Interviews Oct 27, 2014 | 4:11 PMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen on BBC radio: “I’m more like an artist”

Magnus Carlsen has been interviewed by Dominic Lawson for the first episode of Series 2 of Across the Board, a BBC Radio 4 programme where Lawson interviews his guests over a game of chess. In the new interview Carlsen talks about what it means to say he’s lazy, how a top opponent threw him off balance by drinking the night before a game and how thinking too analytically can be a disadvantage in chess.

Dominic Lawson – a former newspaper editor, journalist and currently the President of the English Chess Federation – interviewed Magnus in Oslo while playing a game of chess he started with the move 1.b3. That game has now been included at the end of this article. 

We've produced a transcript below of the 15-minute conversation, which can be listened to on the BBC website:

We’ve left out Grandmaster Daniel King’s commentary on the game, and also most of Dominic’s introduction, though we couldn’t resist starting at the moment he describes Magnus’ appearance for his radio audience:

Dominic Lawson: I have to tell listeners that Magnus is a chiselled specimen of the male form, along with his purely cerebral attributes. Can you see how some of us men think it’s extremely unfair that you combine extreme intelligence and a beautiful body?

Magnus Carlsen: I think it’s actually quite fair, since in my early years it appeared to both me and my peers that I had neither. So I think it’s quite alright.

So you were the ugly duckling who turned into the beautiful swan?

That is actually a Danish story not a Norwegian, but nevertheless that’s an accurate comparison.

We’re playing a Danish opening. I chose an opening named after Bent Larsen, who’s a Danish chess player, so it’s a kind of homage to Scandinavia, if not Norway. I couldn’t find a Norwegian opening. I don’t know if there is one. I looked – I couldn’t find one.

There are a couple of Norwegian openings. One is very bad while the other is merely dubious.

We were discussing physique. I believe you were actually a keen soccer player, a keen football player. Is that right?

Yes, to some extent. I do play for a football team here in Norway although recently both my attendance and my attitude have been less than stellar, so I think I will be demoted to the second team for my next match, unfortunately. I don’t have great technique, but I have reasonable pace for my position and the league.

And are you a very aggressive player? Are you occasionally sent off?

No, because the refs have too much respect for me, unfortunately! I’ve definitely deserved to be sent of a couple of times but they’ve amnestied me those few times. Occasionally I lose my head, but usually it’s all in good spirits.

Was Dominic thinking of the incident during the Shamkir Tournament when 74-year-old arbiter Faik Gasanov came off worst in a challenge? | photo: Evgeny Surov, Chess-News 

Do you see chess as also a sport and one where physical endurance is very important?

Definitely. For me chess is first and foremost a sport and then secondly an art and a science. It definitely helped me in the World Championship match. I won two key games there in the fifth and sixth games, which I think were very much decided in the fifth and sixth hours by physical strength.

Fischer, who in his prime was a very fit, strong person, used to say that what he liked best was seeing the opponent’s ego crumble. Do you have a similar attitude?

Sometimes maybe a little bit. I don’t really like to win when I feel that for some reason or other my opponent hasn’t been able to do his best. For instance, once at a top tournament I saw one of my opponents have a cocktail the night before we were playing, and that just threw me off completely. I couldn’t really play a serious game.

Magnus, this is my chance, because a friend of mine last night celebrated 25 years in his job as a political presenter for a television station and he’s a good friend of mine and I had five or six really excellent cocktails and I’m now having to tell you this because I think it may mean you don’t take this game with the seriousness it deserves.

But I think that is only relevant if the opponents are relatively equal to begin with.

You don’t think that’s the case here, obviously.

I’m prepared to be proven wrong… but no.

I should say Magnus has lurched in an alarming and I would say brutal way towards my king, which shows, I’m sorry to say, a lack of respect for his elderly opponent.

Well I’m sorry to say that my next move isn’t going to make my play more respectful.

I was going to say that I expected that. I did expect it, but the problem is you can expect something without being able to stop it.

Actually you made the move I didn’t expect you to make and I slightly feared, so now I’m losing interest in the conversation and just focussing on the game because I have a very concrete problem to deal with right now, which is where I should place my queen.

It’s often said that chess is a measure of intelligence. Do you think that that commonly perceived statement is correct?

I think in my case I’m just very good at what I do. I don’t think I’m stupid but there are people who play chess considerably worse than I do that I think are more intelligent. I think it’s not only about intelligence in what people usually define as intelligence – the ability to think analytically – I think thinking too analytically about chess can be a disadvantage because I think there is great room for creativity as well. It’s also hard for me to explain because I know it’s there - I know why a move is bad and I know why another move is good, but I cannot explain to you exactly why I know.

Do you find it mysterious yourself, then?


So without wishing to get metaphysical, do you think it can be described, if one is religious, as a gift from God, that you shouldn’t subject to analysis? You just say – that’s how I was made and I should be pleased about it and be thankful for it.

I don’t particularly believe in gifts from God. I don’t know that if I was very focused on something else I would be very good at it, but I’m definitely very, very fortunate that I’ve found something that I love to do and that I apparently can do better than anyone else… and don’t understand why.

Do you feel strange at all? Do you ever feel weird or different, or do you feel in yourself utterly normal?

I’m sometimes a bit weird but not particularly much weirder than most people are. Everyone’s a little bit weird.

Obviously although you’re very modest about it you have a very extraordinary mind, it seems to me. Do you ever feel - I wish maybe I could apply my mind to things which are socially useful, if I was like a physicist or a Nobel Prize winning chemist or something where humanity is the beneficiary? Or do you think that your intelligence is so very particular that it isn’t really a thought that would occur to you?

For me, I’m doubtful that I could excel at any such field to an extent that would make it reasonable for me to quit chess in favour of it.

One of your skills, and I think I saw it on a film of you, is that you were playing it seemed like a large number of games simultaneously blindfold, which is an extraordinary thing to witness. I wondered - if you really pushed yourself, how many people could you play at once without sight of the board? We’re in a house overlooking a valley in Oslo. It’s a very large room and I wondered whether if it was full of, say, 25 people, all with chessboards and you had your back to them, whether you could play all 25 simultaneously, without seeing the board?

Magnus was featured playing blindfold at the start of the CBS 60 Minutes documentary, Mozart of Chess 

I think I probably could. So far I’ve only played ten people at once. That takes effort, but nothing extraordinary.

With my last move I managed to complete one very important positional goal, which is that your bishop is kicked out of the long diagonal, which makes my king a lot safer. Now I feel I have a more or less free hand to go about my business on the kingside with a rapid attack.

Yes, so I now have to think really hard before I’m completely… steamrollered, I believe is the technical expression for it.

Magnus, chess is seen as very hard work – I think it is – but you I’ve seen describe yourself as lazy, and I wondered therefore what your laziness consists of?

My laziness basically consists of not being able to treat chess as a nine-to-five job. So far I’m not able just to get up in the morning and think, “now I’m going to work on chess”. I’m more like an artist in the sense that I need inspiration and that’s sort of how the word comes about. I know there are some people who don’t like to waste time idly, but I’m not one of them.

Magnus’ bishop has seized the diagonal that I once had, which gives me a slightly sad feeling, because it used to be mine and he’s stolen my property.

So now I have two ways to win – one is very simple, but the other one is more elegant.

I can see it now. You’re going to play Qxe2+?

In the previous series Lawson was less out of his chess depth against former undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis | screenshot: BBC


I’m going to be at least a piece down.


So I think now is actually the appropriate and tasteful moment to resign.

I would agree.

Thank you for the game, and it was pretty at the end actually.

It was.

I enjoyed that game, but was it very boring for you, Magnus?

Not by any means. I thought it was an interesting game and the end was very nice.

1. b3 ♘f6 2. ♗b2 g6 3. ♗xf6 exf6 4. c4 d5 5. cxd5 ♕xd5 6. ♘c3 ♕a5 7. g3 ♘c6 8. ♗g2 ♗e6 9. ♘f3 O-O-O 10. O-O h5 11. h4 g5 12. a3 ♘e5 13. b4 ♘xf3+ 14. ♗xf3 ♕e5 15. ♔g2 g4 16. ♗e4 f5 17. ♗d3 f4 18. ♖c1 ♗d6 19. ♕e1 ♖he8 20. ♘b5 ♔b8 21. ♘xd6 ♖xd6 22. ♖c5 ♗d5+ 23. ♔h2 b6 24. ♖c3 ♗b7 25. ♕c1 fxg3+ 26. fxg3 ♕xe2+ 27. ♗xe2 ♖xe2+ 28. ♔g1 ♖g2+ 29. ♔h1 ♖dxd2

0-1 (all the games in the series can be played through here)

The series continues each day this week, with the line-up including former England international footballer Sol Campbell and Demis Hassabis, a child chess prodigy who just sold his company for £400 million. Full details are here.

See also:

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