Interviews Jun 1, 2015 | 5:27 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen: “I make a move & I really don’t know why”

It was Carlsen meets Carlson last month, as Nicholas Carlson of Business Insider interviewed World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen at the DLD New York Conference. Magnus once again showed that he's not only perhaps the most talented player in the history of the game but also a deep and eloquent thinker about chess. He talked about how he actually makes decisions, why he focusses on the middlegame, how sleep deprivation or alcohol can boost creativity and much more. We have a 17-minute video and extensive highlights.

We already saw how Magnus impressed a conference in New York with his blindfold chess skills, but at the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) Conference on May 6th he wasn't playing chess but talking about it. Fortunately, though, his answers weren't dumbed down for a general audience and his responses were unmissable for any chess fan:

We've transcribed some of the highlights below.

On what goes on in his brain before he makes a move

When a computer looks at a position it will consider all the possibilities and it will calculate them many, many moves ahead. For me, it’s more about seeing the right possibilities, finding the right ideas and evaluating them correctly. If I need to I will be able to calculate the moves many moves ahead, but it’s really more about finding the right ones. The board is always pictured in my head – there’s an image of the board moving the pieces around.

I think it’s partly subconscious, because sometimes there will be a decision-making process in my mind and then suddenly I make a move and I really don’t know why I did that. I really cannot sometimes sense the moment when I decide on that particular move… and at some point I just make it.

The strange thing is that usually when I make a bad move I see immediately why that is a bad move, and that happens to many strong players. It’s really hard to say – maybe it’s because it’s a little bit easier to see the move that can happen when it’s actually on the board rather than just in your head. But it’s a fascinating problem.

On why he prefers the middlegame

There are different parts of the game. There is the opening, where a lot depends on analysis at home with computers. The computer is an incredibly powerful tool in chess and it’s a leveller of the playing field, so for me I feel that I have greater ability than the others so I try to analyse and try to choose openings that minimise the effect of computer analysis.

And then often in the endgames, if there are seven pieces or less, everything’s been worked out by the computer. If there are seven pieces or less total for each side then it’s all worked out and you can just go onto a website and check out what’s the right move in any position. So between that you have the middlegame, and there it comes down to pure chess ability and that’s why that’s my favourite part.

On trying to understand tablebases

It can be very difficult. Some positions - like if you have a rook and a knight against two knights - the computer might show you that White can win in 275 moves with correct play, and that is really too difficult for me or any other human. I’ve tried to play through the moves and tried to understand them, but it’s really hard to see the difference between the position that you have now and that you have 50 moves later on, and then 50 moves after that it’s again not much of a difference, so that is beyond my comprehension. But most of the time, yes, with seven pieces or less the evaluation is known and it’s possible to figure out why.

On the effect of tiredness or alcohol on chess (and writing)

In general, I think being a bit tired or drunk or whatever shouldn’t be so bad for writing a book (the interviewer laughs) because I think when you’re not properly rested you can be as creative, or more creative, than when you’re properly rested. The problem is that the rate of errors goes up quite a bit.

That’s what I’ve felt once when I played the World Blitz Championship and I had a bug so I was up all night so I couldn’t sleep at all – throwing up, feeling terrible – and that day I played some of the most creative chess I’ve ever played, and I also made the worst blunders I’ve ever done. I think for playing top level chess it is important, though, to feel physically fit, because then you’ll be better concentrated and you will not make simple mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many good moves you make as long as you make one really bad one.

Carlsen: "Being a bit tired or drunk or whatever shouldn’t be so bad for writing a book!"

On how his style has evolved over time

Ever since I was little I have always liked to read about chess, to play through games of different styles and to be inspired by them, but I guess when I was younger, as most people are, I was more of an attacking player. After all, the game is about checkmating the king, and as a less experienced player you want to reach that goal as quickly as possible, but as you face better opposition it becomes more difficult – they have better defensive techniques – and that’s why, after a while, I realised that I needed to play the endgames better and to be a bit more refrained, to perhaps not burn the bridges all the time. Recently again I’ve tried to be a bit more creative, because you cannot always win games by superior technique. Sometimes you need to create something unique to baffle your opponents.

On his best or most important tournaments and games

The single most important tournament win for me was the Norwegian Championship Under 11 in 2000. That was a big deal for me. As for games… I don’t know. What used to be perhaps my favourite game was my game with then-World Champion Anand from 2010, because in that game I felt like I created something out of nothing and it gave me a great deal of creative satisfaction – even though I didn’t actually win the game.

‌Carlsen and Anand played some great games in 2010, but this Berlin Defence game from Round 7 of the Nanjing Pearl Spring Chess Tournament is probably what he had in mind:

1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 ♘f6 4. O-O ♘xe4 5. ♖e1 ♘d6 6. ♘xe5 ♗e7 7. ♗f1 ♘f5 8. ♘f3 O-O 9. d4 d5 10. c3 ♗d6 11. ♗d3 ♘ce7 12. ♘bd2 c6 13. ♘f1 ♘g6 14. ♕c2 ♘fh4 15. ♘xh4 ♕xh4 16. g3 ♕d8 17. ♘e3 ♖e8 18. ♗d2 ♘f8 19. ♘f5 ♗c7 20. ♖xe8 ♕xe8 21. ♖e1 ♗e6 22. ♕c1 f6 23. ♕d1 ♕d7 24. ♕f3 ♖e8 25. h4 ♗f7 26. ♖f1 ♗g6 27. h5 ♗xf5 28. ♗xf5 ♕f7 29. ♔g2 g6 30. ♗d3 f5 31. ♖h1 ♘e6 32. hxg6 hxg6 33. g4 ♗f4 34. ♗e3 fxg4 35. ♕xg4 ♔g7 36. ♖h5 ♗xe3 37. fxe3 ♘f8 38. ♖h3 ♔g8 39. ♖f3 ♕e6 40. ♕f4 ♔g7 41. b3 ♕e7 42. c4 ♖d8 43. ♖h3 ♖d6 44. ♕h6+ ♔g8 45. cxd5 cxd5 46. e4 ♕g7 47. ♕e3 ♕e7 48. e5 ♖c6 49. ♕h6 ♕g7 50. ♕h4 a6 51. ♖f3 ♕d7 52. b4 b5 53. a3 ♕c7 54. ♔g3 ♔g7 55. ♗b1 ♘h7 56. ♗a2 ♕d7 57. ♗b3 ♖c1 58. ♔h2 ♖b1 59. ♗c2 ♖b2 60. ♖c3 ♕f7 61. ♔g3 ♘f8 62. ♖f3 ♕e6 63. ♕d8 ♘d7 64. ♖f2 ♖a2 65. ♔h2 ♕g4 66. ♕e7+ ♔h6 67. ♕d8 ♕h5+ 68. ♔g2 ♕g4+


Back in 2010 there were still three years to go before Carlsen and Anand's World Championship matches | photo: ChessBase

On what appeals to him in games

It’s always a bit different what I appreciate in my own games and other people’s games than what most people appreciate, because most people want to see mating attacks on the king. I appreciate creating something unique and that can be some kind of attack, but also just an idea, something I haven’t seen before. That is what fascinates me.

On how computers have changed our play

Moves that look bad or unaesthetic are considered by the top players, while previously people would kind of shy away from those “ugly” moves, but now the thing is that because of the computer’s brute calculation people are more and more starting to see every position concretely. You cannot rely on what has been taught in books – that this is good, this is bad – there are always exceptions and every situation is different. Even if something looks bad, it doesn’t look right, you calculate it, it works and… there you go! It’s just forcing us to look a bit further, to look away from what the books used to teach us. It’s forcing us to break the rules.

On what surprised him with the PlayMagnus app

For me it’s interesting to see the play of PlayMagnus at different ages because it is modelled after my playing style and strength at those different ages. I tested myself against Magnus 12 at some point and it was kind of strange because I thought, this is not right, Magnus 12 is only going for king attacks and he has no technique – it’s all tactics. That’s not right, that’s not how I played at that age. And then I decided to play through quite a bit of my games from that age and I realised it was right!

It'll be curious to see whether Sopiko Guramishvili and Anna Rudolf agree with Magnus' own assessment in their upcoming chess24 video series on his early games! 

On being World Champion and fame

Well, I like being World Champion, that’s for sure! Fame has not really been a goal for me. I’m very happy and very privileged that I can earn a good living from playing chess and I want to bring the “happy message” of chess to the world, because wherever I travel I see a lot of kids playing chess – both at chess clubs and at schools – and it brings them so much joy. That is why I want more people to play the game, but for me personally fame and all that comes with it is not a goal. 

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