Magnus Carlsen – the most normal guy to be ‘strongest ever’ in any sport?

It hasn’t escaped our attention as chess nuts and Scandifriends that Norway’s Magnus Carlsen has become the highest-rated player in history, this achievement having taken place only a few weeks after his 22nd birthday and without Carlsen having yet claimed the world title (he’ll have a chance later this year).

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

We’d try and tell you that there are some parallels but there’s nothing that clearly fits the bill. Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Tal both claimed the world championship via a decisive title match before they had turned 24, but Kasparov was still some way off his peak at that point and Tal would reign for only a year at the top (although he may have reached an individual peak in terms of performance when he jointly won the Montreal ‘Tournament of Stars’ with Anatoly Karpov in 1979, some 18 years after he ceded the title).

Tal - champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

Tal – champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

The most plausible precedent is (perhaps inevitably) the most feted and notorious player in the history of the game, Bobby Fischer. Like Carlsen, he managed his ‘strongest player ever’ rating as a non-champion (the much-accepted Elo rating system used to calculate the strength of a player put Fischer at a record high of 2785 prior to his defeat of Boris Spassky in their 1972 world championship match).

But. And but. Carlsen, unlike Fischer still isn’t champion. Most people expect him to claim the crown this year by winning the relevant candidates’ tournament and ending the six-year tenure of reigning world champion Vishy Anand, but the fact he has been determined ‘best ever’ by mathematically-based projection rather than by virtue of title clearly won and held for x number of years enhances the notion that he has scaled a not quite tangible, still vaguely virtual, Everest. Should he emerge as champ this year, he will have to hold the title until he is 50 if he is to equal the record of the second world champion, Emanuel Lasker (who in fairness belongs in the same ballpark, if not at the same base, as Fischer, Carlsen and Kasparov, nearly 100 years after he ceded the title).

Emanuel Lasker - 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Emanuel Lasker – 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Thus Carlsen – for the time being at least – does not have the gong of a champ to go with the aura of one, making him appear slightly more human. But this got us thinking about how the other world champions and greats of the game do have an aura that makes them seem rather other-worldly and removed from the fray of mortals (whilst practicing what many would call a rather esoteric discipline as it is). To wield a broad brush, the official undisputed world champions and the other plausible contender for ‘best player ever’, Paul Morphy, can be sketched thus:

Morphy offered the bizarre dichotomy of looking dainty and vaguely Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque whilst playing chess like a cold-blooded killer. He retired from chess at the age of 21 and became a rather sad figure, a social recluse in his home city of New Orleans and a man whose best (only?) way of externalising properly was through chess but who for whatever reason could not return to the game. Kasparov and Fischer were similarly ruthless as chess players, but their respective personal case histories are clearly not those of mild-mannered laymen: in Kasparov’s case we see a man with very fierce political ambitions away from the chessboard, in Fischer’s case we see a man ultimately haunted by undue and ugly suspicions about the powers that others yield.

The first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, and Lasker after him, also embody an odd strand of cerebral pugilism. Steinitz reminds us of a smaller version of the late English wrestler Giant Haystacks (whose utterance that wrestling was the only activity that enabled him to express his emotions without being arrested has disconcerting echoes of Fischer’s conscious enjoyment, expressed in this interview, about the moment his opponent’s ego cracks). Lasker, a doctor of maths and a German Jewish polymath, spent more or less his whole career embracing the philosophical-type-away-from-the-board/street-fighter-on-it conundrum (although in relative terms he was as cultured and worldly as someone like Fischer was paranoid and self-destructive).

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities unknown

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities undetermined

Certainly many champs either genuinely are academics (mathematician and computer science professor Max Euwe and engineering doctor Mikhail Botvinnik also fall in this category), pretend to be academics (Alexander Alekhine never completed his law doctorate but, being a ‘notorious trimmer’, to quote the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Chess, didn’t mind taking a few liberties and adding a ‘Dr’ prefix), or look like high-flying academics. Vasily Smyslov and Anand both remind us of cool, detached economics lecturers. Tigran Petrosian, Vladimir Kramnik and Karpov remind us of economics head librarians (the kind who would charge you £4000 on an overdue book without blinking).

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn't cross him

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn’t cross him

Tal spent much of his life looking like a scatty professor, living like the last bohemian standing and playing the most idiosyncratically brilliant games ever produced by one individual; his first wife’s comment in this interview that she sometimes thought Tal flew in from another planet to play chess sits well with what we would call his ‘benevolent witchdoctor’ ambience. At the other end of the spectrum, the chess of Jose Raoul Capablanca is so crystalline and logical that he earned himself the sobriquet of ‘The Chess Machine’.

That leaves us with one undisputed champ we haven’t yet profiled. The man who probably found being champion a burden from the moment he took the title. The man who many people inclined towards simplistic arguments claim ‘never recovered’ from losing his title – but also the man whose happiest moment may well have been marrying, third time lucky in this respect, and moving from the USSR to the West, a few years after he had indeed ceded his crown. The man who earned his living playing chess and who found ways to be healthily detached from it. The man who always looked as if he would be happier with a glass of wine or a game of tennis in his later years but who still stayed in the world’s top ten until his late forties.

Whether you feel Boris Spassky is indeed, as this Guardian article termed him, ‘the most gentlemanly and, whisper it, sane of chess players’ might hang on whether you can reconcile some bizarrely uncharacteristic utterances from a few years ago with the fact that he does possess an easy charm and is not averse to the good things in life.

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

But given that Magnus Carlsen reminds us every bit of a chilled-out big kid or young adult wearing a hooded top and baggy pants, shooting basketball hoops in a very nicely-tended Oslo municipal leisure area and then breaking off to let his mum know via his iPhone that he will slouch back in time for tea, we proffer a hypothesis (with tongue not totally in cheek and with some corroboration from the man himself) that Carlsen is the most emotionally-balanced, laid-back ‘all time number one but not yet champ’ in any sporting discipline, although Switzerland’s Roger Federer has managed something similar in tennis whilst winning every title going (the Olympic singles excepted).

Is it too much to suggest that it is more than coincidence that at least twice in this post-Cold War, 21st-century era of sport that affluent and relatively stable (but not superpower, or indeed G7) countries have had a very prominent look-in at the sporting table of superlatives in this respect? Has there been a new dawn where countries not synonymous with aggressive ambition and a hugely successful sporting heritage can produce one-offs that go the whole whole hog in a way they didn’t before?

(Whilst remaining balanced and normal?)

PS In all fairness to Max Euwe, Bobby Fischer himself reportedly claimed of the Dutchman: ‘There’s something wrong with that man. He’s too normal.’ It is difficult to think of a more upright and dignified world champion, that is for sure. Like Spassky and Carlsen, he certainly had a life beyond chess. It is Euwe’s incredibly zealous, workaholic nature throughout his life, including being a tireless globetrotting president of the FIDE world chess federation well into his late seventies, that sets him apart from a bon vivant such as Spassky (and as we said, there is no inalienable metric for defining normal). Which side of the coin Carlsen will fall on remains to be seen..

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

PPS, April 11th 2013. It has given us no pleasure to become aware after writing this article about the traumas that Boris Spassky and his family have recently suffered. This is not a fate we would wish on anyone – particularly given the dignified way Spassky reacted to his 1972 defeat by Fischer and the ensuing hostility from the Soviet authorities. It seems like a cruel twist of fate when Spassky, despite not being the strongest or most continuously focused player in history, has always reacted so well as a player and as a human being in the face of adversity (his victory as deposed world champ in the super-strong 1973 USSR championship being a case in point). We did write this article in good (and, if we say so, rather impish) humour at the time in an attempt to compare the psychological make-up of the champs but we are acutely aware of how important it is to be discreet and discerning. Therefore we wish Boris and his close family and friends all the best at this extremely difficult time.

2 thoughts on “Magnus Carlsen – the most normal guy to be ‘strongest ever’ in any sport?

  1. Very well written chess article!! In my lifetime, I have read possibly thousands of chess articles and chess player biographies in such media as chess books, chess websites, and chess magazines so I know a good piece when I see it.
    Nice work, well researched, clean prose, good humor, very informative.

    • Unfortunately we wrote it without really being aware of the traumas Spassky and his family have been through in the last year or so. We are intending to write something to acknowledge this – but in any case, thanks for your comments. We appreciate them 🙂

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