World champion Magnus Carlsen brings glamour to world of chess

Jan 9, 2014, 8:54 PM |

I just want to share about my idol.


Watching Magnus Carlsen stroll between chessboards to defeat one London financier after another, it is not obvious why the world’s best chess player is so good at making the game sexy to businesses.

Sullen, with protruding jaw and thick tussled hair, the 23-year-old world champion looks more like a back-street bruiser than “the greatest natural chess talent to come along in several decades”, in the words of Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard economics professor and a grandmaster.




Carlsen, a cerebral Norwegian, holds the highest score ever achieved in the rating system used for chess. But he is generous towards those he defeats, at all levels of ability.

On Tuesday, after winning all 19 games at London’s Four Seasons hotel, Carlsen politely remarks that some were “interesting” – before adding that “some were more long than interesting”.

At the world championship in Madras, in November, Carlsen showed the same courtesy towards the previous title holder, India’s Viswanathan Anand, as he beat him 6.5 to 3.5, with three wins and no losses.

“Everything is easier when you have the wind in your sails”, he tells the Financial Times.

Carlsen tolerates, rather than relishes, the media and sponsorship appearances that come with being the world’s best player. Even so, he has managed to break down stereotypes of chess as a pastime for nerds and won a claim to celebrity, glamour, and money – for himself and the game.

The world championship match reached record live audiences on television and online.

Carlsen models for the Dutch clothing company G-Star RAW, whose advertising campaign has partnered him with British model Lily Cole. This month he heads to California to meet the big names in Silicon Valley.

Carlsen’s ability to attract commercial sponsorships – in 2013, he brought in revenues of about £2m – is “pioneering” for chess, says his manager, Espen Agdestein.

There is no sign of glamour going to Carlsen’s head. He dwells less on his achievements than on the need for improvement.

Chess [like finance] is about gathering as much information as you can and make the best decision – but it also teaches the need to decide even though you do not have full certainty

- Magnus CarlsenWorld chess champion

“I have a goal of not being the sort of world champion who only cares about the title and lets the game degenerate,” he says. “I want to set a high standard as soon as my next tournament, then experiment with other openings and broaden my repertoire.

“I can play better than I do now”.

Carlsen looks forward to defending his title. He mentions Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik and Armenia’s Levon Aronian – and suspects that Mr Anand, too, will vie for the chance to recapture his old title.

Brimming with self-confidence, he says the broadening popularity of chess as a sport “has much to do with me personally – it’s good to have high-profile players”.

For all his courtesy, Carlsen hopes his aggression in the game and determination to win will inspire others.

“More people have to change their attitude”, he says. “Too many have seen chess as a scientific process where you exchange ideas in openings and midgames and if there is no clear advantage you agree a draw. But you have to fight until the end. I’ve stopped agreeing draws – it’s not a natural part of the game. I think others will do the same thing.”

“A modern sportsman”, he insists, has to “fight until the last moment every day, in every tournament. Being tired is no excuse for making mistakes.”

The desire to win, combined with the analytical nature of chess, clearly resonates with the financial industry.

Gaute Ulltveit-Moe, partner at Arctic Securities, a brokerage firm that organised the London event, says the association with the world champion had brought the firm new clients. “People have called saying, ‘I see you sponsor Magnus Carlsen; I want to do business with you’.”

Can finance learn from chess? Carlsen points out that “chess [like finance] is about gathering as much information as you can and make the best decision – but it also teaches the need to decide even though you do not have full certainty.”

But Anders Westin, a partner from HBK Investments and one of Carlsen’s opponents at Tuesday’s event, thought winning at chess was more impressive. “There are no black swans in chess – unlike finance, chess is all about ‘known knowns’. Being the best at that is quite something.”