Lunch with the FT

December 7, 2012 6:05 pm

Lunch with the FT: Magnus Carlsen

The 22-year-old Norwegian is set to become the highest-rated chess player of all time. Martin Sandbu meets him in a Lebanese restaurant in London
Illustration of Magnus Carlsen by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

It had not occurred to me that diet could be an important part of success at chess before I had lunch with the world’s number one chess player. But Magnus Carlsen’s nutritional needs caused some headaches. The first choice, a Chinese restaurant that is apparently one of Carlsen’s London favourites, turned out to be closed. The second, another Chinese in Soho the FT proposed as a substitute, was rejected by Carlsen the day before the lunch.

Instead, his manager has asked if I can meet the chess prodigy at Ranoush on High Street Kensington, west London. “He very much likes Lebanese food,” the manager’s email reads, and “nutrition is very important to him during a tournament.” So I am surprised when I turn up at Ranoush 20 minutes early to find a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant with a grand total of six seated tables, all taken.

We are meeting the day before Carlsen’s 22nd birthday and two days before his first match at the 2012 London Chess Classic at which each of the nine contestants play a single game against each of the other contestants; the winner takes home at least €50,000. This year, the field includes Viswanathan Anand – the current World Chess Champion; the second-, third- and fourth-highest rated players in the world; and Judit Polgár, the best female chess player of all time.

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Lunch with the FT

Carlsen has won the London Chess Classic twice before. Winning for a third time would be impressive by any measure. But Carlsen’s fans are hoping for a bigger prize. His current top-of-the-world rating of 2,848 is just three points below the highest ever score, achieved by Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1999. A strong performance in London will see Carlsen make history.

Or, rather, more history. The chess wunderkind has already set plenty of records. When he was five, his father Henrik, an engineer then working for oil company Exxon, encouraged him to play chess. But Carlsen was more interested in football and skiing, and didn’t take up chess until after he turned eight. He mostly taught himself in Tønsberg, a small Norwegian town where he grew up with his parents and three sisters, yet he became a grandmaster only five years later and the third-youngest player to gain that title. When he first topped the world ratings table in January 2010, he was the youngest to have done so.

I relate some of these facts to the restaurant staff as I wait for a table to become available and for Carlsen to arrive, silently praying that it will be in that order. If I thought the imminent presence of a chess genius would prompt the staff to create space in what seems a hopelessly full restaurant, however, I was mistaken. “Bring a celebrity next time,” one of the waiters jokes.

In fact, Carlsen is the closest thing chess has to a celebrity. The Dutch fashion company G-Star RAW sponsored Carlsen in 2010, leading him to appear alongside the Hollywood actress Liv Tyler in advertising campaigns across the globe. Today, he has an endorsement deal with the Norwegian tabloid newspaper Verdens Gang and makes more than a million dollars a year in endorsements and fees, according to his manager.

Carlsen’s star status fits the vision of US entrepreneur Andrew Paulson, who has struck a deal with FIDE, the international chess federation, for the commercial rights to its tournaments. Paulson wants the game to have the global attention it commanded in the 1970s and 1980s, when Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov were seen as proxy cold warriors. Since then, the biggest stars have been computers, such as IBM’s Deep Blue, which defeated Kasparov in 1997.

. . .

Mercifully, a couple with a baby pay their bill and, manoeuvring their pram along the narrow aisle of the restaurant, free up a tiny table at the back of the room. When Carlsen arrives, right on the hour, I’ve had time to sit down and order a bottle of sparkling water.

The restaurant doesn’t seem to be what he had in mind. Rather than pointing out that it was his choice, I pick up on his manager’s reference to nutrition and competitive chess. The choice of food matters “for maintaining your level of concentration”, Carlsen tells me in Norwegian (we are compatriots). He then explains he needs long-lasting energy and that he avoids artificial sugars.

Though I had hoped to glean some insight into just what kind of Lebanese food makes for champion-level concentration, Carlsen seems unfussy when the waitress arrives. I suspect nutritional strategy really only matters the night before a game. We settle on mezze to share and, as he hesitates over the lengthy menu, I propose falafel and kibbeh. He also chooses Hommos Beiruty, which adds hot pepper to the traditional chickpea purée. For something with a hint of green, I order a tabbouleh.

The waitress is so quick that she has disappeared before I can ask for a glass of wine. Just as well, since my guest does not drink alcohol: “at least not during a competition,” he says. So a top chess player doesn’t need to be teetotal? He smiles. “I choose not to be.”

Carlsen looks pretty much as one might imagine a chess champion of his age to look. His hair is short and tousled, his chin sprouts youthful stubble, and he occasionally fidgets nervously, pulling his hands into the sleeves of a blue sweater emblazoned with sponsors’ logos. He does not appear particularly excited to be giving an interview, which may just be jet lag: Carlsen spends around 200 days a year on the road. When not travelling, he rents the basement of his parents’ house in Bærum, an affluent Oslo suburb.

When I ask how he prepares for tournaments such as the London Classic, Carlsen says his sleep patterns are currently upset after flying in from a tournament in Mexico three days before. Given that he now has only 48 hours to go before facing the world’s best players, he seems almost shockingly unperturbed by this.

I gradually begin to think, however, that what at first seems like studied indifference is a genuine character trait of not easily becoming worked up, of taking things in one’s stride rather than needing to feel always in control. In fact, Carlsen seems unfazed by many things, among them not knowing whom he is playing when, how well he has to do in the London Classic to beat Kasparov’s record, or, for that matter, where to meet for lunch.

He is even stoic about the latest manifestation of the UK’s absurd borders policy: the denial of a visa to Carlsen’s Russian second, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who was meant to help him analyse his opponents’ play. (The next day, some hectic Norwegian and chess community lobbying leads to the visa being granted after all.)

While we wait for the food, Carlsen says the difficulty with being tired when playing chess is that things don’t come intuitively. I point out that the stereotypical image of the game is that it is won not through intuition but hyperrational analytical powers. “Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it’s just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check.”

The food arrives, and dishes crowd the little table. How does he feel about chess computers, I ask as we fill up our plates. “I can’t beat the best computers. They have complete information, so how could we expect anything else? I don’t look at computers as opponents. For me it is much more interesting to beat humans.” Again, not a trace of angst.

Still intrigued by the claim that intuition has pride of place, I ask him about the importance of spontaneity in chess. “Of course, you make plans but the positions are often too complicated for proper planning. Then suddenly you get an idea.” He launches into describing a game he played against Anand at a tournament in Bilbao earlier this year.

By now we have emptied enough of the dishes for me to clear space on the tiny table for an even tinier magnetic chessboard I have brought with me. Carlsen sets up the Anand game. “I looked at all the usual ways to put pressure on his position, which all grandmasters would consider.” Carlsen then shows me a retreat with the knight “that at first glance looked strange”, because it pulled away from where the action was, “but which would tie [Anand] up completely”. A handful of moves later, Anand had to resign. “This is the sort of move a computer would not understand.”

With the board now out on the table, I challenge Carlsen to a game, not really expecting him to accept. But he gladly agrees and takes white. I make a bad mistake on my second move and, 10 moves later, I see there is no point in going on. By now Carlsen appears to have warmed up to the interview, telling me in a charmingly non-patronising way, “Now, if you want some advice ... ”

Once I’ve learnt my lesson (control the centre; the knights are useful for this), we discuss the wider relevance and usefulness of chess. Is it a transferable skill? According to Carlsen, studies show that schoolchildren offered chess programmes both enjoy the game and do better at school.

But I suspect Carlsen’s own career offers lessons about how to excel that go far beyond chess. He appears at his most reflective when he describes how he came to his achievements. For one thing, he has had very little formal training. “I started by just sitting by the chessboard exploring things. I didn’t even have books at first, and I just played by myself. I learnt a lot from that, and I feel that it is a big reason why I now have a good intuitive understanding of chess.”

The waiter returns. Carlsen skips dessert, so I do, too. Instead, we order a large pot of fresh mint tea. I put to Carlsen that growing up in Norway has a lot to do with how he developed as a chess player. “Absolutely. I was given greater freedom to do what I wanted than I would have in, for example, the former eastern bloc. I might have learnt a lot but it could quickly have killed my joy in chess.” When he did have intermittent coaching in Norway, he says, the coach was very good at letting him keep the joy of spontaneous play.

In his late teens Carlsen trained with Kasparov but ended the relationship after a year. “He was a completely different type” than his Norwegian coach, says Carlsen. He “gave more but demanded more. I learnt an enormous amount, but there came a point where I found there was too much stress. It was no fun any more. Outside of the chessboard I avoid conflict, so I thought this wasn’t worth it.”

. . .

On the chessboard, however, Carlsen seems to relish battle. He sees chess as a combat sport. “Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it’s OK to lose. I don’t. You have to be merciless.” He never gives up, he explains. “I can’t count the times I have lagged seemingly hopelessly far behind, and nobody except myself thinks I can win. But I have pulled myself in from desperate [situations]. When you are behind there are two strategies – counter-attack or all men to the defences. I’m good at finding the right balance between those.”

This has helped him draw games he stood to lose. “Self-confidence is very important. If you don’t think you can win, you will take cowardly decisions in the crucial moments, out of sheer respect for your opponent. You see the opportunity but also greater limitations than you should. I have always believed in what I do on the chessboard, even when I had no objective reason to. It is better to overestimate your prospects than underestimate them.”

Take playfulness seriously, never give up and think positively – it all sounds a bit like a self-help manual or its only slightly more respectable cousin, the management book. Though in Carlsen’s case, it’s behaviour that has actually contributed to his success – together, of course, with his talent and hard work. Business leaders may want to take a closer look at how a self-taught boy from a little Norwegian town rocketed to the apogee of the world’s brainiest game.

We sip our tea, nibble on the accompanying baklava (“It’s two days till the tournament”), and I ask for the bill. Carlsen asks how much one is expected to tip in London. I confess that, after four years here, I still have no idea.

Before we leave, I say that it seems to me that he continues to treat chess as play, as he did as a child. He agrees. “People ask what my goal is. I don’t have a goal. It’s fun to play, it’s fun to win. I’ll go on as long as it continues to be fun, whether that’s five, 10 or 20 years.”

London Chess Classic ends December 10; www.londonchessclassic.com

Martin Sandbu is the FT’s economics leader writer

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Ranoush

86 High Street Kensington, London W8 4SG

Hommos Beiruty £5.75

Tabbouleh £5.75

Kibbeh Shameyieh £6.00

Falafel £5.50

Sparkling water £3.50

Mint tea x2 £5.50

Total (incl service) £38.00

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