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Chess gets its rockstar

I played like a child!!’ lamented a chess   player after losing a game against the legendary Gary Kasparov. One would wonder what’s funny about the story until being told the player referred to is already a Grand Master at 13 named Magnus Carlsen, the third youngest GM in the history of chess.
I had heard about Carlsen about a year before the incident, when I was a student and an amateur chess player at Colorado, USA. I was at a ‘chess gathering’ with a couple of US Masters who happened to be friends. ‘Look at this new kid some people are talking about’, one of them said before proceeding to show a beautiful game between the Norwegian and seasoned GM Jonny Hector. I decided to look him up on the internet.

Ten years have gone by then but the ‘kid’ remains surprisingly similar. The boyish look is almost intact and the bottle of orange juice still provides him ‘energy’ during every game. The only change is instead of a handful of people, millions talk about him now. Especially since he became the youngest ever World No 1 in the history of chess at 19 in January 2010 and then went on to achieve the highest ever FIDE rating of 2861 after breaking Garry Kasparov’s record by 10 points in January 2013. Carlsen rounded off the year in sensational style, outplaying Vishwanathan Anand in Chennai for the World Champion title.

Not that the chess world hadn’t seen young and colorful champions even though the Cold War rather unfairly created a stereotype of chess masters who were ‘old, cold-blooded plotters’ like the evil Kronsteen  in ‘From Russia with love’.

Kasparov, Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer and JR Capablanca ascended the throne in their early twenties. However, what makes Carlsen different is he is an extremely ‘normal’ person.  He isn’t an egomaniac like Gary or a self-destructive ‘party animal’ like Tal.  Neither is he ‘freakishly   obsessed‘ like Fischer or Morphy, who believed life was chess and nothing else (both found it hard to maintain sanity later in their lives).

Carlsen claims losing in Monopoly upsets him more than losing in chess! He has been called ‘world’s sexiest chess player’ by TIME Magazine and has bagged a modeling assignment alongside Liv Tyler; yet he is so private he refuses to reveal the name of his girlfriend. His family, especially his father, still occupies most of his life. All this is surprising similar to Sachin Tendulkar and both of them started as child prodigies.

Like his predecessor Anand, another former prodigy, Carlsen too shares a passion for football and supports Real Madrid and loves the TV show ‘Monty Python’!  A famous story in the chess world is how Anand and Carlsen did a verbatim recitation of an entire Monty Python skit at a social dinner1
But it’s not youth, glamour or good nature which makes Carlsen a very special world champion. Perhaps not even the fact that the Chennai world championship was the most followed one in history, primarily because of him.

In order to understand why he is being called the ‘greatest hope for chess’, one must remember how fundamentally computers have changed the game of chess in recent times. Chess, as we know, has three phases, opening, middlegame and endgame. Nowadays, strong  engines can analyse opening variations to amazing depths. Even lowly ‘club level’ players like us have run machines for hours, to analyse one particular position. And top players run powerful ‘clusters’ of computers 24x7 to analyse opening moves and beyond.

It is said that today’s masters usually don’t outplay their opponents, but ‘out prepare’ them. Consequently, creativity and intuition in phases beyond the opening has taken a backseat and the central debate of modern chess is whether computers are on the verge of ‘solving chess’. According to late Bobby Fischer, chess has been ‘played out’.

While most would disagree, an approach to chess which didn’t solely depend on computer-aided opening preparations was desperately needed at the top level. That’s exactly what Carlsen has brought. His game revolves not around openings, but on outplaying opponents from seemingly equal positions. In this regard, he stands alone at the top. For me, and many other chess fans, watching the world championship created mixed emotions. Anand was a great champion. While it was sad to see his era come to an end, it was reassuring to know the baton could not be handed over to anybody worthier.

The author is a Phd student at University of Colorado in Boulder, USA, and an active member of Boulder Chess Club

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