“We’re trying to grow chess”: An Interview with Magnus Carlsen

Introduction

A (much) longer version of this interview appears in the year’s final issue of the Norwegian Chess Federation magazine Norsk Sjakkblad, appearing in mid-November 2020. The piece was my editorial farewell to the job, and a chance to explore a very turbulent year or so for the champion at home, after a series of high-profile episodes eventually led him to make the symbolic gesture of withdrawing from the national federation.

His endorsement of a proposed deal for federation funding from a cooperation with gambling giant Kindred sparked massive national controversy, and this was eventually followed by him becoming an ambassador for Unibet. Gambling is run by a state monopoly in Norway, and is both a thorny and touchy subject. Magnus remains active, supportive and a representative of the Norwegian federation. His lack of ‘membership’ was a protest against the heated and hostile rejection of what he felt was a unique and unmissable chance to finally fund the chronically impoverished organization.

Although Magnus and I were clubmates at Asker during his late childhood, and I had the entertaining experience of captaining the Norwegian Open team at the Baku Olympiad in 2016, where Magnus led the squad to Norway’s best ever finish, I’ve never had a chance to really quiz him from a journalist’s seat. In recent years, whenever this was a possibility, there was always someone higher up where I was working who would grab this opportunity for themselves.

 

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Carlsen vs Caruana, Norway Chess 2020
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photo courtesy Norway Chess / Lennart Ootes

 

This interview somehow automatically took place in English, which is worth mentioning, even if it only had an impact on the version translated and used in the federation magazine. As our conversation evolved, it became very clear that segments of this interview would be of particular interest to a U.S. audience, and Magnus graciously granted permission for me to publish this in any other channels I felt fit.

As always, Magnus speaks his mind and pulls approximately zero punches. He also repeatedly reveals the high standards he demands of himself over the board, virtual or physical. Some of my previous writing might be interesting as background context: My piece on the creation of Magnus’ global Offerspill Chess Club and an explanation of this and the Kindred case for a non-Norwegian audience in New in Chess 6/2019; and a look at Magnus’ history for being outspoken and admittedly naïve. The latter article might shed more light on some of the things he admittedly miscalculated in a Norwegian political context, but it also illustrates his belief in speaking his mind.

 

Unibet:

About being a Unibet ambassador - is it going to focus on fantasy football because of your success? It seems to be the perfect medium for the sponsor, you applying mental skills that aren't chess to a different kind of contest.

It’s as simple as it [being] something that I find very interesting to talk about, and to some extent promote as well. And there is a lot of overlap with people who like to gamble and like to play fantasy football. There’s a very obvious connection to make there.

You say on the fantasy football podcast that you’re not much of a gambler, which might surprise people when you're a Unibet ambassador. How much 'math' is involved in what you play?

I think fantasy football has a lot of similarity with poker and with betting, in that you make decisions based on stats and then that gives you a better chance to be lucky. So to me it’s not the gambling aspect of these things that makes it interesting for me, it is more about trying to make good decisions, to make better decisions than others do, basically based on having a lot of the same data.

Obviously in the short term there is a huge amount of luck, there is no denying that, but I think that over time these are definitely - I think fantasy football is definitely in the same category as betting or poker, [which is] to a huge extent a skill-based game.

Luck is no coincidence is the Unibet slogan - this comes around to luck being a kind of skill?

Yes, if you're skilled you’re going to be lucky more often, that's the basic point.

Do you see any analog to this in chess at all? I mean chess is a complete information game but there are human factors involved, psychology – maybe bluffing occasionally to a certain extent...

I don't think there is any fundamental luck in chess. No...

When you speed things up don't you think it increases the chance factor? Or does it just increase the skill sets needed?

It certainly increases the variance when the game speeds up and when it becomes more complicated, more unpredictable. But I don't consider it chance, or to be a matter of luck. I still feel that it is all skill.

Let’s go to the ‘evil’ side of gambling for bit. When I look at fantasy football it doesn't really strike me as gambling per se – maybe that's because I respect the level of skill involved in things like poker – even though there's a lack of information and the presence of chance. But it doesn't seem to me the same kind of thing that people are worried about. I imagine the whole point of promoting gambling with a clear conscience, is you see it as a 'safe' pastime if it is a pastime and skill is consciously involved?

Yeah, to be honest I simply don't find gambling very interesting, I don't find online casino games that interesting. As you said, poker, sports betting, and I think also fantasy football, those are, in the long run, highly skills-based games. They can be extremely addictive, there is no doubt about that, so you need to make it safe, set boundaries.

But I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with these things.

The thing about poker and sports betting – fantasy football is not quite the same – the thing about these games when you play them online, if you are even a reasonably smart person, you understand very well that the house has the edge. You understand that and you accept it as the premise, that when you play there [at a casino or online betting site – ~ed.] they are going to have a bit of an edge and you are going to try to beat them with your superior skills.  Or you’re just going to play a bit for fun. Which is also fine, but then you accept that you are going to pay a bit of money for the thrill of gambling.

But I don't think that there is something inherently wrong with person 1 accepting a fee to allow person 2 and 3 to wager a bet between them. I don't think there is any fundamental problem there.

 

Business empire:

Let’s talk about what I like to call Magnus Inc.: Chess 24, Play Magnus, Chessable and CoChess. You came up with the name for CoChess (= 'coaches'), I assume?

Ha! No – I’m a huge pun aficionado. Unfortunately, it wasn't me but obviously I like it.

How active are your roles with these companies?

Lately I stay a little bit out of the way. Usually whenever they ask me to do something, they ask me for a favor, I am very happy to do that, but it’s not like I run any of the day-to-day business. Clearly I’m a lot more involved when it comes to the tour that we had and the tour that is coming up. That is something that I’m thinking a lot more about and having much more of a say in.

So investor and promoter mostly?

Yeah, absolutely.

Is there a sense of this being a big competitive front for you? Are you taking on chess.com and lichess and any other big online players with this empire you're building?

Yes, we certainly are trying to compete, especially with chess.com, there's no doubt there, but most of all we're trying to grow chess, and to do something special to create a good environment for the best players.

 

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Magnus Carlsen
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photo courtesy Norway Chess / Lennart Ootes

 

Do you consider lichess a competitor? They seem to be helpful in some of your projects and they would appear to be a natural competitor in others.

In general I like those guys. So I wish the lichess guys everything good, [and] I think what they've managed to do is amazing.

So the main rival is chess.com. What are your ambitions, and what is success in that respect?

It’s not really all about competing with them. We just want to create good products that are going to make people interested in following our events, and eventually also playing on the new site we've got coming up on Chess24.

It’s not only about Chess24 as well. We're trying to grow all of the different companies. Essentially, I’m just there as you said, as investor and promoter. My main role still is to try and play well; that's after all, I think, the best way to promote [these ventures]. When I start playing a lot worse, my value for the company will be a lot less.

There was a recent video with Arne Horvei about exciting job opportunities as a broadcaster for the next online tour - but this tour sounded a bit like the start of a new world title...

Ha! You'll have to ask him.

(Tisdall's aside: I did ask Arne, on business social media site LinkedIn. He gave me a very professional answer, explaining that the tour was a private initiative and “It is not in any way an announcement of a new world title, official or unofficial” –  but the message did include a wink emoji…)

 

The future of chess…

The format of your (online) tour (sets of rapid matches) a lot of people are talking about it being a testing ground or public demonstration of what you would like to see the actual world title format change to. Any truth to that?

Yeah, I guess I have been pretty open about, not necessarily for the championship title, but about my opinion about how you would determine the best player in the world, and certainly this goes some way to showing that.

Do you think the COVID-19 situation has permanently changed the status of rapid and blitz events now?

I think so. But I also think it’s just not realistic to expect people to play long games online. I also think it is not realistic to expect people to watch it with great interest. So I think the rapid format is excellent for online play because you keep at least some semblance of high quality chess and it also doesn't take too long. You get more games in a day and that way you get more excitement possibly.

You don't think it will impact over-the-board play when it comes back? That things will speed up more in general?

I don't know. I think in general the future of classical chess as it is now is a little bit dubious. I would love to see more Fischer [Random] Chess being played over-the-board in a classical format. That would be very interesting to me, because I feel that that particular format is pretty well suited to classical chess as basically you need a lot of time in order to be able to play the game even remotely decently. And you can see that in the way that Fischer [Random] Chess is being played now when it is played in a rapid format.

The quality of the games isn’t very high because we make such fundamental mistakes in the opening. We don't understand it nearly enough and I think that would increase a lot if we were given a classical time control there. So I would definitely hope for that.

For classical chess over-the-board, I guess it has a future, but I think you have to accept it as it is. There are going to be a lot of draws when the best players in the world play classical chess over-the-board. There is no way around it, if you don’t change something fundamental that is simply not going to change. It is a little bit sad but I think it is very, very hard to do something about.

You don't think engines might open the frontiers again somehow?

I find it very unlikely. The fact [is] that Alpha Zero and Leela, are, in terms of the Berlin Defense, rather shutting down doors than opening them. I think that's not a very encouraging sign and you’re grasping more and more at straws when it comes to finding playable opening ideas. It is a bit of a shame.

That makes me wonder if you've been following these chess variant experiments, I think by Kramnik.

I certainly think it’s interesting, and yeah, I’d love to try some of the variants that most resemble chess, I would love to try them in real games. I just think that to some extent we already have a really good variant, that is Fischer [Random] Chess. I think that probably also needs to be explored more.

 

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Carlsen defeats Nakamura on his Chess Tour Finals

 

Going back to the topic of rapid being possibly the main battleground for a while: What's it like reanimating [GM Hikaru] Nakamura - he seems to be more of a rival now than when he was world number two?

Yeah, definitely. First of all, I’ve been mightily – mightily – impressed with the way he's been playing. When we were doing the invitations for the first Magnus Invitational there was this basic thought to invite all the best players in the world and there were a lot of people who were a given, and I was pushing for Nakamura to be invited there. I was saying that even though it has been a long time since he has had any success whatsoever in classical chess, I still thought that in rapid formats he would be a more than worthy competitor. And I didn't expect him to be nearly this good.

It’s been amazing to see the amount of success that he's had and I also think the match that he played against me, or all of the matches, they became very, very difficult for me. I think that he had a very well thought out match strategy, to a greater extent than other players have had. It’s come to the point that there’s no doubt that when it comes to rapid and blitz chess, especially online, he's clearly my biggest competitor.

Do you think the faster controls will create more serious challengers for you or do you think you will be just as dominant?

To be fair, I don't think I've been very dominant recently. I want to be a lot more dominant than I've been. I think I played well in one of the events, the Chessable Masters. Apart from that it has been fairly mediocre I would say. I feel like I haven’t reached my full potential in these formats and I would say certainly during the last St. Louis event, I think I was just basically going through the motions. I had no energy or creativity. I was just not playing well at all.

Is it just as demanding as playing classical then?

Yes, I think so, when you play a bunch of games in one day it is equally exhausting.

Will classical chess and the official cycle still be your top priority?

I think it is very, very likely that I will compete for a world championship next year, but I feel it is very unlikely that I will ever play as many classical tournaments as I did in 2019.

Because of the strain?

Yeah, because there is going to be, at least for the next year, a lot of focus on the online tour that is coming so I cannot spend all my time travelling.

Who do you expect to be your next challenger?

One of the guys playing in the Candidates. I don't know, the two guys who are leading [GMs Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi - ~ed.] and also [GM Fabiano] Caruana have a very decent chance. I don't have a better answer than that.

Is there anybody you'd find more interesting to meet?

By far the best player among them is Caruana.

But that doesn't mean he'd be the most -

I think that would be the most interesting for sure. It’s not necessarily what I want. I mean, I don't really know what I want at this point but yeah, I certainly think he's the most interesting opponent.

 

Assorted questions…

What did you think of Nakamura's “Bong Cloud” in the last round at the St. Louis Rapid and Blitz? (Nakamura played 1. e4 e5 2. Ke2 as White vs. GM Jeffrey Xiong, an ‘opening’ known as the Bong Cloud.)

I think it was OK. my opinion has always been chess moves are chess moves – they’re not much more.

In that particular situation it's not about respect for the game or lack of it.

 

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Nakamura vs Xiong

 

What about respect for the opponent?

I just don't find that whole discussion very interesting. Like when you face it, either you go 2. … Ke7 yourself and you say, I see that you're trying to give yourself a disadvantage here and I don't want to be a part of that, now we play on equal ground. Or else you try your best to win. Certainly it's not an ideal situation to be put in, but you do your best. If you're talking about lack of respect for the opponent, that's far too dramatic, there should be room for some showmanship in these events. But I don't necessarily think it should be a headline creator.

What about what the organizers think?

It's also about what you do after. Clearly Hikaru's intention was: I play 1. e4, I play 1. Ke2 and after that I play a normal game. He didn't continue to play in a silly way after it. So if you think you are good enough to play 1. e4 2. Ke2 and beat your opponent, sure go ahead. I don't see the problem.

It almost looked like he did it because his stream followers voted for it.

You’ve got to keep in mind, that he considers himself a streamer first and foremost rather than a chess player. With that in mind, his choice is not only understandable, it’s perfectly rational.

What do you think about the way his video streaming is plowing new ground for chess popularity?

I think it’s very good for him first and foremost, and in general it’s a good thing for chess. I don't think that it's necessarily a case of more numbers always corresponds to being that much better for chess, but I think overall it’s a very positive thing. I just think that we should not lose complete track as chess players of what we are trying to do, which is play good chess.

He himself has been thoroughly vindicated in the sense that he finds a lot of success, not only as a promoter of the game but also as a player. I think what he's doing is a huge positive, and it's obviously great for him.

--

After getting to see all the attention seekers swarming around you when I was Olympic team captain in Baku, I'm curious to know if all this has made you reflect a little bit about celebrity life. And if you think about yourself as a role model at all, and the implications of that.

(Pause)

I’m not particularly guided by those thoughts – about being a role model or whatever. I try to live my life in a way that I feel reflects what I want to do, but it’s not like I am going to do exactly what people expect of me. That's never, or at least not recently, something that's been important to me.

Are you more comfortable with these kinds of media storms now? I see that just for fun you can provoke Liverpool fans (in connection with fantasy football), which is a strange kind of hobby.

I guess there was a time, for a period of a couple of years, a few years ago, where I would barely do interviews at all. I guess I sort of relaxed that policy a bit now. I definitely don't go out of my way to get the most publicity and attention, but I suppose that now I am a little bit more relaxed about it than I was a few years ago.

--

Is it true that you named Reuben Fine as the player who most resembles your style?

I guess at some point I was reading a lot about his games and I did find quite a few similarities there. I don't think I ever went as far as to say that he’s the one who resembles my style the most, it was more a case of I found some similarities.

 

 

As an old American who has quite a bit of historical interest, I still don't know very much about Fine at all. What made you look into him?

This was a few years ago, frankly I don't even remember. I think it's just that at the point I did that interview I'd spent the last few days going through a lot of his games and it just struck me that there were a surprising amount of similarities. But I don't find it that interesting to be honest, to find out whose play I resemble the most. I don't really know. I think I resemble a bit of a lot of the people who played chess very well in the present or the past.  

[Editor's note: for more on Reuben Fine, see our Chess Life and Chess Review Digital Archive, where many of Fine's best events are recounted in magazines from the 30s and 40s. You can also check out his obituary, which features a number of his best games, in pdf format here.]

One last thing. You've had now, post-London world championship, a run of form equal to that of the guy who you said there was your favorite player. How do you compare your last classical self to the 2014-15 edition of Magnus?

Honestly, I think that the chess that I played in the first half of 2019 is the best chess that I ever played. I just don't think I've played very well since. The second half of 2019, and also my only classical tournament that I played in 2020, they were all just, I wouldn't say decidedly poor, but mediocre at best. So I don't feel right now that I am on a run of good chess or even good results. The only positive thing about the classical chess that I played in the last year is that I haven't lost a game.

Do you think that undefeated streak had anything to do with your form tailing off, did you get more obsessed with it?

Yeah, I think I started thinking more about it. But I think it was also a case of running a bit out of ideas and also running a bit short of energy. And I think as a result of this I started to lose my confidence as well. I think it was all of these factors.

 


 

Postscript:

Between the time of this interview and the publication of Norsk Sjakkblad, even more major developments have occurred affecting Magnus and ‘Magnus Inc.’

At Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger Magnus won yet another major event, this one the first elite over-the-board tournament in ages. What was perhaps more newsworthy was that his immense, 125-game undefeated streak finally came to an end as he took too many chances trying to create complications against young Polish GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda.

The big headlines recently have been on the Magnus business front. First, Play Magnus was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange, with an injection of over 250 new shareholders and NOK 300 million [about $33 million - ~ed.] that will be invested in “technology development and further growth.”

In an extremely interesting turn of events just over a week later, FIDE announced the cancellation of the World Championship in rapid and blitz due to continuing COVID-19 related uncertainties. Meanwhile, the promised Champions Chess Tour 2021 — season two of what started as the online Magnus Chess tour — unveiled the sale of the TV rights for the Tour, split between NRK and TV2.

Besides being landmark events in chess promotion and digital chess popularity, the timing of this bit of good news for the tour — billed as determining the world’s best online player while the 2020 official rapid and world titles have “gone poof” — makes the latest Magnus initiative feel very much like a true championship. Even if it is not yet official, or unofficial…

The tour kicks off in November 2020 and will feature monthly elite events and a grand final next September. The inaugural contest, the Skilling Open, bears the name of its investment app sponsors, and is an ‘open’ in the sense of its field not being limited exclusively to the ‘usual suspects.’ A number of somewhat surprising new invitees are being gradually unveiled as the start date approaches.

An even bigger PR coup was announced on November 6, when major TV network Eurosport signed up to broadcast the tour on demand in Europe and Asia. With chess moving from prime-time fodder in Norway to global hit series on Netflix, and now to mainstream sports, it is hard to see the current boom as anything other than peak popularity for the game, and for the champion’s new circuit.  The coming year promises to be an eventful one for chess in the age of COVID-19.

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