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Is Magnus Carlsen The Tom Brady Of Chess?

Is Magnus Carlsen The Tom Brady Of Chess?

NathanielGreen
| 54 | Fun & Trivia

Chess, it may be hard to believe, is not the only game people play across the world. Basketball, poker, football... the alternatives are nearly endless. In fact, GM Magnus Carlsen has been spotted playing all three of those other games at one time or another, so there is clearly more to life than chess even for its world champion.

Jesting aside, this is actually a good thing, of course. Imagine if we were stuck comparing chess players all day. But no, we can also compare players across sports. For today, that means comparing Carlsen to NFL quarterback Tom Brady.

Why? Because we can. But also because they are actually pretty similar. It also helps that the NFL is the most popular sport in the United States with several star players, including Kayvon Thibodeaux, Joe Burrow, and Micah Parsons, who also love chess.

Magnus Carlsen Tom Brady Chess.com
Is that the same jawline? Brady photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia, CC. Carlsen photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

We've actually managed to find seven ways in which Carlsen and Brady are similar, but to make things interesting, we've also judged who "wins" each category. Spoiler alert: You're on a chess website. Even if we do compete directly with Carlsen, consider it returning the favor from when he played Titled Tuesday recently.


Next Top Model?

Just in case you thought we were going to be making a totally serious comparison...

When Carlsen was just 19, he was asked to do a photoshoot with model-turned-actress Liv Tyler and Google Images is full, of course, of the results of that experiment. Humorously, the CEO of the modeling company was quoted as saying: "One of the core ideas of our brand is the idea of surprising and contrasting combinations." Which doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of the selection of Carlsen—I mean, even I would have made for a surprising and contrasting combination with Liv Tyler.

It went as poorly as you hoped:

This came a couple of years after Brady did a campaign for Stetson cologne in 2007. No word on how well that worked out for Stetson, but maybe the Patriots would have actually completed their perfect season, instead of spectacularly blowing the Super Bowl against the Giants, if Brady had been fully focused on football that season.

Fortunately for Carlsen, he got a little better at it. A little.

Brady, uh... less so. Even his self-deprecation is often too self-aware to work, and that's what happened when he tried to hawk... Subway sandwiches. In 2021.

Nobody, as far as we know, asked Brady to keep dressing in fancy clothes and get his picture taken in black-and-white, he just started doing it again. In his mid 40s. On Instagram. To promote his own clothing line.

Just making sure: Mr. Brady can't possibly be so competitive as to think he can outperform Mrs. Brady at this gig, right?

Magnus Carlsen Chess.com Tom Brady Gisele Bundchen
Gisele Bundchen, for the two of you who didn't know. And if not for her, Brady in most countries would be relegated to "that guy in that sport that only the Americans care about." Photo: Nino Munoz/Wikimedia, CC.

We leave it to readers to judge how successful Magnus and Tom should be at modeling given their physical features. But just on the context surrounding their forays, Carlsen takes a 1-0 lead.

The GOAT?

So that was all fun and good, but there's a more obvious comparison: Carlsen and Brady are the most popular picks for best chess player and best quarterback ever. But do they deserve it?

When we asked people back in August 2021, a plurality of 37% picked Carlsen as the greatest player ever. Coming in at essentially 2a and 2b were GMs Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Combined the three of them got 80% of the vote, but the edge was clear for Carlsen.

Player Pct
Carlsen 37%
Kasparov 22%
Fischer 21%
Morphy 6%
Anand 6%
Capablanca 3%
Lasker 1%
Other 4%

And we think GM Maurice Ashley would agree that the path there for Carlsen was fairly smooth. Although he wasn't the fastest starter in his pre-adolescence, Carlsen's only real hiccups to #1 and world champion were fairly minor: voluntarily withdrawing from the 2011 Candidates and then nearly, but not actually, blowing the 2013 Candidates, which is a story for another time. 

Brady, meanwhile, after largely riding his defense to three Super Bowls in his first five seasons (including his rookie year on the bench), went nearly a decade before his fourth championship. Nonetheless, you've always been able to measure Brady's reputation—although not necessarily his individual performance—by how many championships his teams win and now that he has seven titles, anyone who tries to argue against his case as the "greatest" is shut down. Yes, even in what they call the "ultimate team sport."

Magnus Carlsen Tom Brady Chess.com
From the 2004-05 Patriots White House visit. Brady is front row second from left. Who are most of these other people? Oh, yeah: TEAMMATES. Photo: public domain.

Sorry not sorry to any Brady fans, but Magnus is the better player. In fact, Carlsen, Kasparov, and Fischer were all both more talented as well as more dominant vs. their peers at chess than Brady has been at football. Just compare their Elo rating histories to the fact that Brady has only led the NFL in a major passing efficiency metric in two of his 20 full seasons (2007 and 2010). Magnus has been world #1 for 13 years and counting.

Will He Or Won't He? The Retirement Tease

This isn't one you could have predicted a year ago, but how about Carlsen and Brady both flirting with retirement at the exact same time. This is what actually spurred this article in the first place.

Of course, Carlsen has merely threatened to quit the world championship cycle, and while that would be a pretty huge deal, he has every plan to continue to dominate tournaments, so "retirement" is a bit strong.

magnus tom brady

Brady, meanwhile, announced that he was calling it quits in February 2022 only to later announce, within weeks, that he was not retiring after all. With feet that cold, it's a surprise Brady can even walk or run. Oh right, he can't run anyway.

It's also possible that Brady's story here is, to quote a GM Ben Finegold-ism, "very suspicious." A report in the Boston Globe suggested that the entire saga may have just been a ploy to change teams away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers onto the Miami Dolphins and get an ownership stake in the Miami franchise. 

Don't worry, Tom, you can still visit Miami if you want to. Here, I even did the research for you:

Magnus Carlsen Tom Brady 2022

For Carlsen, quitting championship play would free up time to help run the things he already actually owns, which is a far cry from pretending to retire in order to buy the thing in the first place. Plus, Carlsen is apparently creative enough to simultaneously retire and keep playing while remaining decisive in both decisions. 3-0, Magnus.

Their Trusty Sidekicks

Every Batman needs their Robin. For Carlsen, this is his longtime second GM Peter Heine Nielsen. For Brady, it's tight end and party animal Rob Gronkowski, who followed him from New England to Tampa Bay. In some ways "PHN" and "Gronk" fulfill different obligations: Gronk has an innocent puppy-dog reputation (at least partially cultivated, but still) while Nielsen will sometimes make the statements about chess politics that Magnus best avoids.

Magnus Carlsen Tom Brady Chess.com
Carlsen with his personal... second. Photo (2016) courtesy Altibox Norway Chess/Tom Haga.

Advantage again for Magnus here, because it's hard to imagine Carlsen being a significantly worse chess player if Nielsen had never joined his team in 2013. Carlsen was world #1 years before then, even if he won the Candidates and world title just after they partnered up. Brady, meanwhile, is demonstrably worse when he doesn't have Gronkowski on his team.

(Don't ask about another of Brady's sidekicks, his personal trainer Alex Guerrero, or we'll have to give Magnus two points here.)

Similar Play Styles

For the longest time, Carlsen's game was accumulating several nearly imperceptible advantages and grinding down his adversaries. He took a 2-0 lead in the 2013 World Championship with exclusively this type of game against Anand, before winning 3-0 once Anand had to start desperately playing for wins.

Carlsen has become a better attacker in recent years, but he's still not the flashiest player. Neither is Brady, who generally survives off of very short passes from very clean pockets. Sometimes it feels like these guys shouldn't be beating you, and yet they consistently are.

Tom Brady Magnus Carlsen Chess.com
*Very* clean pockets. Imagine if Magnus's opponents weren't allowed to move past the fourth rank for the first several moves of the game. Photo: Jack Newton/Wikimedia Commons, CC.

There was even a period of multiple seasons in the middle of Brady's career where he couldn't throw deep, the NFL equivalent of an all-out attack in chess. It wasn't until he discovered career-best, if still somewhat inconsistent, arm strength in his late 30s and maintained it well into his 40s that he locked up his status as a player.

Meanwhile, the famous game against IM-later-GM Sipke Ernst from Carlsen's youth shows that he could always attack. 

Carlsen just developed to be better suited to the slow grind before his work with GM Daniil Dubov brought some of that aggressiveness back out of him. 5-0, Magnus.

The Big 2016 Comeback

Brady finally wins? Coming back from 28-3 in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons is more impressive than Carlsen's one-game comeback against GM Sergey Karjakin, right? Coincidentally, both of these technically happened in 2016—the Super Bowl was played in 2017, but as part of the 2016 season by how the NFL tracks its September-to-February season.

Well, who you're playing matters. Karjakin is almost impossible to beat (when he sticks to chess—he's apparently very easy to take out when he doesn't) while the Falcons had the worst defense in Super Bowl history (even though that didn't stop Brady from playing really badly for a whole half).

Plus considering all the drawn games in 21st century chess and all the rules favoring offense in 21st century football, being down 1-0 with only four games left in the match is arguably a bigger hole than even 25 points in a football game just after halftime. 

Not only was Atlanta's defense known to be terrible going into that game, but Brady had an interception go through a defender's hands on the game-tying possession. This just after the Falcons had gotten in range for a fairly easy field goal but came away punting for nothing, which also would have put the game away. And there was of course the "pick-six" Brady threw in the first half that put his team down 21-0. 

Magnus Carlsen Tom Brady Chess.com
The real MVP of that Super Bowl, James White, scored three touchdowns with zero devastating turnovers. Photo: Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons, CC.

One of these comebacks was much more of a random fluke than the other, and it wasn't Carlsen's. 6-0.

Football vs. Football

Okay, now Brady wins, right? Magnus might play football too, the "real" football even, to people on five of the six inhabited continents. The one where every player, not just the rarely-used specialists, is supposed to kick the ball. And never mind the outfit, it's cold in Holland in January!

Obviously, however, Brady is better at gridiron football than Carlsen is at association football. It's a job for one and a hobby for the other, after all. 

But we're actually talking about fantasy football, I decided. We don't know if Brady plays, but as someone to have on your fantasy team, he's not actually the best because, again, he can't run very well.

Magnus, meanwhile, is actually really good at fantasy football, making it to #1 in a 2019 Premier League competition with a player pool seven million strong. He even still has this accolade listed in his Twitter bio.

So guess what? 7-0 Magnus. Touchdown!

Conclusion

Carlsen didn't have to break a sweat to win that matchup. Maybe we can find a more difficult one next time. Carlsen vs. LeBron James, Lionel Messi, or Mike Trout—now those might be close. Let's get some real athletes in here.

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