Sports

The World’s Greatest Chess Player Cannot Wait to Battle His Young, Rising Rivals

“I can still show that I’m better than the younger generation.”

Magnus Carlsen standing and smiling
Norway’s Magnus Carlsen attends the Round 6 game at the 44th Chess Olympiad in Tamil Nadu, India, on Aug. 3. Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been a wild year for world chess champion Magnus Carlsen. The 31-year-old Norwegian grandmaster, the highest-rated player ever and only serious contender for Garry Kasparov’s crown as all-time best, announced on International Chess Day (July 20) that he won’t be defending the world championship title this year. (Two of Carlsen’s contemporaries—grandmasters Ding Liren and last year’s runner-up Ian “Nepo” Nepomniachtchi—will duke it out instead.) Even though he’s held the title since 2013, winning it yet again this past December, Carlsen stated that he prefers competing for its own sake as opposed to bouting to be world No. 1, and that he’d only consider defending the title “if the next challenger represents the next generation.” (This was a clear shoutout to Iranian French grandmaster Alireza Firouzja, just 19 years old and ranked next in line for the crown.)

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But Carlsen still loves the game more than anything, and he’s not letting up on his domination in the chess business. His schedule this year has been packed with tournaments, from the digital Meltwater Champions masters to the 44th Chess Olympiad. This week, he joins the final leg of the Grand Chess Tour at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, headlining the Sinquefield Cup as this year’s wildcard player. He arrived at the tourney shortly after clinching the FTX Crypto Cup—although not without a challenge from Rameshbabu “Pragg” Praggnanandhaa, the 17-year-old Indian dynamo who beat Carlsen in some of the final matches and even outranked Firouzja. Pragg won’t be there for this round, which lasts through Sept. 12, but based on the Sinquefield schedule, it looks as though chess fans will get to watch the long-awaited Carlsen-Firouzja matchup very soon, a generation-crossing landmark the Norwegian has hungered for.

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On Thursday, which marked both the Sinquefield Cup’s first day and the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky world-champion matchup, I spoke by video with Carlsen about the Grand Chess Tour, the differences in chess styles between generations of grandmasters, and his plans for the future. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: Are you looking forward to playing wildcard this year at the Cup?

Magnus Carlsen: I’ve been in wildcard in the tour a couple times before, when I’ve not had the chance to play the whole thing. I’m very happy to play here. It’s one of the strongest classical tournaments around. I’m going to play some people that I haven’t played in classical chess in a while. I haven’t played against Wesley So—I’ve played him a bunch online in rapid games, but not in classical rounds. I haven’t played in a while with Firouzja. There’s a lot of interesting people to face here, so it’s definitely an exciting time.

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I know that you helped kick off this tournament in 2013. Have you seen it gain more attention and popularity over time?

I haven’t been here since 2019, but I felt like until the start of the pandemic, it was always growing in terms of the number of fans who came here surrounding the tournaments, and the conditions around have always kind of improved. Now the entire street is basically just themed around this, so it’s pretty awesome to see.

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You’re playing this pretty soon after the FTX Crypto Cup.

I think it finished 11 days ago.

How do you feel about crypto companies like FTX now entering the chess space?

I know crypto companies are having a bit of a hard time right now, but in general, they’re exciting to work with because they’re really focused on innovation. We’ll see in the future how time and the market will shape those companies, but so far, it’s been a positive experience working with FTX.

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How was your experience at that tournament? I know you ended with the top prize, but Pragg gave you a bit of a hard time.

He was proud. He’s been doing very well in a lot of these online events, and he’s also beginning to show great results in classical chess. I did lose a few games to him at the end—it was after the tournament was decided—but still he had a great performance, ending up second. He’s very strong. I was happy to take down that win. It meant a lot to me, especially since in the previous tour event I’d failed to even be top two. So I really wanted to win that one, and certainly it gave me a lot of good feelings coming into this one.

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You mentioned, around when you said you will not be defending the World Chess Championship this year, that you were looking more toward challenging the next generation of chess players. Do you see Praggnanandhaa as being among that crop?

Definitely. I mean, I think the clear front-runner is still Alireza Firouzja, who just crushed the tournament here in St. Louis the week before. And most of the world’s elite in Rapid & Blitz—except me—was playing here. Then you got Pragg at 17, Gukesh D at 16 who’s unbelievably strong—they’re really a great generation of players born in the early to mid-2000s who are going to be conquering the top of the chess world soon. For now, it’s exciting to see them rise, and I hope in a couple years I can compete with them all in the strongest tournaments.

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I’m wondering: What do you view as the differences in gameplay between your generation and some of these younger players?

I would say to some extent the youngest players play more concretely than and less dogmatically than the older generation might. I mean, that is typically a trait of youth, but I think it’s even more pronounced now than it was before. Also, these young guys now, they’re very serious, very single-minded people, which I think is a good trait if you want to be the very best.

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Do you think the rise in computerized chess and A.I. models have influenced them in particular, as much as modern tournament gameplay?

For sure. Information flows a lot more easily, which means that you can now gain a lot of knowledge in places that don’t have a great chess culture or great coaches. You can get a lot of those things online. It’s certainly helped the game become more global, and it’s also shaped the style of younger players to become a little bit more computerized.

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Are you starting to tire of tournaments, or are you still generally enjoying them, just in a different way than you might have previously?

I haven’t tired of playing chess at all. I love playing. I think my motivation is sometimes not as high as it was before. I don’t have that same single-mindedness of wanting to crush people every time. But I think having a bit of a more balanced approach may not necessarily be a bad thing. As long as I can still compete, I can still show that I’m better than the younger generation. That’s an exciting prospect for me, so I don’t see myself stopping being ambitious in that sense anytime soon. But I certainly now start to feel that stuff isn’t going to last forever. So I’m grateful for every win that I get now, and I’m just trying to keep it up as long as I can.

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What is it that you particularly like about tournaments like the Sinquefield Cup?

This tournament is, to me, a very interesting and almost scientific pursuit, because its players are so strong. There’s a longer time control, and it’s really hard to get an edge against these players. It becomes just about finding these little ideas, these little edges that you can try to exploit because any move that you might get is not easy. This tournament is interesting because it’s so hard.

Speaking of Blitz, I know that you’ve been doing a lot of blitzing on Chess.com, right?

Well, I played one right before I got here, but I certainly intend on playing more in the future.

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Is DrDrunkenstein still in action? [Ed. note: That’s Carlsen’s online-streaming speed-chess pseudonym.]

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We’ll see. I mean, I haven’t streamed much at all the last one-and-a-half years. I intend on doing that a bit more in the future, playing online. I love playing chess, so there’s no reason not to play. And I prefer playing against the best that I can play against. I mean, that’s the most exciting.

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What are your plans for the rest of the year after St. Louis?

At the end of October, I’m playing in the World Fischer Random Chess Championship in Iceland. The last time I played there, in 2019, I lost the final to Wesley So, so I’m eager to gain some revenge there and try to get that title back. That’s going to be my next big goal after here. Apart from that, I’ll play more Champions Chess Tour events, including the final in November in San Francisco. A lot of chess to come still this year.

Is a potential matchup with Firouzja coming up anytime soon?

In this tournament, we’re playing only one game, but I’ll certainly be seeing him a lot in tournaments in both coming months and years. He’s only going to get stronger and I’m not going away anytime soon, so hopefully that’s going to be a fun rivalry.

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