Magnus Carlsen is undeniably the best player today or even the one of all time, it’s no wonder that people are interested in how he got so dominant.
I mean his colleagues also studied the same thing, same ideas, and trained every day just like him, but there must be something that differentiates the guy.
And that’s what I’m going to be exploring today, about what separates Magnus from everyone and why he is supreme in chess.
Magnus is so good at chess because he has been playing since the age of 5 with over 20 years of experience. Apart from this, he has a supportive family and social circle that provides emotional support during his struggles.
Take note that everything I will be saying here is based on personal observation combined with evidence gathering, if I missed something I will update the article.
Is experience the reason why Magnus is so good in chess?
Magnus Carlsen has been playing since the fresh age of five, which is over twenty plus years of experience, he has faced a lot of strong old and new players thus far in the likes of Kasparov, Caruana, Anand, etc. which has made him good in chess.
He started playing at the young age of 5, which is comparably young than a lot of his competitors.
Levon Aronian (strong grandmaster) for example started at the ripe age of nine, similar to how a lot of other grandmasters other than the top of the world type have started.
There are other top grandmasters that have started at a similar age like Sergei Karjakin (5 yrs. old) and Fabiano Caruana (5yrs.old).
The point is, players of Carlsen’s caliber have been playing even at the time where their brains are still developing, these competitors have been playing all their life.
This extra competitive advantage gives them an edge against other regular grandmasters, they naturally have more experience and studying time.
Plus it has been demonstrated that kids can learn faster than adults since they have yet to develop a lot of things that adults already have, and therefore built to adapt.
This puts Magnus and his colleagues in a position where they are facing both the old and new competitors while learning from them, including the techniques and strategies.
This means that such a generation that started so young will naturally acquire more knowledge both from the past and future, and Magnus has made use of that terrifically.
This is a video of Magnus Carlsen facing the former champion Garry Kasparov, even drawing against him.
Garry Kasparov is a man that is often being compared with Magnus to determine the greatest of all time, this article (will open in a new tab) should explain that.
But just the fact that he is able to compete with one of the greatest players of all-time already gives him a chance to improve at a level beyond his competitors.
He even gets to face Kasparov’s ultimate nemesis Anatoly Karpov, where he actually won after a serious struggle.
If a regular person not even a prodigy has started playing at such a young age, I bet he or she would have reached far in the chess world.
And Magnus is not a nobody, he’s clearly a genius from the start playing chess at a very young age continuously until getting to the top, with this context in place we can all see why Carlsen has become so good in chess.
Is Carlsen’s natural cognitive abilities the reason he’s so good in chess?
Carlsen is a natural beast in memorization, being able to memorize all countries in the world with capitals, populations, areas, and flags as a kid. He has played chess blindfolded against multiple people at once and along with high i.q., made it easy for him to be good at chess.
So ok we have established that Magnus is a prodigy that started at a young age therefore making him good in chess but so are his other competitors. What is the thing that separates Carlsen from other players who have a similar background?
First memory, being able to recall opening lines extensively, positions from a famous game, or even from one’s own game can benefit a player long term.
Carlsen has displayed an incredible memory since a very young age and is able to channel such ability into his profession of playing chess.
Simen Agdestein, a Norwegian chess coach which is his former trainer has been a testament to this, on Carlsen’s incredible memorization skills.
In one interview Simen Agdestein stated that “As a 5-year-old he (Magnus) memorized all the countries in the world, with capitals, populations, areas, and flags. He did the same for the 400+ municipalities in Norway. All on his own. One of his party tricks is to try to recognize a random position in a random chess book and state the name of the players as well as the year and the place the game was played. He rarely fails at this”.
This capability is always helpful in studying chess and retaining them in a way that will not be forgotten while acquiring new knowledge.
Carlsen has the competitive advantage of memorization on his side, he can lot only memorize a lot of lines but also keep a lot of things he has learned over time.
The video below demonstrates Magnus recalling a lot of Vishy Anand’s games, which is his rival in the world chess championship:
Ok granted he faced Anand and is likely to have prepared extensively against him by studying a lot of his games, we need to understand that Vishy’s games are not only around 90-100, it’s possibly 500 to 1,000 or more.
And its position is unique from each other with its own corresponding theme, the fact that he can recall it almost perfectly displays memorization skills.
If you want more evidence here’s another video of Magnus playing against three titled players at the same time, while blindfolded (and it is timed).
He ultimately won in the end using his memorization proficiency that is likely what allowed him to beat his competitors. This gift in the right hands, paired with experience and a lot of studying hours will create a monster that is very hard to beat in chess.
And something that I have not explored a lot but is definitely applicable to Magnus is a high Intelligence quotient. If you go around online you will find some rumors saying that Carlsen’s I.q. is around 200, which is false since he never took an i.q. test.
But as we can see from his mental prowess, he exhibited a lot of logical reasoning, memorization skills, and learning capabilities, enough to warrant the belief that he at least has above than average I.q. (which is 100).
A high I.q. level is a signature of having a lot of of crystallized and fluid learning potential, basically he can learn a lot of things and not forget about them eventually.
This is what made Carsen supreme in chess especially at the peak of his career, he has a naturally high i.q while having to play at a very young age enough to develop every tools needed to dominate.
He doesn’t even read a lot of chess books and is pretty lax on studying hours than some of his competitors, but he was able to overtake them anyway.
This might be the talent that people keeps talking about him, the ability the rise in matchups combined with his mental dexterity and some hard work.
It is certainly believed that high i.q. is better suited to pursuing any career especially a mental game such as chess, Magnus having a high one definitely helps with that.
Does passion for the game make Magnus supreme at chess?
Magnus has enough passion for the game to continue the pursuit and be good at it, other chess prodigies such as Joshua Waitzkin never unlocked their true potential as they eventually found chess to be too boring to master.
This is something that is vital to excelling in any field, passion, and Magnus Carlsen has that by genuinely loving the game.
He may appear nonchalant and often less caring about the games, but you can see that he consistently works and improves his game non-stop.
Talent will only get you at a point, there are a lot of other players who have the same label (prodigy) in their name and also reached a high level of chess.
Magnus is one of the people who not only have the talent but also the passion to continue improving in chess among other things.
A great example of why this is important can be seen in the case of Josh Waitzkin, which arguably could have been on the same level as Carlsen if not even higher.
He is a rising star in the United States who’s been playing chess since the age of 6, and winning tournaments left and right.
During his years as a student at Dalton, he led the school to win seven national team championships between the third and ninth grades, in addition to his eight individual titles.
He has defeated his first master opponent at the age of 10 and was able to draw against the current world champion at the time Garry Kasparov when he’s just 11 years old.
Magnus on the other hand was only able to draw against Kasparov when he is not already the world champion and at the age of 13, Waitzkin is so phenomenal he is even called the second Bobby Fischer.
Here’s that game where Joshua Waitzkin was able to draw against the world champion Garry Kasparov:
But what’s the point of all this? Why am I introducing this guy in a discussion about Carlsen? I presented this player to you because of the reason he was not able to reach the same level as Magnus, which is passion.
Here’s a snippet of an interview when Joshua Waitzkin was asked why he has quitted chess:
Joshua Waitzkin here said he lost passion for chess and therefore lost the drive to continue improving, unlike Magnus.
There could be other really bright players the same as Magnus who has never unlocked their true potential because they simply not enjoy playing.
Carlsen’s affinity to the game though he denied it most of the time cannot be overlooked, he works continuously with multiple people in order to be better every day.
That drive in itself has allowed him to tap everything that can be unleashed from his talent and bring it to reality, unlike other genius players such as Joshua Waitzkin.
Joshua Waitzkin’s peak rating was 2480 in 1998, a commendable accomplishment at the time where only a few masters have crossed the 2700 rating.
Unlike with Waitzkin, Magnus was able to fully show the world what he can do while there could have been others who have the potential to reach the same level, which is an advantage for him.
Are Carlsen’s supportive family and friends the reason he is able to excel in chess?
Magnus Carlsen’s family supported his pursuit of chess from an early age has provided all the emotional and financial needs that allowed him to excel, his father Henrik Albert Carlsen to be specific, played a major role that allowed Magnus to dominate the chess world.
This is something that most chess players got deprived of access to, support from family and friends while being in the trenches.
Being a chess player requires you to work so hard with little financial return, this could put one’s family and friends in doubt of the fruition of your effort.
And it is understandable, but this put the player under severe stress and pressure added to the competitive nature of the game, Magnus however gets lucky on this.
Carlsen is supported by his family and friends from a young age, his only focus is to be good in chess and strikethrough everything else.
Other players will have added burden before tournaments game after game for several hours/day straight, it’s no wonder a lot of people cannot excel.
Magnus, the same as other top-class players all have a caring environment with them, giving financial and emotional support.
This has allowed Magnus a competitive edge against the competition and why he has become so dominant in-game, as well as with other top players.
Adding to this Magnus never encountered the issue that a lot of grandmasters face, financial issues, where such condition helped him unlock his full potential.
Getting into tournaments requires you to travel internationally where you will get the pay for transportation, as well as the hotel and accommodation (food, training material, etc.) a financially exhaustive trip.
All of this in the hopes of winning a prize (where you can actually lose and go to negative), and you’re going to do this over and over again throughout the year if you want a high rating.
This kind of lifestyle is not affordable, but Magnus has been supported financially by his father and family therefore was able to be superior in chess.
This can be reflected more in his attitude when he did became a world champion, he doesn’t care much about the money that comes with it.
“It’s nice to be financially secure. Apart from that, I really don’t care too much about money.” -Magnus Carlsen
This boost in money is a huge deal for someone who’s playing this for a living, but Magnus is financially secure even then, so there’s not a lot of value in this.
There are other young prospects that have been forced to move to other things due to financial difficulties, which Carlsen didn’t suffer from like a lot of his colleagues.
Is Carlsen’s proper conditioning the reason he is supreme in chess?
Magnus Carlsen regularly plays other sports like basketball, soccer, and even cooking in order to condition himself mentally and physically for the exhaustive nature of tournaments. This may have been one of the reasons why Carlsen is such a supreme force on the board.
He is always in good physical and mental shape thanks to his proper conditioning, both physically and mentally. He knows that he needs to be capable physically in order to sit in consecutive hours straight which is common in tournaments.
And if you know Carlsen’s style, he regularly play and grinds an opponent even in a theoretically drawn endgame while hoping they would make a mistake, you need the stamina to do this which is why Magnus is also engaged in other sports.
This is Magnus playing soccer:
There is even a video showing how Magnus takes a break between tournaments by playing Football:
The point is, he knows how to condition himself off the board in a way that would maximize his endurance and creativity, this gives him an edge against opponents.
These are the things that are not seen on the board, but being able to endure long hours of playing and not lose by exhaustion is probably the reason why Magnus is so good in the endgame.
Is there something unique in Carlsen’s game that made him so good in chess?
Magnus Carlsen is a unique player that one will find it difficult to describe his style other than he is good at endgames, he plays differently than other known players which makes it harder for the opposition to prepare and win against him.
Magnus is a unique player that doesn’t design his game after anyone else, this allows him to transcend the limits that would have been restricted to a particular style.
You cannot say that he is purely positional like Karpov since he can still attack and thrive in complications, nor as aggressive as Kasparov as he turns little advantages into a winning game.
Some people just described his games as being a pure genius, something that is good in the opening, middlegame, and endgame, where if you’re casual you’ll just say he is good in the endgame.
Some top players and even Magnus himself tries to explain his style and how it is so hard to beat in chess. here are some of their comments and just general things why Magnus is so dominant:
(Simen Agdestein (Former coach of Carlsen) described his play as- “a fearless readiness to offer material for activity”)
His game is consistent in various time controls and in every phase of chess.
But probably the thing that stands out the most about him is consistency, Magnus Carlsen has been the champion of the blitz, rapid, and classical time format at the same year, for multiple times now.
It’s really hard to stay at the top of your game if you specialize in a specific time format, if you’re good at fast chess you are unlikely to transpose that into slow chess.
This is what separates him from all other top players, others may have a good tournament here in there while Magnus will have a good run throughout the year, for consecutive years.
And he does this on a variety of time controls including bullet, blitz, rapid, and long extensive classical time control.
If anyone can maintain this consistency they will be as great as Magnus (since we know that the players are capable of having good runs), but such is rare.
There are a lot of players who are really dominating in one time control but not in the others, like Hikaru Nakamura and Andrew Tang.
Hikaru the so-called speed demon has been regarded a couple of years ago as the best blitz player in the world until Carlsen contested him and defeated the guy (this article shows why Hikaru is having a hard time defeating Carlsen).
Andrew Tang is more of a dominating bullet player online which has terrorized a lot of strong grandmasters until well, he faced Carlsen.
Magnus being the classical world champion has demonstrated that he is capable of playing fast chess as well, being the world champion of all time controls at some years.
Is Carlsen’s psychological toughness the reason he is so good in chess?
Magnus Carlsen has the mentality to grind out seemingly theoretically drawn positions and even occasionally win, he can face strong opponents and believe he can defeat them, and is psychologically tough enough to deal with any losses/changes which makes him supreme in chess.
This I think is the majority of the reason why Magnus is superior in chess, which is the mentality, he has the mentality to rise above challenges and difficulties.
I know you have heard of the word killer instinct in the best players of their respective fields before, that these individuals just know when there are an opportunity and strikes for it.
These usually are the champions, the one who smells blood and weaknesses of the opponent and take advantage as much as they can.
Carlsen has this instinct, and would even play seemingly drawn positions where other grandmasters would just accept a draw.
Magnus on the other hand will evaluate the position and the weaknesses of the opponent while measuring chances of conversion, he’s really good at turning drawn games into a win.
He usually doesn’t give up the game as long as there is a minimal chance of the opposition making a mistake and giving opportunity for a win.
He has the patience, concentration, and composure, and confidence to each of his games, he genuinely believes that he can win no matter how strong of an opponent he faced.
“I respect Anand. But I don’t fear him. Am pleased with all the arrangements here.” Magnus on his world title match against Anand
Even at the biggest of stages such as the world championship where all of the eyes of the world and expectations are pushing against him, he doesn’t break down from all of it.
He has the right balance of obsession and professionality, where he likes chess but not to the point of studying and stop until he breaks down.
He maintains professionalism in his games by not caring about the little stuff and just focusing on the board.
Plus, he has the composure to maintain a good record of his time unlike other famous players like Caruana and Grischuk for example who spends a lot of their time, especially on important games.
Magnus is wary of his time on every move where he calculates fast without sacrificing accuracy, this allows him to play endgames where he can beat the opponent on endurance.
After all, it is hard to convert an endgame even if there is an opportunity if you’re exhausted and limited of time, Magnus keeps his composure and does his best to maintain a good time allowance, this allows him to excel in the endgame.
But the biggest reason of all is his ambition, Magnus is strong since he has the ambition to win, literally goes into breakdowns if he ever loses.
He has a hunger for winning like the great Kasparov, or Jordan and Kobe if you watch basketball, he wants to win and will do everything to do it.
“Not winning a tournament is not an option for me, unless it’s no longer theoretically possible – then of course winning becomes impossible. But up to that point, not winning is just not an option.” Magnus Carlsen
This is why he looks so upset whenever having a lost game especially when he knows that there’s a chance of winning:
This may appear as lacking sportsmanship for some but not really, he’s just an elite player who likes winning competitions and does not feel good about losing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The big note is that even if Carlsen does not like losses, he can come back quickly and fiercely every time there’s an undesirable performance.
“I can’t count the times I have lagged seemingly hopelessly far behind, and nobody except myself thinks I can win. But I have pulled myself in from desperate [situations]. When you are behind there are two strategies – counter-attack or all men to the defenses. I’m good at finding the right balance between those.” Magnus Carlsen
A good example of this is Teimour Radjabov’s case, who is the favorite leading of the world championship in 2014 due to amazing performances.
Everybody expects him to win until the world chess championship challenger tournament started, where he competed horribly.
The guy literally went back in his country and temporarily retired from playing chess, he is led into a massive soul-searching before returning.
Magnus has never spiraled this much out of control since he has the mental stability and resiliency, he can come back stronger and better whenever he loses.
These are the reasons why Magnus Carlsen has become so dominant and supreme in chess.
Do you now know why Magnus Carlsen is so good at chess?
It really is hard to determine what makes a legendary champion, Carlsen’s case may not just be three to five things but a lot of them.
These are just the things that come up from my hours of research and personal knowledge about the chess world, this does not tell the whole story.
However, it brings up a lot of interesting perspective for you in the audience to think about, of why Magnus is superior in chess. Whether it is more mental, physical endurance, psychological, or the financial and emotional support.
What do you think are the reasons why Carlsen has become so good at chess? Whatever your idea I hope I stipulated a lot of thoughts to keep you going, sleep well and play chess.