After the Tal Memorial in Moscow Magnus Carlsen gave a long interview that provided a remarkable insight into what makes the Norwegian stand out in world chess. He claims to have essentially developed as a player without computers, and to barely work on the game outside of tournaments.
Carlsen also gives a detailed and thoughtful account of his cooperation with Garry Kasparov, where it’s clear he doesn’t share what seemed to be Hikaru Nakamura’s recent view that there was little to be gained but opening knowledge.
Magnus Carlsen talked to Evgeny Atarov of ChessPro for almost an hour, and the resulting interview covers a great deal of topics. As well as the highlights I’ve selected below he also talks, for instance, about the World Championship, poker, his fame in Norway and being accompanied almost everywhere by his father. The photographs of Carlsen at the Tal Memorial used here were also taken by Evgeny Atarov.
Carlsen on his approach to chess
I’m a professional chess player, and if that’s the case then I should do all that I’m capable of to fulfil my potential. I like to win and I strive for the best possible results… At the same time, I still manage to get a lot of enjoyment from playing! During a game I cease to think about the result as I become so enthralled by what’s happening on the board…
In terms of this tournament I recall two games – against Gelfand and Kramnik. I simply loved it when we got such unconventional positions! If every game could turn out as interesting as those I’d just be delighted. But chess, alas, doesn’t only consist of creativity.
And would your attitude to those games have changed if they hadn’t ended as well for you from the point of view of the result?
The result’s always important, of course, but I’m talking about getting pleasure from the game.
Are you talking about abstract pleasure from the game or about the ability to turn the course of the game in your favour?
Above all I like to resolve unconventional tasks at the board. Perhaps that’s why I don’t really like studying the opening – everything starts from the one position.
On working on chess
How much time do you devote to chess?
It’s hard for me to count. When I’m at a tournament chess takes up all my time. At that point I’m 100% focussed on the game. I switch off the television and telephone, I don’t exist for anyone… When I’m at home? If I don’t have a training session and there’s no upcoming tournament then I don’t study chess at all.
Not at all?
And you don’t in any way maintain your “sporting condition”?
Well, if I want I can look at something that’s taken my interest. Or download fresh games… I don’t know, nothing specific. It’s hard to talk about any targeted work. It might seem strange, but I get a lot of benefit simply from looking at games. I don’t analyse them, I don’t switch on engines, I just scroll through them one by one, looking at new ideas, who plays what…
And that’s being said by the leader of the world rankings!
Well, everyone has their own approach. No-one knows how anyone else spends their time – Anand, Kramnik, Aronian…
On his chess development
Do you think you have a specific chess talent?
I don’t know. Everyone has a lot of different talents. Probably I’ve got something like that, but I can’t be 100% sure. Do you know yourself what it is?
I can only judge in terms of what others say about me. When I was about 12-13 many people said I had a great chess talent, that I’d turn into a great player. At that point I basically wasn’t bothered if I’d become a strong player or not – I simply played and enjoyed it…
In actual fact it’s very difficult to determine who’s more talented and who’s less so. Or who’ll become a genuinely great chess player, and who’ll remain no-one.
I still recall the scene with Alexander Nikitin, Kasparov’s coach, who at one of the first “Aeroflots” stood next to your table and witnessed you crush Dolmatov in 20 moves. He then went around the hall with the scoresheet of that game and breathlessly informed everyone: “This is the game of a genius”…
Yes, I remember that, I was 13 then (laughs). I want to thank Nikitin for the good promotion he did for me then. He’s an authority figure, and I even heard about it when I returned home. Yes, he also predicted a great future for me.
And were you really not embarrassed or disturbed by all the talk of genius?
I’ll say it again: I never considered myself a chess genius, and I never focussed on other people’s evaluations. I also react to them calmly now… Many people say I’m too sober. But back then I’d already wondered what the point was in all this excessive delight – you simply need to do what works well.
How much slower do you think your chess development would have been if you didn’t have a computer at hand?
I don’t know. I never thought about it. It seems to me (stopping to think), that the computer didn’t have any kind of fundamental influence on me personally.
That’s hard to believe… You stand out precisely for being ready to play any position “on sight”, for being ready to defend positions where “ugly” machine moves are required…
But that’s how it was. I can tell you that for the first few years I didn’t use the machine’s help at all, even as a database! Back then I simply put a board in front of me, took the books I was studying at the time and looked at everything on that. And the first time I needed a computer for chess was when I started to play on the internet.
Honestly, when I was about 11-12 I didn’t even know what ChessBase was. I realise that sounds pretty implausible from my lips – and the majority of people consider me a product of the “computer chess” era, but that’s how it was! I’d add that my computer “incompetence” in chess even amazed my first coaches. I had nowhere to show them databases, or my analysis…
Do you have any childhood notebooks with analysis which can be “documentary proof” of that? Are there any “living witnesses”?
Of course the people haven’t gone anyway – you can just ask my dad. As for any notes, I’m not sure. I didn’t particularly make notes.
So your chess understanding, your positional sense – it’s all human?
I think so, yes. And my fundamental chess understanding was formed without machine involvement. That was my approach to chess, my idea of the struggle.
On his style
So you can’t call yourself a tactician or a strategist?
I’d call myself an optimist! In actual fact I don’t have any clear preferences in chess. I do what I think circumstances require of me – I attack, defend or go into the endgame. Having preferences means having weaknesses.
Could you compare your impressions after a win in a subtle endgame or a whirlwind attack? Do they really not differ at all for you?!
I really don’t know what I like more in chess! Among other things a game can stand out for the feeling you get when it’s over, when you realise you’ve created something truly worthwhile… But something like that happens very, very rarely. In any case, over the whole course of my life – only a few times.
Well, and if you’re just a spectator, which kind of game do you like more?
I don’t know. I like the struggle in itself.
On “hypnotising” opponents
Viktor Korchnoi has claimed that Magnus Carlsen hypnotises opponents into making mistakes. Carlsen was aware of those comments when Atarov mentioned them, but went on to give a rather more rational explanation:
Well, you’ll admit it’s no wonder something like that was suggested given how often your opponents blunder?
Put opponents under great pressure during a game and they’ll make mistakes… I’m not able to assess how much more often they make mistakes playing against me.
Much more often!
I don’t know. I fight to the end in every game, putting everything into it. I don’t want to feel after a game that I did less than I could… Probably that mood has an effect on my opponents. Mistakes are a consequence of tension!
You strive to create tension on the board in each of your games?
I try! I can’t say it works out like that in every game. Take, for example, my game against Anand in this tournament: I simply didn’t manage to create any tension at all. But in all the others I strove as much as I could…
Carlsen agreed with the suggestion that studying openings occupied 80% of a player’s time, provoking the following question:
But… looking at your games you get the opposite impression! If you take the Tal Memorial, in the first four rounds you could have got 0/4 given the openings, but then you should have scored 3.5/4. You constantly outplayed your opponents…
Probably that’s because I like the middlegame and endgame much more than the opening. I like when the game turns into a contest of ideas and not a battle between home analysis. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t happen often.
That concerns you?
To an extent, but what can I do!
Work more on the opening, as the others do…
I already work more on it than I want.
But at the same time, as I understand it, you’re generally inferior to them?
Yes. It’s no secret for anyone that my opening preparation is inferior to Anand’s and Kramnik’s and that of many others. They’ve got much more experience, prepared ideas… They’re great specialists in that! But I try to place my pieces correctly on the board, so the advantage won’t be so great that I lose immediately.
On working with Kasparov
What impressions did the work leave on you? If it’s not a forbidden topic?!
No, it’s not a problem. We started working together in 2009, and worked quite closely for over a year. We had meetings in person as well as constant conversations on Skype. We analysed a lot together, we played, exchanged opinions…
What was the main benefit you got from working on the game with him?
Thanks to him I began to understand a whole class of positions better. It’s clear that he knew much more than me… At times it was difficult to keep up with the speed and depth of his analysis, but more often than not we were on the same wavelength. What can I say: it was a unique experience for me. Kasparov gave me a great deal of practical help.
Was he amazed by the level of your opening preparation?
Yes, he was shocked at how little it turned out I knew… But we didn’t focus on that issue. He shared his methods of working on the opening with me, and I’m grateful to him. Thanks to him I advanced in that area.
What else did Kasparov share with you?
He told me a lot about the peculiarities of the struggle, and a great deal about particular elite players. He has a very original view on the best players in the world.
Were you stunned by the energy he still has at 46?
Yes, he’s a very “energetic” man! It seems as though he’s simply sharing his opinion with you, but in actual fact he’s dictating how you should act…
How strongly did your views on the positions you looked at differ?
A great deal… Kasparov is a researcher, and he looks at every position as if it’s a theorem which should be proved, while I’m more pragmatic – I look for how best to use the opportunities for both players. He tries to bring everything to a final evaluation, +- or -+, while I’m not so meticulous, and the main thing for me is to find a path it’s worth following. From some things he said I realised that my approach is largely associated for him with the way Karpov took decisions. He knew him like no-one else – I can’t say it was unpleasant for me to hear such an assessment…
Did you often compete with Kasparov?
At the board? Yes, we played a lot of blitz games! It was an interesting battle. At times it was hard for him – you could sense he was out of practice.
From his games could you imagine how strong Kasparov was in his youth?
He’s a fantastic player. I’ve never seen someone with such a feel for dynamics in complex positions. And that’s in his 40s! Of course, it would have been very interesting to play against Kasparov back then, but as you know, we can’t turn back the clock… I think it would have been a wonderful challenge. They say Karpov was also magnificent in his youth. […]
Do you regret that your cooperation with Garry ultimately came to an end?
I don’t know. There’s a time for everything… Kasparov and I split on perfectly friendly terms, without taking offence. I consider him to have given me a great deal of useful knowledge. I think it was interesting for him as well. […] No-one can say how things would be now if we’d continued working together. From where I am today I think splitting up was the correct step.
In a sense you’d got what you wanted from Kasparov?
That might be the case, although there are no guarantees. Perhaps at some point I’ll regret my decision. But perhaps I won’t…
From his coaches and acquaintances it was clear that Garry was disappointed that the cooperation ended, as if you’d turned your back on “sacred knowledge”…
It’s hard for me to judge. Perhaps I disappointed him, but such was my choice.
And life goes on?
Yes, exactly! It seems to me that it’s wrong to reduce your life to one or two choices. I took the wrong path – and that’s that. It doesn’t work like that… I don’t believe in “fatal errors”. And even if I make some mistakes, they’re my mistakes, and I’ll take responsibility for them.
Interview in full at ChessPro (in Russian)