Eyes are swivelled and necks craned, gasps fill the air, people squeeze past one another in the smallest of gaps to sneak a glance and children are hoisted by their parents for a better view. It’s not just the spectators, even players from other nations – from Barbados, Estonia, Venezuela, Netherlands, India, and Portugal and possibly many others – vie for a better view.
Amid the 50 match-ups, 200 games and 400 players (and several dozen GMs) in Hall 1 of the Chess Olympiad in Mahabalipuram, the attention is focused on a Norwegian in a black shirt, blue jeans, brown shoes and a gelled-up quiff. Magnus Carlsen in the house, nothing else really matters.
There are sporting superstars and then there is Magnus Carlsen. The world’s undisputed chess champion (several times over); multimillionaire entrepreneur who’s pioneering online chess; fantasy football expert; padel-tennis enthusiast too. The greatest chess player of this generation, the one who can draw crowds, turn heads, write the headlines.
“Where is he? Is he scared? Is he still studying in his room?” Allejandro Hoffman guffaws as his Uruguay team-mate Bernardo Roselli Mailhe chuckles while smacking him on the arm. They are up against Norway today and use humour to deflect the tension.
“This is such a big game for us, everyone at home is watching,” says Hoffman, grinning from ear to ear.
The banter continues as Georg Meier strolls in. Meier, bespectacled and soft-spoken, is the one to face Carlsen. Here at the Chess Olympiad, Saturday’s game would have been almost routine for Meier. But playing Carlsen is a whole different thing. He too hides behind humour: “They’re lucky that Norway are playing Uruguay in chess and not in football.”
He’s played Carlsen earlier, but never won. “I know his game pretty well. But the tricky aspect of playing such big players is that they always surprise you, no matter how much you prepare.”
The clock inches close to 3 PM, the official start time, and there’s no sign of Carlsen. Or anyone from the Norway team for that matter. People flock to the far end of the hall, awaiting Carlsen.
Francisco Mwangupili, the Malawi women’s team coach, has slipped out of Hall 2 [where his team is to play shortly] to catch a glimpse of Carlsen. “How could I not be here? He’s one of my favourites,” he says.
Then a sudden clamour as Carlsen strides in. He walks up to Meier, shakes his hand, and settles in. He’s mobbed by some three dozen cameras – all going off at an absurd speed of 100 clicks a second – has people forcefully taking selfies with him, folks sticking to within one inch of him just to be in the same frame and breathe the same air [no one wears masks anymore] as him.
Amid the frenzy Carlsen is unperturbed, an oasis of calm.
His teammates are late so for a while Carlsen is the only Norway player in the hall and is sitting across four Uruguay players. It’s a surreal sight, almost as though he’s going to take them all on. Does he feel any pressure? Maybe he’s thinking about his opening week Fantasy Premier League team.
He then fiddles with his board, moves his queen by an inch, and goes for a quick shuteye. He takes a 100-second power nap and eases into a huge stretch. The shutterbugs are at it again. He smirks. Everything he does is a frame to be captured. He puts on a show. It’s almost like he’s here for fun.
The rest of the Norwegian players finally turn up a minute before 3 PM and Carlsen says something to the tune of “where have you guys been?” A few embarrassed smiles are exchanged and just as the game’s about to begin, Carlsen is approached by a Kenyan player [who is a fan at this point]. He seems to want a picture or an autograph and Carlsen replies with a curt, “Sorry, not right now.”
The game finally begins. “Vamonos Georg [come on Georg]!” comes a whisper from the other end of the table. Carlsen begins with a white pawn to E4.
Eleven minutes in, Carlsen gets up for a short walk. USA’s Wesley So, ranked 6th in the world, is playing on the table behind Carlsen and the India B team, for which one-time Carlsen-beater Praggnanandhaa plays, is two tables to his right. Carlsen strolls around, has a glance all around, and is back.
As he returns to the board, all the three Norwegian players, almost in perfect sync, crane their necks to see Carlsen’s next move. The four Uruguayans also look at Carlsen’s board from the corner of their eyes. Seven pairs of eyes, all focussed on one man’s move. There’s only one king on that table, everyone knows who that is.
He makes a move on the board, looks around, walks around, and comes back to doing what he does best – move a chess piece.
With the endgame approaching, he disappears for three minutes and comes back with a Snickers bar. He stuffs half the bar into his mouth and washes it down with a gulp of water. He’s in his zone – it’s almost like the three dozen cameras snapping away at him and the hundreds of people within two feet of him don’t even exist for him.
Outside the Carlsen bubble, his fellow Norwegians try and take things in their stride. It is something that Norway captain Jon Kristian Haarr often “worries” about. “We did not play with Magnus yesterday, but we will play today and I’m a bit ‘worried’ about us arriving at the playing venue but we’ll see how that turns out,” he’d told ESPN earlier in the day. “Sometimes you have to play the bodyguard, you know? Scooch past people like…team captain coming through! But yeah, how do you deal with it? Mostly he can deal with it himself, but this [the crowd] is on another level than what we’re used to back in Norway. He’s definitely popular in Norway as well and people want to come up and take a picture but yes…there are a couple more people here in India than in Norway so the swarms [of people], we’re not so used to.”
While it may seem like any other day for Carlsen, seeing him play is a “dream” for Raghav Sabharwal. A student in Grade 7, Raghav has travelled all the way from Bathinda in Punjab to attend the Olympiad. “It was so amazing!” he says animatedly as he clutches onto his autograph book.
Accompanied by his parents Mohit and Shalu, Raghav has taken a 10-day break from school to be here. He’s got a healthy collection of autographs from a variety of GMs, but he’s waiting to get the one that matters the most.
He was luckier than Mohan Kumar, an elderly citizen who’d travelled from Bengaluru. This writer met Mohan at the venue on Friday, when Carlsen wasn’t in action. It took Mohan a while to accept that Carlsen wasn’t playing before he lamented: “But I’ve come all the way! I really wanted to see him play.”
And then it is 8:15 pm, the match is done and some 200 enthusiasts storm the entrance of Hall 1 in the hope of a selfie with or autograph from Carlsen. But Carlsen being Carlsen has check-mated them – he leaves from the other entrance.
Three hours before Norway’s match against Uruguay, at the height of the noonday sun, this reporter and another are speaking to Jon Kristian Haarr at lobby of the Norway team hotel. Haarr is talking about his team’s pre-match routine when in walks Carlsen with a football in hand. Barefoot.
“He’s a big sports idiot,” says Harr. “He probably knows all the football players in so many of the leagues. He has an exceptional memory, he knows every player in Spain, England, and Germany. He’s also watching some very strange stuff like beach football in Brazil for example,” he adds.
Carlsen is back in the lobby. He jogs up the stairs and is on his way out in less than a minute, this time with a pair of hotel slippers on.
Haarr explains Carlsen’s recent – and controversial – decision to not defend his World Championship title. “I think it’s largely been positive feedback, but some people are sad. I think most people understand, to be honest. He knows what to do to bring out the best in him. It helps him focus on his other goals such as breaching the 2900 ELO rating mark. It’s a bit of weight lifted off his shoulders.”
Carlsen is playing in his first Olympiad in six years, but there’s not a shred of stress. He’s out on the lawns of this beach-side hotel, playing a good old game of football. He appears to be a naturally left-footed player. He has a mean back-heel. He puts on quite the show. Carlsen’s got the moves, on and off the 64 squares.