Magnus Carlsen: "I was calm, I was confident"

Magnus Carlsen: "I was calm, I was confident"

| 113 | Chess Players

Magnus Carlsen was "calm and confident" going into the tiebreak session on Wednesday, in which he retained his world title. The day after his victory in New York, Carlsen sat down with a small number of media to answer some questions about the match. 

On Thursday morning, about ten journalists (one representing!) met with Carlsen on the first floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Battery Park, Manhattan. After just 14 minutes, the champ had to leave for another (rather significant) interview elsewhere, but he still shared quite a few interesting thoughts about the match.

Carlsen admitted that psychology is his weakest point at the moment. "Obviously my playing strength drops quite a bit when everything is not going according to plan. I think maybe I'll have to work on that more seriously in the future."

After his only loss in the match, the Norwegian initially waited for his opponent to arrive but then left the press conference before it started. About this episode, he said: "It's not my proudest moment, but I was just devastated. I couldn't sit there."

Below is a video with highlights of the "interview," and below the video, you'll find the full transcript.

Full Transcript

What have the last 24 hours been like; how did you celebrate your victory and your birthday?

The last 24 hours, those have kind of been the easier ones, because I felt already going into the tiebreaks that I had a very good chance. I was calm, I was confident. So this really wasn't like the difficult part. Yesterday was just a lot of fun, and I think a great chess show.

Agon considers to change the rules, so that you will make comments during the game. Are you ready to participate in such activities, to make the game more enjoyable, watchable? What do you think in general about the attempts to reinvent the chess championships by adding virtual reality, real-time comments, maybe even sensors on the players in the future?

I think that Agon is doing some interesting and also good things. About giving comments during games, well, I've tried that in a tournament before, and it is really quite distracting so I feel that it's better to have knowledgeable commentators that do this job instead. For sensors, you know, monitoring heart rate and those things, I'm all for that. I wouldn't think it's a bother at all, and it would be interesting for spectators to follow.

The players being interviewed in the mixed zone, right after the tiebreak. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Yesterday you mentioned you mentioned something briefly about controlling your emotions and so on. Do you think that everything related to psychology, emotions control and so on could be your weakest point right now?

Yeah, for sure. I think when everything is under control it's very difficult to beat me, but obviously my playing strength drops quite a bit when everything is not going according to plan. I think maybe I'll have to work on that more seriously in the future. I mean, it's very easy when things are going my way, I'm going from one victory in a tournament to another, and the confidence is there. But when it's not there, things fall apart a bit so it's something I have to think about and work on.

In any other sport, the top stars are working with a psychologist specialized in top sports. Are you thinking about it?

More now than ever, yes!

Have you slept a lot, the last week?

It's been a bit up and down, but in general, after game ten when I won, I've slept very well, and it was a little bit more difficult to fall asleep yesterday since I was still very excited. But after the eighth game and the ninth game, it wasn't so easy. But after the tenth, I slept like a baby.

Carlsen slept "like a baby" during the crucial phase of the match. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.

This was clearly your toughest world championship so far. Can you point out what exactly was the reason for that? Was Sergey a stronger opponent for you than Vishy? It also seemed you were not exactly yourself for half of the match.

I think I did a lot of things right in this match, in terms of general strategy and openings and such. To some extent, my failures early in the match to win very good positions is a statistical coincidence, but when it happens over and over again, of course, there is something wrong. Usually I should have been up plus one or plus two early on, and then it's a whole different ballgame. When he managed to hold those positions early, maybe I should have been more focused on that in my preparation, to train for the fifth and sixth and even seventh hour of play. I felt that it was very clear that I was better than him in the second and third hours of play, a lot better, but then he started to defend, and it became difficult.

In some games, I made blunders that I don't usually make, but I don't think there was anything like too unusual. Both game seven and eight were just awful, and in game eight, I made a gamble at some point which just didn't pay off. And to his credit, he really grabbed that opportunity.

But what about the external factors. You walked away from a press conference, and you forgot to write down a move. To what extent did these things affect your play here?

Of course the move I missed in the fifth game was a contributing factor to me playing poorly, making a blunder in that game, but I don't think it affected me later on. As for game eight ... It's not my proudest moment, but I was just devastated; I couldn't sit there.

Carlsen leaving the press conference—to the left his manager Espen Agdestein,
to the right press officer Nastja Karlovich trying to stop them. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Was there a moment in the match where you believed that you would lose the title, and how did that make you feel at this moment?

Certainly after game eight, I did not have a positive state of mind. I felt that even though I still thought I was the strongest player, that it would be very difficult to prove. After all, I had only a couple of chances left to win games. So yeah, at that point I ... I guess some part of me still believed in it, but it was very, very difficult. I think in those moments the important thing is to always focus on the process instead of the result, but it's very, very hard. Even a bit during the games, I was thinking: How am I going to win this, rather than trying to make the best move, which is not a very good strategy.

Carlsen came back in game 10 to level the score. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.

How did you overcome these negative thoughts that were invading your mind at this point?

Even before the tenth game, I was not in a great state of mind, but I managed to at least perform more or less sensibly in that game. Of course at some point, I blundered; he could have forced the draw, and then I was thinking: Not again. I was trying to debate at that point whether I was going to play the sort of position with two knights against a rook, but I felt that there were absolutely no chances there. So I thought: Now we go home. Now I'll have to win with Black in the 11th game. And then he did something else, and the game started anew. I wouldn't say I really managed to overcome everything. It was just that I got a break in the tenth game.

Now that the match is over, would it be OK to share who your seconds were?

I think some of them have been shared. Peter [Heine Nielsen] of course, [Laurent] Fressinet, and also Nils Grandelius was in the team. I think the others either don't want to be named, or they want to make the announcement themselves. [According to NRK, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has also helped Carlsen. — PD]

Does it make it more gratifying, the victory, knowing that you weren't at your best, or is it frustrating for you, as a perfectionist?

It's a bit of both. It's good to know that I can win even if things don't go my way since what happened up until the ninth game basically was the worst-case scenario, almost. I'm not happy about the chances I wasted in the match and so on, but it's really not the main focus right now. But of course, I'm always looking to work on my game to be better.

The world champ still wants to improve his game. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.

This match has had quite a big narrative arc with first you're deep down, and then you go up with a great mate. So I call it a classic. What would you call it?

It's been a fight throughout. It hasn't been particularly pretty. Of course, the finish was pretty, at least from my point of view. But it's most of all been a fight. For me, that is what chess is about, and I think that is what these matches should be about. In that sense, it's been great.

Do you want chess to become a big spectator sport like baseball maybe, or do you personally prefer a tournament without spectators?

In general, I like it when people share my love of the game. I welcome everybody who wants to follow chess; at the venue, online, as a fan, as a journalist, anything.

Let's talk a little bit about the future, with two different angles. First of all, in general, what things do you think should be improved; what ideas do you have? Then, very concretely, you said something about coming back to a knockout system in the world championship. It sounds strange. It sounds like you want to come back to the system that produced champions like [Alexander] Khalifman or [Rustam] Kasimdzhanov. Can you elaborate a little bit?

I think the systems that produced Khalifman or Kasimdzhanov also saw Anand lose one match in three knockout tournaments. But most of all, I believe that a system should be fair. But it seems that for now the chess world doesn't agree with me on that. They want to have the system that we have, so for now that's what I'm dealing with. Again, for improvements, I'm open to anything as long as it doesn't impair our ability to play in the best way possible.

But what about chess as an educational tool. You look very sensitive to that. You have for instance been visiting the Brooklyn school here. How do you see this for the future?

I'm hoping that we will improve, get chess in schools in more places, more countries, and to spread the message that chess is both fun and educational around the world.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

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