World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen hasn’t won a tournament since Altibox Norway Chess in mid-October, and even then a last-round loss to Levon Aronian took some of the gloss off the win. In the aftermath of losing the final of the Opera Euro Rapid to Wesley So, Magnus talked to Ilya Levitov about his motivation, how he feels the World Championship should be decided and much more. Magnus explained that when he was young he was “spooked” when he played Russians, since he thought they knew everything!
The interview with Ilya Levitov, who used to be in charge of the Russian Chess Federation, can be watched in full below on the Levitov Chess YouTube channel.
We’ve transcribed Carlsen's answers belows, with the questions shortened in most cases:
Are interviews harder than playing?
Magnus Carlsen: Well, these days playing is very hard for me, but yeah, it’s not so easy just to talk and talk and talk.
Are you tired after playing online?
No, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Obviously any tournament that ends the way that it ended for me, with a disappointment, you have the feeling it was very close and there could have been more, but I would say recently I haven’t been playing well at all. I haven’t been feeling that things are breaking through, so looking back I’m still feeling like the last tournament was a step in the right direction. Yes, there were still lots of things that I could do better, but I still feel like I played some good games and I could actually be a little bit creative even sometimes, so it wasn’t that bad.
Do you still get as upset at losing as 10-15 years ago?
I think it’s still the same feeling, to be honest. I think it’s about how you deal with it in retrospect, after the tournament, but certainly right in the moment
I get just as upset when I lose as I used to. The drive to try and win every game - that’s certainly still the same.
Do you miss regular off-line chess life?
I certainly miss playing regular tournaments, yes. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to play in Wijk aan Zee and I would love to do more of that. I think it’s been great to have the opportunity to play online, to play high quality chess there, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to play over-the-board anymore, so whatever opportunities I can have for that this year I will be very happy to have.
Is playing offline and online the same for you?
I think it’s quite similar. The feeling that I have, the thoughts that I have - they’re not that different. As you said, the main difference is the time control, and I simply think that people don’t have the patience to sit at home and play classical games online, but I think apart from that the difference is not that great. I think at the start I feel like I saw the board a bit differently online, maybe there are some geometries and so on that you can feel better when you’re playing over the board, but I feel with experience that difference is not so big now.
As World Champion are you concerned about the lack of opportunities for 2500 players?
I think there are certainly new opportunities online for people who want to make a living from chess, but purely from playing of course it’s getting very difficult. Also one thing is in a longer perspective I’m not sure that it’s great that you educate younger players to become only rapid and blitz players online, so I think in that sense it’s not fully a positive thing that so many things are online now, but yes, it’s just a very, very difficult question and I think in general what you need to do is adapt.
If you used to make a living playing open tournaments and travelling around Europe, for instance, and this is not a possibility anymore, then yes, that’s bad, but you have to adapt, otherwise you won’t get by. But certainly it’s not been easy for everybody. I know also in Norway a lot of young players who have very few opportunities now.
What’s your ideal World Championship format? You previously suggested playing 4 rapid games a day instead of 1 classical game.
It depends on what you want to see.
If you want to see who the best player is, then you should play a lot of games - it’s as easy as that!
I think what happens now is that when you play 12 or 14 games it’s a pretty short distance and I really think that the value of a mistake is very high, and against any of the top players it’s really hard to get back if you’ve lost an early game, so I think the format is not great for deciding who the best player is.
I think it’s only good in the sense that the matches are almost certainly going to be very tight and there’s going to be intrigue about who is going to win until the very end, but I think as a system for determining the best player it’s not very good.
Would you switch to rapid games for the whole World Championship cycle?
I don’t know. I think classical chess still has a place. I just don’t know if it should be the no. 1 priority, if it should be the most prestigious. I don’t think people should stop playing, I think it has some value that there’s a cycle, but certainly...
I would prefer the Championship to be rapid.
Why is the 2 million euro prize fund lower in Dubai lower than for some of the Karpov-Kasparov matches despite the recent chess boom?
I don’t know. Still, I think the prize fund is up from what it was last time, so that’s an improvement. I don’t know, to be honest…
Are you ok with that?
I don’t think it’s a great development, clearly. There have been matches with more money and more prestige in the past, but I understand it’s not an easy job.
After PlayMagnus bought New in Chess are you building a chess empire? What’s the plan? Or is that a question to the suits and ties?
Yes, I think it’s mainly a question for them. I think we’re just trying to bring something to everybody and to have different platforms, but I’m not the one making these decisions. That’s not my expertise at all.
You don’t participate in the business?
I’m certainly kept informed about it, this I can say, but I don’t think I should make a decision on whether the company should buy this or that, because there are more qualified people there. I’m more giving advice like what we should do about the Champions Chess Tour, the format and all of that.
What was your first and maybe most memorable experience of the Russian Champions, before Garry?
I certainly read a lot about Russian and Soviet chess, and for me it was always something very special. I actually remember thinking as a young player, the first time that I beat a Russian that will be something special for me, and the first tournament that I played, I played the European Under 12 Championship in 2002, and my only thought there was who are the Russians, how strong are they?
I was so spooked every time I played a Russian because I thought they knew everything...
...and as far as I can remember I scored 6/9, and the four games that I didn’t win were against the Russians. I lost to Ian and I lost to Andreikin as well, and then I made draws with Khairullin and with Potapov, so I’m trying to think what was the first time I actually beat a Russian, and I cannot even remember.
I only remember the 2004 Aeroflot Open, your game against Dolmatov, and I remember Garry standing there and saying that you should remember this name, this is forever.
The game against Dolmatov was good, but I thought maybe the game against Shaposhnikov was even better actually, from the same tournament. Obviously less spectacular, but I thought that was better.
1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 e6 3. ♘c3 ♗b4 4. ♕c2 c5 5. dxc5 ♗xc5 6. ♘f3 ♕b6 7. e3 a6 8. b3 ♕c7 9. ♗b2 b6 10. ♗e2 ♗b7 11. g4 ♘xg4 12. ♖g1 ♘xh2 13. ♘g5 ♘c6 14. O-O-O ♘e5 15. ♘ce4 O-O-O 16. ♘xc5 bxc5 17. f4 ♘ef3 18. ♘xf7 ♘xg1 19. ♖xg1 ♘f3 20. ♖xg7 ♖hg8 21. ♘xd8 ♕xd8 22. ♗f6 ♕f8 23. ♕xh7 ♖h8 24. ♕g6 ♖h1+ 25. ♔b2 ♖g1 26. ♗g5 ♖xg5 27. fxg5 ♘e5 28. ♕f6 ♕d6 29. ♖g8+ ♔c7 30. ♔c3
Did you study with any Russian grandmasters before Garry?
No, I don’t think so. The only thing is Grandmaster Alexander Baburin came to Oslo once, he had a training session with me and one other, that was the only thing, but he was already Irish at that point, but still part of the Russian Chess School, I guess.
Did you have any particular admiration for the Soviet Champions, Tal or Petrosian or Spassky, or it was all just study material for you?I read a book on Tal when I was young and I certainly found it impressive, but no, I would not say anything in particular. I would say that maybe my favourite experience from reading about the Soviet Chess School has been more recently. Right now I’m reading about the Soviet Chess Championship, I think from 1921 to 1937, which has recently been released in English, and that’s very interesting.
It’s really fascinating. This shocked me as well. They make
some extremely simple mistakes, but the level of ideas for that era is very
Once in Moscow I witnessed a conversation where you exchanged a lot of games you remembered with Levon Aronian - I was shocked with the level and quality of your chess memory. Is that something you were born with or trained?
I think I definitely was born with a great memory. I read a lot when I was young and I saw a lot of games and it’s still sort of sticking and, obviously, speaking to Levon about these things is fascinating, because he’s somebody who has a great knowledge of the past.
Do you think it’s important for the modern chess players to know the past?
I don’t know if it’s important, I just think it’s very interesting!
Do you still have the motivation to play at the highest level, and if so, what is the motivation exactly?
Now I just want to win one more tournament!
One more tournament. That’s the first goal. I still want to try and be better, try to learn more, so I think there is nothing that I haven’t won that I can win, but I want to do it again, and I want to learn more, and I can see what I knew about chess even five years ago… I think everything is updating so fast and there is so much more to learn there, so motivation is not a problem.
Updating because of the computers?
I think partly, yes, because of computers. Even what you thought you knew recently is not necessarily true anymore.
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