Carlsen on the World Championship: “I can live without it!”

Magnus Carlsen starts his 5th World Chess Championship match on Friday when he has the black pieces against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai. In some interviews for major international publications on the eve of the match he confessed he was “less hungry” this time round and could live without the ordeal of the matches. He also talked about the threat of Alireza Firouzja (“his talent is immense”) and how the motivation to remain number one would remain with or without the title. 

There was a curious incident in the Opening Press Conference (check out a full transcript of everything the players said) of the 2021 World Chess Championship match. Chess journalist Mike Klein, with the laudable goal of trying to get some interesting reactions, confronted the players with things they’d said about each other. The only problem? The, “it’s already his fifth match, so I don’t think the fire is burning so hard inside” that he attributed to Ian Nepomniachtchi was actually a quote by 15th World Champion Vishy Anand.

Magnus laughed it off with a nice response:

Well, that’s the first time I hear about it and it really makes me fired up, so thank you very much!

It would soon turn out, however, that Magnus had been saying some very similar things to the international press himself. He surprised Sean Ingle of the Guardian by beginning their interview:

I’m less hungry. I think you’re always going to be if you’re playing for the world title for the fifth time, rather than the first.

He would go even further later on:

Right now, I don’t really feel it. I feel like I’ve been here, done it before. And it doesn’t excite me, to be honest. But I think when I sit down on Friday, it will feel very different. And I’m very, very much looking forward to that.

In that same article Sean quotes 14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik on the motivation and ability that has kept Magnus at the top for so long: 

Magnus is the only player in the world for whom there is no other option than winning. It is very deep in the head. Others want to win. But Magnus? He needs to win. That is a very big difference. For him there is no second place. And that gives a lot of additional force when you play chess.

There was a very significant change when computers appeared. My generation, which grew up before computers, have a strong general understanding of the game strategically. But our calculation abilities are a bit worse than most of the young generation.

But while the younger generation all have fantastic calculation and imagination, from time to time, practically every player at the top will make quite serious strategic mistakes. Yet Magnus is able to calculate really well and he has this old-school strategic base, no worse than the great players of the past like Anatoly Karpov. So he can do both.

The topic of motivation also loomed large in an excellent interview by Leontxo García for Spain’s El País.

We’ve translated some of the key parts below:

Below number one, where you’ve been for almost 12 years, there’s nothing, a void. How do you stimulate yourself to keep trying to be the number one? 

Yes, it’s a fundamental question, because it’s true that nowadays it’s more and more difficult for me to get motivated, much more than in earlier years. Above all, I try to approach my profession in such a way that allows me to keep enjoying it and learning as much as I can. But, honestly, I don’t enjoy the World Championships as much as the tournaments on the international circuit. In the World Championship it’s basically about retaining the crown. I admit that the latter is a big incentive, but it’s also tremendously demanding. 

It’s nice to be here, with all the paraphernalia that surrounds the World Championship, but, frankly, I could live without it. 

Now I’ve been spending a lot of time visualising what will happen on Friday, when we play the first game. And I trust that it will be as enjoyable as it was on the previous occasions.  

Garry Kasparov was the number one for 20 years in a row. To beat that mark seemed impossible, almost inhuman, but you’ve been there for almost 12. Are you starting to view it as feasible? 

Well, right now my advantage over the second player on the world rankings list is big, but Alireza Firouzja just made an impressive jump and has become the number two. And if he keeps going at the same rhythm it’s clear that my situation won’t be as comfortable as it is now.

For now my intention is to keep playing chess for many more years, even if I’m not World Champion. 

In that case maintaining the number one spot will be the main goal, and I’ve visualised that, because in the last two title matches I was close to losing. But of course the sensation that I might be dethroned wasn’t exactly pleasant, so I’ll fight as hard as I can to avoid having that again.    

I understand that you see Firouzja as the next candidate for the title.

Yes, of course. It’s enough to look at his numbers and trajectory, but I’ve also played a lot of games against him, mainly rapid, but also classical, and 

I can attest that his talent is immense. 

From a psychological point of view, how do you handle the fact that in contrast to tournaments with 8 or 10 players, your opponent in the World Championship match is the same every day? Do you dream or have nightmares about Nepomniachtchi? Or of the weapons you have prepared against him?   

It depends a lot on how the match goes. If things are going well, if you’re winning and you feel that your opponent has no deadly weapon ready for you, that you’re going to know how to counter it, then everything is easier. But in the last match, against Caruana, it was just the reverse. I realised that I wasn’t able to get an advantage in the games with the white pieces, because he had neutralised all my weapons. On the other hand, I felt more comfortable in the games with Black. That’s why I prefer tournaments, because changing your opponent every day is much more stimulating. 

In matches, no matter how well your months of preparation have gone, including coming up with various ways to surprise your opponent, your ideas always run out. 

Of course that’s a very unpleasant sensation and it’s hard to come back, but the consolation is that my opponent will probably suffer the same.  

During the World Championships do you set aside some time in your daily schedule to relax, to disconnect and avoid getting obsessed? 

Actually, and above all on the days without a game, I try to disconnect for almost the whole day, and I set aside a few hours to prepare for the next game — firstly, from a general, strategic point of view, thinking of how to approach it, and then analysing concrete opening lines and defences in order to memorise them. 

The key to my psychological preparation during a World Championship match is to try and forget that I’m playing a World Championship. 

One of the secret training locations during the last months was a luxury hotel in Chiclana (Cádiz). How was it? What was a normal day there like?

It was great because at that hotel, the Royal Hideaway Sancti Petri, chess is part of the activities offered to the guests, thanks to the fact that the maitre d’ is a high-level chess fan. And in addition there was a very pleasant environment. We played football with some local fans and enjoyed the splendid sunshine. Moreover, the Atlantic has a special light which I prefer to that of the Mediterranean, and that helped make it an unforgettable experience. 

Magnus earlier gave an interview from that Spanish training camp that you can watch and read here.

There’s not long at all to wait now, with Game 1 of the match live here on chess24 this Friday! 

Don’t miss our live commentary in multiple languages and for different chess levels

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