A new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 14th tells the story of Magnus Carlsen's ascent to the top of the chess world. The film aims to go beyond the basic history that will be familiar to
chess fans and to show us the thoughts and emotions of the Norwegian star. To do so, the director Benjamin Ree was given unprecedented access to Magnus in the lead-up to the Chennai World Championship in 2013 and during the match itself. But the story goes back all the way to Carlsen's childhood, with priceless footage from his youth. Below you'll find the trailer, and later previously unreleased scenes from the film itself!
In August of 2012, I met Magnus and his manager Espen Agdestein for drinks in New York's Meatpacking District. Other than just generally shooting the breeze on a pleasant summer evening, I expressed interest in working on a documentary on the Candidates Tournament set to take place in London the following March. Magnus was already well established at world number one and so was naturally going to be the favourite to qualify for a match against Anand. I'd already shot a great deal of footage of Magnus since 2008, including some private material like his training camp with Kasparov in Oslo 2009.
Espen mentioned that there was already some interest in doing a film from the Norwegian media company VG, which was also one of Magnus' main sponsors. That of course made a lot of sense — a large company with ties to the Carlsen camp was going to be in a prime position to mount a major effort. We left that evening with the understanding that if a film project got underway in earnest I'd be glad to be involved in some capacity.
So when Ben Ree got in touch in the autumn of 2013, I jumped at the chance to sign on as an associate producer — a small role, basically as a consultant.
The first order of business was to get the film green-lit. To do that, Ben put together a scene about Magnus' visit with Liv Tyler (his first G-Star modelling partner) shortly after the 2010 New York Fashion Show. They met for a chess lesson at the (now closed) Village Chess Shop, and Espen invited me to swing by with my video camera. Since we were practically around the corner from the famous Washington Square Park chess tables, I suggested we all head there afterwards. Magnus ended up playing blitz with a couple of unsuspecting "chess hustlers", much to the delight of Tyler and the rest of us.
For the resulting VGTV scene, they went back to the park in 2013 and managed to find and interview Magnus' opponents, two of the "regulars", as it turns out.
The scene was a demo of sorts for the feature project, which of course was helped in no small measure by the fact that Carlsen won in Chennai and became World Champion. The feature got its needed financing and a new producer, Sigurd Mikal Karoliussen of Moskus Film (with VGTV as co-producer). The producers secured the rights for the entire match footage produced by ChessCast on behalf of the Indian organizers.
Aside from the complete video record of the Chennai match, the filmmakers quickly obtained another treasure trove of footage: the raw archive from filmmaker Oyvind Asbjornsen that formed the basis of his 2005 documentary on Magnus, The Prince of Chess. The hours of footage and also home movies of Magnus as a child were essential to telling the backstory leading to the 2013 World Championship run.The scenes of young Magnus prove to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the new documentary. For anyone who has followed him closely over the years, it's a treat to see, already in his early childhood, the echoes of many of the same mannerisms and expressions that have stuck with him into adulthood.
His prodigious rise in chess is juxtaposed with admissions that there was a social cost to being so focused on one activity, as Magnus suffered some isolation, even bullying in school.
Throughout this first section of the film, we get the impression that Magnus was really just a nice kid, with a caring family, trying to cope with an unusual proclivity that many people outside the chess community simply didn't understand. The film touches on both his early successes — like tying for first in the Norwegian Championship — and setbacks like a first round loss to Levon Aronian in his first World Cup, in Tripoli, 2004.
Carlsen was clearly unusually focused from a very young age, and by the time he became a grandmaster in the same year, he was already dreaming big.
The climax of the first act comes when Carlsen gets a chance to face Garry Kasparov in a rapid tournament in Reykjavik. Magnus approached the encounter with refreshing optimism of youth.
Then still an IM with two GM norms and rated 2484, Magnus was a 350-point underdog, yet managed to hold Kasparov to a draw in the first of two rapid games. Although he lost the second game, his nerve and attitude made a big impression on Kasparov, who would later go on to conduct several intensive training sessions with Carlsen five years later.
The video of their first meeting over the board is something every chess fan should see, but even chess neophytes will marvel at the prospect of a small boy facing the world's best player, and holding his own — a phenomenon which is essentially unheard of in professional sports. Imagine watching the top prospect from Little League baseball smack an Aroldis Chapman fastball for a double!
The rest of the film deals with the London Candidates Tournament, and the World Championship match itself. Along the way we get to hear from the Carlsen as an adult, as well as from those closest to him. His father Henrik and his sisters all feature prominently throughout.
We gradually come to understand a bit better how his mind works, as for instance when Magnus attempts to deconstruct his own intuition:
When I see a chess position I always have some idea very quickly of what I should do and I can see these things immediately where other people see chaos. Pieces appear on the squares in the blink of an eye. It happens automatically.
The filmmakers visualized this subconscious process using simple but elegant visual effects reminiscent of the firing of neurons in the cerebral cortex.
The 2013 Candidates was one of the most thrilling chess spectacles I've had the pleasure to witness first hand (as the producer of the official live webcast), so I can tell you it is great fun to relive the key moments, even if you're broadly familiar with the history (and IM Lawrence Trent's inimitable commentary).
Once that hurdle was cleared it was time to prepare for the match, and the film takes you behind the scenes, including a training camp with Magnus' seconds at the Kragerø Resort in Norway, and even into his Oslo home!
Finally on to Chennai! That first Anand vs. Carlsen match ended with a fairly lopsided score of 6½—3½, which posed a bit of a challenge; how do you maintain dramatic tension when the match was not ultimately close?
The focus remains squarely on the first half of the match and the struggle of being a challenger. And they succeed in showcasing the tremendous pressure and intense atmosphere surrounding the contest.
This is the first Norwegian feature documentary making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, a highly competitive and prestigious event co-founded by actor Robert De Niro.
The initial four public screenings were all sold out well in advance, prompting the festival to add a fifth date, but of course the vast majority of interested moviegoers will eagerly await the theatrical release.
The film has already been sold in countries across Europe, and will debut in Norway on September 2nd. The rest of the world (including the USA) will have to wait until distributors can be found, but with any luck you'll be able to see it before Carlsen vs. Karjakin hits New York in November!
Until then, we're pleased to bring you one final, previously unreleased, scene from the film:
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