Young genius: Magnus Carlsen at Aeroflot 2004
Magnus Carlsen in October 2004 © Wikimedia Commons

Young genius: Magnus Carlsen at Aeroflot 2004

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The first time I heard about Magnus Carlsen was when the future World Champion was 13 years old. In early 2004 I came across the following game that was played in Aeroflot Open, a famous annual Grandmaster tournament in Moscow. That game has been quoted in a countless number of articles and books since then, but playing through it it still gives me goosebumps:

A few months later, in August 2004, Simen Agdestein publshed the first-ever book about Magnus Carlsen, "Wonderboy: ow Magnus Carlsen became the youngest chess grandmaster in the world. The story and the games". Agdestein, who trained Carlsen at the time, recounted the effect this game had on the public:

'Magnus fever' broke out in Russia during this game. Spectators flocked around Magnus's table and admiration and superlatives were whispered in Russian. Alexander Nikitin, Garry Kasparov's former trainer, could not restrain himself and had to constantly nod with an impressed expression to Ten Geuzendam, who was standing there and capturing reactions. He had never seen a thirteen year old play so well, he told Dirk Jan in the canteen afterwards. The only comparison was with Kasparov at a similar age, the world's decidedly strongest player for the past 20 years. 'What about [Sergey] Karjakin?' the New In Chess editor wondered. 'No, he just studies a lot. This is real talent!'

Unfortunately, I did not attend the tournament (even though I lived in Moscow at the time), but this game made a profound impression on me and I immediately added Lisitsyn Gambit to my opening repertoire. It served me well over the years, yielding a number of quick victories such as a miniature win in a blitz match in Singapore in 2015 or an even quicker win in a classical tournament in Seattle 2018 It surely pays to study the classics  

Many years later I stumbled upon another Carlsen's victory in a brilliant openings book by a British GM John Emms, "Nimzo-Indian: Move by Move". It was one of multiple games by Magnus Carlsen in this book, so it took me a while to realize that it occurred at Aeroflot 2004. In fact, it was played literally the next day after the demolition of Sergey Dolmatov!

At this point I got curious to find out more about Carlsen's performance in Aeroflot 2004. It turned out that Magnus Carlsen earned his 2nd GM norm at this tournament. In fact, it was one of the three tournaments that catapulted the future World Champion to a Grandmaster title at the age of 13 (the other two were Corus-C 2003 and Dubai Open 2004). 

The Aeroflot-A is different from most other open tournaments in that there are strict criteria for the participants. As a general rule, only 2500+ players are allowed, but sometimes the organizers make exceptions for the up-and-coming players. In fact, the organizers went out of their way to lure the young prodigy to the tournament. Agdestein shares the conditions that made Carlsen's appearance in Aeroflot Open 2004 possible:

Alexander Bakh, the tournament organiser of Moscow’s Aeroflot Open, the strongest open tournament in the world with nearly 150 GMs,was present in Wijk aan Zee and was as captivated by Magnus as everyone else. Usually the Moscow organisers do not offer special conditions since the prizes are high and the prices for flights and hotel are reasonable, but for Magnus they would make an exception. Magnus would be an ideal and symbol of hope for everyone. If Magnus would appear on the TV broadcast of the opening ceremony, then he and a companion would have all expenses paid, while the other family members could attend for only NOK 2,600 (about 300 Euro) each.

Magnus Carlsen was rated only 2484 at the start of Aeroflot Open 2004, but he ended up scoring 5.5/9 against the opponents that were all rated higher than him. 

That included outcalculating Kyrgyz GM Leonid Yurtaev, who was famous for his tactical abilities, and defeating GM Yuri Yakovich in a quiet line of Sicilian defense (a few years later Yakovich would write a book about the standard tactics in this opening).

For some reason, I could not find the following game, which Carlsen won in the 8th round of Aeroflot Open against a Scandinavian Grandmaster, in the ChessBase database:

Unlike the previous two games that Carlsen played in the style of Mikhail Tal or Alexei Shirov, this victory provided a glimpse of a future World Champion that would scare the hell out of his opponent with his immaculate technique. 

I will conclude this article with one of my favorite photos, which adorns the walls of the Moscow Central Chess Club Museum. This picture is special because it captured World Champions from four different generations – Smyslov, Spassky, Karpov and Carlsen:

Four Chess World Champions in Moscow, 2004

This photo must have been taken during Aeroflot Open, and thanks to Agdestein's book we can even surmise the exact date, 21 February 2004:

Later in the event Magnus was invited to a chat with Vasily Smyslov, world champion from 1956-57 [sic! Actually 1957-58]. After the fifth round the editor of the French chess magazine Europe Echecs had managed to set up this meeting between players from different generations, but Magnus had just lost to Berkes and was not in the mood. But after a half an hour he had calmed down and unwillingly turned up. Smyslov expressed great admiration for Magnus. He was impressed by his playing style and predicted a great future for Magnus as a chess player. Smyslov also told a great deal about himself, how in his youth he had to make a choice between music and chess. His real dream had been to become a singer and study at the music conservatory but the academy had recommended he try chess.

Of course, Smyslov prediction was perfectly on point. A month later, at a tournament in Rejkyavik,  Carlsen would defeat Anatoly Karpov in a blitz game and draw Garry Kasparov in their first rapid game. Two months later Carlsen scored his 3rd and final GM norm at Dubai Open. Four months later Levon Aronian would need 4 games to knock out the young prodigy out of the FIDE World Championship playoff.

By the end of 2004 there was no doubt that Magnus Carlsen was on the way to becoming one of the top chess players in the world.

Read the previous articles in my World Championship match preview series: