He recently completed high school without huge success, but 19-year-old Magnus Carlsen is now already at the top of the chess world, following the footsteps of his mentor, legendary chess champion Garry Kasparov.
On New Year’s Day, the mop-haired, sulky-looking Norwegian teen became the youngest player to ever top the rankings of best players published by the International Chess Federation (FIDE).
Now he is setting his sights on the title of world champion.
“It’s been one of my goals for many years to become the number one player and that’s about as far as you can reach in chess without winning the world championship. Obviously it’s a big thing,” Carlsen said.
“The downside, of course, is that you have to answer questions like this a lot,” he added, matter-of-factly.
Initiated into chess early on by his father, as a boy Magnus nevertheless preferred other pastimes which he explored on his own.
Aged two, he could recite all car brands; as a five-year-old, he built monumental creations out of lego; then he moved on to memorising the world’s countries, their flags, capitals, and areas…
But he was soon brought back to chess by the desire to beat his older sister at the game.
He played in his first tournament at the age of eight and burst onto the chess scene when in 2004, at 13, he beat former world champion Anatoli Karpov, pushed Kasparov to a draw and became a chess grandmaster.
“The Mozart of Chess” was born, as the Washington Post put it.
The teen quickly became a regular of the chess circuit, where he could be seen with his shirt untucked and at times yawning and stretching during games.
Despite his sluggish appearance, he climbed the chess hierarchy at dazzling speed.
So much so that only a month after his nineteenth birthday, he wowed the chess universe as the youngest player to ever top the world rankings.
Kasparov, who has coached Carlsen since 2009, was 20 years and nine months old when he made it to that milestone.
“Before he is done, Carlsen will have changed our ancient game considerably,” Kasparov told Time magazine in January.
The Russian player has helped the young Norwegian add a good measure of calculation and a broader repertory of openings to the extraordinary intuition that guides his quick and exact moves.
But Carlsen also seeks to be a regular teen, spending his free time chatting on the Internet and playing football, squash and tennis.
School, on the other hand, is definitely not his cup of tea.
“I’ve focussed on chess for many years, so I didn’t care too much in the last few years,” he said when asked about his final exam results.
“Magnus has normally been excellent at whatever he is interested in and if he’s not interested, then the results are not necessarily excellent,” his father Henrik intervened, explaining “there were probably not enough subjects (in school) in the last few years that he was definitely interested in.”
The benevolent figure has accompanied his son throughout his chess career, and is quick to admit he hasn’t beat Magnus at the game for nine years.
“If I can understand what he’s doing when he is playing, then I’m happy,” he added.
For Magnus, the only title left to conquer is that of world champion, which he can only aspire to obtain in 2011 or 2012, because of the unpredictability of FIDE’s system.
The chess prodigy admits he thinks about the title, but without obsessing over it.
“A lot of players have got lost waiting for world championship matches… And for me, it’s much easier to think that the World Championship is far in the future and I won’t focus on it too much,” he said.
“As for now, I’m focussing more on playing in tournaments and on winning them and staying at the number one rank,” he added.
China’s chess player Zhao Xue finished in fourth place in the women’s event of the International Chess Festival “Moscow Open 2010″ that ended here on Sunday.
Zhao Xue, who was leading in the tournament for female players with seven points before the final round, was likely to be crowned as long as she drew her rival in Sunday’s game.
However, Zhao lost to Georgian player Salome Melia and ranked fourth with six wins, two draws and one loss.
Georgia’s Melia and Nazi Paikidze shared the victory by scoring 7.5 points each. Baira Kovanova from Russia won the bronze.
The International Chess Festival, hosted by Russian State Social University for the sixth consecutive year, presented a prize totalling five million rubles (164,635 US dollars).
Some 1,226 players from 30 countries, including 100 masters, participated in the festival that kicked off on Jan. 30.
The “Moscow Open 2010″ consists of six tournaments, which are devoted to the Victory in the Great Patriotic War in 1945.