World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen’s route to chess took longer than his subsequent progress might suggest:
Henrik, 52, a keen chess player himself, remembers introducing the game to Magnus and his older sister, Ellen, now 25, when his son was turning 5. But after a month or two, Henrik says, “I gave up, basically, in the sense that we continued to play chess occasionally, but I didn’t have any ambitions.” He knew that legendary players such as Capablanca and Kasparov had understood the game — he clicks his fingers — “just like that.” Magnus and his sister, he says, “learned the rules quickly, and they could capture a piece, but to get two or more pieces working together, which is what chess is about, this spatial vision took a long time.”
At the time, Henrik reconciled himself to the fact that chess would simply be an enjoyable family pastime. “I felt, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but it doesn’t matter. Because, I mean, we loved our children. Chess was something we could do together, just a hobby, like playing cards or anything else.” In the meantime, there were signs that Magnus had the aptitude and the determination to perform impressive mental feats. Sigrun, 51, recalls her son sitting for hours with puzzles or making advanced Lego models, patiently working his way through pages and pages of instructions meant for children a decade older. “He had the ability to sit for a very long time, even when he was small,” she recalls.
This quality has contributed in no small measure to his success; chess commentators draw attention to his ability to wear down opponents, to wait patiently for them to make the tiniest mistake. Magnus himself maintains that he is an aggressive player but that audacity isn’t always what’s called for. “When you play against the best people in the world, they see through your plans, and you cannot win with a swashbuckling attack all the time,” he says. “You just need to take what’s there.”
His parents are eager to point out that he wasn’t an obviously faster learner than his sisters (he also has two younger siblings, Ingrid, 20, and Signe, 17) but that he kept on going, focusing his attention on a specific subject, such as car brands, until he knew it inside out. When I ask Magnus about his childhood proficiency, he replies simply: “I didn’t particularly know if I was good at it or not; I just tried to do it.”
Then came a turning point. Just before Magnus turned 8, says Henrik, “Ellen suddenly understood enough to make it interesting for me to play with her.” Magnus would sit to watch them and, a little later, join in. Henrik’s dilemma was that if he adopted poor strategy, his children wouldn’t learn anything, but he also didn’t want them to become discouraged. So he began to play with limited resources — just his king and a pawn — slowly adding pieces as they learned the game. Magnus’s interest started to grow, although Henrik maintains that “he just wanted to beat his sister.” He had a competitive streak even as a small child? “Yes, absolutely,” Sigrun says, “he still has that.” More competitive than his sisters? “Absolutely.” She laughs and gestures to her husband. “It’s not from me, it’s from him!”
Soon he was entering and very quickly winning tournaments. At home, during dinner, he began sitting apart from the family so he could study his chessboard while eating. “He was in the same room,” remembers Sigrun, “so we could speak to him if we wanted to; he could hear what we were talking about if he wanted to join.” Despite their unorthodox meals, they were, and remain, a close family.