Magnus Carlsen is redefining chess with his casual genius

"I would like to contribute to professionalising chess as a sport for the benefit of players, spectators and fans." - Magnus Carlsen JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

On a streak of 121 unbeaten classical games, Magnus Carlsen, world No.1 for a decade now, is redefining the sport with his casual genius -- all furrowed brows and sulky mouth on the board and chess visionary, fantasy football pro, ski lover and fitness freak off it.

Carlsen has long carried ambitions that extend to the sport's future, image and popularity. His portfolio of acquisitions and startups testifies to that, and with the recent launch of the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, his own online super-tournament involving his major rivals for a record $250,000 prize fund, his intent is clear: The world will be his chessboard.

In an extended conversation with ESPN, Carlsen plays down the tournament's significance, especially its timing -- it ends two days before start of the Online Nations Cup, a world chess body, FIDE-run competition -- and the fact that he won't be participating in the latter. He dismisses any hint of confrontation, calling his relations with FIDE "very good".

"I think FIDE welcomes any initiative to promote chess and they seem very enthusiastic about the Magnus Carlsen Invitational," he says. "I have decided not to participate this time, but I applaud their creation of the FIDE Online Nations Cup."

His aspirations, though, have been clear for some time now.

A year after he first turned world champion in 2013, Carlsen launched his own app, PlayMagnus, which simulated him as an opponent for users. Drawing from records of his past games, his playing style starting from age five and every year thereafter was digitally reconstructed by his team to offer an experience of sparring against the world's best chess player right from as a young child to a world champion.

PlayMagnus AS, the company founded by him, later acquired the website Chess24, as well as the UK-based chess-training platform, Chessable, furthering his conquests of the online chess world. His other app, Magnus Kingdom of Chess, is especially targeted for kids from age five to nine who are unlocking their cognitive potential and the joys of chess. Together with his team of grandmasters, Carlsen has used his company to launch digital products for both playing and training with a focus on interactive content and gamifying chess, and his apps have over five million downloads worldwide.

"I would like to contribute to professionalising chess as a sport for the benefit of players, spectators and fans," Carlsen tells ESPN. "The starting point is that I hope many more will discover and enjoy chess the way I do. Compared to most major sports and some Esports, chess has huge untapped potential. In Norway, chess has become hugely popular on mainstream TV, and we know that chess is well-suited for internet broadcasting, which is our focus at Chess24. Next to this entertainment aspect, chess benefits from being uniquely conducive to e-learning which we are helping accelerate via Chessable. With the combination of these two, I hope we can help open up chess for many more people."

He has set himself up as a power centre, swooping into this pandemic-spawned vacuum of no sport with his own big-money event. The tournament, he hopes, will "put chess on the map" and "show people how exciting and entertaining" the sport can be. "I'm a sports fan myself," Carlsen says, "but literally all other sports except Esports have been cancelled. After the Candidates Tournament was paused, I felt we owed it to players and fans around the world to do something about this opportunity. With that in mind, we decided to bring chess online as a professional competitive sport with a faster format that would be more suited for an online set-up. I've been wanting to do this since before the 2018 World Chess Championship against Fabiano Caruana and now the timing felt right. Of course, I don't see online chess fully replacing classical physical tournaments any time soon."

"Nowadays everyone is so polite, tolerant, politically correct... but Magnus says a lot of interesting things. Sometimes he says such interesting things that I wish he would not open his mouth." Alexander Grischuk

Carlsen's tournament already involves five out of the eight players who are part of this year's Candidates event that will pick his rival for the next World Championship. The Candidates in Ekaterinberg was stopped after Round 7 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will resume from where it left off once air travel and normalcy is restored. He considers Caruana the "strongest challenger", slightly ahead of Ding Liren. "Now that Caruana in third is trailing both [Maxime] Vachier-Lagrave and [Ian] Nepomniachtchi by a full point with seven rounds to go, he is probably no longer the main favourite, and certainly not by much. A winner outside this group of three would be a big surprise."

On an unbroken run as world champion since 2013, Carlsen has been a proponent of giving the current World Championship cycle a jiggle. The fair way of deciding who the best is, he believes, lies in making players involved engage in as many games as possible with rapid play and to some extent blitz more suited to increase the chances of errors, reduce the possibility of airbrushing weaknesses and livening up contests.

He's also not particularly a fan of the privileges extended to the world champion, who wins an automatic ticket to the title match in the edition following a win. "In the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, we play 28 rapid games to decide the semi-finalists," he says, underscoring plentiful games in faster time controls as the prototype of an ideal method. "For the World Championship cycle, I think there are two important principles worth aiming for: Equal rights for every player -- in other words, no privilege -- and maximizing the likelihood of the best player winning. The current cycle doesn't fully meet either criterion."

His newest rival is 16-year-old Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who left his country and now plays under the FIDE flag. Their fierce match-up exploded at the World Blitz last year and continues to snag at each other. "Alireza he has all the necessary qualities to become a top elite player," says Carlsen. "He is already very strong with faster time controls, but I don't see him as a classical World Championship challenger in the next couple of years."

Carlsen is also at the heart of the banter and plain-speaking that lends chess its current millennial spunk and buzz. He's begrudged by some of his peers for it. At the Candidates tournament in March this year, after drawing a Berlin Wall against Nepomniachtchi in round two, Russian grandmaster Alexander Grischuk had remarked: "Nowadays everyone is so polite, tolerant, politically correct... but Magnus says a lot of interesting things. Sometimes he says such interesting things that I wish he would not open his mouth, because he shares some really good insights that I feel some people are not aware of."

Carlsen pins it as a privilege. "Frankly," he says, "I'm in a position to be more outspoken and less politically correct than my competitors."

His stupendous successes, though, possibly ill-positions him to stomach a slide.

Following his 2018 world title win over Caruana, which came through rapid play after 12 excruciating draws in the classical games, Carlsen made a startling admission -- had he lost, he would probably never play a World Championship match again. He was just 27 then.

His belief system is simple: All or nothing. He is the ultimate gunslinger, flattening his opponents like Godzilla did Tokyo. "For me," Carlsen says, "it has been a fairly successful strategy so far to not prepare for defeat or even consider it as an option."

He's in the high-stakes game now and has the chess world leaning forward, surveying the board and waiting for his next move.