As part of the build-up to the World Chess Championship starting Nov. 9, this is the first of a five-part series on Magnus Carlsen. Today’s feature talks of his ‘Early Years’.
The world loves a young champion. Fresh, excitingly gifted practitioners of their chosen field have never failed to catch the imagination of the old and the not-so-old alike. Time tests these talents.
Somewhere along the way, the challenge of living up to the initial promise brings in pressure that is not easy to handle. Many crack, and only a few survive to perform to potential. Some, like Magnus Carlsen, redefine the word ‘prodigy’ as they progress at a phenomenal pace to attain stratospheric heights.
Carlsen, 22, learned to move chess pieces at the age of five, started seriously pursuing the cerebral sport only at eight, and became a Grandmaster at 13. A month before turning 19, the Norwegian crossed the magic rating of 2800, only the fifth man to do so.
He started the year 2010 as the youngest World No.1. In January 2013, Carlsen became the highest rated player ever by surpassing Garry Kasparov’s record of 2851, set in July 1991.
Continuing his irrepressible form, Carlsen won the Candidates championship, as expected, in London this year to emerge as the challenger to the 43-year-old World champion Viswanathan Anand. The much-awaited showdown in Chennai next month is being seen as a clash of generations and styles.
“Magnus is the result of a fine environment and a mindful family,” says Norwegian Grandmaster Simen Agdestein — who was the youngster’s chess trainer — in his book, Wonderboy published in August 2004, four months after Carlsen became a Grandmaster.
To illustrate the youngster’s amazing abilities to understand, analyse and recall, Agdestein reveals how, as a two-year-old, Carlsen could solve 50-piece puzzles, and at four, build advanced Lego models designed for 10-14 years olds.
At five, Carlsen knew by heart the area, population, flags and capitals of all the countries in the world.
Introduced to the game by father Henrik, a chess organiser in Norway, the five-year old did not show any great interest in chess to start off with. Henrik tried a bit more when Magnus was around seven, but the boy’s chess talents remained latent; football and skiing seemed to hold more appeal to him. He achieved a personal best of 21 metres in skii-jumping before he chose to “retire” at the age of 10.
Former World champion Mikhail Botvinnik once said: “Chess cannot be taught. One can only learn it.” It took Magnus time to enjoy the analytical challenges the sport offered. He finally began to sit by himself and move the pieces for hours in known and unknown patterns.
In July 1999, at the age of eight years and seven months, Magnus took part in his first tournament, the Norwegian championship, in Gausdal. In the youngest class, he scored 6.5 points from 13 rounds. By the end of the year, successive performances made it clear that he was no ordinary talent.
Agdestein, who knew Henrik, suggested that Magnus train with International Master Torbjorn Rindal Hansen, who was working off his obligatory military service by doing civil service at NTG, at a college for top athletes.
One of Viswanathan Anand’s victims during his victorious campaign in the 1987 World junior championship, Agdestein later took over as Magnus’s personal trainer.
With Magnus learning the basics and studying classical games, Agdestein ensured that the youngster refrained from using computer at this stage. His interest in chess now well entrenched, Magnus started playing in all age-group events, and reading chess books; Bent Larsen’s Find the Plan was the first book Magnus was made to read. It was a book that contained lots of diagrams that pose the challenge: Find the Plan. Young Magnus found this simple exercise very engaging.
The Carlsens consider the 2000 Norwegian championship for junior teams as Magnus’s breakthrough event. He scored 3.5 points off the top five juniors, and performed at a rating of 2000.
Like most children, Magnus, too, was enthusiastic about using computer as a tool to study chess.
He continued to achieve results and was clearly destined to reach greater heights.