The boy who became a grandmaster

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen

At 14, Magnus Carlsen was declared the “Mozart of chess” but what is it like to be the parent of a prodigy?

There is a small part of every parent that secretly hopes their child is a genius. A flash of preternatural brilliance is all it takes to persuade you that your little darling might just be the next Einstein, Beethoven or Hawking.

Henrik Carlsen was never convinced that any of his children could be considered geniuses when they were very small. All four of them were precociously bright and eager to be challenged, but Henrik and his wife Sigrun felt there was probably nothing Mensa-level impressive about them.

Sure, their son Magnus, by the age of two, could finish a 50-piece puzzle in minutes, recite all the municipalities of Norway and their individual flags by four, and by eight he did seem to be displaying an uncanny aptitude for chess. But what was so strange about that?

Six years later, and The Wall Street Journal would declare Magnus Carlsen the “Mozart of chess” – a boy of just 14, whose uniquely intuitive approach to the game had never been seen before and whose unrivalled abilities surely made him one of two things: a genius or an automaton.

“Looking back, Magnus was a bit special very early on, because he had these deep interests,” says Henrik. “When he was four, he got into Lego and would build these huge construction kits meant for 10- to 14-year-olds. Even if it took him six hours, he would sit there and finish one construction before moving on to the next one.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t difficult to see that he had an ability to focus which most children didn’t have. But the idea that his traits were at the genius level wasn’t obvious to me.”

A new film, Magnus, released in cinemas this Friday in Europe, will document the young Norwegian’s journey to the pinnacle of the game, following his rapid trajectory from promising young player, to 13-year-old grandmaster, to World Champion.

Using a combination of archive footage and home movies, director Benjamin Ree delves into Magnus’s world, showing how he grew from being a happy, if slightly solitary, little boy with an innate ability and remarkable memory for chess moves, to a player of the highest calibre, whose creativity and intuition at the chessboard are said to be unlike that of any other grandmaster.

Today, his father Henrik and I meet in the house which Magnus – now 25 – bought for his parents and three sisters, Ellen, Ingrid and Signe, after he won the World Chess Championships for the first time in 2013, when he beat the then world champion Viswanathan Anand (20 years his senior) in a historic victory in Chennai.

The house — where Henrik and Sigrun live when they’re not watching Magnus play chess in some far-flung corner of the world — is nestled high up in the hills above Oslo, in an affluent suburb where traditional red clapboard houses mingle with sleek modern structures amid a sprawl of thick forest.

Henrik, who says one of his happiest memories of the past year was watching all four of his children host a summer party on the deck for their friends, tells me how he remembers the days leading up to Magnus’s win in Chennai in 2013 as being some of the most electrifying of his life.

“It was just magical, the difference between Chennai, with all its smells and sounds and mystique, and our little Norway. And seeing the Indian press grouping around Magnus, screaming and shouting, it was all just from another world,” he says, looking out at the fjord below.

“If I had died the day after Chennai, that would have been OK. Not just because Magnus won, but simply because I had seen something over the course of those days that was truly amazing. It was chess at the absolute highest level.”

Henrik, who used to be a consultant to the Norwegian oil industry before he gave up work to travel the world with his son, is under no illusion that his is a unique existence.

He is everything to Magnus: chauffeur, personal chef, accountant. Before a big match it is crucial that Magnus’s environment is as “stable” as possible so that he can escape inside his mind to prepare for the game ahead. This means that everything down to the food he eats and the room he sleeps in has to be just-so.

“Even the smell in a hotel room can be a problem,” says Henrik. “He used to be very sensitive to smoke, so we would have to change hotels if he could smell it in the room.

“I try to work out whether or not he is happy. Magnus needs to be in the zone, and we around him need to make sure that there are as few distractions from his zone as possible.”

If this sounds like diva behaviour, it isn’t. For whereas many of today’s most successful champions rely on learning computer algorithms of chess moves to win games, Magnus’s own brand of genius lies in his ability to sit at a chessboard and understand intuitively what his opponent’s next move will be and what he needs to do to beat them.

“When he plays, he mimics what he has done every one of the thousands of times he has sat playing chess at home since he was a little boy — that is, to delve into a position at the board without thinking of the consequences, where he is, or who he’s playing,” says Henrik. “When he can achieve that kind of relaxed focus, then he seems unbeatable.”

Magnus has now held the world title for two years in a row and over the next week (the final is on November 30) will defend his crown at this year’s championships in New York.

He has been training in a secret location for the past few weeks, uncontactable by anyone other than close friends and family, while he prepares himself mentally for the challenge ahead. Henrik will be with him for the final, as always, helping with the practical side of things.

To say he has been a hands-on father would be an understatement. But then, Henrik has had the opportunity to do what many fathers would love to do – 20 years ago, he introduced his son to a hobby he loved as a child, and now he follows Magnus around the world watching him play chess at the highest level.

“Of course we have spent a lot of time on Magnus’s chess over the years, but that hasn’t been work. I’m just a chess fan, after all,” he says.

So what does this proud father wish for his son, who has already achieved so much in his young life?

“To be happy, of course. And to have a good intellectual life. I think some of the happiest moments of my life have been when watching a chess game or reading a book where I really understand something new and meaningful.

“I know that Magnus has a lot of these moments in chess, when he sees something or understands something that really gives him pleasure. That’s all you can ask for.”

Magnus is in British cinemas this weekend. – The Sunday Telegraph

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