Chess Olympiad Chennai: The aura of Magnus Carlsen

From opponents to teammates and fans, the Norwegian is the cynosure of all eyes at the Olympiad

Published: 31st July 2022 01:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st July 2022 08:48 AM   |  A+A-

People waiting outside the hall to catch a glimpse of Magnus Carlsen on Saturday | Express

Express News Service

MAHABALIPURAM: It's 11.45 am on Saturday morning. In three hours and fifteen minutes, Magnus Carlsen will play his first game for Norway at the Olympiad. He’s scheduled to face Uruguay’s Georg Meier, who has an ELO rating of 2613. In most games, that would make him a favourite. Against Carlsen who has white pieces, it’s a bit like having to survive 120 fourth innings overs batting against an all-time Indian spin attack in Indian conditions. At 11.45 am, though, Carlsen is relaxed. He is executing one touch passes and back-heels with a football on a private beach.


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There’s seconds to go for Carlsen’s match with Meier. The final call announcement has finished and the players have their game face on. Just when the Norwegian is all set to make his opening move, he spots a movement in his peripheral vision. One of the Kenyan players has come over to Norway’s table. He wants a photograph. Or an autograph. Or both. It’s hard to say. Carlsen, understandably, doesn’t oblige.
But he cannot control the scrum of mediapersons and photographers next to him. They are all there to watch the greatest chess player (in terms of Elo rating), living or dead, make the first move. It’s pawn to e4. There’s some 40 cameras going off at the same moment. At one point of time in the opening exchanges, his three teammates and their opponents in the Uruguayan team turn their heads to watch Carlsen. His opponent, Meier, is also watching him. Seven pairs of eyes watching and tracking the world champion, who’s dressed black suit and black buckled formal shoes.

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The word ‘washing’ has had a negative connotation attached to it ever since it was suffixed to sport. Sportswashing. Norway’s team captain, Jon Kristian Haarr, uses ‘washing’ in a cooler context. Coolwashing. Chess memes, streamers, online chess... they have all contributed to coolwashing chess. He also mentions that Carlsen has contributed to this moment of coolwashing chess.“He was born in 1990, I was born in 1992,” Haarr says. “I remember him being very talented. I started playing chess before Magnus got really big and chess kind of got cool back in the geeky chess days. I mean chess is still geeky but it’s got coolwashed.”
Jon-Ludvig Hammer, who was one of Carlsen’s seconds at the World Championship in Chennai in 2013, agrees. “We have regularly televised chess tournaments and Magnus can’t walk anywhere without being recognized,” Hammer, who is Norway’s third board against Uruguay, says. “One proof of the popularity of chess is that we got a chess-themed pub in Oslo which has been well-visited and sees patrons challenging each other.”
Being in hall one, you can see that popularity isn’t just restricted to Norway. He’s treated like a rockstar with everybody wanting a piece of him. When he landed in Chennai a few days ago, he was instantly mobbed. People are seeking autographs. Mediapersons, wanting a comment or two, have thrusted their big mics next to his face.
Haarr hasn’t seen those videos but he isn’t surprised. Tongue-in-cheek, he says he may have to play the role of bodyguard at the venue to protect his prized ward from being mobbed. “Worried,” he says. “Sometimes, you got to play the role of bodyguard, you know. Scooch past people like... Mostly he can deal with it himself, but this is on another level than what I am used to back in Norway. He’s definitely popular in Norway as well and people want to come and take a picture but yes, there are a couple more people here in India than in Norway so the swarms (of people), we are not so used to.”
Perhaps, to avoid the swarm, Norway show up late. Very late. Uruguay, who are ready to go, are half-joking. “Maybe he’s still preparing (for the match).” He turns up after 95 per cent of the other occupants are in. The other three Norwegians turn up later. You are perhaps allowed that when you have the five-time world champion in your corner. The Uruguayans have amped up the joke-o-meter. “They are lucky they are meeting us in chess and not in football,” Meier notes.

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Norway is going through a dream phase of producing elite sportspersons. Erling Haaland. Karsten Warholm. Jacob Ingebrigsten. The winter Olympics team. Casper Ruud. Yet, Carlsen, on his own, has silently brought about a chess revolution in a country not really known for traditional chess prowess.
“Magnus was a capacitor for the popularity of chess in Norway,” Haarr says. “Chess was on the main broadcast TV in Norway. They are sending the World Championships like Classical, Blitz and Rapid on the main station and lots of people watch it. People are looking at chess as entertainment. Many people have been influenced by Magnus and started playing because of him. We have seen several people GM norms and whatnot after he got into chess.”
At some level, he also wants to leave behind a legacy. In 2019, he founded -- and funded -- the opening of a chess club in Norway. Offerspill (‘sacrificing play’). Haarr is its current general manager. “We started the club in 2019 and it rapidly grew to be the biggest club in Norway. In Norway, chess is not recognised as a sport by the Norwegian sports association so it doesn’t get funding... currently we have 500 members (people can join with a small yearly fee).
“Before we got funding, he did put some money into it. But this is a chess club so we don’t have any... we don’t earn money from doing it. It’s a non-profit organisation. Our only goal is to make chess more popular. Magnus put in one million kroner which is a large amount in order to make the club function and do what we want to do.”
The table next to Carlsen is occupied by Aryan Tari, the 23-year-old who was junior world champion in 2017. Tari, another member of the Offerspill chess club, is one of the handful of players who got his GM norms post-Carlsen. He’s now the second highest rated player from the country after the man himself.
There is also a fun side -- coolwashing as Haarr refers to -- to Carlsen. Sometimes, he turns up unannounced during Offerspill’s over-the-board events. He has also played with some of the members of the public during these events. “Sometimes he just shows up (laughs) and people are surprised but it’s usually a chill atmosphere.”
It’s not all fun and games, though. For all the vibes that he generates, Haarr notes some people see him as a ‘controversial figure’. But he’s also been some sort of a controversial figure sometimes because he’s sponsored by a gambling company and we have a gambling monopoly in Norway. So it’s not all good or all bad, but he’s definitely popular.”
Mohan Kumar, a fan from Bengaluru who had a ticket for the first round, was crushed when he was told Carlsen was being rested. “Does that mean he will not play today (Friday),” the man, seemingly in his 60s, asked. Popular across spectrums and age-groups.

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His Twitter bio is an accurate reflection of the two things he cares about. Chess and football. The second part of the bio reads: “Former (live) #1 Fantasy Premier League player”. Haarr calls Carlsen a ‘sports idiot’. “I know he watches a lot of football,” he says. “He’s a big sports idiot. He probably knows all the football players in so many of the leagues. He has an exceptional memory.”
Hammer goes even further. “My impression is Magnus loves playing FPL not just for stress relief, but also because it’s a great way of competing within something he’s really passionate about, football.”
After more than five hours, Carlsen prevails. When the news filters out that he’s leaving, some 150 people form a queue outside one of the exit gates for an autograph. He leaves via another gate. People are racing across the lawns to get another glimpse of their hero. Their GOAT.


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