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Inside the mind of Magnus Carlsen b: ‘I am happy to win in any way possible’

Magnus Carlsen is the highest-rated chess player of all time but admits his upcoming world championship match does not excite him
Magnus Carlsen is the highest-rated chess player of all time but admits his upcoming world championship match does not excite him. Photograph: Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP/Getty Images
Magnus Carlsen is the highest-rated chess player of all time but admits his upcoming world championship match does not excite him. Photograph: Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

The world champion shares his motivational struggles before an intriguing showdown with his old rival Ian Nepomniachtchi

“I’m less hungry.< I >proof> think you’re always going to be if you’re playing for the world title for the fifth time, rather than the first.” It is quite the opening gambit from Magnus Carlsen, in his final newspaper interview before he puts his crown on the line again. But sport’s deepest thinker is merely revving up before he truly opens up.

Carlsen has long established himself as the greatest chess player of his generation. Perhaps any generation, given he is the highest-rated of all time and has held the Fide world title since 2013. But there is something else that marks the Norwegian out in an era where sporting superstars are increasingly bland and on brand: his unflinching honesty.

Many world champions would take umbrage when asked if the fire still rages as intensely as it once did. Especially if it was on the eve of their next major encounter. Carlsen, though, sees it as the starting point for a discussion – and a confession.

“I’ve been a chess professional for a long time,” he replies. “So I think my base motivation is going to be a little bit lower than it was. But the question is really whether I can raise it for important events. That’s what I put my emphasis on. And that’s what I’ve always managed to do.”

He pauses. Casts his mind forward to the challenge of facing the talented but unpredictable Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi over three gruelling weeks. Makes another confession.

“Right now, I don’t really feel it,” he admits. “I feel like I’ve been here, done it before. And it doesn’t excite me, to be honest. But I think when I sit down on Friday, it will feel very different. And I’m very, very much looking forward to that.”

That directness is as discombobulating as any move the 30-year-old might play on the board here in Dubai. With anyone else, such comments would serve as a giant red flag. Instead it feels like more evidence of the unique workings of Carlsen’s mind.

His younger sister Ingrid tells the Guardian that as a very young child he would play with Lego for hours without losing concentration, which his family sensed was unusual. “Later it was the same with chess,” she says. “Magnus was always sitting by the table when we were eating dinner. He usually had his own little table with a chessboard. He would sit there for five hours after school, just training. My parents would have to force him to go to sleep because he wanted to keep on learning.”

One of his best friends, Askild Bryn, remembers Carlsen glancing at a game of his at a youth chess tournament when he was 10 or 11. “He looked just for a second or two,” he says. “But afterwards when I was analysing, he came up to me and said: ‘You should have played this and this with a series of variations.’ That’s when I realised he was special.”

Shortly afterwards Carlsen played Nepomniachtchi - who is four months older – for the first time at the European under-12 youth championships. Carlsen lost that game. And then the next one. And the one after that. And while he eventually went on to surpass his early rival, it is an intriguing subplot of their 14-game encounter that – even now – Nepomniachtchi still holds a 4-1 lead in classical chess.

Not that Carlsen sees it as a factor. “I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on that,” he says, flicking his hand dismissively. “If that gives him some confidence, good for him.”

Ian Nepomniachtchi (left) holds a 4-1 lead in classical chess over world champion Magnus Carlsen before their 14-game match
Ian Nepomniachtchi (left) holds a 4-1 lead in classical chess over world champion Magnus Carlsen before their 14-game match. Photograph: Ali Haider/EPA

The pair are friends. Or at least as friendly as any rivals can be when they are fighting over a world title and a purse of £2m, with 60% going to the winner. A decade ago, Nepomniachtchi briefly worked with Carlsen, and there is a clear respect between the two. However, that respect goes only so far.

When Carlsen is asked about the importance of momentum in chess, and his opponent’s tendency to sometimes go on tilt after a bad defeat, he nods his head. “It remains to be seen, of course, if Ian will be more resilient than he has been in the past if he is down,” he says, smiling. “Hopefully I can put him in that situation. That will be my main achievement.”

Then comes another subtle twist of the knife. “I’ve said it before, but the biggest advantage is that I am the better chess player,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence, over the last few years, about the strength of the best players in the world.

Having said that, it doesn’t really matter for this match. There’s a famous quote: It’s not enough to be a good chess player. You also have to play well.”

Carlsen, of course, does that better than anyone. His rating is 2855, more than 50 points higher than Ding Liren in second, and well clear of Nepomniachtchi, who is fifth in the world on 2782. So why is he so much better than everyone else? Carlsen himself refuses to speculate, saying: “It’s for my opponents to figure out.”

But Vladimir Kramnik, who held the world title from 2000 to 2007, makes a compelling case that comes down to two key factors: Carlsen’s psychological mindset and his broad talent. “Magnus is the only player in the world for whom there is no other option than winning,” says Kramnik.

“It is very deep in the head. Others want to win. But Magnus? He needs to win. That is a very big difference. For him there is no second place. And that gives a lot of additional force when you play chess.”

Carlsen takes on Fabiano Caruana in the 2018 world chess championship
Carlsen takes on Fabiano Caruana in the 2018 world chess championship, held in London. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Shutterstock

It sounds like Tiger Woods in his prime. But Kramnik cites another key factor: that Carlsen has a deeper understanding of strategy than his contemporaries. “There was a very significant change when computers appeared,” says the 46-year-old Kramnik. “My generation, which grew up before computers, have a strong general understanding of the game strategically. But our calculation abilities are a bit worse than most of the young generation.

“But while the younger generation all have fantastic calculation and imagination, from time to time, practically every player at the top will make quite serious strategic mistakes. Yet Magnus is able to calculate really well and he has this old-school strategic base, no worse than the great players of the past like Anatoly Karpov. So he can do both.”

Another factor is that Carlsen is happy to grind away for hours on end, even in the most lifeless of positions: setting his opponent problems, asking nasty questions, preparing to pounce if he detects a weakening of the defensive shield. It often works, too.

Yet in his past two world championship matches, against Sergey Karjakin in 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in 2018, Carlsen has only been able to impose his will in tiebreaks after the classical section of their matches were drawn. Does he intend to make a statement in Dubai with a thumping victory, or is he prepared to win ugly?

“I am happy to win in any way possible,” he replies. “I’m somebody who puts more emphasis on the sporting aspects of chess than the artistic. And even more so during world championship matches. It’s about getting results. Because only one result matters and only one result is acceptable. But I won’t be aiming for a tiebreak in any way. And the increase to 14 games is good for me because it decreases variance.”

Over the past 18 months, chess has become a serious esport with Carlsen’s Play Magnus Group one of the major players. Among its successes has been a hugely successful online tour, which has attracted all the top players and sponsorship from major companies, including Mastercard.

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However, Carlsen says he is content to let people he trusts run it, rather than get too involved in the day-to-day. “I’m a chess player who also has business interests,” he says. “But that is my own philosophy and it’s also the philosophy of the company. My most important job is to be the best that I can be at the chessboard. Everything else comes a distant second.”

It is why, despite his motivation occasionally waning, the world champion has been working hard on his body and mind – ready, once more, to prove he is still the supreme ruler of the game of kings. “We have had training camps with a pretty intense regimen to get ready,” he says. “The analogy with boxing is a very obvious one. But it’s also obvious because it’s quite apt.”

Not surprisingly, Carlsen is aiming for a knockout once more.