Latest news

General Mar 25, 2021 | 4:00 PMby Colin McGourty

The Magnus Carlsen Story

Magnus Carlsen is just 30 years old, but for 17 of those years he’s been a grandmaster, for 10, the world no. 1, and for the last 8, the World Chess Champion. A 7-part documentary that aired during the Magnus Carlsen Invitational gave a glimpse behind the scenes, including interviews with his father Henrik, older sister Ellen, manager Espen Agdestein and second Jon Ludvig Hammer. Magnus reveals he’s always unsure whether he’ll play the next match for the title, though it’s complicated: “I’m not necessarily that happy that I have it, I just would be very unhappy to not have it!”

In case you missed it during the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, we’ve embedded the full 7-episode Magnus Carlsen Story below. Enjoy!

1. Childhood

Magnus’ father Henrik comments:

My wife and I considered our children to be absolutely normal in many respects, basically. Now later, I understand that they had some special traits, and clearly Magnus was in to concentrating for hours at a time, doing various tasks, whether it was Lego or chess or math or sports results.

Chess didn’t immediately catch on with the future World Champion, however, with the attempt to teach him the game at the age of four ending in failure:

Magnus had shown a clear indication and ability to certain activities, concentration activities, that I thought would match well with chess, basically, so I tried to teach Magnus and his older sister chess when he was four and a half, and then it was so difficult for them, really. They could learn the rules, they could play some games, typically I would start with just one pawn and my king and they would try to beat me with all their forces, but in the end it was usually a stalemate, or sometimes I even won with my one pawn.

If I had any aspirations for the kids basically that all went away during the first year or two – fortunately, because it turned out that chess was much more difficult than I had understood, basically, and when Magnus started becoming really interested in chess at seven and a half, he said because he wanted to beat his older sister, then I didn’t have that much ambition on his behalf and he was allowed to develop and flourish on his own.

By the age of eight and a half Magnus played his first tournament, and though he didn’t come close to winning he’d had a lot of fun and there was no going back. “Chess was very much his life from the age of eight,” says Henrik.

2. Euro Road Trip

Magnus Carlsen was an International Master in 2003 when his parents decided to fulfil a dream and take a year out to travel with their three kids around Europe. They had a lot of fun, though some things were limited.

I remember also finding an internet café and playing some blitz online after not having had internet for a month or so. That was also pretty cool.

It wasn’t your average family vacation, however, since it included Magnus beating 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov and coming very close to defeating 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov in an event in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Magnus comments of the year:

I think the effect on me as a chess player cannot be [overstated]. I had the chance to play a lot of tournaments and also not to think about too many other things. It’s probably the year where I made the biggest leap… After that year was over I was a grandmaster and I’d sort of made my breakthrough.

3. 13-year-old Grandmaster

Magnus made GM norms at the start of 2004 in Wijk aan Zee and the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, playing games that gained huge resonance around the chess world. He finally clinched the 3rd norm and grandmaster title in the Dubai Open, with a last-round draw against Viorel Iordachescu. Magnus comments:

I still very much remember the nervousness that I felt on the day and the game where I finally got the title. My opponent I think offered a draw in a somewhat worse position, and frankly I couldn’t have taken the draw any faster, because I just wanted the title.

Ellen reveals:

We went to celebrate at McDonalds, which was not like where we would go to eat every day, and we even got ice-cream as well.

Magnus reflects:

It’s funny to think that is now almost 17 years ago. I’ve been a grandmaster for much longer than I haven’t.

4: Superstar

By 2012 Magnus had eclipsed the long-standing rating record set by Garry Kasparov, with Espen Agdestein commenting that Magnus was “almost too good before the Candidates”. The 2012 London Candidates saw Magnus qualify for his first World Championship match, but only after a nail-biting battle with Vladimir Kramnik. 

Espen reveals how he initially delayed telling Magnus he’d been selected for Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world so as not to disturb him during the event. It was only after a loss to Vasyl Ivanchuk that Magnus was told in the hope of giving him a boost. It worked.

5: MC Hammer

Despite Magnus being the clear world no. 1, a World Championship match was very different from playing tournaments. As he commented:

Back then I sort of felt that I was really scraping by - it’s probably time to get a full-time second.

The person he picked was a surprise – his Norwegian childhood friend Jon Ludvig Hammer, who also had no experience preparing for a World Championship match. In the video Hammer returns to the spot he got the news.  

6: World Chess Champion

“Well now I can die”, Henrik says he thought after watching his son win the World Chess Championship from Vishy Anand in Chennai in 2013. After that, the process of defending the title began, against Vishy again in Sochi in 2014, Sergey Karjakin in New York in 2016, and Fabiano Caruana in London in 2018. Magnus felt that last match was different:

He’d had a great year, I hadn’t had a great year, and it felt when we were playing like we were equals, and in that sense the other matches it felt like losing is simply not an option, it cannot happen. Obviously that’s not an attitude that is good if you want to have an enjoyable experience, but the match in London was a little bit different in that sense. It was an equal match, and if I’d lost it, it would have hurt a great deal, but still it didn’t feel like it was impossible, something that couldn’t happen.

Magnus Carlsen's seconds Peter Heine Nielsen, Jan Gustafsson and Laurent Fressinet gave a behind-the-scenes account of that match here on chess24.

7: The Future

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. If there’s one theme running through the Magnus Carlsen Story it’s the pressure when the World Championship is at stake, and that Magnus has a love-hate relationship with that title.  

The thing that everybody mentions first is obviously World Champion, and I’ve started to over the years identify with that more and more. It’s nice, it’s opening some doors and it’s a position of great privilege, but I don’t necessarily think it’s very healthy.

He comments:

I guess in the few years before I became World Champion most of the time I was pretty happy just travelling, playing tournaments, and most of the time I would be the best and I was not that concerned with the World Championship. It changed a bit in late 2012 and early 2013, but it was more like, let’s just try and get it, because why not?

How did things change after 2013?

After I gained the title the situation became very different, because then I didn’t want to lose it, I didn’t want any others to take the title away from me… I’m not necessarily that happy that I have it, I just would be very unhappy to not have it!

How long will Magnus have the motivation to try and keep the title?

I think before and after every single match, at least the last three, it’s been a real question of whether I’m going to play, or I’m going to play the next one also. I would say that’s still the same. I will most probably play in 2021, and if I were to win I’ve no idea whether I would play the next one.

Magnus is set to play the winner of next month’s resumed Candidates Tournament in Dubai, where he gained the grandmaster title, starting November 24th this year. If he plays, that will be Carlsen’s 5th World Championship match, and you can directly compare his achievements to that other candidate for Greatest Of All Time, Garry Kasparov, who won or retained the title in 6 matches.

YearOpponentResultYearOpponentResultAge (July)
1984KarpovMatch abandoned201221
1985KarpovKasparov wins title (1)2013AnandCarlsen wins title (1)22
1986KarpovKasparov wins (2)2014AnandCarlsen wins (2)23
1987KarpovTie - Kasparov retains title (3)201524
19882016KarjakinCarlsen wins in playoff (3)25
1990KarpovKasparov wins (4)2018CaruanaCarlsen wins in playoff (4)27
1993ShortKasparov wins (5)2021??????30
1995AnandKasparov wins (6)202332
2000KramnikKasparov loses202837

As you can see, not counting the abandoned 1984 match, Magnus is exactly matching the rate at which Garry won and defended his title. This year's match is the equivalent of Garry's 4th defence, at the age of 30, against Nigel Short in 1993. Can Magnus hold on to the title for another 7 years, or more immediately - if matches are played every two years - surpass the 6 times Garry won or retained his title? Back in 2014 he'd made that his goal.

One thing that's changed immensely since Garry Kasparov reigned supreme, however, is the access the general chess public has to the World Champion. This Saturday at 16:30 CET you have a chance to play against Magnus, as he takes on chess24 premium members in Banter Blitz!

Simply go to the Banter Blitz with Magnus Carlsen show, hover over his chess24 username MagzyBogues and, when he's online, you'll be able to click "Challenge me!" and submit a challenge. If he accepts, you'll automatically be taken to the game. Good luck!

See also:

Sort by Date Descending Date Descending Date Ascending Most Liked Receive updates

Comments 9

Guest 13718041012
Join chess24
  • Free, Quick & Easy

  • Be the first to comment!


Create your free account now to get started!

By clicking ‘Register’ you agree to our terms and conditions and confirm you have read our privacy policy, including the section on the use of cookies.

Lost your password? We'll send you a link to reset it!

After submitting this form you'll receive an email with the reset password link. If you still can't access your account please contact our customer service.

Which features would you like to enable?

We respect your privacy and data protection guidelines. Some components of our site require cookies or local storage that handles personal information.

Show Options

Hide Options