Carlsen: Norway’s chess superstar

As a prodigal genius and fashion model, newly-crowned world chess champion Magnus Carlsen has already lit up the game and has now added the world crown to his list of achievements.

Carlsen: Norway's chess superstar
The Norwegian chess prodigy - one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people. Photo: Timothy A Clary/AFP

The Norwegian world number one earned his maiden world title on Friday when he defeated reigning champion Viswanathan Anand of India in the 12-game challenge match in Chennai.

Carlsen, who turns 23 on November 30, missed out on becoming the youngest world champion by a few weeks, a record set by his one-time coach and Russian legend Garry Kasparov in 1985.

Kasparov, the undisputed world champion from 1985 to 1993, described Carlsen as a Harry Potter-type "super-talent" who is the first Westerner to hold the world title since America's Bobby Fischer in 1975.

"Magnus rocketed to the top of the rating list almost without pause, displaying a consistency and tenacity rare in a young player to accompany his limitless talent," Kasparov wrote in the Business Insider earlier this month.

Carlsen has dominated the World Chess Federation's list of top players in the last three years, with a top rating of 2,870 points that broke Kasparov's best of 2,851 points achieved in 1999.

"Magnus is a very different player and his approach is refreshingly new," American chess grandmaster and former Olympic champion Susan Polgar told AFP, with his aggressive tactics on show throughout the bouts with Anand.

Introduced to chess by his father, Carlsen showed off his genius as a toddler.

At the age of two, the self-taught prodigy knew by heart all the car brands and later memorised the long list of all Norway's municipalities, with their flags and administrative centres.

Sibling rivalry with one of his older sisters sparked his interest in chess, which soon led to his first competition at the age of eight.

The breakthrough came in 2004, when the 13-year-old defeated Russian former world champion Anatoly Karpov, forced Kasparov to a draw and became a

The dishevelled and serious looking teenager was once described by the Washington Post as the "Mozart of chess".

A fashion model in his spare time, Carlsen made it to the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013.

He also won the Chess Oscars, awarded by Russian chess magazine '64' to the world's best player, for four consecutive years from 2009 to 2012.

Carlsen admits two weaknesses: not being a good winner or a good loser.

"You cannot be a number one in the world and be a good loser," he told reporters in Oslo last month. "I'm not a good winner either. I try not to rub it in to my opponents. Unless they deserve it, of course."

Worried he may fall sick in India during the title bout, Carlsen and his team visited Chennai in August to check out the facilities in the southern coastal city.

By the end of the three-day visit, Carlsen's team had forced organisers to insert an "illness" clause in the contract by which a player can take a two-day break if he fell sick.

All-India Chess Federation secretary V. Hariharan said it was the first time an illness clause had been included for a world championship match.

Despite his overwhelming dominance over the last few years, Carlsen warned rivals his best was yet to come.

"I still have so many ways to improve," he said. "In every tournament, in almost every game, I find that I make mistakes.

"I definitely have some kind of talent but I don't know exactly what it consists of."

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Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”