On August 27, Magnus Carlsen appeared on one of the most popular podcasts in the world, the Lex Fridman podcast. During the two-and-a-half-hour conversation, Carlsen and Fridman touched on a variety of topics: Magnus's approach to chess, World Championships, the chess GOAT, Fischer random chess, Shogi, Caruana, Ding vs Nepomniachtchi, winning and losing, training, loneliness, and more.
We've transcribed the best 29 Magnus Carlsen quotes from the podcast and collected them under different subjects, so you can easily read about the topics that interest you the most.
I could never work that way. My first coach gave me some exercises to do at home sometimes, but he realized at some point that wasn’t going to work because I wouldn’t do it really or enjoy it.
So what he would do instead is that, at the school where I had the training with him, there was this massive chess library, so he's just like, "Pick up books, you can have anything you want. Just pick up books you like and then you give back the next time.' And then at my next tournament, I would try out one of the openings from that book if it was an opening book and so on.
Before that, I hadn’t spent a lot of time specifically studying his games. It was super intimidating because a lot of these openings I knew I was like, "Oh, he was the first one to play that. Oh, that was his idea! I actually didn’t know that." So I was a bit intimidated before we played.
Then, of course, in the first game, he arrived a bit late, because they changed the time from the first day to the other which was a bit strange, and everybody else had noticed it but him. Then he tried to surprise me in the opening.
I think psychologically, the situation was not so easy for him. Clearly, it would be embarrassing for him if he didn't win both games against me. Then I was spending way too much time on my moves because I was playing Kasparov, I was double-checking everything too much. Normally, I would be playing pretty fast in those days.
And then at some point, I calculated better than him, he missed a crucial detail, and I had a much better position. I couldn't convert it though. I knew what line I had to go for in order to have a chance to win, but I thought like I'll play a bit more carefully, maybe I can win still. I couldn't.
Then I lost the second game pretty badly, which wasn't majorly upsetting, but I felt that I had two black games against Kasparov, both in the blitz and the rapid, and I lost both of them without any fight whatsoever. I wasn't happy about that at all! That was less than I thought I could be able to do.
We did work together in 2009 quite a lot, and that cooperation ended in early 2010. But we did play a lot of training games in 2009, which was interesting because he was still very very strong, and at that time, it was fairly equal. He was outplaying me quite a bit, but I was fighting well, so it was pretty even then. I appreciate those games a lot more than some random game from when I was 13.
Personally, I try not to use them too much on my own, because I know that when I play (obviously you cannot have help from engines), I often feel like having imperfect knowledge about a position or some engine knowledge can be a lot worse than having no knowledge. So I try to look at engines as little as possible.
My coach uses non-castling engines quite a bit to analyze regular positions just to get a different perspective.
Often they say in chess that having a bad plan is better than having no plan. It's absolute nonsense.
All the best chess players are basically just two camps: people who are good at longer lines or shorter lines. It's "The Hare and the Tortoise." Sometimes I feel like I’m the closest you can get to a hybrid of those… I can think, to some extent, both rapidly and deeply, which a lot of people cannot do.
I can make a case for myself, Garry, and Fischer.
For him, it's very very simple. He was ahead of his time, but that's like intangible; you can say that about a lot of people. But he had a peak from 1970 to 72 when he was so much better than the others he won 20 games in a row. Also, the way that he played was so powerful and with so few mistakes that he just had no opposition there. So he had just a peak that's been better than anybody. The gap between him and others was greater than it's ever been in history at any other time.
He's played in a very competitive era, and he's beaten several generations. He was the best, well, he was the consensus best player, I would say, for almost 20 years, which nobody else has done at least in recent times… Also at his peak, he was not quite the level of Fischer in terms of the gap, but it was similar to or I think even a little bit better than mine.
As for me, I am of course unbeaten as a world champion in five tries. I've been world number 1 for 11 years straight in an even more competitive era than Garry. I have the highest chess rating of all time, I have the longest streak ever without losing a game.
I think for me, the main argument would be about the era, where the engines have leveled the playing field so much that it’s harder to dominate, and still, I haven't always been clear number 1 but I've been number 1 for 11 years, and for a lot of the time, the gap has been pretty big.
So I think there are decent arguments for all of them. I've said before and I haven't changed my mind that Garry generally edges it, because of the longevity in the competitive era.
Back in Kasparov’s days, for instance, he very often got huge advantages from opening as white.
There were several reasons for that. First of all, he worked harder, he was more creative in finding ideas, he was able to look at places others didn't. Also, he had a very strong team of people who had specific strengths in openings that he could use. … Also, at the start, he had some of the first computer engines to work for him to find his ideas, look deeper, to verify his ideas. He was better at using them than a lot of others.
The first homework exercise he gave me was to analyze 3 or 4 of my worst losses. He wanted me to analyze them and give him my thoughts. And it wasn't that they were painful losses or anything, I just didn't really enjoy that. Also, I felt that this whole structured approach and everything, I just felt like from the start it was a hassle.
I loved the idea of being able to pick his brain, but everything else I just couldn't see myself enjoying. At the end of the day, I did then and always have played for fun, that's always been my main reason.
Right now my rating is 2861, which is decent. I think that pretty much corresponds to the level I have at the moment, which means in order to reach 2900, I would have to either get better at chess, which I think is fairly hard to do, at least considerably better, so what I would need to do is try and optimize even more in terms of preparations… like making sure I never have any bad days.
I think reaching 2900 is pretty unlikely. The reason I've set the goal is to have something to play for, to have a motivation to actually try and be at my best when I play, because otherwise, I'm playing to some extent mostly for fun these days. I love to play, I love to try and win, but I don't have a lot to prove. That gives me at least the motivation to try and be at my best all the time, which I think is something to aim for. So at the moment, I'm quite enjoying that process of trying to optimize.
I never had any thoughts that I'm going to keep the title for a long time. Immediately after the match in 2013, I mean also before the match, I'd spoken against the fact that the champion is seated into the final, which I thought was unfair.
After the match, I made a proposal that we have a different system where the champion doesn't have these privileges. And people's reaction, both players and the chess community, was generally like, "Okay, we're good. We don't want that. You keep your privileges." I was like, "Okay, whatever."
There was certainly stress involved the first time [the first world championship in 2013] as well, but it was nothing compared to the others.
So the only world championship after that that I really enjoyed was the one in 2018 against the American Fabiano Caruana. And what made that different is that I'd been kind of slumping for a bit and he'd been on the rise, so our ratings were very very similar. They were so close that if at any point during the match I'd lost a game, he would have been ranked as number 1 in the world. Like our ratings were so close that for each draw they didn't move.
The games themselves were very close. I had a winning position in the first game, then I couldn't really get anywhere for a lot of games, then he had a couple of games where he could potentially have won. Then in the last game, I was a little bit better. And eventually, they were all drawn.
But I felt like, all the way, this is an interesting match against an opponent who is, at this position, at this point, equal to me. And so losing that would not have been a disaster. Because in all the other matches, I would know that I've lost against somebody who I know I'm much better than, and that would be a lot harder for me to take.
Before the match in 2016 against Karjakin, there were people who thought that I was massively overrated as a favorite and that essentially the match was pretty close, like 60 / 40 or some people even said like 55 / 45. And what I felt was that the match went very very wrong for me, and I still won.
After the last match, I did an interview where I talked about the fact that I was unlikely to play the next one. I’d spoken privately to both family, friends, and, of course, also my chess team that this was likely going to be the last match.
What happened was that right before the World Championship match, there was this young player, Alireza Firouzja who had a dramatic rise. He rose to second in the world rankings, he was 18 then, he's 19 now. He qualified for the Candidates, and it felt like there was like at least a half realistic possibility that he could be the challenger for the next World Championship. And that sort of lit a fire under me. I liked that a lot. I loved the idea of playing him in the next World Championship… So that made me think, "you know, this actually motivates me."
And I just wanted to get it out there for several reasons: to create more hype about the Candidates, to sort of motivate myself a little bit, maybe motivate him. Also obviously, I wanted to give people a heads up for the Candidates that you might be playing for more than first place.
The love of winning is a great factor, and that’s why I also get more joy from winning most tournaments than I do from winning the World Championship because then it’s mostly been a relief. I also think I enjoy winning more now than I did before because I feel like I'm a little bit more relaxed now. And I also know that it's not going to last forever, so every little win I appreciate a lot more now.
In terms of fear of losing, that’s a huge reason why I’m not going to play the World Championship because it really didn't give me a lot of joy, it really was all about avoiding losing.
I think the most nervous I’ve ever been was game 10 of the World Championship in 2018. That was just a thrilling game. I was black. I basically abandoned the queenside at some point to attack him on the kingside, and I knew that if my attack doesn't work, I'm going to lose. But I had so much adrenaline. So that was fine, I thought I was going to win.
Then at some point, I realized that it's not so clear. My time was ticking and I was just getting SO nervous. I still remember what happened: we played this time-trouble phase where he had very little time, but I had even less. And I cannot remember much of it, just that when it was over, I was just so relieved, because then it was clear that the position was probably going to figure out in a draw.
So I think 12 games or now 14 games that there is for the World Championship is a fairly low sample size. If you want to determine who the best player is, or at least the best player in that particular match-up, you need more games.
If you're going to have a world champion and call them the best player, you've got to make sure that the format increases the chance of finding the best player. And if you're going to have a lot more games, then you need to decrease the time control a bit, which, in turn, is also a good thing, because in very long time controls with deep preparation, you can sort of mask a lot of your deficiencies as a chess player, because you have a lot of time to think and to defend, and also you have deep preparation.
So I think for me to play, those would be the main things: more games and less time.
I think if you are playing blitz, you’re mostly playing on short calculation and intuition. And I think those are probably enhanced if you’ve had a little bit of drink. You’re just thinking less, you’re more confident.
In 2012, I played the World Blitz Championship. I was doing horribly for a long time. I also had food poisoning there, I couldn't play at all for three days. So before the last break, I was in the middle of the pack, like in the 20th place or something. So I decided like as the last gasp, I'm going to go to the mini bar and just have a few drinks.
What happened was that I came back and I was suddenly relaxed. And I was playing fast and I was playing confidently, and I thought I was playing so well. I wasn't playing nearly as well as I thought, but it still helped me. I won my remaining eight games, and if there had been one more round, I probably would have won the whole thing, but finally, I was second.
I think people would play a lot better if they played against an anonymous me. I would love to have a tournament online where let's say you play 10 of the best players in the world, and for each round, you don't know who you're playing.
I sometimes can get a little bit intimidated by my opponent, but it's mostly if there's something unknown, it's mostly if it's something that I don't understand fully. And I do think that people just play more timidly against me than they do against each other, sometimes without even realizing it. And I certainly use that to my advantage! If I sense that my opponent is apprehensive, if I sense that they're not going to necessarily take all their chances, it just means that I can take more risks, and I always try and find that balance.
Generally, I would consider that Ding has a slightly better overall chess strength.
Nepo is even better at calculating short lines than I am, but he can sometimes lack a little bit of depth. In short lines, he's an absolute calculation monster, he's extremely quick, but he can sometimes lack a bit of depth. Also recently he's improved his openings quite a bit, so now he has a lot of good ideas, and he's very very solid.
Ding is not quite as well prepared but he has an excellent understanding of dynamics and imbalances in chess.
It was amazing to see how they quote-unquote thought about chess in such a different way, in a way that you could mistake for creativity.
I am generally more of a bishops guy myself, for the old debate. I just prefer quality over the intangibles. But I can appreciate a good knight once in a while.
I tried to play a little bit of shogi. For my noob shogi brain, comparing it to chess, what annoyed me about that game is how much the pieces suck. Basically, you have one rook and you have one bishop that move like in chess, and the rest of the pieces are really not very powerful. So I think that's one of the attractions of chess like how powerful [the pieces], especially the queen is.
It is quite fascinating that all those years ago, they created the knights and the bishop without probably realizing that they would be almost equally strong with such different qualities.
A chess player’s life is by definition pretty lonely because you have nobody else to blame but yourself when you lose or you don’t achieve the results that you want to achieve.
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