Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2014 arrow October arrow Silman on Books: Lessons From Magnus's Meteoric Rise
Silman on Books: Lessons From Magnus's Meteoric Rise Print E-mail
By IM Jeremy Silman   
October 14, 2013
Carlsenbookcover.jpgHow Magnus Carlsen Became The Youngest Chess Grandmaster In The World by Simen Agdestein is a new edition of the 2004 hit, Wonderboy. Other than a preface to the new edition, the obvious title change, and a few small additions to the text, it’s exactly the same book. Thus, if you already own Wonderboy, there’s no need to buy this.

This book appears to be about two things:

* Magnus Carlsen’s life as a child – how he learned how to play chess, how his parents reacted to his talent and the ups and downs their son faced as he marched towards the grandmaster title (which he earned at the age of 13).

* Magnus Carlsen’s games during this period – brilliant tactical victories, ever-improving positional mastery, and the lessons learned from painful defeats.

I used the word “appears” since I feel there’s a third part of this book, and that part is the most valuable of all – How Magnus Carlsen Became The Youngest Chess Grandmaster In The World is a wonderful instructive treatise on how to improve your game, step by step, by following Magnus’ journey to the highest title (other than World Champion) in chess. How can the chess journey of a little boy help you?

Magnus’ childhood story, his games (which are full of beautiful combinations and attacks), and his ability to persevere in the face of fame and the enormous stress that comes with it, is a very enjoyable read. But what’s really special is how Magnus, with the help of his grandmaster trainer, succeeded due to hard work. Trust me when I say that without this wonderful work ethic, even Magnus’ considerable talent wouldn’t have allowed him to reach the levels he’s reached.

To me, the book’s true value is in watching the effect Agdestein’s blueprint has on his amazing student – it’s a blueprint many young talents should follow. As for older folk who just want to get better, that same blueprint will help you too.

The beginning of the book tells us that Magnus learned how to play at 5 (“relatively late to become a 13-year-old grandmaster”), how he developed his analytical powers with math problems, and how Magnus had a phenomenal memory (“A good memory is another important aptitude for those who want to become good at chess.”). According to Agdestein, the 5-year-old Magnus “…knew by heart the area, population, flag, and capital of all the countries in the world.”

Agdestein pushed this point home when he discussed the visit of a TV reporter. Agdestein praised Magnus’ memory and proved it by grabbing a chess book from his shelf (he had 500 chess books) and set up a position from one of the book’s games. Magnus immediately replied, “Kramnik - Ehlvest” and then added, “By the way, it was played in Vienna 1996.”

This will astound some people, and it is indeed very impressive for a child. But knowing tens of thousands of games and/or positions by heart is normal for anyone with a finely tuned chess culture. For example, when I was 20 I shared an apartment with a commodities trader in Chicago. Several times a week (for a year!) he would crack open some chess book and play through a game from around 1900 to 1940. I would then have to “guess” the names of the players. I never failed to correctly recite the players’ names, the date, and the tournament. Sadly, in my old age my memory is gone and I’m lucky to remember where I live.

Magnus's new press photos: Find more on his facebook page.
Acquiring that kind of chess culture requires an enormous amount of work. I occasionally have people ask me, “I have a couple chess books. How long before I’m world class?”

It’s a well-meaning question, but it’s actually insulting to chess professionals who’ve put their life-blood into reaching the levels they have reached. I often tell people that chess mastery is all about patterns, and if you want to become a really strong player (IM or GM), you’ll need to absorb an enormous amount of chess patterns.

I always recommend playing over tens of thousands of games as quickly as you can, since the subconscious mind will absorb the pawn structures and how the pieces are placed when those structures arise. You’ll also absorb tactical patterns, opening patterns, and endgames too. Many tell me I’m wrong and get quite upset by this (everyone wants to be great, but few are willing to do the work). However, a quote from Agdestein will put this into perspective: “In Norway we say that it takes 10,000 hours to become world-class in something.”

Of course, that kind of crazy workload isn’t necessary to enjoy chess and become quite an accomplished player. But if you’re dreaming of being a chess pro, it’s wise to know the hurdles you’ll need to face.

Anyway, as the story roles by, we come to appreciate how balanced and helpful Magnus’ family was/is. Anyone that’s coached children will have horror tales about demented parents (this kind of thing was brilliantly shown in one of the best scenes from the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer), so Magnus’ down to earth family was clearly a major factor in their son’s progress.

Though Magnus learned the moves and rules at 5, he didn’t fully embrace the game (he preferred Lego!) and even fell for a Scholars Mate at 8 (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6?? 4.Qxf7 mate). But here we get our first glimpse at this book’s instructive value when Agdestein describes how Magnus took the game seriously and how he overcame his complete lack of understanding:

“Magnus began to sit by himself and shuffle the pieces. He could sit for hours moving the pieces, in known and unknown patterns, finding combinations and repeating games or positions that his father had shown him. In this way, he developed a good feeling for the patterns of movement of the individual pieces.”

And so we’re given (without Agdestein realizing that he was actually writing an instructive chess book!) our FIRST KEY CHESS LESSON (the following are my words, not Agdestein’s):

Chess is all about pattern recognition. The more patterns your brain absorbs, the stronger you’ll eventually become. That’s why playing over countless games is so valuable – each game gives you a taste of the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Each game allows you to absorb the patterns of where the pieces are in accordance to the various pawn structures that go by, where the pieces belong in various openings, typical plans in various middlegames, and how endgames are handled. Much of this won’t make sense at first. But after the subconscious mind (often slowly!) absorbs the information, you’ll wake up one day and discover that you’re a good player.

Magnus played in his first tournament when he was 8 years 7 months old – his rating at that time was around 904. And, naturally, he improved quickly. Here’s a game between the 9-year-old Magnus and a player rated 1602:


Then came an explosion (which is not uncommon for talented children) and he gained 1,000 points (from 904 to 1907!) in a year’s time. After that, Magnus went from strength to strength. But keep in mind that this didn’t happen by magic, hard work was the catalyst for much of this rapid improvement. To quote Agdestein, “I was also impressed by watching the way Magnus read chess books. While the others lay around and relaxed or clowned around in their rooms, Magnus lay in his bed and read grandmaster John Emms’ The Open Games with Black, a brilliant book that covers everything but the Ruy Lopez that one can meet when answering 1.e4 with 1…e5. That the book was in English and at a level more suited for top international players did not appear to worry Magnus in the slightest. He didn’t need to get out a board and pieces either, he simply read the games from the book without a problem.”

LESSON TWO: Great strength – genius or no genius – is forged by the fire of hard work and dedication.

The book continues to chronicle Magnus’ travels and results as he climbed higher and higher up the rating ladder. By the time he was 11 his rating was 2148 and he was eating up players in and above his rating group.

Magnus Carlsen – Tor Guldbrandsen, Oslo 2002

20.Qxa7!! Rb8 21.Qxb8! Nxb8 22.Rxc8+ Kd7 23.Rxh8 Nc6 24.Nf3 and white’s two Rooks and Bishop were much too much for black’s Queen and Knight.

Here’s a game vs. a 2274 player:

Magnus Carlsen – Stig Tjomsland, Gausdal 2002


and Black resigned due to 50…Kxd6 51.Qd7+ Ke5 52.Qg7+ picking up the Queen on c3. A very mature game for an 11-year-old!

Agdestein was very happy with Carlsen’s opening knowledge and his tactical and positional skills. But his student’s endgame knowledge wasn’t up to snuff. Agdestein wrote: “I recommended the book Fundamental Chess Endings, a weighty volume of over 500 pages in large format by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht, to Magnus. Not long afterwards Magnus had read it, not cover to cover but selectively, and since then his endgame has been more of a strength than a weakness.”

LESSON THREE: A real chess education demands balance, and those that think endgames are not worth their time or energy should reassess their opinion. There are few things as depressing as playing great chess in the opening and middlegame, only to fall on your face when an endgame appears. Absorbing at least some basic endgame knowledge is critical for everyone of every rating. I should add that endgames help your middlegame since you will be able to tell when it is and isn’t desirable to trade pieces and go from an advantageous middlegame to an advantageous endgame.

There are many things to enjoy in this book. For example, this little intro to a fun game (when Magnus was 11):

“At this time there was a lively debate in Norwegian junior circles about an odd variation where Black sacrifices a Knight after just four moves. Magnus was inspired by this idea. In his game against Sampsa Nyysti (2242) from Finland Magnus said a silent prayer that Black would reply to the apparently limp 4.a3 with …g6. This would allow him to reach this variation with colors reversed, and with the extra move 4.a3.”


In later games Black preferred to return the piece with 7…Bg7 8.dxc6 bxc6 with equal chances.

Here the 11-year-old faces a very strong Chinese player (rated 2503) and completely dominates him. But a critically instructive disaster occurs:

Wang Rui – Magnus Carlsen, Oslo 2002

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 dxc4 4.a4 e5 5.dxe5 Qxd1+ 6.Nxd1 Na6 7.Ne3 Nc5 8.Bd2 Be6 9.Nf3 Nb3 10.Rd1 Bc5 11.Bc3 Bxe3 12.fxe3 Ne7 13.Nd2 Nd5 14.Nxc4 Nxc3 15.Nd6+ Ke7 16.bxc3 Nc5 17.a5 b6 18.a6 Nd7 19.e4 Nxe5 20.e3 Rhd8 21.Nf5+ Bxf5 22.exf5 Rxd1+ 23.Kxd1 Rd8+ 24.Kc1 Nd3+ 25.Kc2 Nf2 26.Rg1 Rd1 27.g4 Ra1 28.Kb2 Re1 29.Kc2

An experienced player would maintain the pin along the back rank, which leaves White completely helpless. Instead, Magnus rushed things a bit by chopping on e3. This still wins, but it’s not something any title player would do. In general, if the opponent is helpless, make sure he Remains Helpless!

29…Rxe3 30.Bg2 Ne4 31.Kb2 Re2+ 32.Kb3 Nc5+ 33.Ka3 Nxa6 34.Bxc6 Nc5 35.h3 Re3 36.Kb2 Nd3+ 37.Kc2 Ne5 38.Bd5 Rxh3 39.g5 Kd6 40.Rd1


Magnus is now two pawns up, which assures Black of an easy win as long as he doesn’t allow any enemy counterplay. But, again, inexperience takes its toll and he makes things hard on himself. If there was no time on the clock, a safe move like 40…Kc7 would do the trick. And if there was time to think, then it wouldn’t be hard to find 40…Rd3! which ends all resistance: 41.Rxd3 Nxd3 42.Bxf7 Ne1+ 43.Kd1 Nf3 44.g6 hxg6 45.fxg6 Ne5 46.Be8 Ke7 47.Ba4 Nxg6 and it’s over.

40…Kc5 (The King gets into a bit of trouble here.) 41.Be4 Rh2+?? (Panic! 41…f6 42.Rd5+ [42.gxf6 gxf6 43.Kb3 b5] 42…Kc4 43.Rd4+ Kb5 still won) 42.Kb3 Ng4 43.Rd5+ Kc6 44.Bf3 Ne3?? (Total collapse. 44…Rh3! 45.f6 [45.Bxg4 Rxc3+ 46.Kxc3 Kxd5 and the only player who can try to win is Black] 45…gxf6 46.Rf5+ Rxf3 47.Rxf3 fxg5 and the game should be drawn.) 45.Rd2+, 1-0.

This kind of loss is an extremely instructive moment for anyone that wishes to improve. You learn to avoid complications when you have a smooth, safe win, and you learn to always keep an eye out for your King.
Magnus Carlsen with GM Maurice Ashley last month at the Sinquefield Cup, Photo CCSCSL 

As one moves up the rating ladder, there are lessons to be learned, painful losses to be analyzed, and victories to be savored. It’s a fact that children improve faster than adults, but in both cases one never knows when that sudden “I got it!” moment will hit. When it does, you wake up feeling as you always do, but somehow the brain has processed all the information you’ve been stuffing into it and, unbeknownst to yourself, you’re a couple hundred points stronger!

This happened to me when I was 15. I was thinking of quitting since I seemed to have reached an unmovable plateau, and decided on one more tournament. I was 1900 at that time and was totally unaware that, as I slept, I had leapt to 2200! The same thing happened to Magnus during the final half of 2002. Agdestein had this to say about Magnus’s result in Heraklion: “With a rating performance of over 2500 this was nevertheless an enormous result for Magnus. It also signaled a leap in strength. He was now merciless against players rated around 2200.”

Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen at the Sinquefield Cup, More photos at uschesschamps.com

Magnus went on to earn his IM title at the age of 12, and his grandmaster title at 13. I feel this book is very useful for players who want to improve their game, players who just like to read about a chess genius, and parents who want to see the correct way to bring up a young prodigy.

I have to mention that this book is filled with lots of really nice photos! Some people aren’t into photos, or just like to quickly glance at them. Fair enough. But if you love to look at high definition photos, and if you own an iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch, then you might want to pick up Wonderboy (the older but pretty much identical version of this book) on iTunes in the New in Chess App or the e+chess app (it’s an in-app purchase). These apps allow you to turn a nice photo (with just a tap) into a very clear half screen or, in many cases, full screen marvel.

I give this book my highest recommendation.

Buy the book at this link. Using the code, CHESSDAY2013 gives a 10% discount on all USCF Sales merchandise till October 20th. Also find Jeremy Silman's and Silman-James press books on uscfsales.com.