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Playing a young Magnus Carlsen at chess

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 19, 2014 12:43 PM

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When an athlete or an artist is great at what they do, that greatness can be unapproachable.

So it would seem to be with chess player Magnus Carlsen, who at age 23 is the reigning world champion and whose 2881 rating is the highest in history. He’s so much better at chess than anyone else, and the game itself is so complex, that most of us can only appreciate his skill indirectly, through superlatives and metaphors, as if what he does is magic.

But before Magnus Carlsen became a chess magician, he was a five-year-old who barely knew how to move the pieces. Carlsen has released a new app for iOS called “Play Magnus” that lets you play against a computer that simulates how Carlsen played from age 5, when anyone could beat him, to age 23, when he’s unbeatable. I wondered whether it would be possible to tease out Carlsen’s brilliance by playing the app at successive ages, trying to spot the big leaps in Carlsen’s game.

So I asked Abraham Kunin to give the app a try. Kunin has a 1799 rating, which puts him in the top 10 percent of U.S. chess players. He’s also spent a lot of time teaching young kids the game, and has a good eye for stages in a chess player’s development. After using the app, here are his observations on the evolution of Carlsen’s game:

At age 5, Magnus plays essentially randomly. I was able to mate him in three moves.

At age 6, Magnus plays haphazardly, occasionally taking advantage of two-move tactical combinations, while at the same time ignoring direct threats to his pieces or to his king. When I experimented by moving one piece back and forth for long enough, however, he was able to coordinate a mating attack.

At age 7, Magnus starts playing with something resembling an overarching strategy (albeit a poor one): He develops on the edges of the board, seemingly afraid of confrontations in the middle. He is generally able to avoid direct attacks, but he still ends up sacrificing pieces for no reason.

At age 8, Magnus knows some basic opening principles and can take advantage of simple tactical mistakes by his opponent. That being said, he doesn't have any positional sense and accepts any sacrifice offered to him.

At age 9, Magnus has become a serious amateur player. He still doesn't have a great positional understanding of the game, but he is tactically gifted, and one careless move against him in a seemingly even position can quickly backfire. That being said, I was able to consistently beat him by playing carefully.

At age 10, Magnus has at least equaled me. It is very difficult to make inroads against his positional play, and he is quick to pounce on any slip-up. Though he doesn't yet play like a Master—I can still see the logic in his moves and follow the narrative of the game—he does play like a serious chess player.

At age 11, Magnus is playing like an expert or perhaps even a Master. I decided at this point that I could no longer reasonably evaluate his strength, so I stopped moving in order and jumped to age 23.

At age 23, I found myself having fewer and fewer reasonable options as the game progressed. By about 15 moves in (with multiple takebacks along the way), I found myself being forced to lose material. Magnus’s pieces were extremely well-coordinated, and his pawn mass in the center of the board created major problems for the movement of my pieces.

After that final shellacking, Kunin observed that “the most interesting part of the Play Magnus app is that, though playing against a chess computer, one gets the impression that one is playing against a real person.” He explained that it’s easy to distract young chess players from the main action of the game by making diversionary moves, and Kunin found that this was the case with Play Magnus up until about age 9. By that age, though, Carlsen was immersing himself in chess books and began to play with clear goals in mind.

As for when Carlsen became great, that moment is harder to define. Watching greatness evolve is a little like trying to spot a sunrise—it’s not there yet, and then it’s there all at once.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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