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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Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten “Beach” Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme sponsored by the literary folks over at The Broke and the Bookish. A different topic is introduced each week and participants are charged with coming up with a top ten list. This week’s topic: “Top Ten Beach Reads (however YOU define a beach read)”. I’ve decided to define it as a book I’ve read during a vacation of any kind since I’m more of a mountains and canyons guy than a beachgoer. Another “requirement” for me would be a book read more for fun and entertainment than one read to learn something from its great literary merit.

I’ll start with a couple from my childhood and move on from there.

10. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander

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This series was The Lord of the Rings of my youth. Great adventure and quite the page turners – all five of them.

9. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

First read for school (maybe 5th or 6th grade), I remember having this with my on summer vacation camping trips with my family, reading it multiple times. I had little choice than to read the same books. More than once – it wasn’t like we took a big library with us; space in the pop up camper and car was limited.

8. The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt

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Although you’ve likely never heard of this pulpish sci-fi novel, I have memories of reading this one multiple times during summer vacations during high school. It was a slim volume, which also made it easy to take along since it didn’t take up much space. I believe there were several “Null-A’ novels in Van Vogt’s oevre.  I’d like to do a nostalgic re-read some day…

7. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Probably the most ’edifying’ book on this list, it made quite an impression on me, and I’ve taken it with me on multiple trips – just like an old friend.

6. Lightning by Dean Koontz

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I have a friend who was a big Dean Koontz fan when I first met her. I remember being impressed that she had a list of all his books in her purse with the ones she had read marked off. She recommended this one and I took it with me on a trip in the early ’90s. Easy read,intriguing time-travel-ly plot.

5. Wonderboy by Simen Agdestein

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This is the story of the youngest Chess Grandmaster the world as of the time of its writing. I read it in 2004 when I travelled to Minneapolis for a “vacation” and to participate in the HP Global Chess Challenge (the biggest chess tournament in U.S. History). It was a great vacation, and this book was perfect reading during my down time during the event. Oh, and by the way, Magnus is now the highest rated chess player in the world and will challenge world champion Viswanathan Anand of India in a match this fall.

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I guess if you’re going to read ‘magical realism,’ a vacation is the right time to do it. I remember reading through this at the lodge at Hawks Nest State Park in West Virginia in 2010. Almost incomprehensible, the book was still somehow enjoyable to me.

(below: Hawk’s Nest Lodge and it’s cable cars descending down into the New River gorge)

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3. Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

I read this during a vacation in the nineties. The only problem I could find with it was that it ended too soon.

2. Insomnia by Stephen King

I have quite fond memories of reading this one in Utah’s Zion National Park in 2006, more than once throwing it in my backpack and, while cooling down after a hike, reading it on the lawn of the Lodge or in one of its comfy rocking chairs, soaking up the sun in that beautiful setting.

(below: Zion National Park Lodge – right where I read a lot of Insomnia)

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1. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

While I wouldn’t argue this book has great literary merit, it IS memorable to me for sentimental reasons. Practically my whole family read it during one of our annual “getaway weekends” – this one at Clifty Falls State Park. One nephew and I have lobbied to make a ’group read’ a tradition at subsequent years’ weekends, one time reading the same author’s novel, Deception Point, but he and I seem to be the only ones willing to continue to carry the banner. We were disappointed that this year’s annual “getaway” was just before Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Inferno,” came out.

(Below: view of the Ohio River from the grounds of Clifty Falls State Park Lodge.  I like sitting out there and watching the barges go up and down the river)

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Well that’s it for me. What about you? How did you define a “beach read” and what were your selections? Did we have any in common. I’m off to The Broke and theBookish to find out…