So you want to know how best to nurture your child’s talent and help them realize their potential? Should you fast-track them through all the training material you can get your hands on or just let them have fun? We got some insights into this conundrum from the person responsible for training Magnus Carlsen - Henrik Carlsen, his father.
In a recent interview for the Play Magnus Group, Henrik Carlsen sat down with IM Sebastian Mihajlov and revealed what it was like to train and develop a chess prodigy. Every child is different, of course, but we believe there is much to be learned from his approach.
Recognizing Chess Talent
How can you tell whether your child will be good at chess? Henrik, a strong amateur chess player himself, noticed early that Magnus displayed skills that would be useful in chess.
At just 2 years old, the young Carlsen was solving 50-piece jigsaw puzzles. From the age of 4, he was completing Lego sets intended for 10-14-year-olds - another pursuit involving rearranging pieces to achieve a goal.
At night, laying in bed, Magnus would picture what he was building with his Lego and work out which pieces needed to go where. These skills of visualization and problem-solving are incredibly important in chess - the ability to check your next move is the right one before you play it.
Magnus displayed an extraordinary memory too, able to recall the population, capitals, area, and flags of every country in the world at age 5. You don’t need a photographic memory to be good at chess but being able to remember opening theory and recognize important patterns is a big help.
Henrik taught Magnus how to play chess around the age of 4. He would play games against him and give him advice but didn’t start training Magnus on any specific program.
During this time, Magnus played games against himself, over and over, finding the best move for each side and building up a great understanding of different types of positions. Today, Magnus credits this practice with a key role in forming his sixth-sense chess intuition. Bobby Fischer did the same thing as a child.
Developing a Chess Prodigy
It wasn’t until Magnus became serious about chess by himself at 7½ years old that his father put focus on developing this rare talent. He gave him books to work through, including Bent Larsen’s Find the Plan, and Gufeld’s The Complete Dragon. Later, Magnus would say that, if you’re serious about chess, any book would help you improve.
After one year of intensive chess study, Magnus entered the youngest section of the Norwegian National Championship and scored 6½/11. This early promise was enough for Simon Agdestein - Norway’s strongest player at the time - to take over the role of training Magnus Carlsen. Over the next year, Magnus’ rating soared an incredible 1000 points, from 904 to 1907 Elo. He was now studying chess 3-4 hours a day.
Letting a professional start training Magnus was key in his development. Henrik recognized the moment he could no longer teach his son much, and put him with the best coach he could find.
“When he was 9, we were looking through one of his games and I was trying to tell him about pawn patterns and opposite-colored bishops, and a master player came along and said, “No, that’s wrong. It’s not like that.” So, at that point, I stopped trying to teach him anything to do with chess.”
Seeing Magnus’ progress under Agdestein, Henrik Carlsen started thinking about how high his son could go: “Already at 9½ I compared his development to Kasparov’s (at the same age). At that point, he was still maybe lagging somewhat but, at 9½, I thought the sky was the limit for him.”
Motivation has to come from the child. Henrik waited until Magnus was willing to work on chess full-time before pushing him in that direction, knowing that forcing him to do something he wasn’t excited about would meet with resistance and possibly turn Magnus off chess altogether: “If I tried to push him, it wouldn’t have worked. We didn't dampen or destroy his interest in chess by pushing him in any specific direction.”
We take the same approach at Magnus Academy. We give our students fascinating positions to solve so they actually get excited about chess and want to learn and become stronger.
Magnus himself said, “I spend hours playing chess because I find it so much fun. The day it stops being fun is the day I stop.”
Magnus Carlsen’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Magnus Carlsen is clearly intelligent and possesses a number of skills that have helped him become the world’s highest-ever rated player. However, he insists he is not a genius - and Henrik seems to agree that Magnus’ persistence is the biggest factor in his success, saying: “Magnus considers himself to be a slow learner. But he doesn't stop learning, he keeps going. And if you keep going, you get better.”
You don’t need to be perfect, either. Henrik insists that “you don’t have to be that good - just a little better than the others”. He admits, however, “you need a lot of knowledge, good intuition, quick-minded, good memory.”
These are all strengths that can be acquired - you don’t need to be born with them. Knowledge comes from study, intuition comes from repeated practice, memory can be trained, and practice makes you quicker at solving problems, too.
Magnus Carlsen has been called a bad loser a few times. He doesn’t like losing. Is this emotional reaction to losing a positive or negative? Henrik has no doubt: “If you want to be a really top player, you have to really hate losing. Otherwise you don’t have the right mentality to keep improving.”
Fighting to avoid defeat gives you the best practical chances in a game, and helps create an aura of invincibility in the minds of your opponents. Players who feel the pain of losing are more likely to analyze their games to find out where they can improve too. Using losses to fuel a desire to learn and become a better chess player is the best way to handle the situation.
Of course, players can be upset at losing and still have behave properly. At Magnus Academy, we teach our students to be graceful in defeat, always shaking their opponent’s hand and saying “good game”.
How Magnus Carlsen Trains
Now, as the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen still trains for hours every day. But what is he training? What does the highest-rated player of all-time still have to learn?
Like most professional players, Magnus needs to study openings to find new ideas and hopefully catch out a future opponent.
Carlsen analyzes every game he can get his hands on too. When he was young, he studied thousands of games from the top players of the past, and now he analyzes the games of his fellow pros - getting inside their head and understanding their thought processes.
It’s not just other players’ games either: “Magnus looked back at his levels as a 20-year-old - and, after all he was the top-ranked player at 20 - and he was astounded by his lack of understanding at a lot of positions at 20. He couldn’t necessarily play any better over the board, but his understanding had dramatically improved.”
Being able to analyze a game properly and draw the maximum instruction from it is a crucial skill when it comes to long-term improvement. No less important are the abilities to train tactics, endgames, and study the opening effectively. Magnus Academy teaches these skills so our students have everything they need to keep getting better.
Training like Magnus Carlsen
To summarize, to train like Magnus Carlsen, you or your child should enjoy chess and absorb as much information as you can. Study the most fascinating material and it won’t feel like work!
Learn from every game and situation you can. Especially from your losses. Learn to analyze properly and these losses will become fewer.
Study openings, endgames, tactical and strategic positions. Become a well-rounded player who isn’t afraid of any situation.
Love winning and hate losing. Use these powerful emotions to drive you to do your best both at the board and in training.
Not every young chess star can become World Champion, but many have the potential for a glittering career - with the right training.