Magnus Carlsen – The “Wonderboy” is all grown up

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.”

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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)

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(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)

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(Magnus lost the second game rather routinely and said afterward ( as Agdestein notes,”without a trace of irony”) ‘I played like a child.’)

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(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 🙂 )

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Endgame – The Latest Biography of Bobby Fischer

It is not often that books have a significant emotional impact on me. Even reading the great tragedians ancient and “modern” – the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Shakespeare – does not leave me emotionally exhausted. I am usually able to step temporarily into the world of known fiction or drama and return relatively unscathed into the world of reality once my reading is done. The true tragedies, however, which do not allow me this luxury, are those found in non fiction. The story of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is just such a tragedy, made even more poignant for me due to the almost thirty years I spent wandering the landscape of chess competition.

(below: Endgame and the author, Frank Brady)

Author Frank Brady also wrote an earlier biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, which I have posted about before, and was one of the few chess books I read over and over when I first discovered it at our local library. Unlike many of my fellow chess tournament competitors, I enjoyed the lore of the game as much as the game itself. Who were the champions? What were they like? What made them tick? How did they become so good? Bobby Fischer’s approach was almost monomaniacal. With a genius level IQ (reportedly measured at 180), he would likely have mastered anything that he focused this tremendous mental horsepower on; he just happened to choose chess. I take that back. I don’t think he “just happened” to choose it. Chess is a game where everyone competes on an equal footing. Young or old, rich or poor, socially skilled or socially inept. The starting position is the same for all, it is only through your decisions that you ultimately succeed or fail. I think this was a tremendous appeal for Fischer, who would certainly fit the ‘short end’ of the three comparatives I listed above.

Like most, I was already familiar with the story of Fischer’s rise to the top of the chess world, culminating in his 1972 match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. Brady’s new book also fills in the details of what happened AFTER that match. How Fischer subsequently refused to defend his title in 1975; how he nearly drifted into anonymity living a nearly skid row existence in Los Angeles, how he re-emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against his old rival, Spassky, in war-torn Yugoslavia (violating U.S. sanctions and law in doing so, leaving himself a fugitive).

It’s also the story of his wandering the world as a “man without a country” for the remainder of his life, his descent into paranoia and isolation, his extreme anti-semitism and his celebration of the 9/11 attacks. This last offense was more than U.S. Officials were willing to tolerate, and they revoked his passport, leading to his arrest in Japan in 2004. Spending many months in jail in that country, he was finally extended an offer of citizenship by the tiny country of Iceland, once the scene of his greatest triumph. He lived in Iceland the remainder of his life, but had even begun to wear out his welcome there when he became ill and died in early 2008.

The saddest parts of the book for me are his final years in Iceland. How he had temporarily settled into a routine of eating at a certain restaurant and spending the rest of the day at a favorite bookstore just reading (and reading about everything, not just chess), how he had been discovered there by journalists who later staked out his known haunts in hopes of a story on the recluse. He never really found peace. Even after his death, his body was exhumed for DNA testing in one final, posthumous Indignity. Such brilliance and promise ending in such a tragic waste. It makes one’s heart heavy…

Below: a solitary Fischer at a favorite hot spring in Iceland.

Recently, the former world champion Garry Kasparov wrote a lengthy review of this new book.

I’ll be reading this one soon…

Next Tuesday is the publishing date of Frank Brady’s new book, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. I’ve posted about Bobby Fischer before, and I’m also sure that by now everyone’s tired of hearing me say how I used to compete in chess tournaments in a prior life, but I won’t be able to resist reading this new book and writing about it once I’m done. There is a good review of this new book in the new York times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/books/24book.html?_r=2&ref=books

I think maybe it’s the uncomfortably close relationship between “genius” and “madness” that makes Fischer such a compelling figure. The history of chess is almost littered with tales of geniuses who “went mad” ostensibly due to their obsession with the game, or even the overworking of their brain in mastering its complexities. E.g., “Blindfold Chess” – where one player must keep track of the board and positioning of the pieces in his head vs. a sighted opponent – was “forbidden” for a long time in the former Soviet Union because it was felt to increase the risk of madness. Fischer, however, was the first celebrated case in this modern age of mass media, which may make him a kind of poster boy for the phenomenon. I can’t wait to read more about him. Supposedly, the book is very accessible to even non-chess players, so it may be worth a spot on your TBR lists..

Indiana chess master (and blogger!), Dennis Monokroussos, has written a review of the book on his web site, The Chess Mind. You can find it at:

http://www.thechessmind.net/blog/2011/1/4/a-review-of-frank-bradys-_endgame_-a-bobby-fischer-bio.html

Note, however, that his comments about the book lacking photographs and other supporting material only apply to his review copy, not the upcoming published version.

-Jay