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Friday, 24 Sep 2021 17:49
Magnus Carlsen: "Ian can be very difficult to play against"

This extensive interview with the World Champion, courtesy of the Chess Federation of Russia (CFR), was recorded just before the closing ceremony of the FIDE World Cup when the long tournament came to an end. Magnus Carlsen talked frankly about various things - from the performance in Sochi and the World Championship match with Ian Nepomniachtchi to chess in the COVID-10 era and the future of our sport. The video version is available on the FIDE YouTube channel.

- Magnus, please sum up your performance at the FIDE World Cup.

- Overall, I’m satisfied with the performance. The classical part was very, very good, with eight wins and no losses. I think everybody, when playing such a tournament, aims to win it, but it’s very difficult against such opposition in the knockout format, and I have to say that winning six out of seven matches is something to be generally happy with. Winning the World Cup has been a goal of mine for some time, so that goal still hasn’t been achieved, but I guess it’s good to have something to strive for.

- This time, you were closer to win it than ever before. What do you think went wrong?

- I think there was really only one weak moment, the match against Duda. Obviously, he pressured me a bit with the white pieces, but I think I handled that fairly well in the classical part. Then, that one game was a combination of me losing my nerves, and clearly, he was the one who played the strongest chess among my opponents. So if I were going to lose to somebody, it would be him, but I do think that I would win that match more often than not, obviously. I knew coming in that Duda was not only strong in classical but also very good at rapid and blitz; he was going to be a strong opponent. That’s what happens in this format; sometimes, you lose to strong opponents if you play enough rounds.

- Yes, knockout is very cruel. Do you think that the chess world needs more knockout events?

- I’ve always been very much in favour of knockout events, I think that, in a way, they are the fairest, so I’m all for that. I think the public also likes it. There’s drama in every round; there’s always going to be a decision. It’s unbelievably cruel for the players…

- But still, it’s fair.

- But still, that’s the way it is, and I think there’s no particular harm for us in experiencing those emotions. Even though it’s cruel, the good thing about the knockout system is that when you lose, you can just go home. So, it’s cruel to be out, but at least you don’t have to suffer in a bad turn of form for weeks.

- Yes, and this time the players also faced other problems. Were the anti-Covid measures here in Sochi a problem for you?

- I thought that, in general, people here were pretty relaxed about Covid. Obviously, there was a scare at the start with the positive tests, but I’m happy – as far as I know, everybody is…

- Negative.

- Yes, everybody is OK now. Personally, I don’t really mind the mask and the testing and everything so much. It’s become a kind of normalised, and I’m just happy that we were able to have this tournament without a lot of problems.

- Sometimes, there are comments when you take part in events that are a part of the World Championship cycle. The comments imply that you’re somehow interfering in the qualification system. What can you answer to those who say it? Would you consider playing in the Candidates Tournament if you had such a possibility?

- That’s an interesting question. So far, both in the World Cup and the Grand Swiss, I hadn’t reached qualifying spots, but you can say that yes, I knocked out people along the way. I mean, personally, for me, the World Cup is such a prestigious and interesting event, so I’m very happy to take part in it, and I don’t think it’s up to me to decide whether I should be allowed to play or not. I mean, I’m very happy to take part, even though I understand that to some it can be a bit confusing to see the system, but it’s not up for me.

- So, if you’re allowed, you’re taking part, right?

- In general, yes, I don’t have any ethical problems with it (laughs).

- Speaking about the World Championship matches. Since 2013, you have played in four matches. Do you enjoy this type of chess event? Which match was the most difficult for you, and which was the most memorable?

- I would say that the most difficult match for me was the one against Karjakin. I started out fairly OK, putting serious pressure. I was winning in both the third and fourth games, but after I failed to win them, I was sort of cut out of rhythm a bit, and I was very, very close to losing the match. I never had a good feeling at all during that match, so that was definitely the most difficult and the most stressful and also the least enjoyable one for me. I guess the most memorable was the first match against Anand, since everything was new, and I was the challenger. But I must say that the most enjoyable for me was the match against Caruana in 2018.

- Why?

- I just had a different feeling during that match since I felt that Caruana was pretty much equal to me in rating at that point, and I felt that he was a completely equal opponent. That made it easier for me, because I didn’t feel the same way I needed to win the match. I didn’t feel that I was playing someone whom I should beat. So, I would say that the match in London was a great experience in general and, obviously, a memorable win.

-  Let’s speak about your forthcoming match against Ian Nepomniachtchi. You’ve already said that your future opponent is a very aggressive and interesting player to compete against, and the match is going to be exciting. How do you rate your chances?

- I think my chances are good. I’m very happy to get here some experience with classical chess that I need for the match. Still, I do understand that I’m going to face the best version of Ian that we’ve ever seen on the chessboard. I’m very happy for him, that he’s managed to kind of stabilise and show the level he’s capable of, the more consistent level, which he did in the Candidates Tournament. But I still feel that if I can be at my best, I’ll have very, very good chances to win.

- Still, Ian has a better score against you in classical games from the youth events. Is it important for you?

- For me… On the one hand, he does have a good score against me. Some of the wins are from long ago, some of them are a little bit later, but I’ll take some confidence in the fact that I have a good score against him in rapid and blitz, so it’s not like completely one-sided. Considering the score he has shown, he can be very, very strong and probably, most of all, very difficult to play against. I never had a good feeling playing against him because you would feel that he’s the one applying pressure to you, rather than the other way around.

- And Ian once said in an interview that now it’s impossible to win right from the opening, but if your preparation is insufficient, you would easily lose after the opening. What do you think about opening preparation these days in modern chess? Are there any differences between your preparation for the match and other events?

- I think opening preparation for the match is generally deeper than for other tournaments. You should prepare some new ideas, and most of them – you don’t get to use them during the match, partly because your opponent is also going to surprise you and be extremely well-prepared. That’s why you see a lot of people there using their ideas after the match. I think the preparation has become a little bit more different now than it had been, say, fifteen-twenty years ago. I think people are now looking to find playable ideas rather than an advantage with White. It feels like there are more things you can make playable with Black as well as with strong engines. It’s become more and more difficult to get an advantage with White and, I think, easier with Black.

- Chess has changed a lot since the beginning of 2020, with multiple online chess events taking place, and the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour among them. What future do you think awaits the chess world?

- I think it’s going to be a hybrid of online and over-the-board chess. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing more shifts to rapid and blitz and knockout events, but I also like the events such as the World Cup, where you have to show your best in both the classical and the rapid and blitz. I think that’s part of what should make you one of the best players in the world – you can master every single format. But I’m certain I will be taking part in both during the next few years.

- So you think chess will survive COVID-19, don’t you?

- I do. I think over-the-board chess will not disappear, but probably there will be… Well, before the pandemic, it was more or less only over-the-board chess that mattered, but now I think it will be more evenly distributed. I also think the pandemic has opened up… A lot of people in the chess community have found work, their niches, different online segments.

- Like streamers…

- Yes, streamers, but also teachers, people who are selling their courses on Chessable and making a lot of money from that. People have found new ways to make a living, so in that sense, the pandemic has not been so bad for chess.

- Will you recommend young chess players to study chess books, or is it old-fashioned? Because I remember you saying that “People should study classics”, but now that we have AlphaZero, is it still important?

- I think it’s still important to study classics, whether you get it through books or online courses – I don’t think it matters too much. But still, I think there’s something to be said for learning, like, principles of chess from classical games, because you will see that even though chess has evolved quite a bit, you can still learn a lot from classics.

- Do you think that chess players should train physically, like other athletes? Like football players, basketball players…

- Yeah, I guess there is not as big a demand for chess players to be physically fit, but I certainly think it helps a lot. I certainly feel it myself – whenever I feel good physically, I play a lot better, so that’s an important thing. And I also think that there’s been a shift in the chess players’ mindset. A lot of people are more aware of this, and they’re making more than enough to have not only a healthy mind but also a healthy body.

- How deeply are you involved in the day-to-day work of your business empire: Chessable, Play Magnus, New in Chess, social media, and so on, and so forth?

- First of all, I’m a chess player, so that’s what I can do best for the company and everything: to play chess and to do it well. I certainly have a say in what’s going on in the companies, but I don’t make day-to-day decisions. I think there are people who are much more competent to make those.

- And now we have approached the second part of the interview, which is blitz questions. What can make you angry?

- A lot of things. The first thing that comes to mind is losing at anything.

- Have you ever cried after a game?

- When I was young, I cried many, many times after games.

- Lost games?

- Yeah.

- You’ve met very well-known and famous people. What was the most memorable acquaintance?

- I’m not sure if it’s politically correct to say, but I think the most memorable was the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He’s a very imposing figure.

- Whom would you like to meet of people from the past?

- I don’t know. I pass.

-  Whom would you like to invite to Real Madrid as a substitute for Sergio Ramos?

- That’s an interesting question. I will bring Haaland and Mbappe, and one of them will play centre-back instead of Ramos.

- Nice. Do you like Jo Nesbø’s novels?

- I definitely like some of Jo Nesbø’s novels, and he’s a very good storyteller.

- Do you like being famous?

- I would say I don’t aspire to be famous, but overall it’s more positive than negative.

- Whom would you like to be if you hadn’t been Magnus Carlsen?

- I don’t know. Messi maybe? (Laughs)

- Recently, he’s quit Barcelona. It was big news.

- Yes, but he still has a good life.

- What is your greatest fear?

- Very superficially – I’ve always had good health, so if I were to lose that, it would not be good.

- What makes you happy?

- Harmony.