Carlsen: «It was a very big thing for me to be compared to Karjakin»

Magnus Carlsen on Lindmo. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRKMagnus Carlsen on Lindmo. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRK

Magnus Carlsen appeared on the popular Norwegian talkshow «Lindmo» this weekend, speaking about Sergey Karjakin, Norway Chess, doping and stand-up comedy.

by Jonathan Tisdall

Norway’s supertournament in Stavanger is just around the corner. Carlsen has never won the Altibox Norway Chess event, and the chess world is curious if he will finally break the home court curse. Meanwhile Magnus is warming up with media exposure on the country’s main state broadcaster NRK’s most popular channel.

Norwegian TV host, Anne Lindmo. Photo: Evy Andersen/NRK

Norwegian TV host, Anne Lindmo. Photo: Evy Andersen/NRK

A feature length documentary about him is ready to hit cinemas around the world later this year, and his title challenger is clear. But at home, «the most famous Norwegian in the world» continues to draw inspiration from doing things that he thinks are fun.

Like taking on the last minute challenge of doing a stand-up comedy show when the star has to cancel – armed with just a script and a pat on the back. All of these activities are covered in the build up to the Lindmo interview with Magnus Carlsen.

This episode of the Norwegian evening talk show «Lindmo» begins with one of the country’s most popular comedians, Anne-Kat. Hærland assessing Magnus Carlsen’s comic timing with host Anne Lindmo. Hærland rates him higher than a well-known TV personality, and the camera pulls back to reveal the world chess champion, who states that – he thinks he was funny.

Those interested in also getting the body language, smiles and reactions of the interview can watch the program here.

The Carlsen segment begins at just before the 15-minute mark.

Magnus Carlsen on Lindmo. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRK

Magnus Carlsen on Lindmo. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRK

Good to have you here
– Yes, thanks.

We know about the chess, there you’re brilliant. We know you like to play football, you are quite good (Magnus smiles and waves his hand to indicate ‘so-so’), but we didn’t know that you were attracted to having a stand-up comedy role. (Magnus grins but stays silent)
You’ve quite recently been on a stage in Oslo and performed stand-up. Tell us about it.

– I got an invitation, the same morning that this show was supposed to happen, from Morten Ramm, who said that Bård Tufte Johansen was sick and they needed a replacement. They just needed someone to read his lines, I didn’t have to come up with a whole show in a day. Of course I thought it was some kind of prank. (looks around) But if it was, I still haven’t found out what the prank was.

– I have to be honest and say that it was a very gratifying thing to do. Because people think it is amusing that I am there, and no one expects me to be a decent comedian. So I don’t need to do much more than read from a script and make a few silly observations. Which I guess is what stand-up comedians do?

(Anne-Kat. Hærland agrees, and Anne Lindmo introduces a film clip from Magnus’s performance. The script is from Johansen’s show entitled: Man: Age 44)

Carlsen doing stand-up comedy in Oslo. Photo: NRK

Carlsen doing stand-up comedy in Oslo. Photo: NRK

(Magnus: Are there any people in over 40? One person has their hand up. Congratulations! Are there any parents here? The same guy. One more. Uhh, how old is the kid, I’ll ask you there. How old? Five. I have a son that’s 14.)

Are you interested in stand-up?
– No, not really. That was probably the wrong answer. I think it is fun to tell jokes, at least I think they’re funny.

What type of jokes are you best at?
– I don’t know what I’m best at, but in terms of quantity it is wordplay, without a doubt.

Carlsen with TV host, film critic and journalist Brita Møystad Engseth. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRK

Carlsen with TV host, film critic and journalist Brita Møystad Engseth. Photo: Julia Marie Naglestad/NRK

Do they just spill out of you or do you have a repertoire?
– I don’t know if I can do it on command, but I do it enough that people often ask me to stop. We have an arrangement, with my friends, we have cards like in football, and if I get two yellow cards for bad jokes I’m not allowed to do any more.

But your focus right now isn’t on stand-up, it is on Norway Chess, which starts on Monday. And this is a major international tournament that you haven’t managed to win. Does this have something to do with it being on your home turf, is this paradoxically more difficult?
– What makes playing at home a bit more difficult is that it is a little harder to forget the world around you. There are many people I know and lots of my friends are there. It can be harder to hide yourself away, which can sometimes be necessary to have a top event. For instance last year, it didn’t go so very well (laughs) – there were very many things that went wrong at the same time, and I very much doubt that that will happen again.

Anne-Kat Hærland: Are players doping tested in chess?
– Yesss, you are tested during the world championship and candidates.

A-KH: What can you take that makes you better? (audience applauds, A-KH wonders about what could make the ultimate chess drug.)
– I don’t know. Meldonium seems to work for just about everything? I don’t know how it works. I have thought about – not for myself – (laughter) that amphetamines could be something that helped.

At least for blitz chess?!
– For blitz I could imagine … that it might help a lot really (smiles). I’m still at that stage where I think I can get by without any (artificial help).

We’re very happy to hear you say that. Re blitz chess, last year, when you lost that world title, we saw there was some noise, pen-throwing, swearing. What the chess world calls a ‘wild outburst of rage’ – which shows how well-behaved you all usually are. But what happened – when you got angry?

– Its nice to know that people around the world know what ‘faen’ means – maybe it’s not allowed to say that on TV?

– What happened is that usually you play a long tournament game, one game per day and if you have a really bad day, you still have plenty of time to think and maybe you manage to salvage a draw and be ready for the next day. But in blitz, many games in one day, if it starts to go wrong it is very hard to reverse that trend, and I noticed from the very first game that I wasn’t in mental balance.

I tried to do something about it but there wasn’t time between games and I ended up focusing on the wrong things. It was frustrating. I knew that things were going wrong, my focus was wrong, but I couldn’t do anything about it.

What goes on in your head when things are going optimally? Can you describe that?
– When I am doing the right things I am focused and I am having fun. It is just a game, and it flows. I don’t know why the moves come to me but they do. Automatically.

Let’s hope that you are in the right mode for Norway Chess.
– Yes. If I’m not it will be noticeable.

Carlsen and Karjakin in Berlin last year. Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Carlsen and Karjakin in Berlin last year. Photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

One of those you were to meet was Sergei Karjakin, but he has pulled out. But you will meet him, in New York, in November, to defend your world title. It will be a match with a historic ring to it, East vs West, political aspects, and there is a personally interesting story as well with you two, you are the same age, born in 1990.
– Born in the same year.

Your birthday is 30th November, when is Sergei’s?
– I think it’s 13th January, but I’m not quite sure. (It’s the 12th)

You were both very good at a very early age. Which of you became a grandmaster first?
– He became a grandmaster at 12 years and seven months, I was a GM at 13 months – no! – 13 years and four months.

Carlsen and Karjakin in their last encounter in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Alina l'Ami

Carlsen and Karjakin in their last encounter in Wijk aan Zee. Photo: Alina l’Ami

He beat you there.
– When he became a GM he was way up here for me (indicates a level above his head). I was far from the best in Norway, far from the best in the world for my age. So it was a very big thing for me when a few years later I was compared to Karjakin. Then we followed each other until we were 17 and then I pulled a bit away. But now he’s gotten older and more experienced at the top level.

He’s breathing down your neck now?
– I wouldn’t say that. (laughter)

You’re the same age and at the top of the chess world. Have you trained in the same way?
– No, I doubt it. The Russian and Norwegian chess schools are very different. Even though he originally comes from Ukraine the chess school is very similar to the Russian.

What is that like?
– Very, very well trained from an early age. Knows a lot of theory, very good in endgames, very good in defence. While I was – knew some things well, bad at some things. Had a lot of self-confidence, and that compensated for a lot of things I couldn’t do. Really until I was 17-18 years old I got by on thinking I knew more than I did.

What about the people around you- what about Team Sergei vs Team Magnus?
– There are many people working with him in Russia. I know that, and there has been for several years. They have many people that work with the national team, and Karjakin, and before that Kramnik. They like to pick out one person who they think can become world champion and fully support him.

And when we talk about ‘them’ supporting him, we are talking about Putin.
– Yes, I think we are, I don’t know about personally, but at least people who are connected to him.

So he is now the crown prince in the Russian chess system, he is he one they are all watching.
– Yes, absolutely.

And the eyes of the world will be upon the two of you, when you sit down at the board in New York in November. And we can imagine Putin saying, Sergei, my man, now you are going to New York and smash Magnus Carlsen and show the world that Russia rules, right? This is a huge thing. Chess often writes itself into history. Can you think about that when you sit down at the board
– No, I’m very glad that I just get to play against Karjakin then and there, and not his team or Putin or whatever, not that I think Putin is very good at chess.

What is it that means you will beat him?
(laughs). – My hypothesis has always been – well not always – but in recent years, is that I am better than the others at playing chess. So my approach is to create the best possible chance to take advantage of that strength. So my tactic is to be well enough prepared that preparation won’t play a role.

That was almost a joke there at the end?
– No, that wasn’t a joke.

We now know about Norway Chess and your title defence. What are your ambitions re stand-up?
– I think I’m best as a stand-in stand-up.

That was a joke!
– That was a joke.