‘I am happy to win in any way possible’

Inside the mind of Magnus Carlsen: ‘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. 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 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

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, 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.

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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.


  • Magnus Carlsen
  • World Chess Championship 2021
  • Chess
  • features
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