The top-rated chess player in the world enters the room and without any introduction he starts lecturing.
"OK, well," he says, pointing to the green and white demonstration board under the bust of an early twentieth century grandmaster—but then, remembering to be courteous, he says, "Well, OK, nice to be here. OK so going to start now. If you want to move pieces you can try to keep up, or if you want to watch, or if you don't want to pay attention at all ..."
21-year-old Magnus Carlsen is handsome and charming, but he has little interest in working the crowd. What interests him is chess.
The Norwegian grandmaster came to New York for a week in August to run a chess camp with Chess NYC and to hold this event at the Marshall Chess Club. The event was co-sponsored by 1000 Passions, a startup that lets people sign up for exclusive experiences.
Carlsen spends the next hour replaying one of his games from memory. He asks us at certain points to figure out what move comes next, and then he sips wine and stares at the board, while the rest of us rack our brains or sit there hopelessly.
Not only does he remember this game—and supposedly 10,000 other games—but he shows us dozens of alternate outcomes before returning to what really happened.
His supreme confidence is impressive too.
When asked if he was shocked by a bold move by his opponent, Carlsen grinned and the crowd laughed. "Well, I'd seen it when I made my move, but I should have been more careful, I guess."
When someone suggested a move that might lead to a draw, Carlsen chided him: "But we're trying to win, not survive."
Toward the end of the game, when his king was chased into the middle of the board, one row away from his opponent's queen and rook, Carlsen got a laugh by stating the incredible truth: "And now my king is completely safe."
Later in the night Carlsen simultaneously played ten people from the room chosen at random. That he beat everyone was hardly surprising, given that he has previously beaten ten people while playing blindfolded and talked about taking on twenty.
Check out our exclusive video and interview with Carlsen:
Carlsen also answered questions from the crowd. His answers are transcribed below:
What made him so good?
Carlsen: "Well I think an important part of broadening my understanding of the game, senses of positioning, tactics and so one was just playing and also I had sessions with my trainers in Norway. Either it would be me or a few others just sitting at the board, analyzing. I think those analyzing sessions gave me a lot, actually. Just moving the pieces around helped everyone improve their understanding of chess so much.
What did he think of play in the last world championships [in which he did not compete]?
Carlsen: "Well, I thought the preparation was top class, especially from Gelfand. He was well prepared in all the openings he played and probably quite a few of the openings that weren’t actually on the board. Anand was also trying very hard but the problem was he wasn’t getting much of an advantage with the white pieces ... Draws were agreed in positions that weren’t completely drawn ... Either my understanding of the board and the game is many levels below theirs of they could have played it out.
What does he think about rules that discourage draws?
Carlsen: "Well the three-one-oh system is controversial, obviously, I think it’s a viable system. But there are advantages and disadvantages, obviously. I think it only affects the final score in extreme cases, especially when one player wins two games and another player draws five games. Usually the one with five draws wins but in this case the one who scores two wins comes out ahead. That’s what happened at my last tournament, which is unfortunate for me but the rules were the rules. As for the Sofia rules, whatever you want to call it, I don’t think those rules are controversial at all, I just think at top level tournaments you should play out the games. And you shouldn’t give people the opportunity to offer a draw. I think at amateur tournaments, open tournaments, people should be allowed to do whatever they want. If they want to agree to a draw, that’s fine. At top level tournaments, there’s simply no excuse for not playing out the games."
Does he have a favorite player in history?
Carlsen: "Well I remember I had a collection of public games when I was younger and I liked it a lot. There were also other game collections that I liked but there wasn’t any particular player I modeled my game after. I tried to learn from everyone and create my own style. I studied past players. I loved reading about chess, old books, old tournaments, old games and so on. Also contemporary players. I just found it all interesting."
Does he have a favorite player right now?
Carlsen: "Truth be told I never had a favorite player. It’s just not my nature to go around idolizing people. I just go try to learn. Obviously I admire a lot of players, the world champions, but my favorite player of all time or now, I could not say. If you want to know the strongest player now, apart from me anyway, I think it’s Anand when he’s at his best. He hasn’t been in a long time, but he reads positions very quickly, he calculates well and in general has a great understanding of the game.
What did he learn working with Gary Kasparov?
Carlsen: "Complex positions. That was the most important thing. Because before I started working with him frequently I would shy away from those positions and I didn’t understand what was going on. But he could grasp those positions quickly and I tried to learn from that. I still make a lot of mistakes in complicated positions so I haven’t really taken that final step yet. I feel that I learned a lot from him in that respect.
Does he attack less than he used to?
Carlsen: "I guess the games you’ve looked at were from 2004, 2005, when my opponents were much weaker than they are today. I mean, that’s the most obvious explanation. My opponents were weaker, I got more of a chance to win with that style. And now, people don’t really allow you to play that same way. I was probably more of an attacking player back then. I used to frequently vastly overrate my chances in attacking positions. I still lose sometimes but that’s the way it goes. In general I tend to be more of an optimist than a pessimist and I think that is so. I think my style changed a bit in 2007, 2008 when I got to the top level and I started to lose a lot of games because I was too optimistic with my chances and my opponents were defending well and counterattacking and picking me apart. So I had to adjust and my understanding of the game got deeper, better and I just studied all the different positions.
What advice would he give to a beginner?
Carlsen: "Just have fun, play games, a lot if you want, read chess books. That’s the way I went about it in those years. It was never really a system. I worked from the age of nine with a trainer once a week but I would also just sit at home with the board and some chess books. And I think it’s a healthy approach not to study the openings too much. I think studying the openings is useful but getting an understanding of the game, learning tactics is more important. And the way I did it back in those days is that I read books on some openings, not necessarily the entire book but some things that interested me. Then the next week I’d go to a tournament and try it out and see how it goes.
What does he think about computer chess?
Carlsen: "I’ve never been much of a computer guy at least in terms of playing with computers. Actually until I was about 11 I didn’t use a computer for preparing for games at all. I was playing a bit online, was using the chess club mainly. Now, obviously, the computer is an important tool for me preparing for my games. [But] in general I get much more pleasure from playing human opponents. That’s why I never really played with computer. I just analyze when I’m on the computer, either my games or my opponents. But mostly my own.
Does he have talents outside of chess?
Carlsen: "I don’t know. Maybe if I didn’t have the talent in chess I’d find the talent in something else. The only thing I know is that I have talent in chess, and I’m satisfied with that."
How long will he keep playing?
Carlsen: "For me, it’s about playing as long as I’m motivated, as long as it’s fun, as long as it’s interesting. And as long as that happens, I’m going to continue playing. Whether that’s ‘til I’m 30, ‘til I’m 40, or 50 I don’t know. But as long as I feel I have something to give, as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep on going."
Someone in the crowd compares Carlsen's decision not to compete in this year's world championship tournament to Usain Bolt slowing down before the finish line at the 2008 Olympics. Does he see any similarity and when will he compete for the title?
Carlsen: "First of all, I think if you run 9.58 in the 100 meters you could say or do whatever you want. Right now my intention is to play in [an upcoming tournament] and we’ll see what happens from there. Mainly my focus is on playing well in the tournaments and keeping the number one ranking, which I think I will if I manage to perform well at a high level. For me right now I think being the world number one is a bigger deal than being the world champion because I think it shows better who plays the best chess. That sounds self-serving but I think it’s also right.
Will he play in the chess Olympics?
Carlsen: "Well ... I played in 2004, I played in 2006, I played in 2008 and I played in 2010 and I’m playing in 2014 so I thought it’d be nice to take a break this year.
When Vladimir Kramnik became world champion he game became more defensive. Would a similar transformation happen to Carlsen?
Carlsen: "I guess the problem with Kramnik was he felt that as world champion he felt as if he shoudn’t lose any games whatsoever in the first couple of years. From the great, dominant player that he was in his younger years and that he’s showing serious signs of now he became, well, boring. He was still a great player but he wasn’t taking chances and he was just not that interesting. With Anand, I don’t know. He probably has some of the same problems. I think to some extent both Kramnik and Anand both of them were trying but something wasn’t going right. For me, I really hope that I don’t become someone who doesn’t want to fight on the board. I don’t see myself becoming that.
Transcription by Business Insider intern Shlomo Sprung.