I used to be pretty active in the world of tournament chess. Though just an amateur I reached a fairly respectable level of competence, allowing me to occasionally compete with and enjoy the play of the chess masters and professionals (like Salieri in the movie “Amadeus,” I could pretty well understand and appreciate what the best and more gifted players could do – I just couldn’t often replicate it myself). I also was always proud of the fact that I had once played in the largest tournament in U.S. History, the 1986 World Open in Philadelphia with 1,506 players. This record stood until 2005, when it clearly became threatened by a new announced tournament, The HB Global Chess Challenge, held in Minneapolis. At that time, the decision to go was an easy one, so a friend and I flew off to spend a few days in the Twin Cities.
It was a very strong tournament and I finished on “minus-2” (chess-speak for finishing with two more losses than wins. At the higher levels, the are often a lot of drawn games, so -2 or (+2) might be arrived at many ways, e.g., you could draw six games and lose two,or win three and lose five, etc. I had a lot of draws – these players were hard to beat!). This was one of the final tournaments I played in, but the thing I remember most about it today is that during the tournament I was reading a book, Simen Agdestein’s “Wonderboy: How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Grandmaster in the World.”
The Game of Chess has had its share of prodigies throughout its history, and Norway’s Carlsen is one of the more recent. Many of them “burn out” early (think Bobby Fischer, who I’ve written about on this blog a few times – here, here, and here) and enough have suffered from some form of mental illness to create an unpleasant stereotype. Carlsen (knock on wood) defies this stereotype and has grown into a “normal” happy young adult who just happens to also be extremely good at chess.
The past few days, I’ve re-read this book (well, at least the text, I didn’t replay all the moves of Carlsen’s games that are included) and was awestruck once again by the prodigious memory and talent of the chess grandmaster. For instance, as a child he was fascinated by flags and by age five had memorized all the few hundred municipalities in Norway and their coats of arms, size, and populations. He also memorized similar data for the countries of the world. Whatever he became interested in, he would learn – and remember – everything about it. He thinks he has “a few thousand” entire chess games memorized and in the documentary linked below a fellow grandmaster tests him by setting up positions from historical games, with Carlsen correctly identifying them. Amazing stuff.
I predict that the seemingly well-rounded Carlsen will NOT suffer the fate of many of his predecessors. For one thing, he has a very supportive family and circle of friends. Agdestein sums this up well in the book saying:
“There are many random events that play a decisive role in one’s life. The cards are not dealt out equally. We come from different countries and different places and end up in different environments, with all the conditions and directives this involves. But the most important thing is family.”
Why write about this book now, eight years later? Well, this past Saturday morning the latest world championship chess match began in Chennai, India (at 4:30 a.m. EST!) and Carlsen is the challenger to defending champion Viswanathan Anand of India. It’s a much anticipated match, where most expect a changing of the guard (or generations) in top level chess will occur.
I’d also like to share a link to a great short documentary about Carlsen and the upcoming match. It might dispel some of the stereotypes about chess masters.
There is pretty good live coverage of the match that is available on the Internet (yes, I’ve gotten up pretty early the last couple days) .
The first two games were rather disappointing draws by repetition, and today (Monday) is a rest day. Game three is tomorrow (also at 4:30 a.m.) and there are 12 games in the match. If it’s tied after twelve, they go into an exciting tie-breaker format where the amount of thinking time the players start with is continually reduced until a winner is produced. My thought is there will be no tie-breaker. Carlsen is now the much higher rated player and seems pretty invincible. I do hope Anand, roughly representing MY generation, will keep it close.
(below: a still from game one’s live internet coverage)
(Below: Magnus, at only 13, had Garry Kasparov – at the time the highest rated player in history – on the ropes in the first of a two-game mini match. This game ended in a draw)
(Magnus lost the second game rather routinely and said afterward ( as Agdestein notes,”without a trace of irony”) ‘I played like a child.’)
(below: from the documentary linked above – Magnus takes on one of the chess hustlers in New York’s Washington Square Park. Among the fans watching: yes, that’s Liv Tyler – or Arwen from the Lord of the Rings movies 🙂 )