Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons
It was 8:55 AM Montreal time—1:55 PM in Oslo. I sat in VICE’s Montreal office 15 minutes before the interview in a freshly ironed shirt, nervously thumbing my coffee cup. I tried not to think about how this was the culmination of a four-year obsession, about how I was about to look into the eyes of the man who had mastered the game I had become obsessed with.
When I first saw Magnus Carlsen being interviewed, my fascination blossomed into a full-on man crush. At age 20 the Norwegian was one of the highest-rated players of all time and on his way to becoming the World Champion. He was charismatic but not arrogant, elegant but deadly. The way he strangled his opponent’s position, tying their pieces in knots until they were forced to resign, was impeccable. On top of this, he was cool; he didn’t shy away from media, and he had the cheeky smile of a young superstar athlete.
I started playing chess four years ago when my internet went down and it was the only thing left to do on my laptop. It grew into an obsession that blossomed into an addiction—online chess accounts, chess books, chess lessons, chess documentaries, chess-themed dreams. I watched the world’s best players battle in a viciously contested strategic dance, with the excitement that most people save for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Other grandmasters tried, but nobody was as good as Carlsen. They threw superhuman brainpower and centuries of strategy at him, and he consistently came out on top. He had the ability to turn seemingly drawn positions into victories, as if he had a deeper intuitive understanding of the game. In November 2013 he challenged the former World Champion in India and officially took the title in front of a record-breaking TV and online audience.
I watched his fame grow with his success—he had become a household name in Europe and had achieved rock star status in Norway and India. He had a lucrative G-Star modeling contract alongside Liv Tyler, his own iPhone app, and interest from almost every major media outlet in the world. In the wake of the World Championship, he was named one of Cosmopolitan UK’s Sexiest Men of 2013 and made Time magazine’s list of the top 100 most influential people in 2013. This strange intersection of chess genius and sex symbol seemed the perfect excuse to finally bag an interview with my hero.
I set it up as quickly as I could and was scheduled for a Skype call, on a Wednesday morning in March. Compared to some of the other people I’ve interviewed, he actually seemed pretty similar to me, so I hoped we would get along well. We were born in 1990, like to play soccer, and share a passion for chess. In another life we probably would have been best buds.
Incoming Call: Play Magnus
I answered, and it was Kate, his managing director for the media day he was running. She was friendly and disarming and told me that Carlsen was getting lunch but would be back soon. Our conversation was settling my nerves, and I was feeling good about the interview. I saw her eyes flick up from the screen as Carlsen walked into the room. My heart leapt into my throat in anticipation.
“Carlsen, this is Stephen from VICE,” she said.
The laptop spun around to show a disgruntled looking Carlsen hunched in his chair. He looked at me like I was a bowl of soggy cereal he had recently forgotten.
I tried to be chipper. “Hi, Magnus. How are you doing?”
“How was lunch?”
“It was OK.”
He went on to tell me that he had recently finished a really bad interview and that it may cause him to have a chip on his shoulder. His robotic, droning voice was filled with apathy and exhaustion, but I understood. He probably had done a lot of interviews already and wanted people to ask him about his actual craft—not his marital status or underwear preferences.
Confident that we’d hit it off, I assured him that I was a real chess player and I planned on asking him real chess questions. Suspicious, he asked what my rating was. Someone who understands the rules of the game might be at 1,000. I told him mine was 1,600, knowing that his was 2,881, the highest of all time. He seemed satisfied enough, so we carried on.
“I think it’s great that you agree to do media days like this,” I said, trying to stay positive. “Why is it that you’re so media-friendly when grandmasters in the past have shied away from this sort of thing?”
“Who says I am?” His voice was deadpan with the aloof aggression of a nightclub bouncer.
A thin film of sweat was forming over my body. I felt like I was drowning out at sea, so I tried to swim to familiar territory: chess theory. I wanted him to open up, to see the logic or passion behind his genius, so I asked him what he likes about the Ruy Lopez, an opening that he plays often, but his answer was brief and uninspired. He kept glancing around. He seemed annoyed.
I wasn’t getting anything out of him that hadn’t been said before. I asked him about chess as an art, instead of as a science. Then in an attempt to make it interesting, I tiptoed towards asking about his fame and the related female attention, but he was uninterested. “It happens, but I will not go into detail.”
I asked what the worst decision he’s ever made was. He told me he hadn’t really made any. In desperation I asked him, based on my rating, how many beers he would have to drink for us to be an even match. His media panel erupted in laughter, but Carlsen remained stone-faced.
“No, it’s not like that. My play is based on intuition, no matter what state I’m in.”
He was refusing to relate to me on any level. I had annoyed him and wasted his time, just like all the other magazines that day. He shared some hurried words with Kate before telling me I had one more question left. I felt like a total dick.
I asked him about the future of chess, but it was too late to generate anything at this point. Despite sharing a love and rough understanding for the game he plays, I had managed to piss off one of my heroes. I signed off by telling him I admired him and wished him the best of luck.
I got out of my chair feeling thoroughly defeated.
“That was rough,” said a colleague who overheard the whole thing.
“Yeah I know…”
“He really didn’t need to talk to you like that.”
What? But he’s the greatest chess player ever. It can’t be his fault. I’m the loser that asked stupid questions and embarrassed myself in front of my hero, right? I was so embarrassed I wanted to punch myself in the face or tie a belt around my neck and choke myself out (but not in the sexy way I usually do it). Then I started to think about it: What if we had been two people, forgetting all labels and their associated expectations? Well, then he’d be a dick.
Sure, I am probably one in a long parade of nosey people who want to pry into his life. And maybe he’d spent most of his morning fielding dumb questions, but does his mastery and fame give him the license to be dismissive and antagonistic? Probably not.
I had made the mistake of holding Carlsen to a higher personal standard because he is famous and good at chess. There’s no reason that he should be any better at handling a bad day than the rest of us. He was a dick to me, like we all are sometimes.
We worship public figures, wanting them to be perfect, but when we find out Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong have flaws, we’re shocked. We place a society-wide halo effect on famous people, assuming their excellence applies everywhere. We don’t see them for who they really are: regular people who are extremely good at one or more things.
I had seen my idolization turn into a rare look at a misunderstood dude whose tragedy is being a genius in something most people can’t relate to.
Carlsen, you are an inspiration to chess and your influence on the game will be seen for centuries. I still love you. But I’m not afraid to say that as a person you were kind of a dick, and I have no problem compartmentalizing the two. Follow Stephen Keefe on Twitter