How Norway is coping with a Magnus Carlsen-less WC
Chess had become a way of life for the Scandinavian country but with Carlsen missing in action, something different is playing out
For the first time since it opened for business, Good Knight pub in downtown Oslo doesn’t have the World Chess Championship playing on its screens. The first-of-its-kind-chess pub in the Norwegian capital – with chessboards on every table and pawns traded on countertops over swigs of beer – typically has its highest footfall and earnings during these matches. Not this time.
With home boy and five-time world champion Magnus Carlsen choosing not to defend his title, interest around this year’s match between Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren of China, is largely muted in Norway. Aside from Carlsen’s absence, there is a strong political dimension to Good Knight’s decision. “Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are not comfortable showing a Russian athlete on our screens,” says founder Kristoffer Gressli.
Good Knight opened days before Carlsen’s 2018 match against Fabiano Caruana. Amidst friends and family milling around tables, was to Gressli’s surprise, Carlsen himself. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was invited, but in my wildest dreams, I didn’t think he’d show up. I think he’d dropped in on his way to flying out to London for the match,” says Gressli. Carlsen has been a frequent visitor since.
Now, the year-end World Rapid and Blitz, which Carlsen has won a few times, has assumed massive popularity in Norway, says Gressli. “It’s faster and easier for people to follow. It's now a tradition across the country – Chess, Christmas and Carlsen.”
It’s been close to a decade since chess following in the Scandinavian country exploded. Precisely starting November 2013, when Carlsen played his first World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand in Chennai. Carlsen got Norway – a winter sports beacon or as Norwegians love to joke, a nation born with skis on – hooked on chess. There’s also something to be said about Carlsen’s contribution to ‘slow television’ – marathon, typically real-time coverage of an event with no script or focus on narrative drama – in his country. In 2013, people sat through six hour-odd classical chess games throughout the month. And continued to do so as long as Carlsen featured in the match, till 2021. In a country with a population of 5.4 million, over a million tuned in to watch the games at times.
The groundwork was already laid. The genre was popularised by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2009 through the broadcast of a seven-hour train journey. In 2011, they ran a 134-hour marathon live transmission of a cruise ship sailing north along the country’s coastline. It turned out to be one of the broadcaster’s most successful programs with more than half the population tuning in.
“Norway is a highly digitized country and slow TV perhaps offers a break and allows for mindfulness,” says Norwegian film maker and entrepreneur Øyvind Von Doren Asbjørnsen, who was also a commentator for VGTV during Carlsen's 2013 match, “It’s possible that viewers see slow TV as a form of meditation. In the case of the World Championship – the way it was packaged by NRK – opening up chess to new followers, was the winner.”
Von Doren – who worked on two Carlsen documentaries, directing ‘The Prince of Chess’ and producing and acting as cinematographer of ‘Magnus’ – first filmed the world No 1 when he was a prodigious 13-year-old. He recalls the latter splashing about with his sisters in a large outdoor pool during the 2004 Reykjavik Rapid event. Teen Carlsen went on to hold former world champion Garry Kasparov to a draw in that tournament. “World Championship or not, he still has the same winning instinct as he did as a kid. The other thing I’ve learnt is to never talk to him after he’s lost a game.” Brede Alexander Kvisik, a close friend of Carlsen's, found himself doing quite the opposite after the latter’s Game 8 loss to Sergey Karjakin at the 2016 World Championship.
“Magnus didn’t really have a good feeling and needed to shake things up a bit. We went to a restaurant, had a few drinks and laughed. We then played some board games and just tried to forget about the match.” For the first time in a decade, Kvisik isn’t at a World Championship and he somewhat misses the feeling. He first travelled as Carlsen’s personal doctor for the 2013 match in Chennai. “It was supposed to be a one-off thing since Magnus’ sister (who’s a doctor) was going to take over the job. Though he didn’t really need my professional assistance as much for the later matches, he still wanted me around.”
It must be said that Carlsen’s family, close friends as well as the Norwegian media have been a huge and visible part of his journey as world champion. “Bringing in his family and those who put him at ease for the matches was a conscious strategy,” Von Doren says. To compare, after Game 5, when asked by a journalist why no Chinese media was present at the venue, Ding said he wasn’t sure of media coverage of his match back home. According to FIDE, the match is being shown on CCTV and Zhejiang TV station in China.
In Carlsen’s absence, NRK isn’t broadcasting this year’s match in Norway. And at Good Knight, typically buzzing with fans and in-house commentators during a World Championship, it’s just a regular week. “As a chess pub, it’s a difficult call to not stream a World Championship match. It’s like a football pub not showing the World Cup,” says Gressli, “Given the war, we don’t have much of a choice. I suppose we'll let this match pass by quietly.”
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- Magnus Carlsen