“Look, Carlsen is here. Carlsen is here.”
During the past week in Mahabalipuram, these words have been uttered with a tinge of bewilderment and disbelief umpteen times, mostly in hushed tones, conforming to the decorum expected at a chess venue. It could be a spectator from Bengaluru, a player from Barbados or an official from the Bahamas – all gathered to add to the splendor of the 44th Chess Olympiad in Tamil Nadu – but the sheer glee at catching a glimpse of Magnus Carlsen is universal. Such reactions are largely reserved for cricketers and movie stars in the country.
If there is an infallible presence deserving of idol worship in the chess universe right now, it is Carlsen, of course. The Norwegian is the reigning five-time world champion. His peak Classical rating of 2882 is the highest in the game’s history. At 31, he has already been world No 1 for more than a decade. He is a flourishing entrepreneur, a recreational poker player and a fantasy football enthusiast. He also has a mind of his own. How many others, for instance, would let go of the opportunity to defend the World Championship title?
Wherever he goes as a result, his aura inevitably invites a congregation of admirers. At the Olympiad, the first evidence of that is on view in Carlsen’s very first game, when a melee of people assemble in one corner of the main playing hall to snatch a view of him in the flesh. Around 40 cameras go off at the same time as Carlsen, donning a black jacket and blue denims, enters the hall and settles down on his chair.
Just before he is about to make his first move – white pawn to e4 – a Kenyan player even walks all the way from the second hall to the main venue just to seek Carlsen’s autograph. That the Kenyan has a match to play seems to be the least of his concerns. It’s not often that these players will bump into Carlsen, who is featuring in his first Olympiad since 2016.
By the time the game ends – a five-hour duel against Uruguay’s Georg Meier – more than 200 fans flock to the exit door in the hope of seeing Carlsen on the way out. They are left disappointed, as Carlsen exits through the back door. He has separate entry and exit points for the tournament, for the realistic possibility of the crowd getting out of hand.
Norwegian captain Jon Kristian Haarr even jokes about needing to “play the bodyguard” for Carlsen during his time in India. Aryan Tari, Norway’s No 2 chess player, says that having Carlsen as a teammate is like moving around with a movie star.
We are now past the halfway mark of the Olympiad, and the frenzy around the man hasn’t dwindled one bit. When he is playing in the main hall, fans are usually able to get within a few meters of his table. And they seem content standing there for hours on end, just to breathe the same air as Carlsen.
Carlsen doesn’t sit at his spot for too long at a stretch though. He’s usually taking a stroll and sees what others are up to. It’s to check on the games in his vicinity, but he also keeps an eye on how the top teams are faring. His keenness to track the matches of India B – brimming with talented teens – hasn’t escaped attention.
“Magnus is a great player of course. It is obviously inspiring to play amongst him and the other great players in this tournament,” says India B captain RB Ramesh. “The Indian players are producing good results. This will give them a lot of confidence. It will also inspire other young players in India. It will inspire a whole generation, I believe. You have seen Magnus come and watch our board at least two or three times.”
Youngster Raunak Sadhwani is a member of the India B team that is making heads turn at the tournament. He embodies the confidence typical of the young bunch when asked about Carlsen. “It definitely helps (that Magnus is around), but I don’t think it changes things much for me. If I beat him, things will change a lot.”
What about Carlsen’s Norwegian teammates? Is it unnerving when he looks at their games? “I am now used to being in the same team as him. In the beginning, it used to affect me. 2015 was the first time I played with him for the national team,” says Tari. “I wanted to impress him then. I now have so much experience of playing in a team with him. I don’t think much about it now. I still want to impress him of course.”
He’s normally back to his seat quickly, perhaps plotting his next few maneuvers within seconds before ambling across the hall again. The fans, of course, never move their gaze away from him.
Carlsen’s dominance on the chess board is akin to the air of invincibility that the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Roger Federer once exuded, but the aesthetic pleasure derived from a Tendulkar straight drive or a Federer forehand isn’t quite tangible in chess. That he still attracts sizeable crowds at the venue tells you all you need to know about his stardom.
Photographer Lennart Ootes, who has been covering chess for the past decade, tries his best to encapsulate Carlsen’s magic. “Magnus is very interesting. He has an aura around him. It was the same with Garry Kasparov. When you get close to him, you feel something. You immediately notice when he gets into a room for example. And it is not because he is followed by journalists or people. It is just this feeling that you have that somebody special has walked in,” he says.
Carlsen, though, seems to wear his stardom lightly. It helps someone like Tari, nine years younger than Carlsen, go up to him for advice.
“For sure, it is very special to be close to him. Sometimes, you forget he is who he is. Because I am used to being around him, I tend to forget that he is the biggest genius in chess. I can ask him questions and he would answer. I try not to push him too much,” Tari says.
Tari and his teammates have now spent enough time with Carlsen to be at ease in his presence. Till the time the king of chess is in India for the Olympiad, expect others though to still say, “Look, Carlsen is here. Carlsen is here.”