The Magnus Carlsen effect: When a humble Macedonian GM felt the butterflies
- The modestly rated Stanojovski, 58, has a brush with super stardom at the 44th Chess Olympiad after going 55 moves with the Norwegian world champion and No 1 player.
Zvonko Stanojoski, 58, world ranked 1707, sat with chin resting on his hands, as a swarm of cameras enveloped him. Usually playing in hall 2– teams that are still finding their way in the tournament and the sport are housed there for games–isn’t used to this flurry of activity.
The focus of attention was Stanojoski’s opponent, five-time world chess champion and world No 1 Magnus Carlsen. It's perhaps only in an Olympiad that a match-up of such stark proportions comes through. Despite the result being something of a no-brainer and Carlsen having two queens on the board after 55 moves, Stanojoksi–in his ninth Olympiad–hung in for longer than expected before eventually resigning.
Once the Round 7 pairings between Norway and North Macedonia were out on Thursday night, Stanojoski felt a rush of anxiety. He’d never played anyone half as celebrated before and speaks of discovering an odd rapid game of his on YouTube with a hint of accomplishment. The refusal of his younger, higher-rated compatriots to play the team tournament puzzles him but he doesn't fret over it.
Carlsen was the first to arrive–he is soldiering on for his team though a respectable finish appears slim–and wore a laboured smile as dignitaries snuck in for DP-worthy frames. He appeared relieved as the balding Stanjoski arrived, shook his hand and sat down across him.
“Spotting a bunch of cameras around the table, I suddenly felt nervous,” Stanojoski, rated a modest 2412, laughs. “I’ve never experienced it earlier. You could say I didn’t sleep very well the night before, when I got to know I was going to play Carlsen. But after the first few moves, it felt like any other game. He’s the kind of player who likes to play for small advantages. Sometime towards the close, I noticed he was a bit fidgety. I checked if I had any options left, but couldn’t spot any.”
In contrast to Carlsen–he turned GM at 13 and was bred on computers--Stanojoski’s Grandmaster title arrived at 40, a rarity in a sport of prodigious talents and early peaks. He stumbled upon online blitz for the first time only two years ago. “Chess was my second job, if we can call it that. It wasn’t paying my bills,” Stanojoski, who juggled chess with working factory hours as an engineer for the greater part of his life, explains. “I don’t mind the GM title but it wasn’t my first goal. I’d be okay to not have it too. I guess I just kept playing when I could and the norms happened. I'm still playing because it's still fun.”
A successor state from the erstwhile Yugoslavia, North Macedonia became independent only three decades ago. Chess doesn’t figure anywhere in the sporting landscape of the tiny landlocked nation in south eastern Europe where football leads the numbers, followed by handball. The total GM count stands at under 10.
Stanojoski started playing chess because he watched his father spend hours poring over the board with friends. His daughters didn’t follow his path in the sport. Stanojoski says it’s perhaps because he didn’t make it seem good enough.
He no longer works in the factory, and has made his transition to a full-time chess coach. "My grandchild is a few months old now," he says. "I'm hoping once she's a couple of years old, I can introduce her to chess. Maybe she will fall in love with it like I did."