Magnus Carlsen talks to Sal Khan

On the eve of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, the World Chess Champion joined Khan Academy founder Sal Khan for a fascinating 40-minute interview. Magnus talked about how trial and error and “irrational confidence” shaped his chess education, how he understands chess more deeply than 5-6 years ago but sometimes “ignorance is bliss”, and how losses still hurt as much as ever. He also feels that some young players are “not as good at the basics” as his generation and could profit from studying the classics.  

The day before the start of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, Magnus talked to Sal Khan, who in 2006 founded the Khan Academy, one of the world’s foremost providers of free education. You can and should watch the brilliant 40-minute video below.  

If you don’t have the time or prefer to read, we’ve transcribed Magnus Carlsen’s answers below in full, with the questions in most cases shortened. Enjoy!


Magnus, great to have
you here.

Thank you so much. Great to be here!

Maybe a good place to
start is, when you were young, when did you first realise that you had, for
lack of a better word, a gift, that chess was something that you were drawn to
and you might be able to stand out in?

I think it started when I was nine and a half years old. I’d
started playing chess a little bit later than many of the other kids, but I
could notice that I was sponging up information in a way that they were not, so
I would play tournaments with kids my age, pretty much every weekend, and I
could feel that I was improving week by week and they were not, and I realised
I had just much more of a passion and a drive to do this than they had, so I
think that’s when I realise that I could actually be very good at this.

Who taught you how to
play chess? How did you get introduced to the game?

My father is quite a keen chess player. He still enjoys
playing chess a lot – I would say he plays probably more chess than I do, to be
honest! 

He taught me and my sister at a fairly young age, but up till the age I
was eight I really didn’t know much at all, but certainly without him I would
never have pursued chess the way that I did.

What is the most
important thing a beginner should work on to get better at chess, and what were
you working on when you were a beginner?

The thing is I don’t think I was working on anything in
particular. So we had some chess books and magazines at home, I would read them
and there was this chessboard we had, so I would move the pieces around
sometimes, trying to imitate the games that I’d seen there, but after learning the
very basics and the rules from my father, it was more really a case of me just
trying out different things and seeing what worked.

Were there times you
were starting to plateau and you had to do certain things to get out of that,
to get to another level?

There were certainly times when I was younger when I
couldn’t reach that next level immediately, and in hindsight obviously that’s something
that happens to everybody. I believed back then, I had this irrational
confidence, that these are temporary setbacks – the only reason why I’m not
progressing to the next level is because I’ve had some bad luck, or in this
particular tournament I wasn’t able to show my best. So I always believed I’m
going to pull through – next tournament, next game, that’s going to be mine.
And I think that mentality more than anything else is what allowed me to push
through.

You probably don’t
remember this, but about 4-5 years ago we actually played each other at an
event, out here in Silicon Valley, when I was randomly selected from a hat. I
was one of four people to play you, you were blindfolded. I know you probably
do this a lot, but it was very memorable for me and I was the last person
standing.

It was a blindfolded timed simul?

Yes.

Then I remember, yes!

I’m sure that game
you remember vividly in your head.

Is that the game where I forgot the position once?

Yes, you do remember
that game! I briefly had an advantage. I tell people this, they don’t believe
me!

I think I blundered a rook or something, because I
misremembered one of the pawns.

Yes, I was up a rook
at one point in the game and I tell this to everyone who will listen. I was at
one point at an advantage versus Magnus Carlsen, and then I later tell them
that you were blindfolded playing four people and I think you might have even
had less time on your clock than I did, but it was good for my self-esteem. I
remember the moment when I thought, he’s doing something really deep because I
think I can just take this rook.

Surprisingly often when you see a very strong player appear
to miss something obvious, they just missed it! 

So that’s what I keep telling
everybody. If it looks like your opponent missed something and you can’t see
why they didn’t, they probably did.

(Sal’s sons ask the
next two questions)
How do you beat
all the people?

I don’t know, to be honest, and I don’t beat all of them.
More talent, harder work – who knows? (smiles)

When you play
blindfolded like you did against my dad, is there any specific way that you can
memorise multiple boards in your head, or do you just do it?

I think you just store them in different parts of your
brain. So it’s really only necessary to have one board at a time, but it’s good
to have some kind of face or some kind of name that you connect with a certain
board, so it’s easier to distinguish them from each other.

Is it only chess, or
do you have the ability to memorise scenarios and visualise things outside of
chess as well?

I would say that when I was young I had a very, very good
memory. Now it’s not so great anymore. 

I would say at this point my memory is
nothing exceptional. I can remember patterns still, I can remember the broad
ideas, but I cannot remember everything. Let me tell you that when I was young,
when I was a teenager, at least in my early teens, there was no way that I
would be able to only tell you that I blundered a rook at some point because I
displaced my pawn. Back then I would have been able to tell you the whole game
and details about it, so I think it’s more as you get older about remembering
the broad lines of everything. I don’t think I’m really exceptional there.

How do you get
better, when frankly you’re the best right now? How do you push yourself to be
better?

Frankly the emphasis for me is on learning, and I don’t know
exactly how that is going to make me a better chess player, but I feel as
though my understanding of chess is evolving. 

Looking at my games, let’s say
5-6 years ago, I would say that my understanding of the game was considerably
worse back then. 

My results weren’t necessarily worse, but that is the
fascinating part for me – that the game is evolving, my understanding is
evolving and you’re always learning something new. That really is enough
motivation for me to keep on learning. Whether it will make me a better chess
player, I don’t know, because sometimes in chess ignorance really can be bliss,
because sometimes if you have less knowledge, but knowledge that you are
confident about, it can be better than just having many, many ideas, many, many
thoughts that just make you overthink.

It’s fascinating that
there are still layers that you’re uncovering even after becoming World Chess
Champion.

Absolutely. 

I think that happens to all chess players,
because the game is evolving and it’s the tragedy for everybody that the more
you know the worse you play, it becomes at some point.

I’m curious what goes
on in your head. I might recognise certain things, but I’m also doing a lot of
the scenarios, if I do this, they’re going to do this, if I do this, they’re
going to do this, and I can go down that tree maybe 3 or 4, or 5 moves at best.
Are you doing that same type of thing, if I do this, they do that, or is it
something else?

It can be, but I think since I’m much more experienced I
would use my long-term memory more than my short-term, but clearly sometimes
you do have to calculate, and then it’s as you say, no deeper than, yes, if I
do this, he will have to do this and then I’ll do that and so on, and then
there may be two or three options on each move, so the tree of variations
becomes broader and messier, but at the end of the day you can’t escape
calculation by brute force, no matter how much you want to play on intuition
and strategy rather than tactics.

What was your most
memorable or nerve-wracking match?

I would certainly say the first World Championship match
that I had in 2013. 

At the start I was so nervous that I dropped one of my
pieces on the first move, which is sort of fascinating, because even at that
point I was the highest-rated player in the world and I was very experienced. 

But the task of playing a World Championship was so daunting to me that for the
first four games, or 3-4 games, I was still unbelievably nervous, because it
was something that was absolutely new to me.

And how do you deal
with that? Do you just say, ‘breathe, one move at a time’?

I don’t know how to deal with it, to be honest, so the way
that I dealt with it was I played one good game and then my confidence was back
and I didn’t have a care in the world. And very often people search for, do I
have a method or deeper meaning to what I do, but what I explained at the
beginning was my method was mainly trial and error, and it still is to some
extent, that I find out what works for me at some point simply by experiencing
it, not necessarily by good planning.

Do you ever, while
you’re in the middle of a game, think ‘I can’t believe I made that move’? How
often does that happen to you?

Every single game! I can’t remember a single one where I
haven’t had those thoughts. Sometimes it would be a massive blunder, another
time it will be an unavoidable inaccuracy, but every time is like you’ve played
chess your whole life and still you can’t figure this out. It’s the same.

You probably hide it
well, because now when you make what you know to be a mistake, or you miss
something, most other people will probably see it as deep insight. It probably
scares them.

Yeah, normally it’s just a mess-up! That’s what it is.

You’ve achieved the
top of your game literally at a very, very young age. What do you see as the
future? Do you feel you’re defending your title, is this why you’re constantly
on your game, or is it really just a love of the game?

Really I just want to learn, and playing both tournaments
and casual games still gives me satisfaction and joy, so for the moment I
haven’t really thought too much about anything else. Whatever titles may be out
there that’s not the main motivation at this point. 

In that case I feel it’s
just come what may. It’s about learning and having fun, to be honest.

What do you think
about the rise of chess engines and the digital age in chess?

Frankly I don’t play a lot against computers. Basically the
only time when I play against computer opponents is when I play my own app, and
computers have changed dramatically the way that we prepare for games, not
necessarily for the better, because it’s left less scope for creativity. I
think computers, though, have made the game much more accessible for casual
fans, because now you can see a score and they can also aid in giving you
instant feedback when you play your games, so I guess overall they’ve certainly
been a positive, but in terms of how I view chess engines, I view them as more
of for me a necessary evil than a good thing. To me the game would be just as
interesting without computer analysis.

What do you mean that
to play human vs. human there’s more space for creativity?

It just means that humans have emotions, they have actual
thoughts, so it’s a game of both some emotion and ideas, and with computers it
just becomes technique, basically. It’s only about technique and that’s why I
find it in general less interesting.

How much of it is playing
with the other person’s emotions, or tricking them, or making them not see
something?

I think the faster the games the more there’s room for all
sorts of trickery that to my mind makes the game more interesting. 

I think as
you have more and more time it becomes more technical, but certainly at shorter
time controls there’s a lot of psychology involved and there’s much more room
to adjust your strategy according to your opponents.

The main character in
the Queen’s Gambit is famously an intuitive player versus computational. What are
your thoughts about the Queen’s Gambit and what’s it done to the game of chess?

I think the only reason she can be intuitive is that she’s
studied very, very hard, and that’s one of the things I loved to see about the
series, that she studies so hard and she has such great respect for the game.
Also I feel like they did the chess pretty well there, the fragments from games
were very realistic and sometimes beautiful as well. When it comes to the
atmosphere around the tournaments and so on I guess some things are
fictionalised, but overall I was very happy with it and hopefully people will
watch it and they will not be scared but rather encouraged to play chess.

In the early days
when you were getting beaten every now and then, how did you deal with that
failure and how do you manage your own emotions? Are there times where you’re
feeling bad about yourself, or angry, or you’re frustrated with a given opponent?

I have to say that when I was young and I lost a lot more
than I do now, I didn’t care so much about losses because I didn’t expect to
win all the time. As I said, I wanted to play stronger players so that I could
learn the most, and it was not about winning, I just wanted to get to the next
level, that I could match up with stronger and stronger opponents and then beat
them eventually. 

In recent years, when I’ve become used to being at the top
most of the time now, losing hurts, I’m not going to lie there, every time! 

It’s not even losing. I might be equally upset after a game that I’ve won as a
game that I’ve lost if I feel like I made a mistake that I could easily have
avoided or I didn’t act professionally enough in the way that I executed the game.
So 20 years of playing chess has not prevented me from having emotional
reactions to things that happen at the chessboard.

Do you sometimes
model it in your mind, what if, 5-10 years in the future, the next Magnus Carlsen
comes and is able to beat me? Is that something that you think about? How do
you think that would affect you, if that happened?

I remember I was asked this question, I think 11 years ago,
and at that point it upset me because they worded the question as ‘what are you
going to do when that next one comes
along’, and I said very clearly that in my mind this was the question of if,
and also that I have so many
years until that will be a real thing. I think I’m realistic enough though, at
this point, to realise that I’m not going to be able to be at the highest level
forever, so if I do want to keep on playing chess at the highest level then at
some point I’m going to start regressing. But for the moment I’m thinking that
I should still be in my prime and that’s what I should strive for.

I’d definitely phrase
it as if!

Obviously the most likely scenario is that somebody’s going
to surpass me, I wouldn’t say sooner rather than later, but in the not too
distant future, but I’m going to try and hold on as long as I can!

When we think about
the arc of the game of chess, how it’s evolved, do you think that the
competition is only going higher and higher over time, that people are
understanding the game at deeper and deeper levels, or do you think some of the
old greats from 50 years ago, 60 years ago or even 100 years ago would actually
still be greats today?

I think it’s a bit of both. The game is certainly evolving,
especially with computers. That’s made us reevaluate a lot of the truths that
we held to be self-evident once upon a time. 

But I also do feel, and this is
going to make me sound a lot older than I am, but I do feel that some of the
youngsters today are not too good at the basics. I feel like the generation that
I’m a part of, and the generation before, maybe understood the fundamentals of
the game a little bit better than the kids do today, and I think that’s partly
a result of growing up with the computer rather than a board.

That’s fascinating,
because I’m sure the youngsters you’re talking about are still quite good at
chess.

Obviously, yes!

When you say the
basics, what do you mean by that?  

I think some gaps in just general positional understanding
of the game, and studying the classic games I think has clear value. Far from
everything that you learn from back then is still true today, but… 

…I don’t think
you can develop a broad enough understanding of the game to be the best by only
training with a computer.

It’s fascinating, and
yes, you do sound older than you are.

I just turned 30 last November. What I will say, though, is
that I think I’m lucky to be in a hybrid generation. I started playing chess
before the computers were absolutely everywhere. I actually went to a school
with books and notebooks and so on before everything became computerised and I
think it’s a good position to be in, to be in that hybrid that you have a good
knowledge of computers but that you can also relate to the old way the game was
played.

If you weren’t World
Chess Champion, if you didn’t have this chess life, in an alternate reality
what would Magnus Carlsen be doing?

I’ve been asked it many times, for sure – never had a good
answer, probably still don’t! One thing that I will say, though, is that I have
massive respect for people in almost any field, and I think there are a lot of
even fairly bright people who think that somebody like me could become good at
something else with very little effort, but I really don’t think so. I think
most of all I’m somebody who – evidently I have some talent for chess – but
most of all I’ve spent a lot of time working on it and thinking about it and I
think that I’m not necessarily the fastest at anything, I need some time and
then I just keep learning. But to think of something else, no, I don’t think
there’s anything that I could imagine I would be anywhere equally as good. In
that case I would have to spend nearly all my time on it, as I have with chess.

Do you play other
games?

The thing is for something like Go I feel like having spent
a lot of time on chess might almost be a disadvantage, because I think that the
mindset there is very different, and for a chess player Go seems very, very
abstract compared to chess. I wouldn’t say I’m great at anything else. I’ve
tried games. I play poker with my friends occasionally without being
particularly great at it, I’ve tried Shogi, Go briefly, without excelling at
any of those things.

I just imagine
playing poker or any other game against you and I do think you have an
intimidation factor which would play to your strength.

It goes away very quickly!


Magnus Carlsen has had a tough start to the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour season. Despite winning the preliminary stage of all three events so far he’s yet to win a tournament, and trails Wesley So and Teimour Radjabov in the standings. 

This time he kicks of Day 1 of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational preliminaries with a tough series of games that includes facing 17-year-old potential heir to his crown Alireza Firouzja. 

Make sure to tune into the live commentary, with interactive computer analysis, here on chess24 from 17:00 CET! 

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