The Performer: Chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen

The chess prodigy on preparation, pressure, and what he still wants to achieve.

Last New Year’s Day, the World Chess Federation’s bimonthly ranking of the planet’s best players was published to more attention than usual. Topping the list at the age of 19 years and 32 days, Magnus Carlsen became the youngest-ever world No. 1.

As he prepares for the Federation’s Candidates Tournament, which will produce a challenger to Viswanathan Anand for the title of World Champion in 2012, the Norwegian teen spoke with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

Date of birth: 11/30/1990

Age at which he became the third-youngest grandmaster in history: 13 years, 148 days

His current world-best ELO rating: 2826

Number of grandmasters in history who have boasted a higher ELO rating: 1

Year in which a player from a western nation — Bobby Fischer — was last ranked No. 1: 1972

What’s more important for a great chess player — intelligence or memory?
I think having a good memory, that’s important, but I don’t know. I don’t think that I’m by any means more intelligent than my opponents. I think chess is also about intuition, having a good feeling for the game. From an early age, I had a real passion for chess. I spent a lot of time on it, and I also had a relatively good environment with grandmaster [Simen] Agdestein, who could go over some games, and other young players who I could analyze and play with.

What was it you loved at an early age, and love now, about the game?
I don’t know exactly what it was about the game that made me start playing, but when I started being successful at it, yeah, then it’s easy to continue doing that, and it’s also very fulfilling to be successful at something you spend a lot of time on. I guess I liked the fact that at chess if you lose, you can only blame yourself, and there are no random elements in it. And if you win, of course, then you simply outsmarted your opponents.

I imagine a big part of success at chess is being able to think several moves ahead.
Sure, but even a much weaker player than I can think many moves ahead. At some point there are just too many options and so you really have to make a decision based on, of course, calculation and everything, but also simply on what you think is right.

We’ve heard a lot, especially in the past few years, about top executives and professionals getting very interested in the game. Why do you think that is?
I think perhaps because there are some similarities between chess and business. I think both are very much about making good decisions in a limited amount of time, and I think both in chess and in business you can get a lot of information, you can do a lot of research and so on, but you can almost never make a 100% informed decision, in a way.

On other occasions, you’ve said that some of your success is due to the fact that you have more access to information and data on historical matches than did past grandmasters, and I wonder if you think that that’s changing the nature of the game.
Sure. I mean, it has to be said that all this information, it’s accessible to all the players, today, at least, so in that sense I don’t have any kind of advantage. But of course players today have access to much more information than the grandmasters of the past. It probably helped me a bit, also, in my early years, but I’m probably not the best example of someone who has learned from playing with computers. I really only started working with the computer three or four years after I’d started playing chess, and probably more out of necessity than anything else.

What is the greater advantage, to have youth or to have experience?
The perfect age in chess is considered to be a combination of youth and experience. I guess it has something to do with motivation, also. Most players start to decline when they reach 35, 40, but that probably has almost as much to do with motivation as age. I guess when you’re younger it’s easier to be motivated for every tournament and to give your best in every game, and perhaps that’s a bit more difficult as you grow older.

Speaking of motivation, you became a grandmaster at a very young age, and achieved the No. 1 ranking at a very young age. What motivates you now?
Well, really becoming a grandmaster at a young age and becoming world No. 1 at a young age, that was never much of a goal of mine. I just tried to go to every new tournament, play my best, and to improve my game, because if you improve your game, results will eventually come. Right now, I’m really just looking forward to a string of tournaments I will be playing in the next weeks and months, and after that, well, I wouldn’t mind becoming world champion, of course. But that’s not something I think about every day.

Tell me about your routine on the day of a match.
Usually I wake up rather late, maybe two hours before the game. Then I have something to eat, and I go over some of my preparations for the game. I really, really like to not have too much time before the game, you know, to think too much, get nervous and all that. I prefer having a fresh mind.

When you say you like to go through your preparations, what kind of things do you do to prepare?
It’s mostly to prepare some kind of opening, a surprise, or just to check if you remember what you’ve prepared in advance. It’s really quite standard stuff.

Do you go over that with your coaches, or with your dad?
No, just with my computer. I really don’t like to talk to many people right before the game.

And how do you deal with the pressure? I have to think there’s a lot of pressure.
Yeah, as I said I try not to have a lot of time to think about things, because then I guess I would feel the pressure a bit, whereas now I don’t think of it too much. I know that people expect certain results from me, and of course I have high expectations for myself. I’m very happy when I have played the way that I feel I can, and I’m unhappy when I don’t.

Was there a moment when you realized you were more than just a good chess player, that you were in fact a great chess player?
Maybe at the start of 2008 when I won my first tournament ahead of the world’s elite. I mean, I hadn’t really thought of winning there at all. Before that I thought that I could go relatively far, but I guess it was then that I realized that the top of the world in chess is not that far ahead.

Did that make you feel good, or were you intimidated?
No, that made me feel good, and probably intimidated my opponents rather than me.