‘Grandmaster flash’ brings cool to world of chess

Magnus Carlsen is the current top'ranked player and will compete for the world title later this year. Picture: Getty
Magnus Carlsen is the current top'ranked player and will compete for the world title later this year. Picture: Getty
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He DOES fashion shoots with actress Liv Tyler, enjoys football-style sponsorship deals and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Not bad for a chess player.

With his trendy look and athletic physique, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen has brought an injection of cool to the normally sedate world of global chess.

The 22-year-old is ranked world No 1, and his home country is buzzing with excitement as he competes in a domestic tournament just months before he tries for the greatest prize in the game –the world championship. In November, he challenges reigning champion Viswanathan Anand, 43, for the title.

The inaugural Norway Chess competition in Stavanger, starting today, is being seen as a rehearsal for the championship, tentatively scheduled to be played in Chennai, India, where Anand enjoys home advantage.

With the lure of Carlsen and Anand, and €275,500 (£230,000) in prize money, the Stavanger competition has attracted one of the strongest line-ups ever assembled for a chess tournament. Even with the withdrawal last month of world No 2 Vladimir Kramnik, the ten-man competition will feature seven of the world’s top ten players, all vying for the €100,000 top prize.

“It is very big for Norway that Magnus is doing so well and this probably wouldn’t have been possible without him,” Norway Chess chairman Kjell Madland said.

The domestic competition is the first example of Norway leveraging Carlsen’s brilliance to try to earn a place alongside more traditional chess superpowers such as Russia, Armenia and the United States.

Carlsen’s prodigious brilliance is also seen by some as bringing intellectual and cultural weight to the social welfare models of Nordic Europe.

“Chess is connected to what you can call a kind of prestige in the sense that many people look upon the best players as very intelligent, and many countries would like to be associated with this,” Joeran Aulin-Jansson, president of the Norwegian Chess Federation, said. “We hope the next Magnus Carlsen will come from Norway, though the chances in such a small country are fairly slim.”

In a game rarely associated with feats of physical endurance, Carlsen prepares for tournaments by mentally revising openings while pounding a treadmill. He will be the youngest competitor at Norway Chess. But he is among six of the world’s top eight, all competing in Norway, who are under 30.

“These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are very tiring, especially at the end,” he said. “If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration, you will be the one who will profit from your opponents’ mistakes. In general, towards the end of the tournaments younger players have that advantage, so the other players will have to try to equal that by having good fitness as well.”

His fitness matches his unusual playing style. “I do focus quite a bit on the opening,” he said. “But I have a different goal. Some people try to win the game in the opening. My goal is to make sure I get a playable position and then the main battle is going to happen in the middle game and the later game.”

The strategy has worked. Earlier this year, Carlsen passed Garry Kasparov’s record to attain the highest chess rating ever in world governing body FIDE’s rankings.

With his modelling contract alongside actress Liv Tyler for fashion label G-Star Raw, football-style sponsorship slogans on his clothing and unnervingly fast and aggressive decision-making, the emergence of this telegenic young chess superstar has helped spur an interest in the game not seen since the 1970s and 1980s – the heyday of the Russian masters and the American Bobby Fischer.