The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Checkmate! Winning Life Strategies of a Chess Grandmaster

Magnus Carlsen of Norway offers insights for mastering the game of life.

The game of chess can be a metaphor for life. In November of 2009, an eighteen year-old named Magnus Carlsen of Norway became the youngest No. 1 chess player in the game’s history. There are many clues for life success that can be learned by observing Carlsen’s upbringing, daily habits, and competitive style.

Unlike most chess prodigies—who become full-time players before their thirteenth birthday—Carlsen stayed in school until he was seventeen. His parents urged him to complete his schoolwork and create a balanced life by exploring the outdoors hiking and being exposed to the arts through regular museum visits. Carlsen was introduced to chess at a young age by his father; but when he was younger, Carlsen preferred other pastimes that his parents encouraged him to explore on his own. As I wrote in a recent Psychology Today blog, "Science Confirms Why "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" is Genius," having a balance of intellectual and physical exploration flexes all four hemispheres of a child’s developing brain.

When he was two-years-old, Carlsen could recite all the major car brands in his homeland of Norway. As a five-year-old, he built monumental creations out of Legos and memorized the world’s countries, their flags, and capitals. He was driven by a healthy sibling rivalry with his older sister and a desire to beat her at chess. Apart from chess, which Carlsen studied about three to four hours a day as a child, his favorite pastimes included soccer, skiing, and reading comic books.

Keep Them Guessing

As a teenager, Carlsen was known for his bold, attacking style but his game has evolved to be more calculating and strategic. However, as a chess player he avoids predictable opening moves and likes to create action on the board. Carlsen’s unpredictability makes it tough for opponents to prepare against him. Carlsen does not focus on his opening preparation as much as other top players. He plays a variety of openings—which he comes up with while running on a treadmill daily.

The link between physical activity and problem solving is something that anyone who works out regularly has experienced first hand. Being physically fit not only gives you physical stamina, it makes you more creative while giving you self-esteem and resilience to navigate life's challenges. Like chess, mastering the game of life requires tremendous practice, confidence, and adaptability along with physical and mental endurance.

When asked if he thought is was important to put on a false game face to appear confident Carlsen responded, “That really depends on the player. If you appear confident that may frighten the opponent from making the right move. But as Bobby Fischer used to say, "I don't believe in psychology; I believe in good moves." At the end of the day, that's the most important thing.”

Trust Your Gut

Chess tournaments are an interesting example of where the intuitive and intellectual intersect. Magnus Carlsen learned to master his chess game against a powerful chess computer program but relies on a balance of intellect and intuition to pulverize the competition. Carlsen’s former coach, Garry Kasparov, says that his protégé’s mastery is rooted in a “Deep intuitive sense no computer can teach. He has a natural feel for where to place pieces.”

British Grandmaster Tony Miles once described Garry Kasparov—considered by most to be the world's greatest chess player ever—as: "a monster with 1000 eyes." Carlsen doesn't exude the same kind of mental energy as Kasparov. When you face Carlsen, it's more like 1000 omniscient eyes and a cold, encyclopedia-like memory of every famous game ever played that his opponents are up against. But there is an intuitive element to Carlsen's supremacy, as well. I would make an educated guess this advantage is linked to his daily habits that flex both his cerebrum and cerebellum.

According to Kasparov, Carlsen has the intuitive ability to sense the potential energy in a move, and the ultimate effect of his gut instinct is too many moves away for anyone—even a supercomputer—to calculate. When describing the combination of his ingenuity to calculate twenty moves ahead and to play several games intuitively while blindfolded simply by hearing the move in notation Carlsen says, “It’s hard to explain, sometimes a move just feels right."

It Ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over

Although chess is not a game that is usually associated with physical stamina, it actually requires tremendous physical endurance. Carlsen's creative ability to build unbeatable positions combined with his stamina and endgame have drawn comparisons to the style of play used by many former world champions. 

Carlsen revises his opening habitually while jogging on a treadmill which keeps him mentally sharp and physically fit. As Carlsen describes, "These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are very tiring, especially at the end." He recently told The Associated Press, "If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration you will be the one who will profit from your opponents' mistakes.” Adding, “In general towards the end of the tournaments younger players have that advantage so the other players will have to try to equal that by having good fitness as well." As we get older, it becomes more important for all of us all to stay physically fit to maintain a competitive advantage in a cut-throat world.

Carlsen’s physical fitness supports his style of favoring the middle and long game while he avoids over-thinking opening exchanges. "I do focus quite a bit on the opening," Carlsen said. "But I have a different goal. Some people try to win the game in the opening. My goal is to make sure I get a playable position and then the main battle is going to happen in the middle game and the later game."

Carlsen’s endgame prowess has been described as among the greatest in history. English grandmaster Jonathan Speelman, who analysed Carlsen’s endgames from the 2012 London Classic, coined Magnus’ endgame stamina as the “Carlsen effect.” Speelman describes Carlsen's methodology saying, “Through the combined force of his skill and no less important his reputation, he drives his opponents into errors. He plays on forever, calmly, methodically and, perhaps most importantly of all, without fear. This makes him a monster and makes many opponents wilt.” 

Conclusion

Carlsen’s ultra-endurance strategy has worked. In a 2012 interview in New in Chess magazine, the current No. 3  player in the world, Vladimir Kramnik, said: “Carlsen is successful because of his physical condition and his ability to avoid psychological lapses, which enable him to maintain a high standard of play over long games when the energy levels of others drop.” Earlier this year, Carlsen passed Kasparov's record to attain the highest chess rating ever in the world governing body FIDE rankings.

The game of life is like any competitive sport. Daily physical and intellectual challenges will strengthen all hemispheres of your brain and give you an advantage. By spending some time each day flexing both physical and intellectual muscle you will build up the stamina and agility it takes to achieve your personal best on and off the court.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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