He didn’t stop with spotting his talent, he nurtures it and travels with him to major events. Shonali Muthalaly meets Henrik Albert Carlsen, father of chess champ Magnus Carlsen, who even knows how to wake up his son lightly!
“I’ll tell you a story, but you must listen very carefully.” Henrik Carlsen pauses and looks at me quizzically. Finally satisfied by my focus, he continues. “Because people get this wrong. They think we asked him to play. But we never asked him. It came from inside.”
Downstairs, in the Hyatt Regency ballroom, his 22-year-old son, Magnus Carlsen is taking on world chess champion Viswanathan Anand, in what’s been billed as the most high-profile clash in chess history in more than 40 years. Norwegian chess prodigy and No. 1 ranked player in the world, Carlsen became a grandmaster at the age of 13. But, according to his father, Magnus didn’t gravitate naturally to chess.
“We lived in Finland, and Magnus didn’t have many friends there, so he would play with Lego. He could build large Lego constructions with 40-page instruction by the time he was four,” says Henrik. “I noticed he could concentrate for a long time, which is unusual for a child. He was also restless, of course, and loved football. But with the Lego, he could sit for six hours non-stop. So I thought, “Maybe he could be a chess player. I introduced him to the game and we played occasionally, like we play cards at home. Nothing serious. But he wasn’t very interested, and we eventually stopped.”
When Magnus’s sister, who is two years older than him (he also has two younger sisters), started to play chess at the age of nine, Henrik was delighted. “She was finally old enough to play an interesting game with me. And Magnus would always watch. He then started practising because he wanted to beat his sister. And three months later, he did. She was not happy!”
Noticing his son’s aptitude for chess, Henrik asked him if he’d like to participate in the Norwegian championship's ‘Under 11’ category. “It sounds grand, but Norway has a small population. This is where all the young players go.” Henrik continues, “He came 11 or 13 out of 35 players. And he enjoyed it.”
At what point did Magnus start beating his father at chess. Henrik looks thoughtful. “Gosh. I should remember this… Well, I do know that when he was nine years two months, I beat him in a tournament. But by the time he was 10 years old, I was already too weak in comparison,” he smiles. “By the time he was 12, maybe I would win one game. But most of the time he would wipe the floor with me. It was such fast progress.”
So fast, in fact, that it made his parents a little nervous. “He was playing all the time. We had to tell him, ‘Now you have to do your homework’. When he was six he was very good with numbers. In Geography. History. But he lost interest. He only wanted to play chess. When he was13, people were saying he would be number one. And he believed it too. By the time he was 16 years old, my wife and I were still telling him it’s important to have a well-rounded education. But he knew what he wanted.”
Now, his father travels with him when possible. “I can’t think of a job I would rather have than watching these chess games. I’m happy to work basically for Magnus. I do administrative stuff for his company. Expense bills. Accounting… He likes me coming along for his tournaments, as I know how he functions,” Henrik adds with a laugh, “And I know the practical things too — like how to wake him up lightly.”
Both Magnus’s younger sisters and mother came to Chennai for the first part of this tournament. “When they left my eldest daughter came… On rest days we all play football and basketball together. Eight Norwegians plus the butler from the hotel! He’s become part of the family.”
Magnus is now enjoying the tournament, says his father. “He seemed to be a bit nervous at first. But that’s natural since he’s been thinking about this match for half a year. However, the results have been excellent.”
It helps that he loves Indian food. “In Norway we have an Indian restaurant and takeaway less than two km from home. Now that Magnus has moved out, and he’s not fond of cooking, he’s eating a lot of takeaway. And I think there’s an Indian restaurant next to his house too.”
Henrik adds, “He’s about 15 km from home now, and doesn’t have a car yet. So he takes 40 minutes to reach us, with the metro and walking. Or he takes the bus. Then maybe I drive him back.”
Emphasising that being the father of a celebrated chess player isn’t all glamour, he adds, “When I’m back home my wife is very happy on the days I can make dinner. It distracts her from the cobwebs under the table,” he winks. “She works with a government agency. An environmental agency.” Unlike the rest of the family, she’s not a chess player. “When she watches Magnus play, she counts the pieces on the board. If the opponent has more, she gets worried.”