Magnus Carlsen: The 19-Year-Old King of Chess

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Norwegian chess player Magnus Carlsen is seen during the finals of the World Blitz Championship 2009 in Moscow, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

At age 13, he was the third youngest grandmaster in history. A few years later, he was already beating the world’s top players. And on Jan. 1, 19-year-old Magnus Carlsen of Norway will officially become the youngest person in history to earn chess's No. 1 ranking. TIME caught up with the grandmaster at a tournament in London to probe the mind of a chess genius.

When people find out that you are the top-ranked chess player in the world, do you have to deal with them assuming you are 40,000 times more intelligent than them?
Yeah, that can be a little annoying. I try to tell people that I am like them. I am not some sort of freak. I might be very good at chess but I'm just a normal person.

Well, you're clearly not a normal intellect. How many moves ahead can you calculate on the chess board?
Sometimes 15 to 20 moves ahead. But the trick is evaluating the position at the end of those calculations.

Your coach, former world champion Garry Kasparov, says your strength is not calculation, but rather your ability to intuit the right moves, even if their ultimate purpose is not clear. Is that right?
I'm good at sensing the nature of the position and where I should put my pieces. You have to choose the move that feels right sometimes; that's what intuition is. It's very hard to explain.

Does Kasparov talk to you about his life outside of chess, and his dissident political movement in Russia?
He's my chess coach. When it comes to his struggle with Putin, I don't want to get involved with that.

The English grandmaster Nigel Short says that chess computers, which now regularly beat the top human players, are taking away some of the mystery of the game. He likens them to "chainsaws chopping down the Amazon." What do you make of that?
I can see his point. Any amateur can look at top-level games, and instead of appreciating the mystery behind the moves they will simply look at the evaluation of the computer. I'm not afraid the computer will find all the ideas and leave no room for imagination.

Do you use computers in your chess studies?
I don't use a board when I am studying on my own. People come over to my house and say, "You must have a lot of chess sets." I say, "Well, we might have one somewhere, but I’m not sure."

Do you see chess as a game of combat or a game of art?
Combat. I am trying to beat the guy sitting across from me and trying to choose the moves that are most unpleasant for him and his style. Of course some really beautiful games feel like they are art, but that's not my goal.

Do you have any explanation for why more women have not entered the super=elite fields?
[Hungarian] Judit Polgar was once in the top 10, but I don't know why there aren't more. As opposed to some other people, I don't really think there are any genetic reasons.

You don't buy the pseudo-psychological explanation that their maternal instincts prevent them from readily sacrificing pieces?
Actually, lots of women play very aggressive chess. So I don't buy that.

Chess has had prodigies, most notably Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, who have been lost to madness. Do you fear that trying to master a game of near-infinite variation can make you insane?
It's too hard to predict the future, but right now I don’t see myself going mad. It's easy to get obsessed with chess. That's what happened with Fischer and Morphy. I don't have the same obsession. I love the game, and I love to compete, but I am not obsessed with the struggle.