A Genius Both on the Board and Off, We Look at the Life of this Chess Champion
There are those who train hard and study nonstop to achieve chess greatness…and then there are prodigies like Magnus Carlsen who were seemingly born with chess in their blood. Carlsen isn’t just one of the world’s greatest chess players; with a peak rating of 2882, he’s the highest-rated player in all of chess history, surpassing even legends such as Garry Kasparov.
What’s the story behind this ambitious and brilliant chess player? Keep reading to learn more about how Carlsen rose to the top, as well as his life beyond the chess board.
Magnus Carlsen’s Early Life
Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen was born in Tønsberg, Norway on November 30, 1990. His father, a tournament-level player, first started teaching Magnus chess at the age of five. Most of us envision there being a magical moment when an adult brings out a chess board and a young chess prodigy picks up the pieces, becomes obsessed with the game, and reveals themselves to be a whiz. This wasn’t actually the case for young Magnus; at first, he and his sister, Ellen, had very little interest in the game.
What did interest him, however, was topping his sister in sibling rivalry. At the age of seven, Magnus noticed his father playing Ellen, felt a bit jealous, and decided to take up the game himself. When he was eight, he played Ellen in a game of chess and beat her. According to their father, she was so discouraged that she didn’t pick up a chess piece for the next four years. For Magnus, however, the win sparked a passion that would change the course of his life. He started playing in tournaments, where he handily beat kids his own age, moved up through the ranks, and was winning out over experienced adults within the following year.
The Education of a Chess Champion
Starting at the age of nine, Carlsen was coached by Grandmaster Simen Agdestein, a former Norwegian chess champion and footballer who introduced chess to the Norwegian College of Elite Sport. During their first year of working together, Carlsen’s rating jumped over 1,000 points, moving from 904 to 1907.
Carlsen attended academic classes as well as being coached in chess at the Norwegian College of Elite Sport. After Carlsen’s skills moved beyond the bounds of his coach, he took over and began studying on his own, playing the game by himself, looking for different combinations, and replaying various games and positions. One of the ways Carlsen trains is by reading chess books. The first one he ever read was Brent Larsen’s Find the Plan. He studied up on openings by reading Eduard Gufeld’s The Complete Dragon.
In terms of hardcore training, however, Carlsen insists that he doesn’t spend much time on it. “I don’t do much serious work on my own,” he said in Magnus, the 2016 documentary made about his extraordinary life and talent. Instead, he prefers to take a more playful and intuitive approach to the game. His playing style tends to be an aggressive one in which he tries to pressure his opponents and cause them to make mistakes.
Starting at age nine, Carlsen began playing competitively in hundreds of rated tournaments, blitz tournaments, and a variety of events. He became the youngest grandmaster at the time when he was an impressive 13 years and 4 months old. The international chess community truly stood up and took notice when he emerged victorious from the C group at the Corus chess tournament. In January 2010 (when he was only 19 years old), he reached the top of the FIDE rating list and in 2012, his rating surpassed that of chess legend Garry Kasparov.
In November of 2013, Carlsen challenged then-World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand, who had held the title since 2007. The two faced off in front of a record-breaking 80 million viewers who tuned in on TV and via the internet.
“What I realized during the game was that he was also nervous and vulnerable,” Carlsen told the New York Times after the competition was over. “He was no Superman.”
In a match that lasted 10 games, Carlsen won the World Chess Championship title and has held it ever since. He’s only the second champion from the West to win the title since Bobby Fischer.
The Mind of a Master
While Carlsen didn’t take to chess the moment he laid hands on his first pawn, he has always had an extraordinary mind with skills that range far beyond the chess board. While other toddlers were gnawing on the corners of board books and struggling to build block towers, two-year-old Magnus Carlsen was putting together 50-piece jigsaw puzzles. By the age of four, he had graduated to building Lego sets being marketed to children between the ages of 10 and 14.
Apart from his building skills, Carlsen also has an amazing memory. By the time he was five years old, Agdestein says the boy could list off the flags, capitals, and population numbers of all of the countries of the world. He also focused his memory skills on his home country, studying and memorizing facts such as the population, coat-of-arms, and areas of nearly all of the municipalities in Norway.
His ability to build, create, and memorize in addition to play award-winning games of chess are no accident. Magnus Carlsen has an IQ of 190 and has been deemed by The Times of India as “a genius who’ll only get better.”
Off the Chessboard
Although chess is obviously a primary focus for one of the greatest chess players of all time, Magnus Carlsen has other interests besides chess in both his personal and professional life. When he’s not studying or playing, he enjoys watching and playing football. When he puts down the chess books and picks up a bit of light reading, Donald Duck comics are a favorite. Carlsen has even found himself featured in a few different Norwegian Donald Duck comics over the years, which he joked was an even greater accomplishment than his achievements on the chess board.
He has become a celebrity both within the chess world as well as outside of it. In fact, he’s the first elite player besides the late Bobby Fischer to garner such a level of attention from non-chess fans. He’s been profiled by every print media outlet from The Guardian to GQ and was even featured on an episode of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report. This has sparked hopes among some that his celebrity may help make chess even more popular among those who have yet to take up the game. Time magazine called attention to the rising star when they included him in their list of the Top 100 Most Influential People of 2013.
The Game of Love
His confidence and striking good looks have garnered him lots of female attention over the years. In 2010, he landed a modeling contract with G-Star Raw, appearing in their fall/winter advertising campaign alongside actress Liv Tyler. He also appeared in the G-Star Raw spring/summer campaign with actress/model Lily Cole. Even Cosmopolitan UK has taken notice of Carlen’s sensual appeal, and in 2013, they named him among one of their Sexiest Men of the Year.
One question has plagued him relentlessly in interviews with media outlets around the world: does Magnus Carlsen have a girlfriend? Despite being no stranger to the camera – whether he’s playing a match or doing a whirlwind press tour – the star has carefully guarded his private life. While chess and romance typically aren’t topics that are frequently paired together, “Magnus Carlsen girlfriend” is one of the most common internet searches about the champion. While he was rumored to be dating Synne Cristian Larsen back in 2017, the pair have reportedly broken up since then.
In 2013, Carlsen kicked off his majority-owned company, Play Magnus AS, and released a smartphone app called Play Magnus. The app compiled data from thousands of Carlsen’s recorded games, enabling any player with a mobile phone to improve their skills by facing off against the King of Chess himself. For those who would like to improve their game through a mobile trainer, his Magnus Trainer app provides advice for beginners, as well as more experienced players.
Carlsen also released Magnus’ Kingdom of Chess, which is an app that teaches kids chess by taking them on an adventure. This isn’t the only way he hopes to introduce kids to the game, however. He’s also the Honorary Chairman of America’s Foundation for Chess – a nonprofit organization that works to teach children critical thinking skills and help them improve their overall academic achievement through learning chess skills. Carlsen has helped raise over a million dollars for the organization.
All of Carlsen’s hard work has paid off, as he’s reported to have a net worth of around $8 million. Although he’s won large sums of prize money, much of his net worth has been earned through sponsorships by companies such as Arctic Securities, Nordic Semiconductor, Simonsen Vogt Wiig, and VG.
After two decades of dazzling the world and pounding his opponents, what will the world see next from Magnus Carlsen? More wins? Books? Coaching for players who vie to play like their hero? Whatever comes next, it’s sure to be – like his career so far – something that’s beyond extraordinary.