OffBeat

What tech founders can learn from chess champion Magnus Carlsen

World chess champion Magnus Carlsen plays a game on Jan. 16 before a Churchill Club talk with Peter Thiel at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Above: World chess champion Magnus Carlsen plays a game on Jan. 16 before a Churchill Club talk with Peter Thiel at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Image Credit: Ed Jay Photographer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Magnus Carlsen is only 23, but in the course of becoming the worldwide chess champion and the highest-rated chess player ever in November, he’s picked up plenty of wisdom.

While being interviewed by Founders Fund partner and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel at a Churchill Club event at the Computer History Museum on Thursday, Carlsen, of Norway, expounded not only on chess, but also on the power and shortcomings of computers, the value of thinking fast, and the importance of eating well.

Carlsen’s insights could be of use to entrepreneurs, who, like professional chess players, need to think quickly and constantly watch for opportunities and attacks, spend day and night on their craft, and have to look confident to keep opponents at bay.

Here are a few choice quotes from the chessman in response to Thiel’s questions:

  • On staying fit: “Earlier today I had a burger, and it made me feel awful,” Carlsen said after saying he does play better if he feels healthy. “So if I were to play a serious game of chess now, I would probably play horribly. If you feel well, you feel fit, your mind works better. You can last long games better … . When you have to play many long games in a row, it just makes it so much easier.”
  • On becoming the best: “I think for me, the most important thing was the passion to learn, to have fun — obviously to win, but most of all to learn. And growing up — I still am — but I was pretty used to doing basically the things I wanted to do, and most of the time that was chess. And so I would constantly be sitting at my board reading some chess books, playing online, playing in tournaments whenever I could. And I think to become really good in chess, you really need that. To become one of the best, it’s not enough to go to the chess club a few times a week, play a tournament now and then, as you would in other sports. You shouldn’t just go to practice. You should be, in a sense, living chess all the time.”
  • On training with computers: “Analyzing with a computer helps sometimes, because you might see a position and you think it’s better for white. Well, the computer evaluates it as a little bit better for black. If you look a little bit deeper, there are actually some dynamic factors which support the computer’s view that it’s better. Another time, it might be the other way around. But it helps to [add] to our understanding of chess if you know how to use it. And if you trust it blindly, that’s not a good idea. But if, you know, you can think for yourself and you can decide when it’s wrong, when it’s right, then it’s very, very useful. … I find playing against computers very depressing. … I don’t like losing. And I also think it’s not so useful practice [for playing with] humans, because computers — even though computers have become more human in computer style, the basic computers play an amazing dynamic and positional game. Still, it doesn’t help you too much in preparation for playing humans, which are still my main opponents.”
  • On learning from losses: “I think, over time, I’ve probably learned more from the games I lose. Usually whenever I lose … I have a pretty good idea of what I’ve done wrong, and I usually thought it was a concrete mistake that was my own doing. But over time, I think I’ve realized that probably there was something more profound there, that I actually made more mistakes than I thought I had, and I evaluated some position mistakenly, and so on. So I think over time you’ll definitely learn more from your losses, even if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t like to go the old Soviet style of painstakingly analyzing your loss. I think over time, you learn from them anyway.”
  • On using intuition to make moves fast: “Really, chess is mainly about intuition instincts. So when you play classical chess, at least for me, my intuition usually tells me something. It gives me an idea of what I want to play. Then I’ll have plenty of time to verify that and to calculate it in different variations, to see if I’m right. In blitz, we don’t have that luxury. So [you] have to go with what your intuition tells you, so that’s basically what’s going on. There’s not so much thinking. Of course, I’m calculating some variations, but usually I do what comes to my mind first. … I think you shouldn’t play only blitz, but playing some blitz is definitely pretty useful, especially when you’re developing as a young chess player. For me, it was very useful to develop my instinct, my tactical eye, and just plain training.”
  • On pre-game anxiety: “I do get nervous sometimes, especially if I feel that I’m not so well prepared, like not being — it’s sort of the same feeling like not being prepared for an exam. But otherwise, during games, I don’t really get that nervous. Because — I don’t know — I have great confidence in what I do, basically, most of the time … and thus I don’t get too nervous. And often when I do get nervous, I try to put on a brave face and not to show it so much.”
  • On not having an idol: “I really liked the games of [Vladimir] Kramnik when I was young. I got a book of his games when I was about 11, and I really learned a lot from those games. And I learned from many others as well, but it was really not in my — it’s never really been my style, according to my philosophy, to idolize players, to try to copy them. I just try to learn and get the best from the great masters, contemporary and from the past. It’s like that for me in everything. I don’t really idolize people too much, but I try to learn from what they do.”
  • On continuing to learn: “I still feel that I’m picking up little things all the time. I’m learning how to evaluate positions differently from what I used to — different material imbalances and so on. For me, it really comes with the experience of playing, of training. I don’t know. I never really know exactly what’s going to come of it. But something good usually happens.”