Magnus Carlsen, A Chess Child Prodigy Grows Up

Long hailed as the future of chess, the Norwegian-born grand master is now, at the ripe age of 23, the reigning world champion. The next question: will he be the greatest of all time?

New world chess champion Magnus Carlsen
New world chess champion Magnus Carlsen
Pierre Barthélémy

OSLO — It’s a rainy day in Norway"s capital, and a fire is burning in the luxurious building of investment bank Arctic Securities. Next to the hearth, a chessboard reminds us that the organization is a proud sponsor of new world chess champion Magnus Carlsen. Lounging on a couch, with part of his shirt untucked from his trousers, the 23-year-old is nibbling on peanuts.

The last time we met was in 2008. He was just a teenager back then but already one of the games’ top prospects, “the Mozart of chess,” in the words of The Washington Post. At the time, we retraced the conventional steps of a child prodigy gifted with an exceptional memory. He had just won one of the world’s most difficult tournaments, in the Dutch city of Wijk-aan-Zee, at just 17.

“I think the question is not whether Carlsen will become world champion, but rather when,” former Russian world champion Vladimir Kramnik predicted at the time.

Kramnik’s prophecy came true five years later when Carlsen defeated Indian Viswanathan Anand on Nov. 22, 2013. As if it was always meant to be. And yet, reaching the top was no easy task. During the second half of 2008, Carlsen’s results receded. But one year later, everything was strangely back to normal.

In the meantime, the Norwegian played his trump card: Garry Kasparov. Carlsen established contact with the greatest chess player of the 20th century — world champion between 1985 and 2000 — at the end of 2008 via Frederic Friedel, director of ChessBase, a German company specializing in chess computer software.

Friedel had been trying to talk Garry into coaching me for a long time, but he wasn’t convinced by the idea,” Carlsen explains. Kasparov had struggled to accept that his best days were behind him. On the other hand, if he accepted the offer, he could be the one to introduce the world to his successor. That and a big check finally convinced him.

Carlsen at age 13 — Photo: CLUB DE AJEDREZ LINEX-MAGIC

Carlsen’s agent Espen Agdestein went looking for sponsors to bankroll the six training sessions that would take place during 2009. The collaboration between Carlsen and Kasparov remained secret for months, but the news broke in September. During those sessions, Carlsen worked on something he had never really studied in depth before — openings. But most of all, his Russian mentor offered him an analytical glimpse of the psychology of other great chess masters.

“I was sometimes surprised to see how well he knew his opponents,” Carlsen says during our talk in Oslo. “Even with players famous for their unpredictability, like the Russian Morozevich or the Ukrainian Ivanchuk, he managed to find patterns in their game. And with first-rate champions such as Kramnik or Anand, he knew what position they liked to play in and those in which they felt uncomfortable.”

Finding the crack

In an era when computer software is ubiquitous, champions have changed methods. It is not so much about overwhelming the opponent with rehearsed moves anymore as it is about forcing him into an uncomfortable position, where he will commit the one tiny mistake that will cost him the win.

This method suits Carlsen’s style. According to the top French player Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “He is very patient. He’s a universal player who can adapt to anybody. He creates a problem on the right-hand side, then one on the left to cause you to make a mistake and to crack under the pressure. On top of that, he makes very few mistakes. In fact, I don’t believe we’ve ever seen a player make so few mistakes."

Carlsen agrees and sums up his strategy this way: “I try to play 40 or 50 good moves, and I challenge my opponents to do the same. Even when the position is simple, or seems simple, I try to remain focused and creative to find the hidden possibilities. I do just like everybody else, but a bit better.”

French master Laurent Fressinet, who helped Carlsen prepare for the 2013 world championship, says Carlsen isn’t arrogant, just unwaveringly confident. “On top of his extraordinary talent to feel where the pieces must be placed, what sets him apart is his exceptional mindset,” Fressinet says. “If he thinks he can win, he’ll have no mercy for his opponent.”

In 2009, Kasparov thus put Carlsen back on the right track, and he has not budged since. On Jan. 1, 2010, he became No. 1 in the rankings measured by points. All that was left to do was win the ultimate title from Anand, who was born in 1969 and is old enough to be his father. This was almost a formality. Although the game was played in Anand’s hometown of Chennai, in southeastern India, Anand played with fear. He lost before he even started.

Infamous and notorious

That is also why the Norwegian is now considered such an exceptional player. When playing against him, some seem to start with a handicap. Just as Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov used to crush their opponents just with their presence on the other side of the board, Carlsen too holds his reputation up his sleeve. As Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri explains, “You first play for your name, then your name plays for you.”

At only 23, Magnus Carlsen is already a dread-inspiring legend. So much so that American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura nicknamed him Sauron, the evil character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of the Rings, represented in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation by a great lidless eye in the sky that sees everything. At a February competition in Zurich, Switzerland, Nakamura had the opportunity to defeat his nemesis. Carlsen, who had taken too many risks, was facing a devastating attack. Like a groggy boxer, he tried to take one more blow, and another one, not wanting to throw in the towel before his defeat was inevitable. The American knew he had him.

But the clock kept ticking, and though Carlsen was on the ropes, he kept laying traps. The mistake was lurking there, always tempting, waiting to be committed, and it finally forced itself on Nakamura. The American had barely opened the door when Carlsen rushed in with a devastating counterattack. The fight was nearly lost, but in the end Carlsen won it. What makes great players is precisely their ability to create their own luck, or at least to squeeze out the very best from every opportunity.

Just a regular guy

When we ask Carlsen to assess himself, he says he sees himself as a “normal man.” He left his parents’ home in September. His father, Henrik, left his job in the oil industry years ago to oversee Magnus Chess, the company that manages his son’s career and revenue. “He spends time with his friends, does a lot of sports,” Henrik says of his son. “He doesn’t need to work on his chess too much. He always has it in a corner of his mind, and he mulls over his ideas without really thinking about them.”

After winning the title, Carlsen became an internationally known figure. He is now a model for a clothing brand. He has performed the kickoff for the Real Madrid soccer game in Spain, given a chess lesson to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and delivered a chess beating to Bill Gates. Microsoft’s founder was humiliated on a television program, mated in just nine moves and 79 seconds.

But although Carlsen knows that the media can make his sport more popular, he is not looking for fame. Instead, he is fully focused on his next challenge: Defending his world champion title. After all, being king of the game of kings is all this normal man knows. In November, he will once again face Viswanathan Anand, whose victory in the Candidates tournament in March was a rebirth for the Indian player.

As our interview draws to an end, Carlsen is watching a sports program on his computer. His agent shows us a smartphone app that allows players to compete against Carlsen at different ages. Without taking his eyes off his screen, the world champion says, “8-year-old me is easy to defeat.” I try it, and indeed, the game doesn’t last long. “Magnus, I’m afraid I beat you.” He doesn’t reply.

Yes Magnus, I defeated you, and it feels great.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!