Sports

DrDrunkenstein’s Reign of Terror

Magnus Carlsen, the best chess player alive, has been slipping into online speed tournaments behind pseudonyms to crack jokes, let loose, and destroy the competition.

Magnus Carlsen smirks and holds his hand up to his face. Behind him are screenshots of his face from livestreams.
Magnus Carlsen. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Agon Limited and Magnus Carlsen/YouTube.

It was the final game of the 2018 World Chess Championship, and reigning champ Magnus Carlsen was about to piss off almost every commentator in the chess world. In a clearly favorable position, with a 30-minute time advantage over opponent Fabiano Caruana, Carlsen offered his hand for the 12th straight draw of the 12-game series. Neither side had won a single game—a first in the history of the world championship.

Commentators saw the move as heretical to the spirit of competition, “cowardly” even. Former champ Garry Kasparov suggested Carlsen was losing his nerve. The crown would have to be determined in tiebreaks: rapid games, more similar in time controls to a casual match in the park than the hours-long marathons that preceded them. Each side would get 25 minutes to make all his moves, with a 10 second bonus added each time he punched his clock.

It was Carlsen’s bread and butter. He was the World Blitz Chess champion as well and bet on his quick intuition to close the match out decisively. He bet right—bulldozing Caruana with three consecutive wins to retain the world title. When asked about his critics at the press conference, a grinning Carlsen said, “They are entitled to their stupid opinions.”

Though some fans were still irked that he played it safe in the classical games, a new narrative started emerging: Carlsen, the supremely gifted natural, brought Caruana out of the memorized computer analysis that defines so much of the contemporary circuit. Far from losing his nerve, Carlsen was ushering the match into a rawer, more competitive form. He put the clock on Caruana, and Caruana couldn’t keep up.

In the commentary on the tiebreaks from popular YouTube channel ChessNetwork, the most liked post under the channel’s game analysis echoed many chess fans’ sense of celebration. It read, “This World Chess Championship is a tale of two people. For two weeks, we saw [Carlsen]. Today, we saw Dr. Drunkenstein.” The comment was liked almost 600 times.

“DrDrunkenstein” is one of many aliases Magnus Carlsen has played under during the past two years, when he went on a killing spree across the speed chess tournaments of the internet. Since winter 2017, Carlsen has taken to livestreaming his games on a variety of platforms, which has provided a surprisingly entertaining window into the mind of an all-time great.

Lichess.org is a free, ad-less web platform for chess players, a favorite in the online chess community. On Dec. 14, 2017, the site held its first Titled Bullet Arena, an exclusive tourney for master-level players to play blisteringly fast one-minute games. Lichess’ decision to host top-tier tournaments was viewed by some as a great leap forward toward establishing chess as an esport. In that debut, Carlsen appeared incognito as “DannyTheDonkey” and won, donating his small prize money back to the website.

Carlsen’s first showing as DrDrunkenstein was in Lichess’ second Titled Arena the following month. DannyTheDonkey was missing, and the mysterious Drunkenstein soared to the top of the elite competition. Commentators soon started speculating that the world champion had returned. He won commandingly; Carlsen ended the two-hour match with a score of 199. His three closest rivals were two grandmasters and an international master, who scored 132, 120, and 111, respectively. Carlsen streamed the games on Twitch, where he lived up to his username, pounding Coronas while bantering in Norwegian with his friends.

Chess fans were astonished. There’s something hypnotizing about watching a guy known as “the Mozart of chess”—a player who is quantifiably better than Bobby Fischer—taking a big gulp of beer, announcing his position as “completely winning,” then singing along to Dr. Dre saying “motherfuck the police” while coasting into another quick checkmate.

DrDrunkenstein returned in March and April 2018 for two more runaway victories in the Lichess Titled Arena. But in the fifth Titled Arena, Drunkenstein came in an uncharacteristic fifth place. Viewers of his Twitch broadcast report he had lag issues, but one comment near the top of the stream suggested that Carlsen’s handle might have been a little too accurate this time: “I thought Carlsen was sandbagging these tournaments to make it interesting,“ user Cinnamon Cookies said, “but after watching his stream he’s just really drunk.”

In an interview with a Norwegian newspaper in October, Carlsen admits he quit drinking for his health. “I wouldn’t say I was an alcoholic exactly,” he said, “but I found out this year, if I’m going to travel and play a lot […] I need to prioritize differently.”

Maybe the champ had a come-to-Jesus moment after his poor showing. In Lichess’ sixth Titled Arena, DrDrunkenstein was nowhere to be found. Instead, another odd username made its appearance on the leaderboards: “DamnSaltyThatSport” reached the No. 1 position 10 minutes into the tournament. Bullet chess star Andrew Tang (who plays online as “penguingim”) was streaming the sixth arena. No one was officially sure who the Salty One was at first, but after he mounted a swarming attack against Tang’s kingside and came up a rook ahead, Tang shook his head and sighed. “Yeah, I think we know who it is,” he said. Carlsen came in first again.

On the eve of his world championship defense, Carlsen appeared in the next tournament as “manwithavan,” playing a large chunk of his games on a phone from a minivan, where the touch screen presented a massive handicap. He again earned the adoration of spectators, this time for riskily walking his king into the center of the board against one of the most dangerous players in the tournament. He came in third. Only a month before Carlsen defended his world championship title, he notched another win as Drunkenstein—including a gorgeous queen sacrifice against a top ranked Russian grandmaster—and experienced a surge in confidence. He returned as “DrNykterstein” in December 2018 (nykter is Norwegian for sober), playing increasingly trollish openings in the first Titled Arena he joined after beating Caruana.

As DrNykterstein, he alternated between two ways of wasting his early, important opening moves. Sometimes, he’d take his queen on a four-move tour of the board before swapping her home square with the king’s, letting his opponent develop their pieces while he showboated. This is a more elaborate version of a popular joke opening known as the “Bongcloud.”

A chessboard depicting the "bongcloud" attack.
Wikipedia

Other times, he’d fidget his knights back and forth from their starting squares, offering his challenger a six-move time advantage. In this tournament he filled with gags, he came in first again.

By March 2019, gaming platform Chess24 recruited Carlsen to play against any user that registered a premium account and broadcast his games on YouTube. As “MagzyBogues,” Carlsen has since participated in seven Banter Blitz sessions on Chess24, showering the internet with an embarrassment of riches.

Among them was a game against a master-rated player where Carlsen achieved a position known as Zugzwang—a state in which any move a player might make will inevitably weaken their position. It is a rarity anywhere outside of instructional books.

Another gem was an unbelievably elegant checkmate Carlsen accomplished while goofing around with co-host grandmaster Jan Gustafsson. Playing an international master, Carlsen traps the opponent’s king with a bishop and two perfectly symmetrical knights, able to checkmate with either knight charging into the opponent’s third rank.

A chessboard depicting the symmetrical knights setup.
White’s next move will either be Nf6 or Nh6, checkmating Black’s king while the other knight protects the bishop. Joe Holmes/Lichess.org

In his seventh Banter Blitz, streamed on Chess24 in November, Carlsen showed a rare moment of passion. Facing off against 16-year-old Iranian wunderkind Alireza Firouzja, already seen by many as the No. 1 contender for his crown, Carlsen faced a serious challenge. Firouzja, moving lightning fast, attempts to trick Carlsen with a weird knight sacrifice. Carlsen resists the temptation for long enough to chase away a key attacker in the center, then smiles to himself. “I want to take that knight so bad,” he says, laughing. He takes it. But a few moves later, while tenuously defending an attack on his king, Carlsen misses a chance to capture a valuable rook. “It’s threatening mate, you dumbass!” he yells at himself. Firouzja keeps the pressure on, but Carlsen ends up weathering the storm, coming out at the other end of the attack with an extra piece. Firouzja resigns, and Carlsen celebrates. “It makes me so happy,” he says, “beating one of the best young players of our generation.”

One of the sweetest benefits of watching these matches is enjoying Carlsen’s dry, self-deprecating sense of humor—something no chess prodigy has any right to have. In a match with a FIDE master—a skills designation a notch below international master—Carlsen’s camera froze midstream. “I promised I would fix the problems, and I didn’t,” he said. “I am a pathological liar. I cannot blame my parents; they raised me well. It’s just me.”

Switching from five-minute games to three-minute games in his most recent Banter Blitz, Carlsen said, “[Five-minute games] simply feel too slow for me. Even though, judging by the play and time usage in some of my games, I clearly am not able to think fast enough to play three minute right now. If we did play five minute, I would just think more,” Carlsen stares into the distance wistfully. “The result would be equally depressing.” While he talks, he shuffles a pawn down the side of the board—a dubious way to develop his pieces. “So here I am, trying to grab some space, playing nonsense moves. You know, your usual world champion stuff.” Carlsen trapped his opponent’s queen a few minutes later.

“My position wasn’t so great, after all. He played pretty well until the very last moment,” he said, already searching for the next challenger.

It’s a gift enough, simply being able to watch a world champion play endless hours of fast-paced chess. But hearing Carlsen think out loud is a rare treat in the world of sports. “Stream of consciousness play from an all-time great, likely the greatest,” one commenter wrote under the champion’s most recent stream. “Can you imagine if we had this from Fischer or [José Raúl] Capablanca in his prime?? And Magnus is in all likelihood better than either of them.”

“It’s like watching Bach compose a fugue, or watching Shakespeare write a sonnet,” a YouTube commenter suggested. Another simply said: “This is a revolution in the history of chess.”