Magnus Carlsen at the top of his game

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Magnus Carlsen, the 19-year-old international chess sensation, was back home in Norway this week after confirming his ranking as the world’s top player. The past few months have been a whirlwind of accomplishment and glory, but the soft-spoken teenager seems strangely unaffected and mostly intent on retaining his top spot.

The world's number one chess player Magnus Carlsen (center), flanked by his father Henrik (right) and sponsor agent Espen Agdestein (left). ALL PHOTOS: Views and News/Nina Berglund

Carlsen, who started winning tournaments at age eight, has worked more than half his life to get to where he is now. He nailed the top ranking at a major tournament in Moscow in November, went on to win the London Chess Classic in December, was officially named Number One over New Year and cemented his position at the important Corus Wijk aan Zee earlier this month.

So how does it feel?

“Well, there are a lot of good things about it,” replies Carlsen, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully at a meeting with foreign journalists in Oslo on Wednesday. “It’s been one of my goals for many years to become the number-one player.

“The downside is that you have to answer a question like that.”

Eye on the prize
What’s left for the young man who’s been called “the Mozart of chess?” Winning the world championship, but Carlsen says the road to that competition is rocky, full of unpredictability, and his earliest chance at the title probably won’t come until 2012.

Carlsen is known to fidget, often yawning and looking sleepy even during tournaments. His mind, though, is razor sharp.

“A lot of players have gotten lost waiting for the world championships and not playing tournaments,” Carlsen said. “For me, it’s much easier to stay focused on tournaments.”

And on winning. His performance continues to amaze the chess world and not least his father Henrik, who taught young Magnus the game and remains close by his side. The elder Carlsen readily admits that he hasn’t won a match against his son for “around nine years,” adding that “if I can just understand how he’s playing, I’m happy.”

Carlsen quickly outgrew his coaches and last year signed on with one of the greatest players of all time, Garry Kasparov. He credits Kasparov for “probably” expediting his rise to the top. “He certainly has helped me a lot,” Carlsen says. “We talk every day during tournaments, and have had some training sessions, like one in Croatia. His opening database is really huge.”

Kasparov has played against opponents who Carlsen now faces, “so he has a lot of advice, psychological, and how to play against them. He tries to teach me to be more aggressive.”

Kasparov told Time Magazine last month that Carlsen “is changing the game,” and he’s earlier said he thinks Carlsen can boost the image of chess, “westernizing” it and adding to its appeal.

“I’ll leave it to others to say what I’m doing to the game,” Carlsen says modestly, but adds that he thinks more young Norwegians are now playing chess and that he was happy a major tournament was recently held in a big “western” city like London.

Back to work
Now, between his victory at the Corus tournament in the Netherlands and the upcoming Melody Amber tournament in Monaco next month, Carlsen is doing some work for his two main sponsors, Oslo-based Arctic Securities and law firm Simonsen. They’re each paying him NOK 1 million (about USD 167,000) a year, which helps pay for Kasparov’s coaching, and in return Carlsen sports their logos on sweaters and jackets, will speak to their clients and even play chess with those who dare — or who merely want to brag that they’ve played chess with Magnus Carlsen.

The sponsorships were arranged by Carlsen’s new sponsor agent Espen Agdestein, brother of one of Carlsen’s earlier and arguably most important coaches Simen Agdestein, himself a Grand Master and six-time Norwegian champion. It was Simen Agdestein who developed a special chess class at Norway’s top athletics high school which Carlsen attended from 2006 to 2009.

“There are very clear elements of sport in chess,” Carlsen reasons. “It’s a competition, it’s a fight, and long tournament play can be physically quite challenging.” He has trained with Norway’s Olympics organization (Olympiatoppen), runs, plays soccer, tennis and squash to build up his physical endurance. To relax he says he likes “to watch a movie or talk to friends over the net.”

Carlsen sporting the logos of his new sponsors.

Putting off school
He’s putting off any thoughts of further studies, opting to concentrate on chess for now. As Espen Agdestein noted, there are few professional chess players who have time to go to school. Carlsen also was relieved of Norway’s compulsory military service, freeing him up for a demanding tournament schedule. His winnings help provide a tidy income in addition to the sponsorships, which Agdestein hinted there would be more of. Chess, Agdestein says, “is the ultimate intellectual sport,” and more businesses may like to be associated with the sort of excellence that Carlsen symbolizes.

Until recently there hasn’t been a lot of support coming from official state channels, even though Norway is a country known for stipends and grants. “So far I haven’t felt much backing,” Carlsen said. “But when I got home from London, I was invited to the Ministry of Culture (responsible for sports in Norway), for the first time.” He’s glad the government supports an effort by the northern city of Tromsø to host the Chess Olympics in 2014. “So it seems the government support is increasing,” he says.

Carlsen is also one of three nominees for the annual “Peer Gynt” prize in Norway, awarded by Members of Parliament to a Norwegian who has boosted awareness of Norway overseas in a positive way. Last year’s winner was soccer star Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who formerly played for Manchester United.

Turning back to chess, Carlsen says he views Vladimir Kramnik as his most important opponent right now, saying “he’s had a recent surge in form,” while Vishy Anand “is still very strong.” While not lacking in self-confidence, Carlsen can be disarmingly self-deprecating, writing about his tournament “blunders” in a blog, or admitting that he “calculated horribly” on certain moves.

He’ll concentrate on continuing to beat Kramnik and other rivals at tournaments while keeping his eye on the world championship, whenever it rolls around.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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