A classic and huge (7000 word) New Yorker piece on Magnus Carlsen in this week's New Yorker by DT Max. Unfortunately that's an abstract only since they've put it into their subscriber-only area on the web, but I'm asking them if a few chess sites can run the text in full, or at least excerpt heavily. It's great stuff, far more in-depth than just about any mainstream chess article in memory. The author worked on it for nearly a year. As I said, classic New Yorker. Max spent many interviews with Carlsen and also talked to his early trainers, Kasparov, and various top players during the London Chess Classic.
The piece also spends a lot of time on computers and how they have influenced this generation of chessplayers. Is Carlsen different? What does it mean to be a positional player in the computer age? Instead of just the usual conjecture, he talks to many players about it directly, including Anand. There are also lots of juicy bits that only long interview sessions can produce. Players are used to the chess press and they/we are used to the players. We tend get them only at tournaments and to go through the motions a lot. But the dynamic changes with the mainstream press for some reason. The questions are different, the attitudes are different, and the answers are often very different. (Topalov in the Spanish press comes to mind.) There's more the Kasparov-Carlsen training relationship and split than has been made public, and the bits about Kramnik will also be grist for our commenting mills for a long time to come.
But at its heart it's a piece about Magnus Carlsen, an outside perspective that helps illuminate where and how the former wunderkind sees himself, his chess development, and his rivals. A lot of the piece is given over to Carlsen's own descriptions of his games and what does and doesn't inspire him. It's certainly the "first draft of history" that good journalism aspires to be. It shows Carlsen as a real person, not a caricature. He's young and cocky but also self-deprecating and unsure of being a celebrity instead of a player.
Carlsen is often identified with, as he puts it, the "new Information Age." Certainly before the age of online play it would have been nearly impossible for someone from Norway -- which the British grandmaster Nigel Short has called "a small, poxy chess nation with almost no history of success" -- to rise to No. 1 by the age of nineteen. But Carlsen's casual attitude, Kasparov says, makes him "somehow immune" from the homogenization of modern chess. Carlsen has described himself to Der Spiegel as "chaotic" and said that he had a tendency to be "lazy." In the lead-up to tournaments, when the other players are testing out strategies on their computers, Carlsen is often staying up late playing video games or online poker. Before tournament days, he likes of get plenty of sleep -- optimally, ten or eleven hours -- waking up an hour or two before the start. "It's no secret the the best players' opening preparation is much deeper than mine," Carlsen told me. In London, the went into some games with only the first move chosen; most players typically map out their first dozen or so moves. He believes that things even out because, as he put it, "I'm younger and have more energy, and it's easier to adapt."
Probably my favorite line in the piece is "if Carlsen plays in a tournament in less than clean clothes, chances are that Henrik did not come with him." Grab a print copy just in case we don't get permission to run the full thing online.
Carlsen was already thinking ahead to the Amber chess tournament, which is being played this month, in Monaco. ... "I really, really want to win and restore the power balance." He added, "I just have to improve so much myself now." He was even willing to let someone help him, if that's what it took. In the days after Fashion Week, he had contacted Wesley So, a rising seventeen-year-old Philippine grandmaster, and offered to pay his way to Europe if he would train with him. In London, Carlsen had described So to me as his stylistic opposite. "I think his entire training has been with a computer," he had noted with amazement. When I last spoke to Carlsen, he was in Majorca with So, and they had been working together. Carlsen once told me that if chess ever stopped being fun for him he'd "have to do something else." He added, "If you have that feeling all the time, what's the point of playing?" But, for now, he was appreciating the new training: "We'll see if something good comes of it." If he wound up playing more like other modern players, so be it.
I was honored to spend many hours with the article's author, an abecedarian chessplayer himself, and the equally tenacious fact-checker going over the chess language aspects of the piece and verifying quotes. The time we spent on the Kramnik-Carlsen game from London alone was crazy. (Though I still don't like the way the opening is described almost as if Carlsen didn't play the Chigorin's on purpose.) Aside from it being interesting and sort of a duty to the community and my beloved The New Yorker, I took it as a chance to repay Max for writing one of my favorite books of a few years ago, the fascinating The Family That Couldn't Sleep on prion diseases. Of course there will still be things in the piece that sound odd to we chess folk, inevitable for a mainstream piece that can't spend 200 words explaining zugzwang -- or the subtleties of the Chigorin's Defense.
As accustomed as we all are to "Check!" being presented as fatal and the board being set up the wrong way round in mainstream output, I was very impressed with how much time and effort they put in to getting things right even though only a very tiny percentage of the population (us) would notice the difference. No matter how many times I said things like, "a computer's opening book is a customized database, not an engine" or "when we say white scores 62% it doesn't mean white wins 62% of the games" Max never replied, "who gives a sh*t?" At least not until we got off the phone.