The making of magnificent Magnus

Thomas Sajan Titto Idicula | Updated on March 12, 2018

Champions are nurtured… Teenager Magnus plays Viswanathan Anand in 2005.

The flexible Norwegian schooling system enabled Carlsen to pursue his dream to excel at chess.

Never in history has India attracted as much attention in Norway as in the last few weeks.

Magnus Carlsen’s challenge to Vishwanathan Anand for the 2013 FIDE world title in Chennai made the Norwegian media inquisitive about India.

The countries have little in common culturally or historically. But now, the normally shy and self-restrained Norwegians found themselves spontaneously chatting with people of Indian origin and asking about Anand and his country’s 1500-year-old chess heritage. For many Norwegians, the big championship triumph of their little grandmaster is like the victory of David over Goliath.

In India, it is widely perceived that the great one-man Indian epoch in world chess has lost the battle to an ‘incarnated’ wonder boy in an unlucky streak. All this, however, overlooks some of the crucial reasons behind the rise of Magnus Carslen.

No chess culture

Chess has never been a popular sport in Norway. The recent fever is unprecedented and can very well be traced to the advent of Carlsen.

How can Norway, with a population less than that of a medium-sized district in India, produce the world champion?

To say he is a prodigy who just happened to be born in Norway is too simple an explanation.

The mastery that Carlsen has over the game can only be achieved by careful nurturing of a genius in the right environment. Chess, beyond doubt, is primarily a game of ingenious minds. Nevertheless such gifted minds need to be ‘discovered’ and sharpened by appropriate training through collective effort.

The emergence of a FIDE world champion from Norway, a no man’s land on the chess map, is altogether different from the rise of an array of rigorously trained chess talents in the former USSR.

The Soviet regime had systematically produced world-class chess players to embark on a well-defined propaganda that the Communist system provides the right environment for best minds to flourish.

Seeing chess as a form of politics rather than a sport, the Soviet government provided generous support for the promotion of chess among the masses.

That made chess a popular sport during the Soviet regime. It was common to see gamblers in various cities in the USSR sitting with a chessboard, playing for money.

Carlsen was not born into such an environment, nor were there chess players of international repute in Norway to train him.

What contributed heavily to his emergence as a topnotch chess player was the Norwegian schooling system. As his father has pointed out, “Chess is not a popular sport in Norway” but “our education system was flexible enough to give a leeway for sports”. The Norwegian education system is lenient; it does not unnecessarily burden the child with too many tests and too much grading.

The primary years are focused on developing social skills and learning about nature and the society in which they live.

Children who have a particular interest or talent are allowed to follow their path. Therefore, the system did not interfere when Carlsen decided to skip classes in order to get his chess training.

He was even given a year off from elementary school to focus on chess tournaments.

Need to nurture

Indian schools rarely allow their students such flexibility. But there have been some changes, with Tamil Nadu and Gujarat allowing chess to be part of the curriculum.

Even minor reforms like this have resulted in tremendous changes.

For instance, India recently overtook Russia and France in having the highest number of FIDE-rated players. Forty years ago, there was just one.

In a competitive world, potential talents must be identified and nurtured early to achieve anything significant. As Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers notes, “Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything.”

This means four hours every day for eight years — possible only in a flexible education system that lets an exceptional child choose untraditional educational path, whether it is chess or cricket.

According to his father, Magnus Carlsen had devoted more than 10,000 hours to chess before the age of 15.

The new FIDE world champion is, therefore, a living example of how an education system keen on developing individual talents can do wonders.

(Thomas is a social anthropologist at the University of Bergen, Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.)

Published on November 25, 2013

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