Interviews Feb 1, 2019 | 4:01 PMby Colin McGourty

Magnus Carlsen: “I’m living a lie!”

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen spent 40 minutes talking to chess24’s Jan Gustafsson on Thursday. They began with Vladimir Kramnik’s retirement and didn't shy away from the tweet that Magnus sent out when he heard of the news, before the Norwegian went on to pay tribute to the impact Kramnik's games made on him when he was growing up. Magnus provides a blow-by-blow account of the recent Tata Steel Masters and at one point confesses there’s something, “I should like to address, because I’m living a lie and it’s bearing down on my conscience!”

You can watch the full interview below:

We’ve included a transcript of some of the highlights below:

Vladimir Kramnik retires from chess

Probably the last Carlsen-Kramnik classical game ended in a draw. Magnus: "I was pretty sure that he was going to play better against me. After all, he was on 0.5/3 and I knew that he didn’t want to lose that game"| photo: Alina l'Ami, official website

Vladimir Kramnik announced the end of his career in classical chess just two days before the interview, so it was the obvious place to start. Jan began by enquiring if Kramnik could have enjoyed his final event:

It’s obviously sad to see him play the way that he played in the last tournament. They always say, “live your day as if it is the last”, and maybe they say, “play every tournament as if it is the last”, or “each game”, but I guess in retrospect… for all I know he may have enjoyed it, but it didn’t seem like a pleasant way to go.

I don’t know him that well. Personally I cannot imagine being in that situation. I can definitely understand being apathetic about losing, but to still enjoy the process having been at the top for so many years and beating Garry, being World Champion, everything. Nah, it’s a bit hard to imagine. So yeah, I think he was certainly trying to play enterprisingly, but I don’t think he had fun.

In a sea of tributes to Kramnik one tweet stood out:

Kramnik had played in the 2018 Candidates Tournament in Berlin as a wild card, and one of the only weak points on his CV is that he never actually qualified for a World Championship match – he’d lost a match to Alexei Shirov and was only picked to play Garry Kasparov in 2000 after the Kasparov-Shirov match fell through. Still, it seemed strange timing to bring that up… and to double-down with another tweet!

“Is there some beef?” (a grudge), asked Jan:

No, there’s no beef! We’ve been good for many years. We played some training games, as has been well-documented, before the World Rapid and Blitz in Berlin, and even before that we had some little wars of words, and definitely some different opinions on certain subjects, but there were never really any problems, and I would say the last few years we’ve gotten along really well.

Basically, I thought of another jibe – I was desperately searching the internet for Vlad’s quote about Nakamura from a few years ago, when he was asked whether he could become World Champion, and he said something along the lines of, “maybe if we all retire!”, and then I couldn’t find that quote, so I went with the next best thing!

Did Magnus grow up watching Kramnik’s games?

I didn’t really grow up watching his games that much, but I read the book, Kramnik, My Life and Games, which came out I think in 2001 or something, and that became one of my very favourite books growing up, and I absolutely loved his way of playing, his style, and just the richness of ideas in his play, which is still there. I admire him very much and that’s not going to change.

The book is co-authored by Kramnik and journalist Iakov Damsky | source: Amazon

Tata Steel Chess 2019

Magnus started 2019 by winning the Tata Steel Masters with an unbeaten 9/13, though things started slowly, as he added four more draws to 17 in the preceding games.

Was he worried?

I cannot say that I was following the Twitterati and all that at the start of the tournament, but to be honest I didn’t feel like I did anything particularly wrong at the start. I was just not getting any points, but it was still annoying me. After 21 draws in a row I think that would affect anybody, even though you sort of feel like you’re doing the right things and there’s not too much you can change. A part of me always thought that at some point the wins are going to come, and they’re going to come fast, but when you keep drawing inevitably you start doubting yourself a little. Of course it’s very pleasant to get that first win.

Carlsen 1:0 Rapport: “I’m living a lie”

One of the most curious games of the tournament was Carlsen’s win against Richard Rapport in Round 8. He played what appeared to be a beautiful game, with a positional pawn sac leading to a crushing position that he then smoothly finished off. Afterwards, however, he was playing down praise of the game, and he passed it over in silence when talking about his best games in the post-game press conference.

He revealed his secret to Jan, while talking about how this year compared to the last:

Results-wise my tournament was very much like last year. Then I also won my last four Whites after having won the first one as Black, so it was very similar, but I feel like the quality of play was better this year, apart from one moment, which I should like to address, because I’m living a lie and it’s bearing down on my conscience!

It’s about the game against Rapport, which I think was considered to be a pretty good game… The point is that I blundered a pawn! When I played the move 25.e5 I didn’t see that he could take on g2, then take on e5!

And to me it felt like pure beginner’s luck. You get this position which looks so beautiful, and when he allowed e5 I really just thought that he felt that his position was so poor that he was looking for some weird chances with Bf8 and Re6 or something, and it didn’t occur to me you could simply take the pawn.

So I sat there for one minute cursing myself, then I went [25…Bxg2 26.Qxg2 dxe5] 27.Nd5, because there was nothing else to do, and while he was thinking I gradually realised that just everything is working… It’s a shame. I just stumble onto this beautiful concept by pure luck, because realistically I wouldn’t have played e5 if I’d known that it loses a pawn. If I’d actually looked at the position after Nd5 then I would have, obviously, but if I just stop after dxe5, that’s the most likely scenario, then I never would have found it…

The rest of the game was kind of funny because I was just feeling so ridiculously dumb, so that was why it was kind of hard for me to feel good about the game, because even though after that it went swimmingly it was all based on a very, very basic oversight.

Carlsen 1-0 Anand: The long grind

Despite winning two World Championship matches against Vishy Anand, the Indian chess legend has remained a very tough opponent for Magnus, so he was glad to get a win in their Round 10 clash. It ended up being a 76-move, 6.5-hour battle:

That was a tough game, to be honest. Right from the start I didn’t feel so fresh, and I just had to grind it out. I spent just oceans of time, and every time I just ended up doing what I’d been intending to do right from the start, then after the time control I spent so much time just wondering whether I should go for the queenside and let his h-pawn run, and finally I decided to go for the h6-pawn, which was basically a draw offer, because I had virtually no time left. And after that he made a number of inaccuracies, obviously. He didn’t need to allow the knight ending. After we got to the knight ending I had some hope, and then when he falls for this a5-trick…

…he’s already in a real spot of bother, because even though he has lots of time it’s very hard to calculate once you see that 70…bxa5 71.Kd5 Nf4+ 72.Kxc5 Ne2 73.Nd6 doesn’t make a draw on the spot. Then it almost becomes guesswork.

You cannot see a forced draw, so you just have to evaluate whether the resulting position is a draw or not, which I think is very, very difficult, because I could see lines that led to a draw, but I could also see lines that won for me. I cannot blame him too much for going 70…b5, and for me at that point it was not a question of, “does this win?” or “does that draw?” – just “does this keep the game going or not?” was the real question. So even after b5 I didn’t know whether I was winning or not, but that was not really a big issue. I was just happy that the game was still on.   

A sombre setting for a classic showdown | photo: Tata Steel Chess Facebook

Carlsen 1-0 Duda: World Championship preparation

It seemed at the time that Jan-Krzysztof Duda had stumbled into some of Carlsen’s World Championship preparation in this game, and it turns out it was actually something that Jan and co. had shown Magnus:

17.Bxh6! was the right move, but Carlsen reveals it wasn’t something he knew a lot about:

First of all we get this position from the opening, and I think you were there, trying to sell me on this concept, and I said something along the lines of, “why cannot Black just play 15…Bc5 and 16…h6?” I don’t think we looked any further. There was just I can sort of recall 17.Bxh6 gxh6 18.Qd2 and +1. I think that was what was being said, and then we moved on, but I didn’t know really what that +1 consisted of.

But at least it was pleasant to know that the position after the queen exchange is actually considerably better for White. Otherwise I might not even have gone for it - I would think this position is just very drawish… But it was to some extent bittersweet, because you know that you’ve gotten such an advantage from the opening and there’s so much work left to be done. It’s still going to be damn hard work winning the game…

Magnus got there in the end, and took a half-point lead into the final game against Giri. That encounter was a strange one for both players, with Magnus admitting he got “a bit lazy” and also miscalculated near the end. When Giri played 28.Qc6! Carlsen had only been expecting 28.Qd5, when Black is significantly better.

Overall assessment of the tournament?

I’m very happy with my performance. Apart from the game against Rapport I don’t think I made any outright blunders, and even that one turned out to be a very good move, so yeah, it was definitely a good performance, and it’s nice to have a tournament where you have no particular regrets - just very satisfied. Obviously I can still do better, but it’s such a step up from what I’ve been doing recently and I’ve felt like the process was good. As long as the process is good and the result is good I must be happy. It’s still early to say in terms of regaining my former strength or whatever. It was one tournament, so it’s hard to say!

On the World Rapid and Blitz in St. Petersburg

I wouldn’t say I almost won the rapid - I was in contention for one round out of 15! Obviously the narrative was good: starting so poorly, finishing out the rapid well and then having a very good result at blitz was good… It’s still bothers me. I feel like the triple crown is there for the taking, and I’m just not ready. At the start I feel ready, but clearly I’m not. It feels like a wasted chance, but in the end with one title I cannot be unhappy and being undefeated in blitz was lovely. Once again, serious room for improvement there!

Levon Aronian's misadventures in Gibraltar provided some light relief

On the current balance of power in world chess

I think it’s me, Fabi, everybody else. He didn’t play here, so I would still kind of put him in the same group as myself. I didn’t think Ding did poorly at all in Wijk aan Zee, but winning two games is just not going to cut it! But it has to be said he faced some stern defence, and he didn’t get anything for free, so to say, but yeah, clearly it’s a case of one or two players now above the rest… I don’t know what was wrong with Shak, or I don’t want to speculate, but clearly that was far from his finest hour.

What’s next for Magnus?

I’m going to play GRENKE, and then probably something before that, but that isn’t completely clarified yet. I would love to play. I felt like I had a lot of energy right at the end of the tournament and just wanted to keep going, so it’s a bit of a shame to have a break now, but it seems that is the way it must be, but I would really love to play something before late April – very open to suggestions!

On AlphaZero and everyday chess engines

I read the book [Game Changer by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan] the last few days during Wijk aan Zee, which I thought was fascinating. It’s nice to see the games with comments and everything, but I try as much as possible not to look at chess too much with an engine, because I feel it just doesn’t help me at all. I really felt that during such a tournament you often feel it quite keenly that often the engine lines have very, very little relevance to what’s actually going to happen. I felt very keenly that I understood the human component quite well, and I think it’s a good development to be more or less completely free from computer influence…

Whenever I watch games I just try if I can at all to watch without computer analysis, because you simply stop thinking.

On the new FIDE leadership

I like the activity level. They’re just flying around and doing things… It remains to be seen how effective those measures will be, but I like the activity level, and at this early stage you cannot ask for more, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

Fans of the NBA and Norwegian TV should also catch the last couple of minutes of the show! That’s all for Magnus, but there won’t be long to wait until we also release an interview with the player who finished 2nd in Wijk aan Zee – world no. 4 and Carlsen's arch-Twitter-enemy Anish Giri. Stay tuned to our shows page

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