess as a toddler by his father, Henrik, but at that age he took no great interest in the sport, only playing if the weather was bad or he was particularly bored. But, when he turned eight, Carlsen’s older sister started learning the game and that is what drew him in.

“One of my main interests at that time was to beat my sister at everything she did,” he said. “I started training a lot in order to beat her. Gradually, I realised chess was a very interesting game in itself.”

While many people categorise chess as an art, or even a science, for Carlsen it’s primarily a sport. “Sometimes when you create a beautiful combination, it feels like art, and when you are searching for opening ideas, it’s a science, but most of all for me chess is a sport,” he said.

And, as with most sports — perhaps more so with chess because it is, after all, a game of the mind — psychology plays a crucial role. Alexander Alekhine, who is already among the greatest players in the world at age 22, says psychology is the most important factor in chess, while the first undisputed world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, believed it was not a game for the faint-hearted. Even the legendary Garry Kasparov described chess as “psychologically brutal”.

Carlsen said: “For me it’s more about psychology in preparation, trying to chose an opening variation that could be unpleasant to that particular opponent.

“I do get nervous sometimes, especially if I feel I am not so well-prepared. It’s sort of the same feeling like not being prepared for a meeting or an exam. But generally during games I really don’t get that nervous. I have great confidence in what I do. I feel that most of the time I know what I am doing. If I do get nervous, I put on a brave face and do not show too much.”

During last year’s world championship matches, Carlsen said Anand was visibly shaking on occasions, but the Norwegian said he couldn’t figure out if his opponent was trembling with excitement or nervousness. He says he gave up trying to understand the psychology behind Anand’s tremors and focused on the game instead.

Chess, however, is not just a mind game, with Carlsen saying: “When you feel fit, your mind works better. You can last long games and tournaments better.”

The world chess championship battle took place over 12 games, which is a format that is “not perfect, but pretty good,” according to the recently crowned king. But he does not recommend going back to the earlier format of 24 games. “It’s hard to keep people’s attention for that long,” he said. “And the players will get more tired, leading to a drop in the quality of the games.

“I would like 14 games better, because the players will then have a couple more games to come back in case of a loss, and have a little bit more time to probe the opponent.”

While there is much interest among the wider public in seeing the greatest chess players taking on computers, Carlsen is not a fan.

“I find playing against computers depressing,” said Carlsen. “In my chess training I do the things that I enjoy. I don’t particularly enjoy playing computers, so I don’t do that.

“The psychological and emotional aspect is not there. I prefer to play with humans.”

Social media and the internet may help chess players, but Carlsen believes technology will never be able to perfect chess. In end-game positions with six pieces left, computer databases can use retrogade analysis to work backwards from a checkmate position to provide the best play in all situations — effectively solving every chess game with six pieces left.

But Carlsen said: “I do not think chess positions with seven pieces will be solved in our lifetimes. And the game of chess with all its 32 pieces will never be fully solved.”

— The writer is a freelance journalist based in the US