NORWAY’S Magnus Carlsen was yesterday crowned World Chess Champion in Chennai, India, cementing the 22-year-old’s position as the best player on the planet.
His victory gives the ancient game its biggest opportunity in recent decades to renew its popularity. Dubbed by the media as ‘Grandmaster Flash’, the Norwegian has taken chess into new celebrity territory after treading the catwalk with actress Liv Tyler, making regular appearances on TV shows in the United States, and being offered a part in the latest Star Trek movie.
Carlsen has been the undisputed world No I for almost four years and was the bookmakers’ favourite to win the competition. In the event, he won in style by defeating defending champion Viswanathan Anand, 43, of India by a score of 6.5-3.5.
Despite the title clash being held in Anand’s hometown, it was a cool and confident Carlsen who dominated the match throughout, as he ruthlessly won the world crown by going undefeated in their scheduled best-of-12-game match that had a prize fund of $2.24 million (£1.4m); Carlsen won 60 per cent and Anand takes home the rest.
Speaking to the world’s media after his victory, Carlsen said he was “very very happy to have won and to have completed this match.” He added: “Let’s write the history books later!”
His victory signals the start of a new era for chess that could see the game receiving a facelift with his media appeal and marketability to compete alongside other major franchise sports.
With his youth and rugged Matt Damon looks, Carlsen has almost single-handedly propelled chess back into the headlines in a way not seen since the Cold War clash in 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – the first chess duel that dominated world news and led to an explosion of interest in chess in the West as lone-wolf Fischer took on and beat the might of the Soviet chess machine.
But if Fischer’s victory led to an explosion, Carlsen’s has the potential of going nuclear. He is well on the road to becoming the biggest superstar the game has ever seen, and to easily outstrip the earnings made by his predecessors Fischer and Garry Kasparov.
Carlsen has the kind of marketable sports star appeal that has not been seen before in elite chess. He plays in all major events wearing bespoke jackets and shirts emblazoned with big-sponsor names. And his allure on and off the chessboard is such that he has already trod the New York catwalk with Lord of the Rings actress Liv Tyler as the public face of urban-teen fashion house G-Star RAW; a lucrative gig he got when Hollywood star Johnny Depp declined.
Carlsen is also achieving cult celebrity status with regular appearances on top US network shows such as 60 Minutes and the Colbert Report. This kind of exposure led to ardent chess fan and movie director JJ Abrams offering him the part of a futuristic world-chess champion in the latest sequel of the Star Trek franchise Into Darkness; however, due to problems getting a visa, he had to decline.
The titanic tussle between Carlsen and Anand featured last week in the online British edition of GQ magazine, with its editor discovering the chess story was more popular than 100 shots of Victoria’s Secret models.
But Carlsen misses out on being the youngest player to win the world title. That honour goes to Kasparov, who was younger by just a few weeks.
Back in 2004, when I wrote about Carlsen’s first appearance in a major international event in the Netherlands, as an innocent and cherubic 13-year-old, I started my chess column for The Scotsman with “I have seen the future for chess, and his name is Magnus Carlsen.”
That future is now here.
• John Henderson is The Scotsman’s chess correspondent.