Magnus Carlsen appearance

by admin on November 17, 2012

Yesterday Magnus Carlsen visited San Jose and gave a simultaneous blindfold exhibition at the Silicon Valley Bank. I only found out about this event three or four days in advance and decided not to go to it, because it seemed that space was going to be very limited and because I am not all that interested in celebrity-gawking.

However, Mike Splane attended and sent out a long e-mail today about the experience. The overall message seems to be that the event was a little bit underwhelming. The simul was played on tiny, cheap plastic sets that no one in the audience could see, and there was no projection system, so the audience ended up having to cluster around the boards.

After the simul, there was a Q & A session at which Carlsen answered questions only from people under 10 years old. This does make some sense in an event that was intended to promote chess for juniors; however, as you can imagine, the questions were pretty general and the answers not all that illuminating. For example, how much do you study every day? Carlsen’s answer (Mike’s paraphrase): “It’s hard to say. Chess is fun for me. Sometimes one hour, sometimes eight.”

Mike sums it up as follows:

I had a couple of takeaways from the event. I was surprised at how poorly organized it was; I would never want [name of sponsoring organization] running chess in my school. Second, I have had a chance to meet with several great people in my lifetime: James Watson, the discoverer of the role of DNA in genetics; Steve Wozniak, the founder of Apple Computers; Arnold Palmer of golf; David Bronstein, etc. Every one of them was bright, talkative, engaging, a pleasure to listen to and talk with. Magnus was the complete opposite, a real introvert. I found that quite shocking.

For those of you who missed this event, they told us Magnus would be back in Silicon Valley next year for some fundraising events.

This might be a good time to mention that I’ve gotten a couple e-mails over the past year or two publicizing events with Magnus Carlsen (always in New York) and suggesting that I could mention them in my blog. I tend to skip over “please write about this in your blog” type e-mails anyway, as I prefer to decide for myself what to write about. I was also less than thrilled because they seemed to be big-bucks events. I’m glad to see that for his San Jose appearance he chose to do something that did not cost any money at all for the spectators.

I’m also thrilled that Magnus is making such an effort to promote chess among kids and ordinary people in America, which is not noted as a chess hotbed. When’s the last time we saw Vladimir Kramnik, or Viswanathan Anand, in San Jose?

So, good for you, Magnus! It does seem, based only on Mike’s account, that this is not something that comes easily to him, and he may perhaps not have found the right group of people yet to advise/assist him on putting his best face forward to the public. I certainly hope he continues to make the effort, and I’m sure that he will get better at it.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish November 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Mike’s email was yet another reminder that our “idols,” be they chessplayers, writers, athletes, or whatever, are often best kept at a distance.


Mike Splane November 18, 2012 at 9:44 am

Hello Dana,

Thanks for fixing my typos. I was shocked to find you quoted my email on your blog.

I wrote that email in the middle of the night and I don’t think what I said was exactly accurate or clear. I think the word introvert in particular was inaccurate and maybe could be taken as offensive. If you are able to edit the post could you can replace the text with this:

Magnus was the complete opposite, a really quiet and private person. He did not engage in any small talk whatsoever, and he did not introduce himself or address the audience outside of the brief question and answer session. I found that quite interesting and somewhat shocking.


Brian Wall November 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Magnus attends the most well organized events in the world, I remember I lost a simul game to a girl with a pink and green plastic set. It was hard to make out the Queen. I find answering only the innocent questions of those usually ignored, the single digit set to be quite a charming idea, I am sure Magnus was amused at the opposite end of the organizational world. I find nothing negative in his approach.


Michael Aigner November 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm

From an organizational point of view, the entire event came together very quickly, at almost the last minute. The main purpose of his Bay Area visit was not an hour long meet and greet. The first publicity hit Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, 72 hours before the event. This doesn’t excuse the organization, but might explain a little.

As far as Carlsen’s personality goes, my students gave positive reviews. I can’t say how much of their response is a reflection of pure enthusiasm of meeting a young genius. Many got autographs and photos. I was unable to attend and can’t offer a first-hand account.

No doubt, corporate sponsors love Carlsen. He had at least 2 logos on his jacket. He met with Art Levinson (Apple) over lunch. That certainly says something about the public image that Carlsen projects. He stands in sharp contrast to his peer Nakamura, although the American talent seems to slowly mellow with age.

Kasparov is more of an extrovert than other top chess players, but he has his own quirks. When I attended a formal dinner with Stanford leaders in 1999, I recall Kasparov abruptly getting up and proclaiming the evening had dragged on too long. While others slowly got up, shook hands, etc, the reigning World Champion was pacing on Lytton in Palo Alto. I caught up with him, and he observed that none of the smart people passing by seemed to recognize him! By the way, he was more relaxed the next evening, at an informal pizza dinner.


admin November 19, 2012 at 8:58 am

Seems like I might owe Mike an apology for putting up his not-completely-formed impressions. If it had been a personal e-mail I would not have posted it, but it was a group e-mail on a subject of broad interest, so I thought that he would not mind if I helped him disseminate his thoughts more widely. Still, I should have checked first.

I’m interested by Michael Aigner’s comment about Carlsen’s meeting with Apple’s chairman. If Carlsen could get just one major company to get on board with promoting chess in America in a serious way (e.g., sponsoring tournaments or a *tour* or even giving some GMs a steady income), what a change it would be! (I have long thought that we should have a Google Open. An Apple Open would be good too.)

I guess that one precedent was Garry Kasparov’s success at getting Intel to sponsor his PCA tour. But that fell apart pretty quickly. I’d be interested in hearing a postmortem on what went wrong with it. According to Wikipedia, Intel got angry with Kasparov for playing a match against IBM’s Deep Blue, giving publicity to a competitor. If that’s the case, I would have to side with Kasparov — if your sponsor is telling you who you can and can’t play, you don’t want that sponsor.

However, it also seems to me that it might have been a mistake for the sponsorship to be tied to Kasparov’s “cult of personality.” Instead of sponsoring Kasparov or his puppet organization, Intel should have been sponsoring *chess*. Then the partnership could have (perhaps) survived a falling-out between its original brokers.

Needless to say, I don’t know too much about this. Are there any informed opinions out there?


Wendi Fischer November 27, 2012 at 10:16 pm

I am surprised you would write about an event you didn’t attend based on one persons commentary. Here is another view.
Mike is right, the event was a bit underwhelming; there were no TV cameras, no big signs about sponsors, not hyped up or fancy…on purpose. To say it was not well organized seems incorrect. After being warmly greeted and picking up a name badge, kids (that was the focus) walked past a snack buffet just for them complete with goldfish and gummy worms. Through a raffle, four kids were able to play Magnus in a blindfold simul. Allowing kids to gather around and not sit in their seats seemed more intimate, albeit a wee bit chaotic.
Magnus was in the Bay area to promote chess for children to people and companies who support the idea of chess as a learning tool; as Michael Aigner noted, the kids event was planned a couple of days in advance and gave some local kids a really cool opportunity. It also kept things light for Magnus since he was on his way to a tournament in Mexico. He was quite gracious in posing for pictures with all the kids and signed numerous autographs. And as you stated, there was no cost!
As for the Q and A, it was great to let kids ask the questions, there was no Oprah or Anderson Cooper in the group, but who cares? And I wouldn’t expect high-level analytical answers from Magnus when answering questions from kids.
Magnus is quite talkative and outgoing in smaller settings, and he is still learning to work crowds. What makes him really cool is that he isn’t outgoing to the point where it’s all about him. Refreshing to have a celebrity who doesn’t talk about how great he is; instead he comes off as a nice, somewhat shy, normal guy (who happens to be brilliant!) who is promoting something we can all agree on, chess is good for kids!


admin November 28, 2012 at 8:51 am

It’s good to hear another point of view. I’ll say again that I think it’s wonderful that Magnus is doing events like this, and I hope he will continue to do so, and perhaps the one lesson to be learned is that there ought to be a little bit more lead time. It sounds as if the short time to prepare was not in any way the fault of the local organizers.


edetrick January 9, 2014 at 6:59 pm

Doesn’t it seem as if Magnus C. and his sponsors are not aware that in the SF Bay Area there are over a thousand children, mostly K through 3, active in after school chess classes.


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