The Tata Steel Chess Masters begins on Saturday in Wijk aan Zee with Magnus Carlsen attempting to increase his record of 7 tournament wins. In a candid interview on a Norwegian podcast conducted shortly before playing in the Dutch town for the 17th time, the 30-year-old opens up about his career, reveals a lack of motivation, speaks about retirement, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, and several other issues.
The 83rd edition of the prestigious event will be unlike any other as the Challenger and Amateur events have been dropped due to pandemic concerns. The event is only the second over-the-board super tournament to be held since the outbreak of COVID-19. The organisers still managed to invite some of the best players in the world, including World Champion Magnus Carlsen and World no. 2 Fabiano Caruana.
Since the field was announced in December, changes have been made. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Nodirbek Abdusattorov were all forced to drop out, but World no. 22 Pentala Harikrishna, Poland’s no. 2 Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Sweden’s no. 1 Nils Grandelius are excellent replacements.
Then, on the eve of the tournament, Daniil Dubov was also forced to cancel after someone close to him tested positive for COVID-19. His late replacement is 22-year-old German Grandmaster Alexander Donchenko, who will make his Masters debut after recently gaining 10 rating points by winning the over-the-board Cracovia International Chess Festival with an impressive 8/9.
Carlsen has won the Masters group of the event a record 7 times since 2008, when he shared 1st along with Levon Aronian. Caruana is the reigning champion and in fact only three other players (Levon Aronian in 2012 and 2014, Hikaru Nakamura in 2011 and Wesley So in 2017) have managed to win the event in the last 10 years.
Whether Carlsen can triumph again may depend on whether he recovers his form from earlier in 2020. The 30-year-old had an immensely successful year, winning a total of 9 online events and one over-the-board event (Norway Chess), but Wesley So crashed his 30th birthday party by winning the Skilling Open final, while his Airthings Masters came to an end in the quarter-final as Daniil Dubov proved superior.
He also lost to MVL in the Speed Chess Championship semi-final, and said he’s in a “deep funk”, which he called “really frustrating”.
Having played two Champions Chess Tour events from secret exotic locations, Carlsen is now back in his favourite tournament in the chilly Dutch town half an hour’s drive outside of Amsterdam. He took the opportunity to analyse Beth Harmon’s final game from the widely praised Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
“The next 10 years will demand a lot from me”
In an hour-long appearance on the Norwegian podcast Løperekka, run by his friend Magnus Barstad, Carlsen speaks openly about a variety of topics related to chess and his own career.
While it’s not the first time Carlsen has talked about the subject, the most interesting part was perhaps when he said he’s not thinking about staying active after he turns 40.
I feel that it should be possible to maintain a very high level as long as I am in my 30s. The margin of error does become smaller and smaller, and that means you have to keep working harder and harder, but in my 30s, with the right motivation, I should be able to maintain a level where I feel that it’s worth keeping going. I can’t imagine that I would keep playing at the top level if I struggle to score 50% in top events. I don’t think that will be possible for me.
The next 10 years will demand a lot more from me, but I think I have all the chances to maintain my level.
As could be seen from Carlsen’s Banter Blitz appearance on Thursday, in which he scored 12 out of 12, it’s clear the guy loves chess.
Speaking about the importance of physical fitness during events and before his next World Championship match, scheduled to take place at the end of the year, Carlsen says his motivation hasn’t been the best lately.
To be completely honest, I can say I am not doing enough of that. I am trying to be prepared for my games and to be in decent mental shape when I am about to play, but for my next event in a few days my focus has been to be decently prepared chess-wise, but I didn’t push too much to optimize everything around that. I know very well I have to be fully prepared for the World Championship. But just now, I didn’t work too much on my form. My motivation hasn’t been great recently.
Carlsen mentions Garry Kasparov playing only 2-3 tournaments a year, while he has had up to 10 events over-the-board in his most active years.
In every tournament he was completely prepared both chess-wise and physically, before each tournament. That’s not how regular days have been for me. I think it’s fun to play and I want to play more than that. That makes it harder to optimize every time. Sometimes when I feel I need it, I want to optimize, but other times it’s about maintaining a stable level.
Carlsen also speaks about a tournament “around 10 years ago” where the players attended a sponsor’s event on the rest day. When he saw that his next opponent had a few drinks, he had difficulty focusing on the game the next day.
You cannot drink alcohol during a tournament, it’s a complete ‘no-no’. It was difficult to handle the game the day after as I knew he had been drinking. He didn’t have the same approach to the game and I had already gotten a sort of a handicap. I am more relaxed about this kind of things now, but it’s a problem during all kinds of events when you don’t agree on the premises in advance.
“I felt that I definitely was a lot better than the rest”
Carlsen has continuously been ranked the no. 1 chess player in the world since 2010, with the exception of two lists at the end of 2010 and early 2011, where Viswanathan Anand topped him. While the Norwegian was also briefly rated first on the live rating list in 2008, he says he realised he still had a lot to learn after a session where he helped the Indian legend prepare for his World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik.
Asked when he first felt he was the best player, he answers:
From the second part of 2012, there were no doubts I was the best player. And I was considerably better than the rest. At the end of 2009, I felt that I probably was the best in the world. I took the number 1 spot on an official list in January 2010, and I had a significant lead during that year. I felt that I definitely was a lot better than the rest. There was a World Championship match between Anand and Topalov that same year and I felt that on short notice I would be able to beat them both. I may not necessarily have been the favourite in such a match, but I clearly felt it at the time.
In the second part of 2014, the Norwegian was dangerously close to losing his number 1 spot as Fabiano Caruana had one of the best performances in the history of chess to score 8.5/10 in Saint Louis. Starting with 7/7, the American was then due to face the current World no. 1.
Journalist Mike Klein had the following exchange with Carlsen before the game that was eventually drawn:
It’s been many years since you have ever gone into any single game of chess as an underdog, I dare use that word for tomorrow, is there going to be a different feeling tomorrow since he is doing so well?
I don’t think I am an underdog for tomorrow, I am sorry.
Why do you say that?
Because I am a better player.
What skills do you have that Fabiano lacks?
Carlsen reveals he couldn’t handle that question very well.
I gave a pretty big metaphoric long finger in return to that question. I felt that I had proven so much in recent years, and the fact that some up-and-coming guy has one good tournament and threatened me rating-wise didn’t mean that he would be better than me anyway.
There was also a time in 2017, the end of 2016, when Wesley So was close to me in the rankings after two fantastic tournaments in a row. If you had asked me who was the best player in the world, I would say like Jose Mourinho: “Respect! Put some respect! 3! 3 World Championship titles!”
Carlsen reveals bet against Caruana with his father
World no. 2 Fabiano Caruana hasn’t beaten Carlsen in a classical game since 2015, and the 19-game drawing streak was broken in Norway Chess last year when the Norwegian scored a full point. Carlsen still considers the two years younger American his nemesis.
It’s been pretty constant the last 6-7 years that I have considered Caruana as the number 2 in the world, and that hasn’t changed no matter what the ranking lists would show. It’s clear that at his very best he is closest to me in terms of level. That’s why it was very special to play a World Championship against him. I felt that he is the closest we would come to an equivalent opponent. I have nothing against him personally, so he is not a nemesis in that sense, but he’s the closest to me.
Back in 2011, when Caruana was 19 and ranked around 30th in the world, Carlsen didn’t really believe the American would make it to the top. He reveals he made a bet with his father.
Basically he said Caruana would be top 10 within two years. I said no way. After two years he was number 2 or 3 in the world. I was clearly wrong and underestimated his potential. He has really impressed me.
Carlsen then doesn’t miss a chance to take a shot at Anish Giri.
Then you have some others, like Giri, who impressed me enormously as a youngster. One you notice who enters the highest level without any clear weaknesses. But he never managed to make it to the very top.
While Giri enjoys teasing his rival with some friendly banter on Twitter, the Dutch star used the opportunity of an official video introducing the players to praise Carlsen’s participation, which he called “really nice for fans of chess and Wijk aan Zee.”
I am always thrilled to see him participating in every tournament and it’s really great news for Wijk aan Zee that he is back again. He almost always does well in Wijk aan Zee. Although sometimes people can challenge him, like last year he did well but Fabiano did even better. When Wesley So won, Magnus was also there right there but couldn’t quite catch him. Magnus is looking at this field seeing a lot of opportunities and is looking forward and will go for the best possible score. He will have some competition, and it’s not a given that he will be a winner, but it’s definitley get a good score. I don’t see how it can be otherwise.
Broadcast on chess24 with Peter, Jan and Tania
The action in Wijk aan Zee begins on Saturday at 14.00 CET, half an hour later than in previous years, and will run until January 31st with rest days on the 20th, 25th and 28th.
chess24 will provide live coverage with Peter Leko, Jan Gustafsson and Tania Sachdev.
We’ll also have coverage in five other languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and, for the first time: Polish!
There’s a curtain raiser for the Polish broadcast at 19.30 CET today, as the host commentator GM Mateusz Bartel will be playing a Banter Blitz session.
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