Early Life and Career
Magnus Carlsen was born in Tønsberg, Norway on November 30, 1990. Though he learned the game of chess at a reasonably early age – his father is said to have taught him the rules at the age of five – he didn’t immediately fall in love with the game, and only started to take it seriously around the age of eight, when he played in his first ever chess tournament.
The fact that Carlsen started playing chess at a relatively late age for a chess prodigy made his climb to stardom all the more remarkable. By the time he had turned 13, he had already earned his three International Master norms, and it became clear that he would soon become a grandmaster. Still, at this point, Carlsen wasn’t a particularly notable young talent on the world stage, as these accomplishments weren’t out of line with other top young chess players in Europe and around the world.
That all changed in early 2004, when Carlsen took part in his first Wijk aan Zee chess tournament. Carlsen took part in the C group, which normally receives little attention. But his 10.5/13 score – along with a beautiful and impressive win over then IM Sipke Ernst – was enough to permanently throw Carlsen onto the radar of chess fans around the world. That result secured Carlsen a Grandmaster norm, and he would secure two more in the next three months to become the second-youngest grandmaster in history at the time.
It didn’t take long for Carlsen to show he had world-class talent, even if he wasn’t quite at that level yet. Before he had even officially gained the GM title, he scored a draw in a rapid game against Garry Kasparov, though Kasparov did beat the young Carlsen in a second game. He was already capable of tying for first in the Norwegian Chess Championship, which he was able to do in both 2004 and 2005 (losing the official title both times on tiebreaks). He was capable of beating elite players on occasion and proved he was a formidable opponent for anyone.
In 2005, though, Carlsen shocked everyone by first reaching the third round of the Chess World Cup, then – after being eliminated by Evgeny Bareev – winning matches against Joel Lautier and Vladimir Malakhov to earn a spot in the Candidates matches for the upcoming World Championship cycle. Carlsen had only just turned 15, making him the youngest championship candidate of all time.
The next two years would see Carlsen grow into an elite player. While Carlsen was not able to earn a spot in the 2007 World Championship Tournament – he was eliminated in the first round of candidates play by Levon Aronian, who won in rapid tiebreaks after a 3-3 tie in six standard games (two wins each, and two draws) – Carlsen’s rating continued to climb, and he began finding his way into elite events. By sharing first place in the B group in Wijk aan Zee in 2006, Carlsen earned a spot in the A Group for 2007. Also in 2006, Carlsen finally won his first Norwegian Chess Championship, this time prevailing in tiebreaks.
In 2007, Carlsen made his first appearance in a super-tournament, playing in the A Group at Wijk aan Zee. Not surprisingly, there was a rough welcome for the 16-year-old, and he finished last out of the 14 player field.
But soon, Carlsen would prove he belonged in this class. At Linares, he was able to finish in a tie for second, behind only Viswanathan Anand. Later that year, he would play in his second World Chess Cup, this time reaching the semifinals before being eliminated by Gata Kamsky.
While it would be wrong to say that Carlsen hadn’t already earned plenty of attention from the chess world at this point, 2008 was certainly a breakout year for him. He won his first true super-tournament in January, sharing first place in Wijk aan Zee with Levon Aronian. He followed this up with a close second place finish in Linares, and shared first place in a FIDE Grand Prix tournament in Baku. Carlsen would ultimately drop out of the Grand Prix and the World Championship cycle, however; he claimed that the decision was made due to the rapidly changing rules and regulations governing that cycle.
In 2009, Carlsen started slow, scoring respectable results (but no titles) in Wijk aan Zee, Linares, and at the M-Tel Masters. But he would put up an incredible 8/10 score at the Nanjing Pearl Spring tournament, winning the event by an amazing 2.5 points ahead of Veselin Topalov. The massive margin of victory over a very strong field led many commentators to declare it one of the best tournament performances in chess history.
Later that year, Carlsen would win the World Blitz Championship, finishing three points ahead of Anand (who himself was three points ahead of the remaining field). Carlsen went out to win the London Chess Classic in December, and would end the year as the world’s #1 ranked player on the FIDE rating list.
By 2010, Carlsen was regarded as a favorite in any tournament he entered. Carlsen won the Wijk aan Zee tournament again, then won the Banza Kings Tournament that summer. He also scored a victory in the blindfold/rapid Amber Melody tournament. After struggles at the Grand Slam Masters Final and the Chess Olympiad, Carlsen regained his form – and the #1 ranking – later in the year by defending his titles in Nanjing and the London Chess Classic.
In 2011, Carlsen was dethroned in Wijk aan Zee by Hikaru Nakamura. However, he was able to win the Banza Kings tournament for the second year in a row, and then later won the Grand Slam Chess Final and the Tal Memorial.
While Carlsen wasn’t winning every event he entered, his results by this point had become very consistent, with even his “bad” tournaments typically landing him among the top few finishers. That consistency allowed Carlsen to enter 2012 with a rating of 2835, tantalizingly close to the record of 2851 set by Garry Kasparov in 1999.
Carlsen’s consistency showed through again during the year, with Carlsen taking second place in Wijk aan Zee and Biel, while winning the Tal Memorial and the Grand Slam Chess Final.
The race to break Kasparov’s record would come to a close at the 2012 London Chess Classic, where Carlsen scored five wins and three draws against no losses to not only win the tournament, but push his rating up to 2861 – surpassing what had been the highest mark ever.
2013 began for Carlsen with another win in Wijk aan Zee, where he matched Kasparov’s record 10/13 score. In March, he competed in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, in which he started strong before losing two of his final three games. However, that was still good enough for him to win the event over Vladimir Kramnik based on his superior tiebreaks, earning Carlsen the chance to challenge Viswanathan Anand for the World Chess Championship later in 2013.
Carlsen, once known as a ferocious attacker, is now known as a more universal player – but there are a couple of signature stylistic points for which he is known. In the opening, Carlsen is known for playing an unusually wide variety of openings, making him difficult to prepare for. In addition, Carlsen has often been praised for his endgame play. Time and again, Carlsen has entered endgames in which computer analysis – and leading grandmasters – suggest that there is little to play for and should quickly end in a draw only to fight for dozens of moves, eventually breaking through to find a win. This tenacity has made him quite difficult for opponents to relax against.
- Youngest ever player to earn #1 ranking on FIDE rating list
- Youngest ever World Chess Championship Candidate
- Highest rating in chess history (2870 as of January 2013)
- Won Wijk aan Zee three times (2008, 2010, 2013)
- Won London Chess Classic three times (2009, 2010, 2012)
- Won Tal Memorial twice (2011, 2012)
- Won Bilbao Masters twice (2011, 2012)
- Won Nanjing Pearl Spring Tournament twice (2009, 2010)