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Travel to Oslo

 
 

Lunch with Magnus Carlsen - Oslo's Dinner Bar and Restaurant

1 January 2015

Images: Geoff Brokate


Kaye Martindale talks to Magnus Carlsen over a plate of the world chess champion’s beloved “spicy food” at Oslo’s Dinner Bar & Restaurant

Magnus Carlsen arrives 20 minutes late and, to my surprise, he’s brought someone with him. Dinner with Magnus becomes dinner with Magnus and his agent. Worryingly his agent, Espen Agdestein, seems to do all of the talking for him, while Magnus strikes the pose of an uncomfortable and, perhaps, slightly petulant teenager. 

At the age of 24 Magnus is the reigning world chess champion and is being heralded as the game’s saviour. Famed for his relaxed attitude, model looks and savant-like intuition, he’s credited with making chess cool again, with rising global interest and more young people taking up the game than ever before. His appearance – fashionably tousled hair, brooding looks and a trendy but relaxed style – matches his reputation, but I begin to doubt that this is the guy who’s dispelling the reputation for nerdiness that chess suffers from. 

As we walk through the sophisticated Chinese restaurant, Dinner, in the centre of Oslo, a respectful hush descends. The popular establishment is packed with wealthy families and fashionable couples and, although there’s no overt looking or commenting, you can sense that someone special has entered the room. Magnus – who is a huge name in Norway – also senses the effect of his presence. When he sees the photographer’s lights in the middle of the restaurant, he asks nervously if we have checked with the restaurant first. 

As we sit, Magnus continues to avoid eye contact as he and his agent scrutinise their phones and confer in Norwegian. Apparently there’s a big chess tournament going on in London and they are following the action online. Magnus seems to be very difficult to engage in conversation, and I wonder if he has problems with English or if the stereotypes about chess champions being socially inept are true.

I throw out a question, hoping he’ll answer. “Why did you choose to meet here?” My words hover for a few moments before being picked up by Espen, who simply replies: “He likes spicy food.” But finally, after some discussion with his agent in Norwegian, he apologises and, as if a switch has been flicked, comes alive with boyish freshness and charm. 

He says he was debating whether to have spicy food or not. “Spicy food is good but sometimes it’s too…” he begins before words give way to a gestural sign language. I wonder if he’s trying to find the word in English, but it feels more like he’s using his hands to try to convey to me the very sensation and effect that spicy food has on his mind – as if words aren’t enough. We settle on “stimulating” to describe the feeling. 

Today he’s decided to embrace the stimulating effect of chillies and has chosen the Szechuan Chilli-pepper Kam Kon Pot. Espen orders the same and I take Fresh Temptations. Espen tells me we don’t have time for more than one course as Magnus is off to play an exhibition game where he’ll take on three people at the same time.

Magnus apparently doesn’t like to plan much in chess and prefers to follow his intuition, feeling his way around the board rather than adopting a strategy. He describes playing chess as “a great creative satisfaction, perhaps something like painters and writers experience”, and finds chess most sublime when he manages to create something “really unusual and special”. 

As soon as he mentions chess, all my doubts about how the interview will work out dissipate. His face lights up, his hands begin gesticulating and he is transformed into a confident and natural young man. I wonder if Magnus speaks like he plays chess. His body language suggests a natural effusion of energy while it seems as if he weighs each word, to make sure it’s the best vehicle for what he’s trying to express. 

There’s now no doubt in my mind that I have his absolute undivided attention. His father introduced him to the game when he was five, but it didn’t overly interest him. “It was just a game that I played more or less like anyone plays any game.” Chess truly came alive for him when he was playing his sister at the age of seven. “We spent a few hours playing in deep concentration and I understood the game in a different way. That was a very special game.” 

Our food arrives. Magnus and Espens’ meal is a rather succulent dish that consists of a variety of meats coated in a sweet looking sticky sauce, while I sense a hint of derision at my vegetarian choice of tofu and seasonal vegetables.

By the age of nine Magnus already had “high hopes” for chess’ place in his future. “I realised that I had a different attitude towards chess than my peers. They did it in their spare time and I wanted to do it every day, so it was only natural that I was going to be one of the better players.” 

In 2003, Magnus had already outgrown Norway’s small chess pool. The Carlsen family took the children out of school for a year to drive around Europe in a camper van so that Magnus could develop his chess by playing at higher-level tournaments than he could find in his homeland. One year later, a 13-year-old Magnus found himself playing Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player to have ever lived. 

Watching the video on YouTube, my heart went out to the sweet young boy who looked like a lost child facing a very intense looking man. However, Magnus saw it a different way: from the perspective of a champion’s last stand against the new generation. 

“I can’t imagine a worse situation for myself to be in at 35 years old,” he says as he stretches his arms up over his head as if to ward off the stiff constrictions of old age, then takes a big gulp of Coca-Cola. 

Magnus gives the impression of one who doesn’t waste much time with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. My questions of a speculative or abstract nature seem to slide off him as if he’s made of Teflon. Perhaps what makes him such a great player is his insistence on staying in the reality of the moment. I ask him if he wishes he’d got to play Kasparov more often before he retired. 

He looks at me and narrows his eyes, as if making sense of the question. “No,” he answers, slightly baffled, “I don’t think about that.” Magnus repeats the phrase “free flowing” throughout the interview, and I’m starting to see him as grandmaster of Zen as well as chess. “I think it suits me in chess when neither of us are playing out the manuscript. I’m really not very comfortable with it, I feel so much better when I speak from…” Again Magnus abandons words as if they don’t even come close to describing his reality and draws the sensation in space with his hands. 

They seem to be expressing a natural fluidity of the body. I look down at my list of pre-prepared questions and suddenly feel like I’m the nerd. “It’s the same in life. I like that free flowing feeling. I don’t really make plans too far ahead. I go with the flow until it doesn’t work and then I have to do something different.” 

Going with the flow seems to be working so far for Magnus. At the end of November he defeated Indian Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand in Sochi to maintain the world championship, a title that he describes with genuine light-heartedness as “a nice thing to have”. It’s the number one spot in the ranking that holds more value for him.

I get the sense that Magnus prefers to play games he enjoys rather than simply playing to win. He describes the games in the world championship as “not that interesting for me as I didn’t have the chance to play for myself”, a sentiment that he reiterates when speaking about his recently ended ventures in modelling for fashion brand G-Star Raw. 

“I’ve come to realise that I like to give my time to chess more. It was an interesting experience but ultimately it’s not for me. I just find the whole process of filming – speaking from a manuscript and doing takes over and over again – so tedious.”

Magnus has been called the Mozart of chess and his penchant for playing by ear has brought him to the top of his game. It’s hard to believe that there’s anywhere else for Magnus to go in the world of chess. He is already the highest rated player in history and has held the number one rank since May 2011. Yet he believes he hasn’t reached his peak yet. “I just want to continue to learn. To be better. There are so many ways I can improve. I make stupid mistakes in every game. I think I’m going to inch a little bit closer to my potential.” 

He’s famous for being laidback during games – even going so far as to fall asleep during the world championship. But he denies psyching his opponents out with his poker face, saying that he feels the worry inside and that it just happens not to show too much on the outside. I ask him if he thinks he’s met the world’s next number one and he catches me unawares with his boyish innocence and earnest gaze, replying saying yes he has. 

I lean in as he tells me the next champion is from Norway. Fooled by his poker face I only realise he’s joking when he laughs out loud and points to himself. I began the meeting wondering how anyone could imagine that this awkward looking boy could make chess cool; now I’m not so sure. I ask him how he feels about being chess’ ambassador of cool and he answers: “I always thought chess was cool.” 

He grins at me and looks me in the eye. Checkmate. Sensing the end of the interview, a cluster of blond children have left their tables and gravitated towards Magnus clutching scraps of paper and pens. Magnus obligingly gestures to them to approach and autographs their papers and poses with them for selfies. As we leave the subject of chess behind and say our goodbyes, Magnus’s agent, Espen, once again takes over as Magnus retreats back behind his finest G-Star Raw scowl. 

dinner.no 

THE BILL 

2 x Szechuan Chillipepper Kam Kom Pot: DKK458 (US$76)
1 x Fresh Temptation: DKK178 (US$30)
1 x Sparkling water: DKK79 (US$13)
1 x Coke: DKK47 (US$8)
Total: DKK762 (US$127)

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