‘Mozart of chess’ to challenge for world title

Opposing kings: Magnus Carlsen faces previous title contender Boris Gelfand © Getty Images

At 22, Magnus Carlsen already has the highest rating in chess history. Now, after winning a tightly-contested tournament, he faces India’s Vishy Anand in the official world championship.

With his thick-framed glasses and dapper flannel suit, Magnus Carlsen does not look like an international sporting sensation. Yet this introverted 22-year-old Norwegian may well be one of the most remarkable talents in the world.

Carlsen’s sport is chess, and he is on course to become the greatest player of all time. At 13, he achieved the rank of grandmaster. Before his 20th birthday he was officially the best player in the world, showcasing his skills by playing ten people simultaneously while blindfolded. By December 2012 his rating was the highest in chess history.

Now, after a nail-biting tournament victory over seven opponents from the formidable chess programme of the former USSR, Carlsen is one step away from the prestigious title of official world champion. In November he will face the current holder Vishy Anand of India in a gruelling series of matches, each of which could last up to seven hours.

With Anand more than 20 years older than Carlsen, it is a clash of age versus youth. It is also as close as chess comes to a celebrity face-off: both players have been voted sportsperson of the year in their home countries, while Carlsen models for high street fashion brand G-Star Raw.

The game has not received this much attention since the dramatic rivalries of the Cold War. In an era when the USSR dominated chess, a troubled American genius called Bobby Fischer took on all Soviet opponents and astonishingly won. Fleetingly Fischer became a US hero; but he descended into madness and paranoia, and died as a reclusive exile without defending his title.

In the 1980s, with the Soviet Union racked by internal struggle, a gripping rivalry emerged between two Russian grandmasters from opposite sides of the divide. Anatoly Karpov, formal and severe, was the hero of the authoritarian establishment. Rebellious Garry Kasparov fought for economic and political reform.

Since the end of Kasparov’s reign, chess has received little public attention. But with over 600 million players worldwide, many believe that it is entering a new golden age.

Board of life

Visit a chess tournament and all you will see is pairs of besuited figures in a dimly-lit room staring rigidly at a table for hours on end. To some people, the idea that this could be a fascinating spectacle is absurd. No doubt it is a difficult challenge, they say; but surely all that mental energy could be more productively spent elsewhere?

To chess fans, though, the game is much more than just a mental puzzle. The deep thought processes and complex patterns that make up a tightly-fought match are not just impressive, but ‘beautiful’ and ‘creative’. Chess is at once a sport, a science and an art, they say: a unique expression of the intricate workings of the human mind.

You Decide

  1. Is chess a sport, a science, an art, or just a game?
  2. Can a game be ‘beautiful’ in the same way as a painting or a song?

Activities

  1. Pick your favourite sport and list five qualities and abilities that it tests.
  2. Get into pairs and play a game of chess. If you’ve never tried before, use the links below to practise the basic moves.

Some People Say...

“Chess is the art which expresses the science of logic.’ Mikhail Botvinnik, former world champion”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t understand chess.
If you’re a beginner, it’s a difficult game to get your head around. But it’s worth persevering: apart from being rich and enjoyable, there is evidence that chess helps improve your logical and analytical thinking. That’s why governments are increasingly promoting it in schools, with three countries – Armenia, Israel and Hungary – recently making chess compulsory. Some suggest that the UK could follow suit.
If I’m no good at chess, does that make me stupid?
Not at all. Being good at chess requires a particular kind of strategic thinking, but plenty of great thinkers have been useless chess players, and grandmasters (including the erratic Bobby Fischer) can be idiotic in other areas of life.

Word Watch

Grandmaster
The highest rank in the chess hierarchy. Carlsen was the third youngest grandmaster in history, behind his Russian contemporary Sergey Karjakin.
Nail-biting tournament victory
With one game to go, Carlsen had to get a result as good as that of his nearest rival, the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik. When Carlsen played overambitiously and lost his match as white, it seemed briefly as though he had blown his chance; but Kramnik had also overstretched, and Carlsen won by a whisker.
Former USSR
Soviet leaders saw chess both as a way of training young minds and of proving that communism was intellectually superior to capitalism. They poured huge amounts of money into elite chess schools, where promising children would be sent for emersive training. Soviet countries dominated chess for most of the 20th century, and the region still provides most of the world’s top players today.
Internal struggle
By the 1980s, it was clear that the communist system had become stagnant and corrupt. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reforms known as glasnost and perestroika, but instead of saving communism they led to the collapse of the entire system. In 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved.

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