Carlsen is the reigning World Champion and arguably the strongest player who ever lived. In 2013, at the age of 22, he defeated Viswanathan Anand to become the second youngest undisputed World Champion in history (Garry Kasparov beat him by a few months), though he’d already been the man to beat for the previous three years. He followed that up by claiming both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in June 2014 before defending the big title against Anand in November 2014, Sergey Karjakin in November 2016 and Fabiano Caruana in November 2018.
A child prodigy who memorised the names and populations of Norway’s 430 municipalities as a five-year-old, Magnus claimed the grandmaster title at 13 and was christened “the Mozart of Chess” by the Washington Post. His progress never stopped, and on the 1st January 2010, aged 19, he became the youngest player in history to rank as world no. 1. Although he disappointed many chess fans later that year by announcing his withdrawal from the World Championship cycle he went on to open up a huge ratings gap over his rivals and eventually surpassed Garry Kasparov’s record 2851 rating.
Coaching from a legend
Kasparov actually coached Carlsen for a year in 2009/10, but stylistically they could hardly be more different. Claiming to work little outside of tournaments, Carlsen often chooses what seem to be harmless opening moves, but then time and again outplays his opponents from equal or worse positions. Many already consider him the greatest endgame player of all time, and his technical skill and Nordic cool conceal a ferocious will to win.
Away from the board Carlsen could easily be mistaken for an absolutely average guy, but despite a slightly withdrawn character he’s perhaps the one chess player since Kasparov to achieve global recognition – tournament winnings and a modelling contract for the fashion label G-Star have made him a multi-millionaire, while he’s also made American TV appearances on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report.
First among equals
Carlsen’s tournament successes in the years running up to his World Championship match cemented his position as the de facto leader. After winning the Biel Tournament in 2007 he consistently came out on top in the very best events, including Wijk aan Zee (2008, 2010 and 2013), Nanjing (2009, 2010), the Bilbao Masters (2011, 2012), the London Chess Classic (2009, 2010 and 2012) and the Tal Memorial (2011, 2012). He also won the World Blitz Championship in 2009 and each chess Oscar from that year onwards. The World Championship was all that remained.
Ascent to the throne
Despite showing more vulnerability than we’ve grown accustomed to Carlsen squeezed to victory in the London Candidates to qualify for a showdown in Chennai, India against Viswanathan Anand. His start was hesitant, but after wins in Games 5 and 6 he eased to a 6.5:3.5 victory.
The classical World Championship title simply wasn’t enough for Magnus. In June 2014 he asserted his dominance in speed chess by losing only twice in 5 days and 36 games to finish in clear first place in both the Rapid and Blitz World Championships. That made him the first player ever to hold the three titles simultaneously – when Carlsen was asked what he can do next he replied simply, “I can do it again!”
Carlsen defends his title
Carlsen had to defend his World Championship title against the same opponent, Anand, in November 2014. The match in Sochi, Russia recalled how Mikhail Tal and Vasily Smyslov faced rematches only a year after beating Mikhail Botvinnik. In the end it did prove much tougher, with the encounter looking all set to go to the final game before Anand overpressed and lost in Game 11, but the champion nevertheless retained his crown: Carlsen 6.5-4.5 Anand.
Carlsen finally had the traditional two-year break to the next match, and he carried on as before – winning the majority of events in which he played and maintaining his place at the top of the rating list. Then in November 2016 he finally faced a player other than Vishy Anand in a World Championship match.
3rd time World Champion after toughest challenge yet
Few chess fans or pundits gave Sergey Karjakin much chance of winning the match in New York, but the Russian once again demonstrated the strong nerves and tenacity that had seen him win the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Candidates Tournament to qualify for the match.
After seven draws, including some very near misses for Magnus, it was Sergey who landed a devastating blow in Game 8. Magnus was behind in a World Championship match for the first time and had just four games to rescue the situation. He later admitted he’d been in a dark place, storming out of the post-game press conference before it began.
The next game saw Sergey almost land a knockout blow, but when he missed a forced draw in Game 10 Magnus seized his chance to level the scores. The match went to tiebreaks on Carlsen’s 26th birthday, and he dominated the four rapid games to win 3:1. He finished with perhaps the most beautiful move ever to end a World Championship contest: 50.Qh6+!! Forcing mate next move.
So Carlsen had won his third World Championship match and defended his title for a second time.
Carlsen makes it 4!
Magnus failed to exert his usual dominance in the following two years and came into the next World Championship match, in London in November 2018, with only a 3-point lead on the rating list over world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana. It was the US star who stood in his way, and after Carlsen missed a big chance in the first game the match ended up being too close to call – for the first time in the history of such matches all the classical games were drawn.
As in New York, Magnus took over in rapid chess, this time demolishing Fabiano 3:0 in the tiebreaks to ensure his already 5-year reign would continue.
Magnus ended 2018 as the world no. 1 in classical, rapid and blitz chess, having surpassed Anatoly Karpov’s 102 months as world no. 1 on the main rating list. What next? Well, there’s still Garry Kasparov to beat, though that may be tough! Garry was no. 1 for an extraordinary 255 months and the World Champion for 15 years.
2019 – the best year yet?
Magnus went into 2019 with a narrow lead over Caruana on the rating list, but he went on to have a stunning year – putting his World Championship preparation to good use as he won 10 super-tournaments and finished the year, and a decade of dominance of world chess, as not only the Classical World Champion but the champion in rapid and blitz as well.
He didn’t lose a classical game all year, despite playing bold, double-edged chess, with his unbeaten streak from August 2018 to October 2020 eventually reaching a record 125 games. He set a new rating peak of 2882 and ended the year with a 50-point lead over 2nd placed Fabiano Caruana.
2020 – online king
The year 2020 turned out to be one that posed new challenges to everyone, including chess players, with the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down over-the-board chess from March onwards. Magnus, and the PlayMagnus group, stepped into the void to organise the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, a $250,000 super-tournament that became the first event on the $1 million Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour. The Magnus Carlsen Invitational was organised from scratch in a couple of weeks after the Candidates Tournament was stopped midway through.
Magnus’ role wasn’t as an organiser, however, and he set about establishing his dominance of yet another realm of chess. He won the Invitational, the Chessable Masters, the Legends of Chess and then the Grand Final, with the only other player to win a Tour event Daniil Dubov, after Hikaru Nakamura beat Magnus in the semi-final of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge.
Hikaru proved to be Magnus’ great rival online, reaching two finals and then pushing the World Champion all the way in the 7-day Grand Final. Hikaru led three times but was finally beaten on the last day, which went all the way to an Armageddon decider. It couldn’t have been more epic, with that Armageddon game providing the logo for the successor to the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, the $1.5 million Champions Chess Tour.
Can Magnus continue to reign supreme, or will he be distracted by a potential World Championship match? That could still take place in 2021, though first the 2020 Candidates has to be completed.