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Interviews May 4, 2019 | 10:44 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen: “My opponent is an idiot till proven otherwise!”

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has been in the form of his life this year, taking his live rating to 2875.4 by winning the Tata Steel Masters, Shamkir Chess and the GRENKE Chess Classic in phenomenal style. In an over one-hour interview with Jan Gustafsson he comments, “I’ve always played my best when I underestimate my opponents”, reveals which player “gets in his head”, recalls how he asked himself, “what would Garry do?” and talks about the dream of emulating AlphaZero.

You can watch the exclusive interview below, with Jan showing the moves on a chessboard when Magnus talks about the games:

If you prefer you can also read a complete transcript of the interview below. Enjoy!

Jan: Hello everybody and welcome to our interview with the World Champion, Mr. 2875, Magnus Carlsen. How you doing?


I’m actually Mr. 2861 now, unfortunately.

Officially. The live rating list is what counts?

I don’t know. Anyway, I’m very, very happy!

On the live rating list Magnus is 2875.4, but as the GRENKE Chess Classic was submitted too late he's a mere 2861 on the official May FIDE rating list 

So, starting before your last two tournaments, you were 2830 something…

Before Wijk aan Zee I was 2835, then 2845 after that one and I’ve gained about 15 each in the last two. So it’s exceeded my expectations pretty, pretty far.

Do you take care of the rating list day by day, or do you know, “if I draw that guy I’m going to lose 1.5 points”…

I won’t hide the fact that I care more about it when I’m doing well than when I’m doing poorly, but it’s not a day-by-day thing, so I usually check a couple of times during tournaments to see how I’m doing, unless I’m doing poorly, then I don’t check at all.

Fair enough! So let’s talk about your last two tournaments. In Shamkir you had I guess a good start, but then you had this amazing finish in the last three games? Did you feel like something changed in your play, or was it just circumstantial, you got good positions?

First of all, I wasn’t sure at all about my form before Shamkir. I had no idea what to expect there. I knew that I’d done well at the end in Wijk aan Zee, but I felt rusty and I hadn’t looked at too much chess recently, so I had no idea what to expect, and when I looked at the pairings - three Blacks in the first four rounds and White against Anand, then I thought, well, it’s going to be a tough start, but hopefully I’ll manage to play myself into form at some point, especially since I had a tournament going on later in GRENKE. Knowing that I was in general in pretty decent shape physically then I thought I would play myself into form, but then I got 2.5/3 without really trying for anything. That was a bit surprising. The next three games weren’t too great either, so I wasn’t feeling so great before the last three rounds, but then it just clicked – it’s very hard to explain why.

In the game against Giri you sacrificed this pawn with 17.f4 exf4 18.gxf4. I think the computer says if he doesn’t take it Black is still sort of doing alright. Were you surprised when he went for it, or did you just feel it was natural?

I thought that what he did with 13…Nd4 was kind of dubious, at least practically speaking, because I felt that in general he was doing fine, so there was no need to play strictly for equality with Nd4. Obviously it’s in my game with Fabi from the World Championship where I had nothing in such a position with only bishops on the board, but I felt that in this particular case I would have some chances to play for d4, f4, so at least practically speaking I would have the initiative.

17.f4! exf4 18.gxf4! set the stage for 3 great wins in a row

When he allowed everything with f4 basically I got the idea straightway, so I just sat there and thought for a while, just checking if I was missing something very, very obvious. Then when I decided that I hadn’t then I thought I’ll just go for the move which looks incredibly tempting and good and it didn’t particularly concern me that he had other moves than taking on e3. I saw that if he played 18…f5 I could go 19.Rf3 and there would be some immediate problems, because he wouldn’t be in time for Kh7 and g6. I hadn’t seen that he could go 18…Kh7 immediately, but it’s not really the kind of thing you think about during the game. You think about taking on e3, and other things you’re not so worried about, because it kind of feels like 17.f4 exf4 18.gxf4 should be good for me, positionally, opening up the diagonal. I can sort of understand why Black is fine after Kh7, for sure. If he gets g6, f5 then it’s fairly solid, he’s not getting mated, and I also have some weaknesses and he has decent central control, but… you can’t see everything!

Then later on I think you were always winning but you missed some computer tactical finishes, instead of 26.Qh3, 26.Rxg6+ or something. Do these things bother you or do you feel it was under control and who cares, a point is a point?

No, it bothered me a lot! I was extremely pissed towards the end of the game that I hadn’t managed to finish him off in a proper way, and if he hadn’t collapsed before the time control then I might have tilted even more. I felt that the endgame should be winning, but not that it was a very trivial win. I sort of felt that I had to win the game before the time control otherwise it would be very difficult. 

I was definitely tilted at that point and it was not a case of “a point is a point” because that could have been a beautiful game and in the end it just ended up being kind of bitter sweet.

That brings us to the next game. That was a beautiful game, the one against Karjakin?

Yeah, absolutely! Obviously he didn’t do too well in the opening and I got very nice counterplay. When he goes for 24.c5 that’s a clear sign of panic, I think, but it’s very typical that you try and go for something forcing even though you see that it’s probably not good. You’re just trying to escape the tension or something. I’d looked at those positions during the game and I couldn’t see why I didn’t just have wonderful compensation after he went c5, so I was surprised when he went for it.

It turned out that I was right in my assessment, and since that was kind of a must-win game for him from a tournament standpoint I didn’t particularly think he would go for lines that allowed me a forced draw, so when he went for this 26.Nc3 my first thought was – he also looked a bit dejected at that point – so I just thought he’d seen 26…Bd3 27.Bxd3 Nf3+ with the draw by perpetual and he thought I would go for that, and I considered it for a little while, until I decided just that that’s not the way.

My first thought was obviously instead of 25…c4 that I should play b5 and force Qc2, and then I realised that probably c4 is a lot more useful than b5 and that Qc2 was forced anyway. It turned out that he played something else, but I still believed during the game and I still believe now that 26.Qc2 was what he had to play anyway. I go something like Re8 and I have wonderful compensation.

After 26.Nc3 this whole 26…b5, 27…b4 business was so tempting and I feel like after that practically speaking it’s very, very difficult for him.

Did it remind you of this old Karpov-Kasparov game with the octopus on d3?

Yeah, I did think about it! I think Garry had to display a lot more talent than I had to achieve that and also his knight wasn’t supported by any pawns, just pieces, which makes it a lot more difficult, so when you have a pawn on c4 everybody knows how to maintain the knight on d3 then. Obviously it was very enjoyable and the final position as well. I didn’t particularly suspect that computers even thought that 39…Rfe8 was the strongest move. I just felt that this one just underlines how helpless he is. It was a nice way to finish.

Then in the last round there were 3 pawn sacrifices in a row for you. Is that a personal record?

Yeah, I think so. Once upon a time I loved to sac material, when I was about 14 and I had become a grandmaster and tried to play a bit too aggressively at times, and in the first two rounds of Wijk aan Zee this year I sacked an exchange, but then I played so tight for the rest of the tournament that that wasn’t really a trend.

This move 29.Be3 against Grischuk, sacrificing the pawn – how do you arrive at such a move? You can play c4 or whatever and you’re better. Is this just activating the bishop, or what’s the thought process there?

It was not so much activating mine, because mine isn’t that activated, but just keeping his bishop out of the game, and basically my last move 28.Ba2 was just a prayer for c5. 

When he went c5 I was shaking, because I was so excited to sac a pawn once again.

I’d seen from afar that he wouldn’t get c4 and I would get Be3 and activate the other bishop. I don’t know how I came to it, but once I saw the idea I was extremely attracted to it.

Then you felt you were much better after that already?

Yeah, I hadn’t seen the idea with 32…Nb8 to c6, to be honest, which sort of would have saved him, but I think it was a good thing! If I’d seen that probably I would have gone for something else. I probably projected such confidence when going for this that he didn’t suspect that there was a tactical flaw. Also apparently I should also have gone Re1 instead of 31.Bb1 after he’d taken the pawn on e4, but I was just so excited to get that bishop around, so I couldn’t really think, but then fortunately after he goes 32…f5 just everything works tactically for me. It was just a dream. Before that particular game I had no clear ambitions. I kind of wanted to play, although I probably wouldn’t have minded a draw too much either. I just thought we’d see what we get and eventually I got such a pleasant position, the kind you want when you want to play for two results.

Despite already having won the Shamkir tournament Magnus finished with a win over Grischuk | photo: official website

I think in Shamkir you were already the winner before the last round, and then jumping ahead of ourselves in GRENKE you had a similar position where you could still theoretically be caught. I think in the past you had some quicker draws, against Ding and so on in such situations, but now that things are going so well you want to play every game, or it’s just case by case?

I guess now I’m thinking more than before that when I’m playing White and I’ve had this streak of not losing that I’m not so concerned about losing, so I feel as long as I play more or less normally then I should be fine, and it’s also easier when you’re not playing a direct competitor. If you’re playing somebody with White who has half a point less then you know that they kind of need to beat you. So that was the case with Ding last year, which made it maybe easier to go for the draw, but now that I know that my opponents, they’re not in a must-win situation either, it makes it easier for me just to decide to play a normal game.

Before we get to GRENKE, these last three games in Shamkir, was that your best three games in a row?

Yeah, it could very well be. If I’d finished off the way that I should against Anish then I would say most certainly yes, but now it’s up there, for sure.

Then GRENKE, you had five or six free days, there wasn’t a long time between the two?

I guess I came home on a Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday, and then I left on the Thursday, so it wasn’t that long. I guess I was still on an emotional high from Shamkir, so I was just excited to get going again.

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Playful even when I'm not playing

A post shared by Magnus Carlsen (@magnus_carlsen) on

Do you feel you’re running bad because once again you got 5 Blacks and 3 out of 4 Blacks to start with?

Yeah, but I also saw that from the pairings that I would get Black against a lot of the lower-rated opponents, so I knew that in case I could get a good start I would have a chance of racking up a really big score. The end of Shamkir had given me the confidence that I could actually beat a lot of the stronger guys as well with the white pieces, so I was certainly very, very optimistic when I saw the pairings, even though I had 5 Blacks. At this point I sort of expect it – I always get those 5 Blacks. I guess it is sort of better to get the Blacks at the start, in a way. I saw that Naiditsch had Black in games 7 and 8 and that felt pretty miserable, so at least the way it turned out if you can survive them then I think having the Blacks early on is ok.

Your first two games looked like very hard work? How do you approach a game like against Keymer, who’s young and talented but you outrate him by more than 300 points and you have to play for a win. You know he’s well-prepared. Do you just choose a random opening and hope he’s not prepared for it, or what’s the process there?

I thought a lot about it and frankly I was far from thrilled with starting with Keymer. I also thought that if I’d play him later in the tournament maybe he would have been a bit demoralised already by a few defeats, so I thought it would be easier. Now I thought I’d get the best version of him and with Black, so I was not thrilled about it at all, especially since he has such a solid repertoire. It was difficult to choose an opening, that’s for sure, and actually I was very happy with what I got, since I got a decent position without too much theory, but then he did play the resulting position very well, so in the end it wasn’t that great.

Was 13…Bxc3 a Petrosian throwback? You always advocate for studying the classics.

I think so, against maybe Taimanov? I don’t know.

I think against Bronstein as well.

Maybe against Bronstein… The problem is that I remembered even from that game that it ended up in a boring draw, but probably because Petrosian was just very happy to set up a position where there were no points to attack and then just to move around and pretend to be slightly better and make a draw.

I was wondering about that later on. It looked like sometimes you had the chance to close the position with h5, which makes it very hard to play for a win. Is that a calculated risk or you just felt like it’s not the way to go?

I certainly should have played h5 and I realised immediately that h5 is the correct way, but then it’s very hard to do anything at all. I played so superficially that I was just playing for tricks around then. One decision that I made is that I played 21…Kh8 instead of Kf7. If you’re going to go for h5 then you should certainly play Kf7, but then I thought I’ll go for 21…Kh8, 22…Rg8 and so on, but I realised that then I probably couldn’t play h5 later on because the h-file, the king will be exposed there. With all this 23…Nfh5 nonsense I realised it was bad, but I just couldn’t stop myself at that point, and actually once he’d gotten 28.g4 I realised that objectively I was in trouble and I started looking at options of going h5 after he’d gone g5 just to close the position, but I still felt like I would have excellent practical chances to trick him. There were ideas like going Ne5 at some point, with de5, then f4, if he goes Bf4 then I have dxe, and otherwise I have tricks with e3 and so on. I kind of felt that I would be able to trick him, but it was hard.

And then we got this position after the time control which made me really, really mad that he’d gone 30.g6 and lost the g6-pawn and then I realised almost immediately after he’d lost that pawn that it would still be so, so hard to win, and then after the time control I just sat there and wondered how I could just play a game like that, play a game like that where your opponent blunders a massive pawn, and then you’re still not better? It was very frustrating, and then at the end… when I played 56…Rg7 I just missed that he could go 59.Qg6, and after that I thought I might even be worse. Probably I wasn’t and he still had to fight for the draw, but yeah, it was not great at all.

If you’re frustrated about something during the game do you have to tell yourself, ok, back to calculating, or how do you stop yourself from beating yourself up?

Most of the time I just don’t! I just get tilted and then hope for the game to turn... It usually doesn’t last too long, but it’s frustrating, that’s for sure. 

It’s not something I’ve ever come close to perfecting – the art of letting go and not letting these factors bother you.

So in the end you did get the win, and then a sort of similar type of game against Vallejo in the 2nd round?

Magnus could have played 37...f4!, with a big advantage
From the game against Paco I got a pleasant position early on. It was just a question of how I could play for a win, and then in that game as well I didn’t approach it very realistically at some point, this whole march with the king to g5 was clearly too optimistic. There were points earlier on also when he played for equality when he could perhaps have played for an advantage, and then the fact that I even got winning chances in that game shocked me, because at some point I had thought I would just have to… it went very quickly from I thought I would have to fight a bit for a draw, then I thought it was a draw, then a couple of moves later I had chances, and in between, before I had chances, I actually had a real chance there when I went 37…Rd2+ without thinking, when f4... I saw the move f4, I just didn’t properly see 38.Be4 Nf8, which is really, really dumb, because I saw 38…f4 39.Be4 Nf8 a move after, but then it doesn’t work because he has 40.Nf1. After I go 37…Rd2+ he wins a tempo with Nf1…

But then after the time control it was really fascinating. I was kind of excited to get either Bishop + Knight + Rook against Bishop + Rook or what I got in the game, and I thought that both cases would be excellent winning chances. So in the end it turned out to be kind of fun, but for me mostly...

...the take-away from the first two games is that I do not know how to play against significantly lower-rated players with Black...

...and that I was very happy with the two points.

But does anybody know how to play against significantly lower-rated players with Black? It’s a common problem, right?

I don’t know. It’s just that I played so much more freely against other guys. I just play my normal openings and I think if they want to force a draw that’s their problem, and they’re not going to do that most of the time. I guess it’s a very common problem.

You had one more of those situations against Meier, but there the opening went very well? Jumping to Round 6.

Before Round 6 I was really worried because I had made three draws in the last three rounds and my game with Naiditsch was horrible, so I’d thought a lot about what I was going to do. I couldn’t have imagined to get such a good position from the opening. I thought I would have to take some real risks in order to get winning chances. and then I just got a pleasant position early on without taking major risks, which was something I’d never really dreamed of. Then obviously later on I messed up big time, but that’s another story.

In between those you had the game against Vishy – I’m assuming also frustrating in the end? You got a great position and then he escaped.

At the start of the game I was thinking I couldn’t believe how easy this was. He goes for 10…c6 and I think for a little while, and I’m thinking, “why isn’t 11.f4 just positionally winning almost?” In the end I decided I cannot see why not, so I just went for it, and then he dug in and he found a way to keep himself afloat and most of the rest of the game was just frustrating.

I think the thing about this is that you’re used to having to work hard to get a significant positional advantage and when you’re just handed it from an early stage it almost becomes a burden... you didn’t expect this to be so easy and then you realise when your opponent starts defending well that it’s not that easy after all, and this can lead to some negative emotions, for sure. So for the rest of the game I felt that I should not necessarily be winning but I should have very good chances, and it was always very hard to see how.

I liked this manoeuvre 52.Kg1, 53.Bf2, 54.Bg3 and it looked like you were going to break through the defence after all? I recall we did a video series with Jussupow once, you did something similar against Adams in some Qc2 Nimzo?

In his video series Jussupow showed Carlsen's brilliant manoeuvre Rb1, Be1, Kg1, Bf2, targetting the b6-pawn 

Yeah, I did that against Mickey, and then the point was I had some Rb1, then Be1 Kg1 Bf2.

To me it felt like I was more trying to think, “what would Garry do?” 

I realised very well that if the position opens these bishops are going to be massive so like, “what would Garry do?”, “how would he activate them?” He also had I think some manoeuvres like this and it was very, very pleasing, to be honest, that when he goes 52…Nc7 I can just go 53.Bf2, just ignore everything he’s trying to do and the only thing that matters is when I get the bishop to g3 I’m crushing.

So after Bf2 I was very, very happy with myself. I thought the game was absolutely over, Bg3 is coming and then he has no chance. Then he found this defence with 53…Nb7 and 55…Qd6, but I still wasn’t majorly worried. I thought first of all I can play a move like Kg2, and I would have chances with the queens off, but then I thought I should have something even clearer. So I started looking at Qb3, and then I realised maybe he has Nd8 and then it comes to e6, and so I thought, well I can play 56.Qe2 instead, and if Nd8 I have Qh2, he doesn’t seem to have any perpetual, I get to take on e5, and then I just thought, “good, that’s it, the game, Qe2, it’s over!”

Immediately after I played it I realised that he has 56…Ne6 and the game is indeed over, but it’s a draw! It was really dumb, considering I had 20 minutes left and he had basically no time. I could have taken my time, but then again in other games I made quick decisions as well and they turned out to be right, so you cannot get them all right. It was certainly a frustrating moment for me. After all of that hard work it’s not like it’s my winning chances are diminished, it’s just that they go from being very, very real and probably an objectively winning position and then they’re just gone, with one move, just gone, nothing left.

In general while we’re speaking about Vishy… the old guard, the Vishy, Kramnik, Gelfand, Ivanchuks, most of them aren’t in the supertournaments anymore. Do you feel it was different playing against those guys than against the new generation? Is there a stylistic difference? Or are people similar?

They’re a bit different, certainly. I think with the new guys as well it’s not like they all have the same style or anything, but certainly those guys you mentioned they’re all classical – they don’t make positional mistakes, and maybe some of the younger guys will, once in a while.

Then the next game was El Clasico with Black against Caruana. You repeated your opening from the World Championship match. Did it feel risky that you might run into something? Or did you feel you ran into something?

One good reason to analyse 15...Bxb5 was that it was computer's first choice
I thought I would run into something and then I decided I just wasn’t too worried about it. When he went for this 14.Qa4, 15.Qc2 I knew that move, then at the board I just got the idea, “why can’t I just take on b5 and go Be7?” and I thought it looks kind of sucky, but still long-term my position is fine.

So I thought, anyway he hasn’t analysed 15…Bxb5, because who would? It looks really, really stupid, especially when followed up by 17…Nf8, and then I thought, I’m just going to go for that. I don’t want to tank for half an hour in a position I’m not going to figure out anyway, so I just thought I’ll play something simple and get him out of his prep. To be honest it worked pretty well!

In general I was noting you were often playing very quickly, even when you possibly were not in book anymore. Is that a confidence thing, or a conscious decision, or a bit of both?

A bit of both. Certainly...

...I’m playing with a lot of confidence at the moment, so it’s almost like my default thought process is that my opponent is an idiot till proven otherwise!

Poor Fabi!

Which I think, to be honest, it sounds extremely arrogant, and it is, but I think it’s kind of the correct approach, that...

...I’ve always played my best when I underestimate my opponents and it’s much better than overestimating them... I’m just thinking like always going for what at least at the moment I believe in and not suspecting that my opponent has prepared a trap for me seems to be a good approach.

That game against Fabi. Where did you feel it turned? It looked like you had to defend and then all of a sudden you were better. What could he have done to change that?

First of all, when he played this move 23.b4 I was very surprised by that, because I thought before that he was certainly a bit better and it was kind of passive, but then I felt like unless he’s calculated some very complicated line that I hadn’t seen then I would get good counterplay with 23…Qd4 and 24…Nb6. Then I just thought, “what the hell, I’ll try”, because I didn’t see a refutation of Qd4. Maybe he was just bluffing, maybe he underestimated Na4, who knows, but I thought that was definitely a turning point. After Qd4 I had very, very few worries.

And then later on do you feel like you missed a serious chance?

That was again a case of playing too quickly. I’d missed this manoeuvre with Bh3 to g2, from afar, like when I went for the exchange on f4 and everything. I’d calculated this line if he goes for the b5 and I can take on a2, go to f2 and if f5 then g5, and also he had a line with f5 Rxa2 and f6, but I thought even there, as Fabi thought as well, that I would have chances, so I didn’t particularly look for anything else, because I felt that this was very promising, but there I should certainly have taken some more time, but I guess you win some, you lose some by playing quickly and confidently.

You already mentioned the next game against Naiditsch you weren’t so happy about. I’ve seen some speculation on Twitter that Naiditsch is in your head. Can you confirm or deny that? How much did he penetrate your head?

The thing is even though I beat him last year I played an absolutely horrible game there as well, so I don’t know, I don’t know why. 

He’s a confident guy in general, maybe that just bugs me! But I just can’t seem to play against him at all… so the answer is yes, he’s definitely in my head!

Naiditsch ultimately sneaked above MVL onto the podium | photo: Oliver Koeller

Draw in that one, then the tournament moved to Baden-Baden. I think I asked you about this already but as a player, especially for you, it’s probably easier to play in Baden-Baden when you get asked less for selfies and autographs and stuff?

It was kind of easier. It also helps when you’re playing well, but certainly less hustle and noise makes it easier to concentrate.

I think you were also staying in a hotel away from everybody else. Is that to avoid the rivals or you just like the hotel better?

Yeah, after a few days I’d gotten pretty sick of my colleagues! No, it’s just I prefer the other hotel, and also I liked the fact that I would have to walk 15-20 minutes to get to the playing hall, which would always get me in a good shape before the game.

We already talked about the Meier game. Then there’s this game against Levon, this 10.Bd2, the first time it was played in this position after many games with Bb5+ and Nb5. Were you pleased to get that in?

Yes! Most certainly I was happy to get in that move. Levon doesn’t usually allow the gambit with e4 and Bc4, but he clearly had something prepared there so I was happy to go for something else. It’s no secret that the critical move is 10…Nxe4 and I think after he goes for 10.0-0 it’s kind of pleasant for White, but I didn’t expect it to go so easily.

10.Bd2!? was a move no-one had previously played - Jan may soon need to update his video series on the Vienna

In the game we already talked about it in the post-mortem - you were optimistic, he was low on time, so anxious moments or frustrations in that one?

No, there was just no time for that at all. Usually during games there are highs and lows, there are ups and downs, but in this game it was just very much a straight line.

So where does this leave us tournament-wise. At this point you’re a point ahead of the competition?

Actually I was a point ahead already after the game against Meier. At that point I felt pretty good. I was actually absolutely elated to have finally won a decent game in that tournament, and also not to feel tired like I had for a few days, so it was just an amazing feeling.

Against Svidler I was not that worried, but I didn’t expect to necessarily win, but then that one also went easily.

It’s very clear that when you’re playing well, when you’re playing confidently, your opponents are just going to play worse. There’s very little doubt in my mind about that. It’s been seen when Garry was at his best streaks, also with Topalov a few years ago. It’s quite apparent that people just play worse when you’re on a good streak.

So when you play a move like 12…Kh8 outside of the opening. There was some old game Leko-Kramnik with Bxe3 equalising. Is that just cashing in on that, that you’re on a hot streak?

I kind of knew that usually you go Bxe3 when you have the chance, but then I thought 12…Kh8 doesn’t look too bad, so. And also I had this little trick that if he goes with a3, or a4, then I would have f5, and so after he went 13.a3 it was the usual thought of, “can’t I just go 13…f5 here?” Then I thought, surely he must have planned something, but clearly he didn’t.

Did you see that 20…Qf8 move immediately, that kind of turned the game?

No, not immediately, but even before I went for all of this stuff I’d thought that 18.Qg4 is the only critical move, and then I was calculating g6 and this f4, probably a miscalculation, probably I could perfectly well have played g6, but anyway after I started calculating 18…Rf6 I quickly got to 19.f4 exf4 and 20.Qg5 and then I pretty quickly saw that 20…Qf8 was a very tempting move, so after I’d seen Qf8 then I stopped being worried about this whole thing, and I started hoping for it instead.

Then you got another kraken to e3, and you sacrificed another pawn. Does this count as a pawn sacrifice, or you thought your position was so good?

Nah, I went from being a pawn up to being a pawn down, but when you’ve got yourself a knight on e3 and a kingside attack and you control all the squares you don’t really count those, so no.

Svidler allowed you to checkmate him on the board. Do you appreciate that?


Would you ever do the same thing?

I did the same thing yesterday against Laurent Fressinet!

Read more about that Banter Blitz game! 

Oh yeah, I heard about that! Similar situation…

Yeah, very much a similar situation. No, I probably wouldn’t do that. 

I think it’s very personal, but I cannot imagine being in such a situation in a tournament game and not being hugely embarrassed to be there. I once ran into a checkmate by Ivanchuk in Amber rapid, but he gave me checkmate because I didn’t see the checkmate-in-one. So no, I wouldn’t allow it. That’s not me!

I guess you’re aware of this. Svidler was one of the two at least 27+ guys that had a plus score against you going into that game. You evened that one. Do you keep count of these scores?

In general I’m more aware of the bad scores than the good ones.

Not so many left!

Svidler has always been a difficult opponent for me. He understands dynamics so well and he’s outplayed me many times, and besides he’s just very, very good.

Then going into the last round, we already talked about it, you had one point ahead of Caruana, you play against Maxime. It’s the story of one move really, this 10…b5? Anything we can add to that game?

Nah, not so much. 

The problem is that I keep upping the bar for myself now, so that I felt that after I made 7/9 in Shamkir I should really try and go for 7.5 this time.

I thought you saw my 7.5 in the Bangkok Open and you were inspired?

That as well, obviously! Really I thought – I know that I shouldn’t think about these things during tournaments, but I thought after I’d started with 2/2 from two Black games I felt that scoring 8/9 or 7.5 was not completely unrealistic, and so after three draws in a row I forgot about all those things and I thought I just want to win one more game again, but then when I got there in the last round I thought I really should try and at least play a game, because it would really be special to get to 7.5. I’ve certainly never had that score in a “soft supertournament” before and it’s really special for me.

Congratulations on this run, it’s been very impressive. We blame Jorden van Foreest for unleashing you, because after that your performance, I haven’t kept track, has been insane.

After that I ended with 7/9 in Wijk aan Zee, so after that it’s been 7 twice and 7.5/9 once, so what can I say? 

It’s been fun and I’m hoping it will continue, but it’s a kind of run you only have a few times in your life, whatever level, just that for a while you play just way above what you usually do.

Are you worried about your non-losing streak ending? I haven’t kept count, but it’s like 60 games or something?

No, I really don’t think too much about it. I’m going to lose a game at some point, for sure, but I’m not making decisions based on it. It’s not like I didn’t make risky decisions in these tournaments at all. I sacked material, played for a win in last-round games when I didn’t have to.

I appreciate having the streak but it only means something because I’m actually winning a lot of these games. If I wasn’t then it wouldn’t make any sense to be proud of it.

So breaking Ding’s or whoever has the record is not the main priority?

No, for sure not. If I win 20 of those 45 games it will mean something, otherwise no. Just trying to play my best for the next game, as they say, or the next move.

There were some theories, you talked about the sacrifices you made, that you sort of absorbed AlphaZero’s style and incorporated it into your style. Is there any truth to that?

Maybe some slight truth. Like everybody else I’ve seen the games and I’m inspired by it, but you cannot emulate AlphaZero – AlphaZero is way too good! And you cannot learn its style. I don’t think so, anyway. But I think it’s changed people’s minds a little bit about computer chess, and it’s also changed... 

It’s a bit like when Curry started to shoot these 30-foot 3s, all the kids in gyms all around the world wanted to start shooting 3s, so now everybody wants to play like AlphaZero, just sacrificing pawns and exchanges and everything for long-term compensation all the time.

It’s definitely a trend, but I wouldn’t say that it’s become my style. It’s just that I’m aware and others are aware and we want to emulate the very best, but we can only try.

Speaking of the very best, the usual question. Currently the biggest challengers to your iron throne - who do you consider them to be? Is it Fabi, or do you think the next generation, like the Artemievs of the world? What’s going on out there?

It’s very hard to say. Artemiev has, I don’t know, 2750, and he’s turned 20 or maybe 21. Maybe he’s 21. In a historic perspective that’s nothing special, to be honest. Our boy Anish Giri was I think a lot better than that when he was 21.

If Vladislav Artemiev had taken all his chances in the opening rounds of the 2019 Russian Team Championship he would already be a Top 10 player by now | photo: Evgeny Vashenyak, Russian Chess Federation 

Well, he just won a supertournament, so you don’t know – maybe the next Kraken is coming?

No it could be, it could very well be! 

I’m just saying that historically-speaking Artemiev’s level is nothing special.

He’s a very, very good player and he could become one of the very best, it’s just that it’s hard to say. He’s very good right now, but whether he will be Top 10, Top 5, challenger to the throne, who knows? He will almost certainly improve further, but how far, that only time will tell. I certainly wouldn’t write him down as anything close to a main contender at this point. It’s easier to deal with the ones you know anyway. Right now I think Fabi is the best of the rest.

Next stop is Abidjan, rapid & blitz chess. I noticed your rapid rating is now lower than your classical rating – is that a good or a bad thing?

I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s very clear that I’ve struggled with rapid chess for a long time and I’m hoping to rectify that, particularly because I will be forced to play some kind of rapid tiebreaks in case I make draws in Norway Chess, so at the very least it’s practice for that.

Magnus will face tough competition in the Cote d'Ivoire Rapid & Blitz from Wednesday onwards but just for the record his 2869 rapid rating arguably isn't so bad! :)

What’s the time control in Norway Chess, in these Armageddons?

I think it’s 10 minutes for White, 7 for Black.

So it’s more rapid than blitz really?

Yes, and I think it’s an increment from 61.

So I’m guessing you’re happy to keep playing. Do you need a break?

No, I’m good! I could go tomorrow.

You literally are going the day after tomorrow!

On Monday. I’m happy to keep playing and I think that’s the way it is. 

When you’re on a hot streak you’ve just got to keep going until you get back to earth.

Best of luck for Abidjan. I have one more question – slightly different topic. I’m not sure if you have a direct answer. We get asked a lot about chess book recommendations. Do you have like a Top 5 list of favourite chess books that people should read?


Top one, top two?

I don’t know. I read Tukmakov’s book Coaching the Chess Stars. I would recommend the chapter on Anish Giri – it certainly helped me a lot!

I’ll check it out. Alright Magnus, thanks a lot for your time. Best of luck beating all those records!

Thank you.

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