While translating Sergey Shipov’s commentary on the recent tournament in Bilbao I came up against a minor problem – how best to convey Magnus Carlsen’s Russian nickname, “Malysh”? I went with “the Kid”, but my uncertainty was picked up by a Russian reader who wrote in to explain the surprising story behind it.
Previously I hadn’t given the nickname much thought. After all, Carlsen was a boy who looked his age when he shot to fame, so why not call him “the Kid”? It seemed natural, if a little surprising that none of the other chess child prodigies had acquired it first. What made the Norwegian special? Well, apart from his phenomenal talent, it turns out that for anyone who’s had a Soviet childhood his surname is indelibly linked to an iconic cartoon character. The real-life Magnus Carlsen never had a chance!
Even if cartoons in foreign languages aren’t usually your thing, the original cartoon below (from 1968) is utterly charming:
Two years later a sequel, “Karlson Returns”, was released, with a stern governess meeting her match in the irrepressible Karlson:
It would be hard to overestimate the cult status these cartoons have in Russia. A quick search on YouTube, for instance, brings up a film version, Karlson the Musical, endless parodies including this one on Putin and Saakashvili, a brilliant Hollywood blockbuster trailer for the cartoon (an epic of violence and forbidden love), and that’s only scratching the surface! Another cultural curiosity is that Karlson’s voice in the cartoons above was provided by Vasily Livanov, a hugely popular Soviet actor who later received an MBE for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
In short, despite the many different spellings of the Scandinavian surname, Magnus Carlsen couldn’t help but be associated with the children’s character. Suddenly the Russian press coverage of the rising star makes a lot more sense. For instance, in April this year the popular Ogoniok magazine ran a front-page profile of Carlsen with the headline “The Kid Carlsen” (the similarity of Magnus to the Russian Malysh may also be a factor). As this perhaps suggests it’s never quite clear who the real-life Carlsen is, the Kid or the mischievous roof-dweller. For example, when Veselin Topalov blundered into mate in the game Carlsen – Topalov, Morelia-Linares 2008, an article in gazeta.ru was entitled, “Topalov was left without buns”. As the author explained here Topalov was the gluttonous Karlson:
“The Kid” outplayed his opponent. On the 34th move it was as if he said to Topalov’s face: “No buns for you today, fly away…”. Topalov committed the decisive mistake and practically lost in one move.
Sometimes, however, Carlsen is Karlson. When Carlsen beat Vladimir Kramnik in the first round of the London Chess Classic last year the most popular Russian daily newspaper ran with the headline, “Carlsen upset ‘the kid’ Kramnik”. It’s enough to make your head spin!
One person I’ve seen “accused” of popularising calling Magnus “the Kid” is Sergey Shipov, so perhaps it’s worth ending with a couple of his longer pieces, which also give a picture of the development of the chess phenomenon.
The first was written after Shipov beat Magnus Carlsen to first place at the 2006 Midnight Sun Chess Challenge in Tromsø, Norway. Carlsen was already a star and far and away the main draw of the tournament, but we can be grateful that Shipov took an annual break from journalism to play there (as a self-confessed chess tourist) and had the chance to write a magnificent first-hand account of the event for ChessPro (Misha Savinov also wrote excellent reports for Chessbase – one, two and three). Shipov pens a portrait of the 15-year-old Carlsen, long before Kasparov and the “Soviet School of Chess”, or G-Star Raw, had arrived on the scene:
What can I say about Magnus? A boy like any other! He only talks to his peers, joking, laughing, fighting, making mischief, no less than all the rest. That’s right, show a stranger this band of Norwegian tearaways and pose the question: “And who among them is the superstar of modern chess, a World Champion candidate? Who’s the genius?” They’d be unlikely to guess!
But at the board, of course, the guy is transformed! He plays quickly, confidently and very aggressively. I don’t mean so much his style of play (which you’d have to class as perfectly solid and positional) but his will to fight. The breadth of his opening tastes is impressive. He can play essentially any opening and almost any line. Moreover, he’s not afraid to change his opening record even at the most crucial moments in an event. Apparently Magnus takes in lines that are new to him very quickly, instantly grasping the key ideas and intuitively feeling the essence of new structures. It seems as though one morning at the computer’s enough for him to get well-prepared for a serious battle with a dangerous opponent – on what for him is a new opening battleground. While at the board he can find decent continuations in unfamiliar positions. What can you say, he’s a rare talent!
Carlsen’s playing a lot just now. Even, in my view, too much! It’s totally unclear when he gets to rest and study chess. When does he analyse the games he’s played and learn new schemes in depth? When does he learn the endgame. Study typical positions. When does he play sport?
Of course, I understand that he, his parents and his trainers want to get what they can out of life as soon as possible. But with Magnus’ talent it’s not enough to aim for a lot, you have to go for it all – he needs to become World Champion. And for that he’s still got to grow and grow. To storm the highest chess peak he needs to prepare thoroughly – and now’s the time, when he’s in his teens. For an adult it’ll be much more difficult to do.
Before the game with me in the 7th round of Tromsø 2006 Carlsen had played 30 games without defeat, and that was in strong tournaments against top-class opponents. The kid’s stunning stability is vivid proof of his exceptional abilities. It’s one thing when a veteran grandmaster, playing in a cautious manner, achieves a long unbeaten run. But it’s another thing entirely for an aggressive young fighter to remain undefeated despite being impulsive and still in some ways naïve.
It’s absolutely obvious that Carlsen has a great future ahead of him, particularly if he and his helpers are totally serious in their approach.
For the Norwegians Magnus is already a little God. They take his destiny as a matter of faith. After I won the [daily] blitz tournament for the fifth time (having made only two draws in all N games) and had also caught up with Carlsen in the main tournament, a strong local player came up to me and expressed his respect for my play. He also voiced his confidence that I was up to taking second place in the tournament! It didn’t even cross his mind that the impossible could happen and Magnus wouldn’t take his lawful first place. To be honest, I didn’t believe it either, although when we landed in the airport in Tromso I did utter the phrase that this was our last chance to beat Carlsen. Soon he’d be too strong…
Shipov’s analysis of his crucial win with black over Carlsen in their individual game is very entertaining (there are already two moves with exclamation marks by move 3), but I’d never understood one thing… until now! Shipov mentions that before the game started he received a text message with the content: “Carlsen – that means he loves jam. Use that to trap him!” Of course it refers to the cartoon (jam is almost the fuel for Karlson’s propeller), and sure enough this recurs later in the game:
33…Qa8! The black queen’s hunt for the white king leads to unexpected results. Carlsen should have calmly played 34. Kg1, but he was still counting on outplaying the veteran in a tie…
And now the pawn, coated in jam, is placed on the table for my opponent.
34…d3! 35.Re1 Despite his sweet tooth he manages, with incredible will-power, to refuse the gift. But it was already too late… After 35. Qxd3 Rfd8 wherever the queen goes a fork on d4 follows. Besides, the loss of the exchange wouldn’t be the end of it, as Black also has the f7-f5 resource.
The rest is by no means plain sailing, but Shipov held on to win.
Fast forward to Wijk-aan-Zee 2009, for which Shipov wrote a tournament preview at Crestbook. Here’s what he had to say about the Norwegian’s chances (Anand, Kramnik and Topalov were all missing):
Magnus Carlsen (2776; 30.11.1990) The main tournament favourite. “The Kid” has become an adult after refusing to play in the next stage of the FIDE Grand Prix series. I won’t call him by the much-cherished name from the cartoon anymore. He’s no longer simply a young, extraordinarily-gifted player soaring to new heights. We now have a fully-fledged elite player with his own views who’s learned to take difficult decisions and defy fate. Nevertheless, his age and prospects haven’t gone away! The ceiling for Magnus’ promise isn’t yet visible, and he continues to develop. The Norwegian… What can we call him now after the term “Kid”? He’s not yet a “giant”, of course. Well then, we’ll simply call him by his surname! He was the Kid, but he’s become Carlsen. Such a plot twist wasn’t foreseen by Astrid Lindgren, but life is more cunning than all the authors in the world. Carlsen is playing easily and aggressively. In a long tournament with an uneven line-up his style should turn out to be very effective. We expect him to take off once more for the roof!
Admittedly, two things mentioned here never happened. Carlsen had a relatively unimpressive tournament (it was later in the year that he soared to new heights), and Shipov continues to call Magnus the Kid.
I couldn’t have written this article without “Valchess”, a Russian chess fan who lives in England and explained the origin of Carlsen’s nickname to me. He’s also behind the wonderful “KC-Conference” series at the Crestbook website, where well-known chess figures respond to reader questions. The plan is soon to allow questions in English and publish the answers simultaneously in Russian and English, but for now the following interviews can be read in full in translation:
KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman (in 3 parts)