“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristote
It is well-known that one of the quickest ways to develop a skill is to learn from the best. Consequently, I thought it would be interesting to analyze as much information as possible about what Magnus Carlsen does to improve his game and what he actually advices on chess improvement.
I thus reviewed his movie, a book of his ascension and a certain number of his interviews (both videos and articles) to synthesize by theme all the tips from the current world champion.
- Tips during the game
- Improve your game
- How to prepare for a game or a tournament?
- Mind conditioning
- Other interesting stuff about Magnus
Thinking for over 20 minutes about one single move is usually a waste of time. It’s better to only calculate 4 or 5 moves ahead so that you can weigh all the options, because if you push too far you will have too many options and you will lose much time trying to evaluate all of them. In addition, the chances of you making a mistake are multiplied.
Always keep the pressure up
Carlsen tries to play 40 or 50 moves and challenges his adversary to do the same. Even top GM can crack under the pressure.
Putting pressure on the clock as well as on the board is important.
Have a sport mentality during the game. The objective is to win.
Never give up, whether you’re playing for a win or a draw, fight till the end
You can make a move which is not the best if you think it can put your opponent in an unpleasant situation.
Try not to show your own stress (tapping your feet, trembling etc…) and keep your poker face. As Magnus says: “You can’t look too annoyed or they’ll look for the mistake you’ve made. A lot of the time it’s about looking for these opportunities and if you give them a clue, the good players will find it.”
Use the eye contact in order to try to see if your opponent is comfortable or not with the opening and more generally during the tense moments of the game.
Carlsen suggest not sitting during the whole game: “Whenever it’s your opponent’s move, as long as you don’t leave the playing hall, you can basically do whatever you want. You can walk away. In general I don’t think you can keep full concentration for very long. I couldn’t bear to sit there for seven hours.”
Here are some ideas for your daily chess training:
- Challenge your brain with puzzles
- Sit at a chess board and play against yourself. It improves your feel for the game.
- Play and exercise to develop a tactical eye. Tactical skill is all about repetition.
- Playing too much blitz? You can if you want, but you must combine with training and analysis in order to improve your game.
- Analyze games and learn from your losses.
- Try different openings to broaden your understanding of the game.
Even if he doesn’t mention it explicitly, Magnus has always been surrounded by strong players in all his journeys. Notably the Norwegian grandmaster and coach Simen Agdestein or his teammates while preparing for the World cup: Laurent Fressinet and Jon Ludvig Hammer. We can’t forget the experience he gained in his chess sessions with Garry Kasparov.
It reveals clearly how important it can be to be supported by a coach or any stronger player.
But Carlsen also points out that you can learn from every player and every game.
Old books have value. Learn the plan and ideas even if it’s difficult nowadays to follow just one plan and win. Learn from past players, learn their games and incorporate their techniques into your own game.
Carlsen mentions that Dvoretvsky’s books are really good and strongly advices a book from Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht (2002): Fundamental chess endings.
This book really helped him improve his endgame ability.
Magnus’s practice at home and on his own is always on the computer. But when he studies chess with other people, he always has a chess board. He mentions that:
- It is not useful playing against computers nor does it help you prepare against humans.
- Computers are analytical tools. You can amass knowledge and better analyze your moves.
- Computers force players to see further, to avoid what is taught in books, to break the rules. What was considered before a bad move now has its place.
Practicing blindfold chess is a good way to visualize the board better. If you attempt to play against more than one player someday, see here how Carlsen proceeds: he sees the face of every player and he arranges them by numbers. Since he knows their order and can associate a number to every face as well as their face to a board, he only has to keep track of one board at a time.
Prepare a game
Carlsen prepares himself by studying openings and the latest trends. He tries to imagine new moves and carries out some tactical exercises.
In order to determine which opening to use, Magnus goes through these steps:
- Magnus first establishes the profile of the player and the tendencies in his game (he benefited a lot from the help of Kasparov in this field).
- Then he selects openings that minimize the effects of computer analysis to avoid being trapped by what the adversary has prepared at home.
- Inside these openings, he finally tries to find positions that will offer several possibilities later on and which will make the opponent uncomfortable.
It’s necessary to work out every day. “During some tournaments, you have to be able to play 5 hours a day for two weeks straight. This physical training is essential when you’ve been playing for 5 or 6 hours.”
A healthy regimen makes your mind work better so Carlsen insists on drinking, eating and sleeping well:
- What he drinks: Orange juice, yoghurt and chocolate milk
- What he eats: raisins, nuts and dark chocolate
- How long he sleeps: 9h
His preparation can be compared to that of top sports athletes. He tries to find a good balance between energy and calmness.
Get ready for the tournament
When Carlsen is getting ready for a tournament, he can spend up to 7 or 8 hours a day playing chess. He doesn’t go out, doesn’t party and avoids travelling, because he considers it to be a waste of time and energy.
He works out a lot for fun and is fond of relaxing and resting.
Here below are the habits of Carlsen the day of a game:
- He wakes up as late as he can.
- He tries not to have a lot of time to think about things, because he doesn’t want to feel the pressure.
- Carlsen doesn’t talk to many people right before the game.
- He suggests eating slow burning carbs before a match.
- He often checks if he remembers his chess preparation.
Carlsen’s motivation is to obviously enjoy the game but also to always keep on learning. He sometimes feels that he is miles away from truly understanding chess.
He considers that if you want to make PRO, you have to live and breathe chess all the time. If you see it like a hobby then it won’t work. You also need the passion to learn.
This is how Carlsen relaxes:
- The hammock is his favorite tool to relax. He uses it as well for post-match reflexion or to think about how he can beat opponents.
- The support of his family helps him relax. He wouldn’t be able to travel so much without his father and the rest of his family that joins his for the most important events.
- He reads Donald duck comics because he enjoys them and it helps him fall asleep or rest during long flights.
- He takes regular breaks from chess.
As many players, Magnus admits he is a bit superstitious. These 2 examples will not refute that fact:
- Someone once asked him to sign the book ‘Tal vs Botvinnik world championship match in 1960’ which he politely refused to do, because Tal was 23 years old when he won the world title (same age as Magnus) and lost the rematch, without ever winning another title. Carlsen said ‘it would have been asking to sign my own death warrant’.
- Against Anand (not sure if it was the first or second world championship match sorry!), he threw away his pen after game 3 because he played poorly the first three games.
Here are a few interesting things I thought you would appreciate to know:
- Thanks to his enthusiasm for the game, Carlsen has spent on average 5 hours per day on chess within a period of over ten years.
- Even if he calculates 4 to 5 moves ahead most of the times, he says that in simple positions, he can calculate as many moves as he wishes.
- He relies mostly on intuition: he immediately has the move he will play in his mind and takes time only to check.
- Magnus eventually realized that he couldn’t really tell the difference between people who become nervous and those who become excited because they think they’re going to win. The reaction can be quite similar.
- Becoming the world champion was never much of a goal for him. He just tried to go to every new tournament, do his best and improve his game because if you improve your game, results will eventually come. As Simen Agdestein mentions in his book, “Magnus has had various external goals but his true aim is to master the game and develop as a player”
- He spends most of its time thinking about chess.
- Most players start to decline when they reach 35 or 40 but Carlsen thinks that it probably has almost as much to do with motivation as with age.
- Magnus started working with computers three or four years after he started playing chess, probably more out of necessity than anything else.
Did I miss something?
If you are interested, you’ll find on this page the list of links and references I used.
I hope you’ll enjoy this overview that I tried to make as clear and complete as possible.
If I missed any important elements from other interviews, feel free to let me know so that I can update the article.
 Agdestein, S. (2013) . How Magnus Carlsen became the youngest chess grandmaster in the world. Alkmaar, The Nederlands. New in Chess.