Geniuses are not necessarily good at multiple disciplines. Or so you would think if you spoke to Henrik Carlsen, 51, father of Magnus Carlsen—the young chess player widely regarded as the strongest ever. Magnus, who turns 23 at the end of this month, didn’t as a child appear to be any different from his three sisters and despite smashing record after record in the most complex cerebral sport known to mankind, wasn’t ever considered a prodigy at home.

Henrik and his wife Sigrun, both engineers by profession, didn’t realize their son had anything special in him until at the age of 8, when Magnus started focusing on chess, distancing himself from almost everything else in the world. That was three years after his father, also an internationally rated chess player, taught him the game.

The father of the World No.1 chess player says he isn’t sure if his son could have been good at anything else. Edited excerpts from an interview with Henrik, who is currently camping in Chennai for his son’s world title match with Viswanathan Anand:

How was Magnus as a child different from his three sisters?

He wasn’t different at all as child. He was pretty much the same as his sisters. We didn’t notice anything unusual at all. For instance, I am good with numbers. So was Magnus till he turned 5, but after that, he didn’t take interest in numbers at all.

Henrik Carlsen. Photo: SaiSen/Mint
Henrik Carlsen. Photo: SaiSen/Mint

But it was you who introduced Magnus to chess, isn’t it?

Yes, I taught him the game when he was 5, but initially he didn’t take much interest in it. It was like that for many years, and I didn’t care. He suddenly started taking interest in chess when he was about to turn 8. And he developed that interest completely on his own. At that time, he was also interested in football, and till about 12, he played a lot of football as well.

At what point did you realize that he was a gifted chess player?

When he started taking interest in chess, he could really focus on it. He wasn’t interested in anything else at all. It was only then that we realized that Magnus could focus on only one thing, unlike other children who would be interested in several things. For Magnus, it was chess and chess alone.

That was the time when we realized that he was somewhat different from other children of his age. He must have been 8 or 9 at that time.

By the time, he turned 9 or nine-and-a-half, he started beating me at chess. So, looking at his drive from within, we thought maybe Magnus wants to play chess seriously. My wife, though, wasn’t much interested in chess initially.

He quit studies quite early in his life. Was it his decision? Did you agree with him when he did that?

He must have been 16 by the time he decided to quit studies.

Initially, we always encouraged him to pay attention to his studies as well. There were times when we would have to ask him to stop playing chess, skip tournaments and so on, so that he could finish his homework and cope with studies. But never the other way round.

Also, being a Norwegian helped. Because of the high standards of social security in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, children there are able to explore special things.

For somebody of Magnus’ IQ, he would have been good at many other things, not just chess. What do you think he could have become had he not taken a liking for chess?

No, no, no… I don’t know about his IQ.

I don’t know what he could have become had he not played chess. You should ask him what he wishes to be when he quits playing. So far, he has only played chess and has always focused on it.

Having brought up a prodigy, what is your advice to young parents?

Honestly, we never thought of Magnus as a prodigy and bringing him up wasn’t in any manner different from bringing up my other children. We treated him in the same way as the others in the family because, as I said, he never appeared to be different in any manner.

It was only when he started focusing on chess and we could see that he could switch himself off from everything else, did we realize that he turned out to be somewhat different from his sisters, or other children for that matter. Since then, he has only been doing what he loves to do: play chess. And we didn’t stop him from following his passion.

My advice to young parents is that they shouldn’t pressure their children into doing anything. They should allow the children to decide for themselves what they like. This can take time but if eventually a child can focus on something—like Magnus could focus on chess—allow him to pursue a career in what he enjoys doing.

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