Magnus Carlsen is the new face of chess. And maybe the abs as well.
The 22-year-old Norwegian is the best chess player in the world by a wide margin (he’s held the No. 1 spot since July 2011). He also has fully embraced the role of chess ambassador — from defeating Stephen Colbert in a game of rock-paper-scissors to modeling alongside Liv Tyler for clothing company G-Star Raw.
He’s not the first chess player with his photo in Sports Illustrated — erratic American genius Bobby Fischer smiled on the cover as the magazine chronicled his Cold War-tinged world championship win in 1972 — but he might be the first to pose shirtless, spiking a volleyball. Even Cosmopolitan has noticed — the U.K. version listed him among 2013’s sexiest men.
All he needs now is the world championship, which he’s trying to take from India’s Viswanathan Anand this month.
Or does he?
“I don’t think he needs to win right now to prove that he is the world’s best,” Susan Polgar, a former women’s world champion who’s doing live commentary on the Anand-Carlsen match, said by email. “Even if he does not win this match, he will be the world champion in the near future. But winning this one is very important to his chess legacy.”
Most people trying to grow the game of chess outside India, where Anand has created a nice surge of interest, admit to a rooting interest for the young, charismatic guy with the modeling contract.
In basketball, he’d be the one who can dribble, pass, dunk and shoot from anywhere on the floor.
- Jennifer Shahade
“I think it’ll be good for chess if he becomes the world champion,” said Jennifer Shahade, U.S. Chess Federation Web editor and author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. “Being No. 1 in the world is also good. But being world champion is even better. That’ll go down in history.”
“[Carlsen] is an incredibly versatile player,” Polgar says. “In tennis, he would be a player who can play the consistent baseline and volley with precision at net like Pete Sampras or Roger Federer in their prime. In basketball, he would be the guy who can dribble, pass, dunk and shoot from anywhere on the floor (like LeBron James, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant).”
That style, along with Carlsen’s Justin-Bieber-meets-Norwegian-pop-stars-A-ha look, convinced G-Star Raw to bring him in for photo shoots.
“His uncompromising approach to the game mirrors the hardcore design philosophy of G-Star,” says the G-Star Raw site. “Famous for his confident and unpredictable style of play, he embodies the spirit of unconventional thinking.”
But can that style propel him to a world title? The 12-game, three-week match format of the World Chess Championship — which started November 9 and saw cagey draws in the first three games — is on Anand’s home turf in Chennai, India. The 43-year-old has been slogging through world championship chess matches since Carlsen was a toddler kicking around a soccer ball in Norway.
A chess match between two well-prepared opponents can look like a battle of human databases…
Carlsen’s tournament record in recent years is far better than Anand’s. But matches are a unique type of intellectual combat, distinct from tournaments which reward players who have the versatility to face diverse opponents.
The match format gives players the chance to prepare for months to face a particular opponent. Given the rigorous catalog of chess games from the past century and beyond, a chess match between two well-prepared opponents can look like a battle of human databases, each trying to remember what has happened when the 14th move placed the queen on this square or that one.
“Whether Anand’s match experience will count for something is a key question,” grandmaster Ian Rogers said via email from Chennai, where he is covering the championship match for Chess Life Online. “Most expect that it could be a factor if the match stays close.”
Little wonder some people question whether the match format is an accurate test of a world champion. Slate’s Matt Gaffney thinks Carlsen shouldn’t bother with such anachronisms and should instead push the chess world toward a tennis approach, with Grand Slam tournaments and a greater focus on the top-rated player rather than someone who simply solves the puzzle of beating a well-prepared Anand.
Carlsen seems ambivalent: “I think that the world championship is not that different from other tournaments, apart from the fact that people spend more time preparing for it,” he told Russia’s Chess TV. “Still I believe that to some extent the achievement of winning more or less every tournament is a greater one than being world champion.”
The World Chess Championship also has a sordid past riddled with Cold War paranoia, parapsychologists allegedly hypnotizing challengers, Bobby Fischer’s breakdown, competing claims to the title (some dubious), a match abruptly halted after a momentum swing, and something called “Toiletgate.” Carlsen and another top player once withdrew from consideration for a previous world championship, claiming the qualifying process was unfair.
Magnus is a dynamic young man eager to promote the sport, to raise its profile along with his own…
– Gary Kasparov
And Gaffney’s tennis comparison is apt. Carlsen is as dominant now as Roger Federer was in his peak years. Though analyzing across generations is inexact, it’s hard to overlook the news that Carlsen’s rating — computed using the coldly mathematical Elo formula — is the highest in history. Higher than Kasparov’s, who made humanity’s last stand against machines in well-publicized mid-’90s matches against IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. Higher than Bobby Fischer’s, who wrested the world championship from the Soviet chess machine.
Kasparov is far from bitter. He told Business Insider that he’s rooting for Carlsen for the good of the game:
“A win for Carlsen will also be a win for the chess world,” Kasparov wrote. “Magnus is a dynamic young man eager to promote the sport, to raise its profile along with his own, and who can inspire a new generation of chess kids (and chess sponsors!) around the world.”
He also doesn’t carry the dark eccentricities of a Fischer or a Viktor Korchnoi.
“Well, you know, I’m only 21 years old,” Carlsen told actor Rainn Wilson in an offbeat interview posted early this year. “So give me some time to develop the crazy.”
Chess is actually a young players’ game. Only six of the world’s top 50 were born before 1970, none before 1965.
But it might take someone like Carlsen to give the game more publicity and puncture whatever’s left of the game’s stuffy image.
“He has the mainstream appeal,” Polgar says. “He can also help change the stigma that chess champions are old nerdy guys.”
Why you should care
Because 22-year-old Magnus Carlsen is making chess look cool.