Cocky, cool, regularly mobbed by screaming fans; World Champion Magnus Carlsen, as Joe Ellison learns, is the Justin Bieber of chess
Eighty seconds – about the time it takes to digest an email – was how long it took world chess champion Magnus Carlsen to outwit Bill Gates on TV last month, checkmating the Microsoft genius on a Danish chat show. Gates isn't the only tech titan to be obliterated at a chess board by the Norwegian – a child prodigy turned grandmaster at 13, and last year crowned the planet’s finest player at 23: “I recently met [Mark] Zuckerberg in California,” starts Carlsen, “he’s smart – he improved quickly at the table – but he didn’t last too long.” Few do.
And, while admiration from the nerdish elite of Silicon Valley is to be expected, what separates Carlsen from the introverts who have dominated the game before him is that he’s introducing chess to a new generation via his pop star appeal, and an army of surprising celebrity admirers is helping to reinforce that. “I showed Fred Durst a few tricks,” Carlsen says of the Limp Bizkit frontman. “He was a pretty decent player. He knew the basics, which impressed me.”
Part of this burgeoning global appeal is down to Carlsen’s side campaigns, including modelling for G-Star Raw. He’s a striking guy, with his features falling somewhere between a bulky Justin Bieber and a squashed Matt Damon.
The similarities with Bieber don’t end there. “Sometimes girls run up to me in the street, screaming – I don’t like that too much,” he says, suggesting the improbable dawn of the ‘chess groupie’. He’s come a long way from his humble upbringing in Tonsberg, Norway, where the frosty conditions and a strict family lifestyle ensured Carlsen grew up playing board games. “I was lucky; I was brainwashed by my parents into believing video games were bad for me, so – because the weather was sufficiently bad, and I was sufficiently bored – I started playing my father at chess aged eight.” By the time he was 10, Carlsen was beating his dad regularly. “We haven’t played since,” he says with a smirk.
It wasn’t long before his talents saw him beating older players on the domestic scene, and later the international one. He became the second youngest grandmaster in history and accrued a reputation for unorthodox attacking and unrehearsed play, becoming a master of the endgame. And let’s just say he’s not exactly shy about it…
“I’m definitely the best in the world. My approach is based on that confidence. You should be cocky if you’re No1.” Nonetheless, he admits too much bravado lost him games early on. “It was a problem in my early days,” he says. “I realised I was not good enough.” His breakthrough came in the form of Garry Kasparov – the Maradona and Pelé of chess combined – who took Carlsen under his wing and trained him from 2009 to 2010. “[Kasparov’s training] took me from being one of the best players in the world to the ultimate,” says Carlsen of his former teacher. “The way he understands the dynamics of chess is incredible.” Carlsen’s reward came last November when he beat Viswanathan Anand in India to become World Champion.
He likens the championship win to Andy Murray’s at Wimbledon, in that neither remember those final moments that clinched the title. “In the last few moves I could feel the nerves getting to me. Usually I meticulously place the pieces in the centre of the squares, and I wasn’t even close to doing that.”
As for a tennis player whose style matches his own? “Rafael Nadal,” he says. “We’re relentless, gradually overpowering our opponent and never giving up.” Something else Carlsen shares with Nadal is a love for Real Madrid and, after his world title win, the chess maestro was invited to take to the Bernabeu pitch, waving alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and co. We repeat: this man plays chess.
Not that the world of hunched figures and reverential silence is without its glitz. Carlsen claimed upwards of £100,000 for his recent win, but he doesn’t think there’s the same financial pressure at the top level of chess: “If I ever thought about the prize money, I’d lose. It would be like poker, which I used to play online. But it was too addictive, so I stopped.”
Digital wagering aside, Carlsen hasn’t got many vices. He reveals his wildest night out came after a tournament win when he was 18 (“I drank so much I blacked out”), and considering his sport is played sitting down, his dietary habits are surprisingly strict. “For me it’s important, for my rivals it’s not such a big thing. I try to eat lots of protein and only drink caffeine when I’m really tired.”
The other prized preparation in his armoury is sleep – lots of it. Before the interview his camp tell us he prepared for his match with Anand by sleeping for 16 hours a day at an Indian retreat. He plays it down when we bring it up. “It’s not uncommon for me to sleep for 12 hours,” he smiles. “I was living in an apartment under my parents’ place for a while, but I’ve moved further away now, so I can sleep for as long as I want.” Yep, he’s definitely 23.
Banish thoughts of his prolonged lie-ins for a moment - there’s a quiet intensity to Carlsen. He speaks carefully, his pupils shaking side to side, deliberating his next move. Our interview is nearly finished, but there’s time for one more question.
Has he ever lost his temper during a game? “I can get angry. I haven’t swiped the pieces off the board during a game yet, but I once played a guy who I wanted to kill. Not figuratively, but literally,” he confesses. A future in chess boxing, then? “It would be fun to try that,” he says.
He’d win the trash-talking, if nothing else.
Carlsen is a brand ambassador for G-Star Raw and the face of its spring/summer 2014 collection