Archive for February, 2012

If you click on the link below, you will find the latest attempt by the mainstream media to connect with the chess playing world.

The focus is Magnus Carlsen, whom the 60 minutes crew entitle as the best in the world, claiming, amongst other things, that he ‘reigns supreme’. Leaving aside the questionable lack of respect for the title of Official World Champion (currently held by Vishy who has a strong plus score against Magnus), and the unrivalled prestige that the title naturally offers, Magnus is proclaimed as the best in his sport.

We’re then informed that at the top level the objective in chess is not to win but to ‘demolish your opponents‘, and that to do so you need ‘great endurance’ which is why the top players are so young! If you haven’t watched the interview yet, you’re probably thinking that I’m making this up, especially when I tell you that the intro concludes by claiming that Carslen’s ability ‘seems to come from another world which is why he’s become known as The Mozart of Chess’. At this point I would like to restate that I am not making this up, please watch the interview if you find this hard to believe. It’s important to remember that established programmes such as 60 minutes have their own slowly stylized approaches which, owing to the subject and their familiarity with it, may remove them from their source unintentionally. The last acquaitance 60 minutes had with chess was forty years ago with a certain Bobby Fischer, ( ) who was famous -or infamous if you’re Russian- for making proclamations about demolishing opponents and so on. The intro was probably written with collated material borne in mind, and the same template from that famous interview.

Beyond the askew intro lies some well-edited material which brings us close to Magnus with the time-honoured assurance we have come to expect from 60 minutes over the years. An approach to chess full of reverence and interpreted enigma embodies the fascination that only non-chess players can have over our beautiful game. This stance works surprisingly well during the interviews conducted and catches Magnus off-guard several times, skilfully revealing that he is well-adjusted, and on one if not many levels, entirely normal. There is a nice touch three minutes in where Magnus gets the date of a famous position wrong, and laughs about it with the interviewer. Some important questions are then carefully addressed, perhaps most importantly, the subject of winning and losing is discussed. It’s often said that the desire to win and the contempt for losing are vital components of any rise to the top. The answer Magnus gives on this subject, though said with an unmistakeable Scandinavian melancholy, details the enjoyment he gets from watching his opponents suffer: as those of who have lived or studied in Scandinavia know, suffering is very much part of life  -just look at what being in Norway did to Wittgenstein- and so we should perhaps expect such replies.

Approximately half-way in the 60 minutes team give us a well-edited montage of Magnus’ youth which shows us that he had a normal upbringing and was not a ‘prodigy’ of any kind, unlike Mozart. The film making is continued with a concise account of what it’s like to be an IM at 13; the first meeting between Carlsen and Kasparov is shown, the footage contextualizes the game playfully with comics and ice-cream during and after the event. A distanced level of respect is retained throughout, resisting the urge to focus on any one point, leaving us with a well-measured approach.

The future of Magnus?

Towards the end of the footage, the narrator regains continuity by returning to Fischer directly. First, the tough lifestyle competitive chess demands; the need for constant travel, and an unwavering attitude towards an exercise regime are both shown as being essential, as was the case when they interviewed Fischer. The narrator then suggests that such a lifestyle is not without danger, showing a tense Magnus during play. Magnus’s father, quick to his son’s defence, points out though, that it is a fundamental mistake to judge chess players on how they come across during play, arguing that artists and writers also don’t look happy whilst they practice their art – a good point indeed. The last point of interest is Magnus’s comments concerning the fate of Bobby Fischer, and his depiction in the rather dubious documentary that came out about him last year. His answer is quite mature for his age, as is his retort to the comparison between himself and Mozart, who not by pure coincidence at all, and entirely like Carlsen, made no effort to describe his genius as an adult.

When I first saw the title, ‘The Mozart of Chess’, I did wonder what on earth the 60 minutes team were alluding to. Not only had I not heard the term before, but it sounded decidely corny. Given that Magnus displayed no interest in classical music, and that someone with genius rarely self-reflects upon the nature of it, I still think that the title, though clearly aimed at the general public could have been improved upon. Though the purpose of analogy may be to connect with something more familiar, which is important for topics or individuals that lie outside of mainstream media, such a narrow focus upon talent bypasses the more normative aspects of both individuals, which are things we can talk about and are thus much more interesting. Mozart himself is a notable absentee throughout, which given the fact that his childhood was radically different to Carlsen’s is perhaps prudent and doesn’t harm the production greatly.

Overall I enjoyed the 13 minutes 60 minutes offered. The film-making was more accomplished than we chess players are accustomed to, and I felt sad when it ended. I was impressed by the fact that complex topics are handled with a light touch successfully. As a chess player, it was clear to me that the production team were non-chess players but this in no way impairs the production, surprisingly, it improves it. We were spared from the pretence of ‘so-called experts’ and their dubious theorizing which has become an aperitif of so much contemporary film-making these days. It was a lesson in film-making professionalism, one that Carlsen, too, seemed to appreciate. The writing, though a little stale in places is honest, open and measured. Very little is said about what genius, or even genius in the context of chess is, but much is said about the conditions from which Magnus gained his, leaving enough food for thought. We are left to conclude that Magnus is in many respects entirely normal, and that he has a special talent which is not special to him at all.


Read Full Post »