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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Chess Star, with Pop Singer Looks

This week's New Yorker has an interesting article, "The Prince's Gambit," on Magnus Carlsen (written by D.T. Max, who incidentally wrote one of the more terrifying non-fiction books I have read in recent years, The Family That Couldn't Sleep).  Carlsen is a twenty-year-old chess player from Norway, with Justin Bieber-esque looks, who is ranked first in the world.  When I was doing research on scholastic chess several years ago Carlsen was making a splash as a young prodigy-- at that time he was the second-youngest Grand Master in history (he is now the third)-- so I read the piece with great enthusiasm.  Max's discussion of the role of computers in chess was well-done, as were descriptions of important games, even if my chess knowledge isn't deep enough to really understand the nuances of the strategies.

What really spoke to me in the article, and where my own knowledge is deeper, was the description of how Carlsen got started with chess. Carlsen is quoted, "At the time I started to play chess, I was a pretty much normal kid." His father, Henrik, taught him and his older sister how the chess pieces move when Magnus was five.  But neither Magnus nor his six-year-old sister, Ellen, were terribly interested and Magnus instead played soccer and skied, and the whole family played Monopoly, hearts, and bridge together. At seven, Henrik reintroduced chess, and Magnus became fascinated by the game, studying and playing on his own.  It wasn't until a few years later that he began serious private lessons, much later than other "prodigies," and later still when he began taking the tournament world by storm.  This excerpt from the article is especially evocative: "Carlsen's family was not unlike those American families in which the parents are careful not to tell their children that they have to excel but the children sense it anyway... A friend of Carlsen's from school, says, 'My impression is that Magnus chose to play chess by himself, but he has this feeling that he satisfies his dad by it.'"  While Carlsen describes himself as lazy, meaning he doesn't study and prepare for tournaments like other professional chess players, his innate interest in the game and his curiosity have propelled him forward, supported by his family. 

Max suggests that one of the reasons why Carlsen keeps getting better at chess, even at an age when many prodigies peak, is because he trains less with computers and relies more on his own judgment.  But I would argue that his genuine curiosity for the game, which was self-motivated but supported by his parents, also is a big reason why he is still playing, competing, and winning at such a high level.  Children perform better and stick with activities longer when they have an innate interest and an intrinsic motivation.  Unlike many American children, he was likely not rewarded by large trophies and similar prizes, which sometimes hinder rather than help children's continued involvement.  Many American parents would benefit from Henrik's example of gentle nudging over time, while promoting other activities as well.

One area where I had lingering questions after digesting "The Prince's Gambit:" I wonder how Carlsen's success impacted his peers and siblings.  In my research I saw how other parents and children often responded when there was a particularly talented and successful peer in the same activity-- they gave up and dropped out.  It appears the same thing happened around Magnus: "Soon after Carlsen began instruction... other kids stopped playing chess with him on the board in the school library. 'It very quickly became pointless,' he said."  Once he started beating his older sister, Ellen, she apparently quit playing as well.

It can be especially difficult on siblings when one is extremely talented.  Max writes that the whole family (both parents and both sisters) took a year off from work and school to drive around Europe while Magnus played in tournaments.  I would love to know what that experience was like for the Carlsen sisters and if they have found areas which they love as much as their brother loves chess, and where they can also excel.  There may not be a "Princess' Gambit," but I'm guessing with the talent and sound parenting described in the New Yorker piece, the Carlsen sisters are doing well-- I certainly hope they are!


  1. Itwould appear that this family did it right without slamming Magnus into an activity and let the cards playout--eventually he had a somewhat normal childhood without parental pressure.Yes we have to wonder about therest of the family whil he traveled in europe for chess matches--but noless a commitment than are done for swimmers, gymnasts etc. her in America at a young age.

  2. You quit playing chess with another person at any age when it becomes clear that no matter how hard you try, the other person is going to win every game. It is a matter of creative ability and skill. While your game may improve with effort, you must reach a point at which you can compete at the other's level. I read the New Yorker article with interest because I also compete, though at a much lower level, in the London Chess Classic. It is a delightfully new and successful competition, well managed by the English Chess Federation and, being British, oh so polite. One of the attractions of competitive chess for many of us is the wonderful way it keeps our ageing brains in shape. While the collaboration between Carlsen and former champion Kasparov was fruitful, it is understandable that the young Norwegian ended the teacher-pupil relationship. Kasparov is one of the most intense beings on the planet. His incredible chess skills, his fantastic memory and dynamic personality would make it difficult for a Buddhist monk to take lessons from him. I spent a week travelling with him in the 80s just before he beat Karpov to become world champion and the experience was enlightening and fun. Kasparov seemed like a normal, well-adjusted person in his 20s with many and varied interests, including international politics. But as champion he became somewhat overbearing, so one can understand Carlsen's apprehension before each meeting with him.

  3. Yes, research has shown that chess can have quite productive effects on the brain-- at both the earlier and later stages in life.

    Good luck in your next tournament!

  4. #
    Kovan Pillai very interesting read...but a lot of kids in the US just play for the trophies
    Yesterday at 5:54am · LikeUnlike
    Hilary Levey Friedman Yes, definitely. And they participate in lots of other activities just for the trophies...