Magnus Carlsen, 30, saw in April 2020 that the pandemic was a great opportunity for online chess. And he got personally involved, playing many tournaments organized by his group of companies, Play Magnus, of which he is the main shareholder. Now, the Norwegian genius has something he likes much less: defending his champion crown against Russian Ian Niepómniachi, 31, at the World Expo in Dubai to the best of 14 games from this Friday. He is much more relaxed than normal, to the point that he has been half an hour late for the press conference because he has left the entrance badge for the Expo at the hotel. Then he grants only three individual interviews, one of them to EL PAÍS. And he agrees to it being held in the Spanish Pavilion, where chess is a fundamental part of the image, after posing with a hundred teenagers from 10 countries, who compete in the Expo Dubai World School Tournament, organized by Spain.
Question: Does the world today more than ever need a game that teaches how to think because more and more people think less?
Answer: Definitely. In fact, I am afraid that I too am guilty of contributing my grain of sand to this problem, because the life we lead, at least in the most advanced countries, does not encourage us to think. I mean the rush, the misuse of social networks, the amount of messages that reach you everywhere and that you are supposed to answer…. I can’t agree more with that idea. And I think that more and more people are concerned about the misuse of new technologies. In that context, it is obvious that chess can be very useful.
P. You have made chess a national passion in Norway. What arguments do you use so that it is also used as an educational and social tool?
R. Yes, it is true that the vast majority of the Norwegian population now respect chess and encourage their children to play. I do not agree with the educational authorities as much as I would like, but what I usually say in public is that, above all, chess is a wonderful game and a lot of fun if you are able to dedicate the time it deserves. And that is also tremendously useful in real life. If I have to cite just one example of this, because the list of qualities it develops is very long, I would choose the decision-making process.
P. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?
R. In life you must constantly make decisions. The chess player makes a lot of decisions in each play, not only to choose it, but to discard those that he does not make. And he is very aware at all times that the clock is ticking. You know that it is impossible to have all the information you need to make the perfect decision because there is no time for it. Therefore, it is customary to decide quickly, synthesizing and prioritizing the information you have. It is very significant what frequently happens to us elite players: even if they give us twice the time to think about a position, the play we choose is no better than in half the time. This indicates that we have greatly developed the ability to make decisions with incomplete information and under the pressure of time. In addition to all that, the mere fact of sitting down to think frequently is already an exercise that by itself can help you in normal life.
P. Above number one, where you have been for almost 12 years, there is nothing, it is emptiness. How do you encourage yourself to keep wanting to be number one?
R. Yes, that is a fundamental question because, in fact, it is increasingly difficult to motivate myself now, much more than years ago. Above all, I try to approach my profession in such a way that it allows me to continue enjoying it, and learning as much as possible. But honestly, I don’t enjoy the World Championships as much as the tournaments on the international circuit. In the World Cup it is basically about keeping the crown. I admit that the latter is very challenging, but it is also tremendously demanding. It’s nice to be here, with all the paraphernalia that surrounds a World Cup. But frankly, I could live without it. Now, I’ve been visualizing for a long time what will happen on Friday, when we play the first game. And I trust that is as enjoyable as it was on previous occasions.
P. Gari Kasparov was number one for 20 years in a row. Beating that mark seemed impossible, almost inhuman. But you’ve been around for almost 12. Are you starting to see it as possible?
R. Well, right now my lead over the second in the world list is big. But Alireza Firouzja (18-year-old French-Iranian) just hit an impressive high and has become number two. And if he continues to climb at the same pace, it is clear that my situation will no longer be as comfortable as it is now. Now, my intention is to continue playing chess for many more years, even if I am not a world champion. In that case, keeping number one would be the ultimate goal. And I’m psyched up for that, because in the last two title matches (New York, 2016, against Kariakin; and London 2018, against Caruana) I was close to losing it. But of course, the feeling that I could be dethroned was not exactly pleasant, so I will fight hard to avoid having her again.
P. I understand that you see Firouzja as a next candidate for the title.
R. Yeah right. Just look at their numbers and their track record. But I also have already played many games against him, especially fast ones, but also at the classic pace, and I can attest that his talent is immense.
P. From a psychological point of view, how do you manage that, contrary to eight or ten player tournaments, in a World Cup your rival is the same every day? Do you dream or have nightmares about Niepomniachi? Or with the weapons he has prepared against him?
R. It depends a lot on how the duel goes. If things go well, if you are winning, you feel that your opponent does not have any fearsome weapon against you, that you will know how to counter it, and then everything is easier. But the last duel, against Caruana, was just the other way around. I realized that I was not able to take advantage of the games with the white pieces, because he had neutralized all my weapons. And yet I felt more comfortable in the games with Black. That’s why I prefer tournaments, because changing opponents every day is much more stimulating. In duels, no matter how well you have prepared for months, including various ways to surprise your opponent, you always run out of ideas. Of course, that feeling is very unpleasant and hard to come back, but the consolation is that my opponent will probably suffer too.
P. During the World Cups, do you set aside some time in your daily schedule to relax, disconnect and avoid obsession?
R. Actually, and especially on non-game days, I try to disconnect most of the day, and set aside a few hours to prepare for the next game. First, from a general, strategic point of view, thinking about how I should approach it. And then analyzing specific lines of openings or defenses, to memorize them. The key to my psychological preparation during a World Cup is to try to forget that I am playing a World Cup.
P. One of their secret places of concentration during the last months was a luxury hotel in Chiclana (Cádiz). How did it go? What was a normal day like there?
R. It was great because at that hotel, the Royal Hideaway Sancti Petri, chess is part of the activities offered to guests, thanks to the fact that the maitre’d is a high-level fan. And in addition to that friendly atmosphere, we played soccer matches with some local fans and enjoyed the splendid sunshine. In addition, the Atlantic has a special light, which I like more than the Mediterranean, and that helped make it an unforgettable experience.
P. What do you like so much about Spain, where you have been many times?
R. I played a lot of tournaments in Spain during my time of chess growth, and I have always felt very good there. Also, do not forget that I am a Real Madrid fan, and that also helps me feel a special sympathy for that country … I am very hopeful about the signings of Haaland and Mbappé for next year. In any case, this season I enjoy Real Madrid’s games a lot more than the previous one, because I see that they try to attack in every game, and I like that a lot.
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