By FM Dusan Stojic
There is no doubt that Magnus Carlsen has achieved a lot in his chess career. He is the current World Champion, the highest rated player of all time, a model for the fashion brand G-Star RAW and perhaps most impressive of all, Homer’s chess coach in an episode of the Simpsons.
But can we call Carlsen a genius? What it is about Magnus Carlsen that makes him the greatest chess player in the world? Is Carlsen more talented or does he just work harder than other grandmasters?
What is Genius?
It can be difficult to know what people mean by genius. There are great minds throughout history that stand out and deserve the label: Aristotle, Da Vinci, Newton, Mozart and of course Einstein. When we talk about someone being a genius today, then surely they must have extraordinary, almost superhuman, mental powers.
Genius, by any definition, implies that the person is either unique, or very rare. So if we were to call any chess player a genius, then they must somehow stand out from the many other great chess players.
Carlsen’s Unique Style
Magnus Carlsen was in the spotlight since he became a grandmaster (the highest title in world chess) at just 13 years old, the third youngest in history. Although there were other prodigies at the time, many observers noticed that he had a unique feel for the game. He was dubbed the Mozart of Chess by the United States Grandmaster and Huffington Post columnist Lubomir Kavalek.
The playing style of the young Carlsen was extraordinarily mature and intuitive, seemingly effortless. Such natural mastery of concepts that are normally developed later in a chess career is reminiscent of another great World Champion, José Raúl Capablanca.
As Carlsen matured, so did his play. In an age where the greatest players in the world typically possess the largest arsenal of opening theory, Carlsen adapted an approach where he simply outplays his opponents from equal positions. He rarely wins by a Blitzkrieg-style attack out of the opening, often employed by Garry Kasparov, but relies on his deep understanding of positions. It is this style of play is what makes Carlsen so unique.
Talent or Hard Work?
At the recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles , Carlsen did a lengthy interview, followed by a clock simul with 10 opponents (video in the link). He gave an interesting response to the first question.
Interviewer: What qualities, would you say, are a must, for anyone who wants to play in your league, so to speak, to lock wits with geniuses for hours at a time?
Carlsen: […] I was able to concentrate on something for a long time. My interest didn’t wane; and I kept on learning. That has been my main advantage.
So it seems that Carlsen doesn’t consider himself particularly talented, but simply hard-working. Or on the other hand, he may view his ability to concentrate and learn as a talent in itself.
This reminds me of what former World Champion Garry Kasparov (also a former trainer of Carlsen) has said more than once about talent. For some inspirational words of wisdom from the man himself, check out Kasparov’s commencement speech to undergraduates at Saint Louis University (Kasparov starts around 1:07 and I draw your attention to 1:16). “Hard work IS a talent.”
According to Kasparov, the whole talent vs. hard work is a false dichotomy. He owes most of his success to his hard work. If there is any talent that played a part in Kasparov’s dominance, he humbly credits this to his “talent” of being able to sacrifice more than his peers and work harder.
From my own experience, any progress a player makes in chess is only made possible through hard work. The better a player becomes, the more dedication to the game this requires. In order to achieve a ranking of Grandmaster (only six GMs in Australian chess history thus far), one needs to make many sacrifices over many years.
Talent does play a part at some point. Good memory, a sharp mind, the ability to think in abstract terms, planning, a strategic mindset – these cognitive faculties no doubt help a chess player learn quicker or reach a higher level. But I think that the importance of this type of natural talent is often overstated.
Is Carlsen More Talented than the Rest?
While Carlen’s style of play is unique, and he has managed to stay ranked Number 1 for a colossal seven years running, there are many players capable of beating him on their day.
Recently, Russian Grandmaster Alexander Morozevich has even said that there are players more talented than Carlsen. To chess fans, this is blasphemy. Morozevich opined that Carlsen doesn’t possess more imagination or chess skill, but “Carlsen is very balanced. He has outstanding drive, he’s exceptionally strong-willed and ambitious.”
But this to me is just talking about different types of talent. Morozevich’s definition of talent is more an artistic one: the ability to create masterpieces or brilliant games. Chess is a brutal battle of wits, and the competitive “killer instinct” that seems innate in Carlsen is just as much a part of talent as other aspects of chess.
Grandmaster Visvanathan Anand, who Carlsen defeated twice in a World Championship Match, spoke highly of Carlsen’s talent: “He has the ability to play in any position. He is a complete all-rounder in chess…He is simply the greatest talent I have seen.”
From the Horse’s Mouth
So does Carlsen consider himself a genius? According to his public statements, it’s a very consistent “no” and it seems he dislikes the term.
During a press conference at the World Championship 2014 against Anand, Carlsen was asked how he felt about former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik applying the word ‘genius’ to him (around 7:45). “Those are kind words. But I’m not so generous with the use of the word ‘genius’ myself.”
There is a fantastic couple of lines from a light-hearted interview with the actor Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from the US TV Series, The Office):
Wilson: What would the first sentence of your autobiography be?
Carlsen: I’m not a genius.
Wilson: And what would be the title of your autobiography?
Carlsen: (cheeky smile) Magnus Carlsen: Chess Genius.
Not so Genius
Carlsen will undoubtedly leave a great impact on the game of chess. People will speak about the Carlsen Era, just as they will about the Kasparov Era.
Magnus does have a unique style, but so do many other players. The gap between Carlsen and the rest of the chess elite is too small for us to ignore the brilliance of other grandmasters. If Carlsen is a genius, what about the rest of the top 10, all within 50 rating points of Carlsen?
We are tempted to view athletes, artists and intellectuals as having something that we don’t. We often speak of “talent” as something that is innate, and “genius” as something one has at birth.
Thomas Edison put it so memorably: “Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.”