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The new chess superstar

Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, 22, has emerged as the cerebral game's most marketable star
The Straits Times - April 11, 2013
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The new chess superstar

After 22-year-old Magnus Carlsen dispatched him in 36 deadly moves over three hours in their first match at the 2013 Candidates' Tournament here, the Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler spent a moment musing on why Carlsen receives so much more attention than he does.

He is not jealous, he said, of Carlsen's high profile, No. 1 ranking and lucrative sponsorship deals. He is 36, ranked 14th, but has no companies clamouring to shower him with cash.

"He's exceptionally good, and so he gets extra opportunities," he said. "Somehow, I'm less marketable than Magnus. I'm somewhat less young, and somewhat more Soviet."

Chess has its superstars, but on a wider stage, there is no one like Carlsen, of Norway, who won the tournament and remains the first world No. 1 from a Western country since Bobby Fischer in the 1970s. He sits at the centre of a carefully constructed campaign by him and his handlers to use his intelligence, looks and nimble news-mediacharming skills to increase his profile outside the sport, as if he were a tennis or golf star.

Not since the days of Fischer, Kasparov and Karpov has a player managed to move so deftly beyond the world of chess into the world at large.

"Magnus probably sees himself more like a modern sports star who wants to have fun than like a traditional stereotype of a chess player," said his manager Espen Agdestein. "Magnus is becoming more a global person."

Carlsen has been profiled on 60 Minutes, modelled (along with Liv Tyler) for a major clothing label, met Jay-Z at a Brooklyn Nets game, and been offered a role, as a chess player, in the coming Star Trek film (the role fell through because of workpermit issues).

Much of the attention is because he has accomplished so much so young. His chess rating - which reflects a player's relative standing and is calculated according to a complicated win-loss formula - is 2,872, the highest ever for any player. The previous record was 2,851, set by Garry Kasparov in 1999.

Viswanathan Anand, a Bollywood-level celebrity back home in India and the current world champion, has a rating of 2,784. With his Candidates' Tournament victory, Carlsen will now challenge Anand in the next World Chess Championship this fall. His presence is sure to generate new levels of interest in the contest, or so the organisers are hoping.

"With the exception of Magnus, sponsors in general are not interested in individual players - they're interested in being associated with the sport as a whole," said Mr Andrew Paulson, chief executive of Agon, which develops and markets the World Chess Championship. For a sport hoping to find a way to attract spectators, Carlsen presents a corrective to the stereotype of chess stars as "old, cranky, strange Russians whose names all start with K", he said.

It would probably help even more if Carlsen were charting a path that others were capable of following. But that does not seem to be happening particularly quickly.

Few chess players have managers; fewer still have sponsors. Except for whoever wins the world championship, which carries a sizeable cash prize, even the world's dozen best players cannot hope to make more than several hundred thousand dollars a year. Almost all make considerably less.

But in large part because of his sponsors - a Norwegian law firm, an investment bank, a Norwegian newspaper - Carlsen earned about US$1.2 million (S$1.5 million) last year, some 60 to 70 per cent of it from sponsorship deals, Mr Agdestein said. That carried obligations, of course, like hobnobbing with sponsors' clients at business conventions and playing simultaneous matches against multiple opponents at recruiting fairs

Carlsen recently signed a sponsorship deal with Parallels, a cloud computing company based in Seattle, which flew him over to impress its customers at a conference. There, he played chess against large groups - and won.

"There was even one guy who came in late and was really sad because he missed it," said Mr Birger Steen, the company's chief executive, a Norwegian. "But Magnus played him, and the guy lost in 25 moves. And then Magnus spent the next half-hour explaining the game and coaching him."

Carlsen said via e-mail: "As long as the schedule is well organised, I have plenty of time for chess and other activities, as well as spare time."

But there have been low-grade grumblings.

"Some people find these kinds of activities rather vulgar and think that players who dilute their energies and start running after money risk becoming like Liberace," Mr Paulson said. "But Magnus has incredible integrity. I think he's interested in expanding his fan base out of Norway to America, but I really don't think he's interested in money."

There is no worry that Carlsen is being exploited, according to his father, Henrik, a former oil executive, who said he could not make his self-assured son do anything even if he tried. Four years ago, for example, Carlsen lost interest in high school and dropped out.

As for his son's extra-chess activities, Henrik said that he trusts his son's judgment, and that anyway: "He's generally always done what he's wanted to do."


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