As the question was put to him, Henrik Carlsen’s eyes widened. “I would trade this for nothing in the world,” he told HT. “I am enjoying this. It is not difficult but a huge honour to be in the position I am,” he said.
Tall, lean, looking more like a long-distance runner and not the 50-something father of four that he is, he then explained why their enjoyment is crucial to his only son’s success. “If we are happy, we interact better with him. And that helps his game,” said the engineer who’s put his life on hold so that Magnus Carlsen can be the Mozart and Justin Bieber of chess.
Regular sessions at the hotel gym and the pool keep this keen chess player happy. “I haven’t played over the past one-and-a-half years, I really should be playing more but it helps that I understand Magnus’ chess passion. He has to do much of the explaining these days but I am available if he wants to discuss the game. And I am here as part of a team. If it was me alone or Espen, there would have been too many things to do,” said Henrik Carlsen.
Espen is Espen Agdestein, Magnus Carlsen’s manager and the man who pulls all the levers in this team that is keeping Viswanathan Anand’s challenger comfortable. It’s a team that comprises friends, fans, a security person, a chef, a medical officer and family.
Agdestein, 48, is two years older than brother Simen, a GM and the man who first nurtured Magnus Carlsen’s phenomenal chess skills. Agdestein said he gave up life as a media person because “this was something I wanted to be part of... I took over from his father full-time when we needed to get some serious sponsorship because Garry Kasparov had agreed to be Carlsen’s coach.” That was in 2009. Carlsen now endorses six brands and is a millionaire.
“He wasn’t all that good when we first met but he would learn incredibly quickly,” said Torbjorn Hansen, an IM when Simen Agdestein got him to spar with Carlsen. In 2000, Carlsen climbed a massive 1000 rating points in one year. He was 10 then. The partnership ended “when Carlsen was getting very good” because Hansen moved. Hansen said he’s here as a friend.
Not just good, Carlsen’s now on the threshold of being the best. “It’s like he’s got this kind of gift when it comes to chess; how to connect pieces, how to create harmony. From simple positions, he generates the best computer moves. He builds his advantage slowly. He can produce the perfect moves in quiet positions,” said Hansen.
Also among Carlsen’s friends is Brede Kvisik, the team’s medical officer. “I was a pupil at the chess academy with him... We still go bowling when Magnus is home and has time. I am here to bring some security to his team so that he doesn’t have to worry about things. It’s all gone to plan so far, he’s been very healthy so far, touchwood,” he said.
Players often have high adrenaline levels long after their games end but Kvisik said so far, he’s not had to help. “Magnus sleeps some five-six hours after a game, by when he’s cooled down sufficiently. Sometimes, he plays some child games with cards to unwind.”
Carlsen’s now the world’s No. 1 player whose peak rating of 2872 (current rating 2870) is the highest anyone on this planet’s got. Kasparov’s second at 2851. “I think he’s surprised even himself. Asked how strong he thought he would be, Carlsen had said he would aim for 2600 and later revised it to 2700,” said Tarjei Svensen, a freelance writer who said he’s been following the player since he was nine. This conversation, Svensen said, happened when Carlsen was 11. He turns 23 on November 30.
Like today’s tennis stars, Carlsen is an individual champion who needs more than a little help from family and friends. “Here I’m available round the clock but in Norway, we meet around once a month to firm up his schedule,” said Agdestein after mentioning a visit to the Silicon Valley next January. “An earlier trip went off well. Carlsen played blindfolded at Harvard University and was featured in several TV chat shows.”
History of sport has enough examples of failed prodigies but asked whether he ever was wary of that, Henrik Carlsen said: “Magnus finds his own motivation for chess. (One of the reasons why Magnus took to chess was to beat his elder sister Ellen). We’ve had to tell him to do his homework at times but never for chess.
“Also, his mother (Sigrun, also a qualified engineer) is not very interested and that keeps things grounded at home. And his sisters who played chess but now have other distractions treat him like a regular brother.”
“At home, he is just my younger brother. When he is not away playing, we play cards and watch sports on TV together. In fact, the three of us try to ensure that he does not get too high over himself,” said Ellen, 24.
An independent consultant, Henrik hasn’t worked for all of 2013 but then being Magnus’s father is a full-time job. “After this ends, I will need a week to catch up on things I’ve missed over the past five weeks. I also hope some skiing is thrown in. Hopefully, Magnus too will come along,” he said.