Magnus Carlsen’s Parents on Raising the World’s Best Chess Player

HOW DO YOU SPOT a chess prodigy? Is there a moment – ​​perhaps when he makes a bold, brilliant move out of nowhere or lines his bedroom with Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov pin-ups – when everything becomes clear?

Well, that’s not quite how it went for Henrik Carlsen and Sigrun Øen, parents of 23-year-old Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian who became a grandmaster at 13 and the youngest world No. 19 years, and whose peak World Chess Federation ranking (2,882) is the highest in history. Last November, Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand to become the world chess champion, a title he will defend against Anand later this year at a venue yet to be determined, possibly Norway.

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen gives a thoughtful interview about his life in chess… then he beats Jonathan Zalman of the WSJ in about 30 seconds.

Carlsen’s road to chess took a little longer than his later stellar progression might suggest. Henrik, 52, a chess enthusiast himself, remembers introducing the game to Magnus and his older sister, Ellen, now 25, when her son was 5. But after a month or two, Henrik says: “I gave up, in the sense that we continued to play chess from time to time, but I had no ambition.” He knew that legendary players such as Capablanca and Kasparov understood the game – he snaps his fingers – “just like that”. Magnus and his sister, he says, “learned the rules quickly, and they could capture a piece, but to make two or more pieces work together, which is the essence of chess, this spatial vision took a long time. “.

World champion chess player Magnus Carlsen and his parents, Sigrun Øen and Henrik Carlsen

Photograph by Colin Dodgson for WSJ. Magazine

At the time, Henrik came to terms with the fact that chess would simply be an enjoyable family pastime. “I thought, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but that’s okay. Because, I mean, we loved our kids. Chess was something we could do together, just a pass. -time, like playing cards or whatever.” In the meantime, there were signs that Magnus had the aptitude and determination to perform impressive mental feats. Sigrun, 51, remembers her son sitting for hours with puzzles or making advanced Lego models, patiently going through pages and pages of instructions meant for kids a decade older. “He had the ability to sit still for a very long time, even when he was little,” she recalls.

This quality contributed to a large extent to its success; chess commentators draw attention to his ability to wear down his opponents, patiently waiting for them to make the slightest mistake. Magnus himself maintains that he is an aggressive player but that daring is not always appropriate. “When you play against the best people in the world, they see through your plans and you can’t win with a sword attack all the time,” he says. “Just take what’s there.”

His parents are keen to point out that he obviously wasn’t learning any faster than his sisters (he also has two younger siblings, Ingrid, 20, and Signe, 17) but continued, focusing his attention on a specific subject. , like car brands, until he knows it inside out. When I ask Magnus about his childhood skills, he simply replies, “I didn’t particularly know if I was good or not; I just tried to do it.”

“I thought, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but that doesn’t matter. Chess was something we could do together, just a hobby.”

–Henrik Carlsen

Then came a turning point. Just before Magnus was 8, Henrik says, “Ellen suddenly understood enough that I found it interesting to play with her.” Magnus sat down to watch them and, a little later, joined them. Henrik’s dilemma was that if he adopted the wrong strategy, his children wouldn’t learn anything, but he didn’t want them to get discouraged either. So he started playing with limited resources – just his king and a pawn – slowly adding pieces as they learned the game. Magnus’ interest started to grow, although Henrik maintains that “He just wanted to beat his sister”. He had a competitive spirit even when he was little? “Yes, absolutely,” Sigrun said, “he still has that.” More competitive than its sisters? “Absolutely.” She laughs and waves to her husband. “It’s not me, it’s his!”

Soon he was entering and winning tournaments very quickly. At home, during dinner, he began to sit apart from the family so he could study his chessboard while eating. “He was in the same room,” Sigrun recalled, “so we could talk to him if we wanted; he could hear what we were talking about if he wanted to join us.” Despite their unorthodox meals, they were and remain close family.

WHIZ KIDS | Magnus at 13, taking on Belarusian grandmaster Alexei Fedorov in the 2004 Dubai Open Chess Championship.

©Anwar Mirza/Reuters/Corbis

Participate in the Sinquefield Cup 2013

©Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/Corbis

There is a special bond between father and son, forged by a mutual love of chess. When Magnus was 12, Henrik took a year off from his job (he’s spent the last few years balancing his job as a consultant in the oil industry with running Magnus’ business) and pulled the children out of school so they could travel around Europe together, an experience Magnus remembers as “more useful than staying in school that year”. Now, he says, he realizes that a certain family resemblance is developing. “I think I’m looking more and more like my dad,” he laughs. “I make the same rotten jokes! A lot of sons probably find themselves saying the same thing, but in the case of the Carlsens, there’s another dimension. “Whenever I lose,” Magnus explains, “usually I want to be alone, understand that. A few times I lost and I complained to my dad about it, and he said, you and stop complaining.’ I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever received.”

Sigrun, an engineer like her husband, is not a chess player, although she has started trying her hand at Play Magnus, an app that lets you test your skills against the champion at different stages of his career. She describes herself as an introvert and dislikes the attention Magnus’ fame has brought, especially when people approach her on the street. This is happening even more now that he is a model for clothing company G-Star Raw, whose latest ad campaign features him playing chess with British actress-model Lily Cole. (Henrik recalls the reaction of Magnus’ sisters when his career took a turn towards modeling: “He got a lot of credit for that. They thought, OK, now you’re going somewhere!”)

Although Sigrun insists she’s not dazzled by all the attention given to Magnus (“I really don’t think so much of him as a world chess champion,” she says, “because that’s my son”), she had to work through an emotional barrier when he was 9 years old and started competing regularly. As she watched him play in a game, all Sigrun could see was a small boy who looked unhappy, hunched over a board as if struggling. Naturally, all she wanted was to take him home. Afterwards, she asked him if the contest had been painful for him. He looked at her blankly and incomprehensibly. No, he replied, he had enjoyed himself and was just lost in thought. Now, Sigrun says, “I just want him to be happy. And as long as he’s happy, he can do whatever he wants.”

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