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Magnus Carlsen – “I am chaotic and lazy” (2010) (chessbase.com)
240 points by radovanb on Dec 10, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

The brevity and bluntness in his responses is pretty amusing. I'm surprised he so candidly rates his own abilities and the abilities of his peers - I feel like many people would dodge those questions in public interviews.

The intersection of chess and Scandinavianism is strong here. Fortunately the HN crowd is one of the most appreciative of that degree of bluntness.

The Law of Jante is nowhere to be seen. Hooray! /Swede

> The brevity and bluntness in his responses is pretty amusing.

You don't know many Russians do you? ;)

Carlsen is Norwegian though they are similarly known for bluntness.

>I'm surprised he so candidly rates his own abilities and the abilities of his peers //

In chess though you have a ranking, you have past games to compare. It would be silly for him to say "oh, I'm not that good" as there's a measured value which [possibly incorrectly] says he's the world number one. Similarly he spends a lot of his time assessing his opponents, their games, their characters.

I found it interesting that he said Kasparov can judge which opening a player will play taking in to account their mood. It would be nice to test that claim some how.

There's also rating inflation, though, which makes cross-era comparisons flawed.

And besides, many players have their nemesis. Sheer numbers don't reflect that.

Eg. Anand used to be one of the strongest players in the world, but overshadowed, some say intimidated, by Kasparov before the latter retired.

Given Anand's rating, he performed quite poorly against Kasparov.

Are you aware of any attempt to compare cross generationally based on game trees? Find game positions that both players have faced and see who made the better move?



I remember there was a heated debate as for whether or not Crafty was a strong enough engine for the task.

I don't have all the links at hand, but it shouldn't be difficult to find various parts of this discussion.


Authors of the research argued that contrary to what common sense implies, even if it Crafty is weaker than some evaluated players could have been, results are still legit.

Of course this approach doesn't give full justice to players - while some might have strived for winning by perfect play, others could deliberately play inferior moves just to create complications and provoke their opponents into making mistakes worse than their own, by getting them into time trouble, making them uneasy etc. (eg. Tal was famous for that).

A game - oversimplifying a bit - is won by the player who made less mistakes than the opponent, not by the one who made less mistakes on an absolute scale. So both strategies are valid as far as sport is concerned.

Yeah, I guess he can say a lot based on replays and Elo. Still, I feel like many people would feel awkward saying that they are better than their peers - even if it's true. Well, maybe that's partly a cultural thing; I'm sure it varies in terms of how uncomfortable people are about that sort of thing.

I agree with all sides of this so far. :)

It's empirically checkable how close Carlsen is to Kasparov in skill. If Kasparov was significantly better than Carlsen in some ways, then Carlsen had to be his superior in others.

I'm reminded of a quote by one New England Patriots linebacker about another, when early in his career Jerod Mayo said (and this is approximate, although I'm sure the first three words are precise) "I'm pretty sure I can run faster than Tedy Bruschi, but he's still faster getting to a ball carrier than I am." That was a pretty big complement to Bruschi, about his quick instincts in judging a play.

"With people of limited ability modesty is merely honesty. But with those who possess great talent it is hypocrisy." (Arthur Schopenhauer)

I think there's a great analogy for why he cares so little about his intelligence: do you think Michael Jordan sat around admiring his build, his height, etc? In a competitive environment, it's best to accept that some of your abilities are fixed, so you can focus on training what can be bettered.

>I think there's a great analogy for why he cares so little about his intelligence: do you think Michael Jordan sat around admiring his build, his height, etc?

Well, when you consider that Michael Jordan obsessed about his height before he was tall, there's a good chance that he felt that it was at least partly responsible for his skill.

In actuality, it did play a significant role. If Michael Jordan had the same level of skill, and was 5'9", he would have been above average(for an NBA player) at best.

That's not a good analogy. For all I know after a day's training Jordan sat around admiring his build and height.

I think reverse Dunning-Kruger is much more likely in Magnus's case.

Actually I think what you're referencing is still Dunning-Kruger: "Conversely, highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others." (from wiki)

More specifically, it's the Downing effect: "One of the main effects of illusory superiority in IQ is the Downing effect. This describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to overestimate their IQ, and of people with an above average IQ to underestimate their IQ." (also from wiki)

I think it's a pretty good analogy. I thought it was well understood that Michael Jordan was a very competitive individual and didn't take his wins for granted and that there was always something to work towards and improve upon.

"...the most competitive individual...Always felt like somebody else was going to outwork him so he wanted to out work them." - A trainer of Jordan's. (Video for reference: http://youtu.be/w39-_rauFSk)

usually, as a shooting guard, jordan would be playing with 3 people taller than him on his own team, and only 1 person shorter than him.

just like basketball is not purely about body size and athleticism, chess is not purely about iq. And it is kind of idiotic that iq is the thing that people think must be the one thing that makes good chess players good.

after a certain point, iq probably doesn't matter. motivation, concentration, competitiveness, determination, experience, preparation, risk-taking, creativity, pleasure when thinking about chess... i really don't understand why iq is the thing that's talked about so much.

magnus clearly understands that some people will neglect chess for something else. The implication is that there are geniuses out there today doing other things instead of moving figurines over a grid... that's a very humble and wise world view.

I don't find his disclaimers about his intelligence persuasive. He's obviously a pretty smart guy; at least, he was quite the smart kid.

That said, I had monumentally high IQ scores as a little kid, and they are surely vastly lower in adulthood. So I'm not very eager to be retested either. ;)

Being smart is one thing, but does intelligence account for his chess accomplishments?

The urban legend of Kasparov's IQ being in the 190 range is still purported, but once he was actually examined (an initiative of "Der Spiegel" magazine) it turned out his IQ was 135 or so.

This is highly intelligent, of course, but that's like 1 in 100 or 1 in 150, so people with higher IQ are still dime a dozen.

Personally I'm of an opinion that IQ doesn't mean much - it's a "dexterous fingers" thing. You surely need dexterous fingers to become an accomplished neurosurgeon or a violinist, but this trait is pointless by itself, and 1 in a 1000 level of dexterity is good enough, so you don't gain anything by going beyond that.

> Personally I'm of an opinion that IQ doesn't mean much

Opinions certainly vary there! My first "real" programming job interview began with an IQ test, and passing it was basically what got me an offer. The company owner scored the test in front of me, and said "Not bad.. five points above the minimum I'd consider hiring for a developer position."

Did you find that work environment to have been positively affected by the owner's strict standards for IQ?

I ask because I tend to agree with the OP. IQ tests assign points based on specific types of questions, which I'd argue aren't valuable in all circumstances. I think the point Magnus was making is that he doesn't think IQ is directly relevant to Chess, despite any correlation between those with high IQs and those who have been successful at the game.

I have worked with plenty of people with high IQs in academics and I can't imagine trying to work with them in an office. If anything, the job to which you are referring would have me worried due to such such strict adherence to an objective score that can fluctuate over time. Isn't five points right around the normal confidence interval for IQ tests?

It's a great question, but I can't answer it because I declined the offer. ;) My impression of the office was that it was being run like a fiefdom, and not a fiefdom I wanted to join - the IQ test was one of several things that gave me that idea. He seemed to have a lot of smart people in the office, but I can't imagine who was talking to the customers. (And if it was anyone I met, including the owner, then I can't imagine how they kept any customers..)

:)) The idea that there's some number that can be attributed to every person is surely appealing

There are many numbers that we attribute to people: height, age, hours worked in a week, and so on. Why would intelligence be the one special thing that we can't measure?

Indeed. Since we can so easily measure empathy, perseverance, innovativeness, drive and confidence (to name just a few more) with simple numerical scales, it does seem strange that intelligence is this weird exception. I blame political correctness myself.

The nature vs. nurture is a complex debate and I don't succumb to the (politically correct) view that people are all tabula rasa :)

But the idea that either intelligence or innovativeness etc. are quantifiable by a simple test, and that the measure is linear here, seems just as oversimplified to me, and ultimately also an ideological construct

Because the abstract concept of "some inherent mind's ability to usefully process information", and an innate one, distinguished from the mind's acquired performance (which could be a result of training, education etc.) is much more complex than height or working hours.

He briefly talks about Kasparov here as they were training together at the time. They later broke up.

I wonder if some of the conflict they felt was was really Magnus's more organic, natural approach clashing with Kasparov's more like systematic and rigid type of training, which he no doubt inherited from Botvinnik. This isn't to say Magnus doesn't work hard at his game but on a chess approach scale of, say, Capablanca to Botvinnik, he would very much tilt towards the former.

edit: Actually he specifically talks about that; somehow I skipped it upon first reading.

This past two weeks, I have been reading Kasparov's "Life Imitates Chess" and your comment certainly rings true. He spends a fair number of pages discussing about Botvinnik's rigid and systematic training system and how that helped instill a strong work ethic in him. There is also a section on Casablanca and how his laziness cost him his crown to Alekhine, who was Botvinnik's predecessor.

If history serves right, I am predicting Carlsen will lose the throne to Caruana in 2016!

At this point in time, it is probably more for Carlsen to lose than to Caruana winning. If Carlsen feels good, he will train a lot; hopefully it will be an exciting match.

I get the impression that they didn't break up. They still train together from what I understand after reading the interview.

Hm, the interview is from 2010. It is my understanding that they parted soon after.

Sometimes you wonder.

I was not particularly interested; I was bad and soon stopped again.

I don’t know why I learnt all the countries of the world off by heart, including their capitals and populations. Chess was probably just another pastime.

I’m not a disciplined thinker. Organisation is not my thing; I am chaotic and tend to be lazy. My trainer recognised that and as a rule allowed me to practise whatever I felt like at the time.

When I was 13, my parents took me out of school for a year. They travelled around the world with me and my sisters, and on the way they taught us. That was fantastic, much more effective than sitting in school.

What are you saying? That defining one's identity by the intensity, quantity and quality of the work that one does, might not the best way to live a life and be really good at something?


I think there might be a correlation between being lazy and being creative. I've seen this pattern in many other greats (and in my not so great self :)

Aaron Sorkin talks about procrastinating a lot between writing sessions. Lots of painters and artists procrastinate as well.

I think its a matter of digestion, your mind is focused on a "task" and churning in the background, but you don't actively work on it except when you "feel like it". I saw some scientific article to this affect that the downtime is actually very valuable for the brain to form creative thought.

There's a good quote from one of the German generals involved in the plot to kill Hitler, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_von_Hammerstein-Equord), on that subject:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

I enjoyed this quote. Thank you for exposing me to this man.

How did this work out for him?

He warned against the rise of Hitler, actively conspired against the Nazis at great personal risk, and helped Jews avoid deportation or arrest. He died of natural causes in 1943.

You could say that he tried to do the right thing.

Laziness is relatively defined to other people's minds. Your mind works the best when it does, and it works best with the minds it works best with, which is actually really complicated to think about. Also, persistently evaluating your mind for whether it is lazy or not has side effects on how your mind works.

Just because it doesn't fit someone else's mold doesn't make your mind lazy, and just because a bunch of minds fit together perfectly to propel one person skyward doesn't make them a genius. A bunch of geniuses arguing about progress doesn't create progress. We aren't very good at mapping our minds while using our minds to do it, but maybe we are.

I hope science one day recognizes that we can spend centuries churning our wheels without actually getting anywhere - we create the same problem we begin with by convincing ourselves we found the solution.

I think it's actually more causal than you first give it credit for. I think creativity cultures a certain laziness for that person.

From observing my friends and I, my anecdata suggests that the most creative are on average more lazy because they can use their creativity as a clutch to make up for a relative lack of hard work. The other intelligent but less creative individuals must suppliment that with grinding away more time on the problems.

The creative lazy people also tend to be more 'hot and cold' than consistent, because if they rely on creativity but it doesn't fire then they end up falling short. Consistent hard work is more reliable, but takes more effort and doesn't necessarily produce as high peaks (though in doing so, avoids as low troughs)

I was going to say that: More often than not in life we find our greatest strengths are enablers for our greatest weaknesses.

Hard work can also just be mentally exhausting, and it's much easier to just wait for a proper creative mood than to struggle for who-knows-how-long trying to do something you know you can easily do with far less effort at a later time.

I read the book end to end, reviewed in this post (which was on HN ages ago):


It's about great people and how they structured their days. What seems to be fairly consistent was that they were often 'on and off' as well, but to try to ensure that they did actually get work done consistently was to work a) every day and b) not for too long. So each day wasn't a slog like the usual 9 to 5 treadmill, but each day gave them enough space to get some of their best work done and have enough rest to be able to do it every day of the week, every day of the year.

Raymond Chandler had an interesting take on this. Basically he set aside four or five hours each day, during which he did not have to write, but he was not allowed to do anything else constructive. He could lay around or stare out the window, but no reading or paying bills - it was write or do nothing. Everything else, he said, came of itself.

Well, it's like that Bill Gates quote: "“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

Paul Graham wrote about procrastination: http://www.paulgraham.com/procrastination.html

I think it's commonly assumed that people procrastinate because they are lazy. Even procrastinators will berate themselves for being undisciplined and lazy. But it's not that simple; I think there is value in being "lazy", or what is perceived as lazy.

As Larry Wall (creator of Perl) put it once, there are three great virtues of a programmer - laziness, impatience and hubris.

Of course it doesn't have to be true only in case of programmers. Good laziness is when you strive to reduce your energy expenditure while still being determined to accomplish something.

Interesting how he says that extremely high IQ may even be a disadvantage:

And that’s precisely what would be terrible. Of course it is important for a chess player to be able to concentrate well, but being too intelligent can also be a burden. It can get in your way. I am convinced that the reason the Englishman John Nunn never became world champion is that he is too clever for that. At the age of 15, Nunn started studying mathematics in Oxford; he was the youngest student in the last 500 years, and at 23 he did a PhD in algebraic topology. He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess... Right. I am a totally normal guy. My father is considerably more intelligent than I am.

And that his big shtick is his focus, intuition, and domain expertise - not his IQ:

No. In terms of our playing skills we are not that far apart. There are many things I am better at than he is. And vice versa. Kasparov can calculate more alternatives, whereas my intuition is better. I immediately know how to rate a situation and what plan is necessary. I am clearly superior to him in that respect.

This makes sense in that IQ is a measure of general intellectual capacity at the concscious level, but the underlying raw processing power of the human brain is much much greater, we just usually lack the ability to apply it directly to problems—it's like a very high level programming language; whereas mathematical savants or intuition, in this case, can outperform much higher IQs by having a sort of unconscious ASIC under the hood, as it were.

Nice analogy!

Yes, it's spot-on with K. Anders Ericsson's research on expert performance and deliberate practice:

- http://psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson/ericsson.exp.perf.html

- http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/ericsson.lo...

I find it odd and funny that he considers a career in mathematics a distraction. He later says there's more in life than chess, but in this quote he doesn't seem to realize that.

I doubt I'd want to be world champion if it required giving up all those "distractions".

Sounds to me like he's speaking descriptively, not normatively. He doesn't say that Nunn shouldn't have gone down the path that he did; just that Nunn could have been world champion, if that had been all he'd focused on.

And when it really comes down to it, I'd argue that's the personal sacrifice that's required to become great at anything.

Just like PG says in The Anatomy of Determination - http://www.paulgraham.com/determination.html

If you're just talking about becoming a chess champion, it is.

My favourite quote: "I listen to music on the Internet, but don't download any songs. It's all totally legal. Many people may find that boring, but I think it is important."

I like how he cited "a silly rap song" by Lil Jon as an example of "gloomy music."

I'd love to see Carlsen play a modern game like Hearthstone or Magic. Even just to hear his thoughts on them.

I would guess that he'd feel like there is too much chance. The issue with a game like Magic is that you can play perfectly and still lose. And I say this as someone who loves the game.

EDIT: I read further and it seems like he enjoys poker. So I guess it's possible that he'd enjoy MTG.

I suspect you're right. But for people who can't dedicate all their time to a game, the randomness in some games (like poker and MTG) can level the playing field. It allows a lesser player to win from time to time, but good players will win more often.

To me, this is more "fun". With chess, it's just brutal. Unless both players are evenly matched, it's a steamrolling. No fun for either player. At the top tiers though, I can see it being very interesting. But then again, I find watching top players play Hearthstone to also be very interesting. Especially when you consider the meta-strategizing of picking certain cards for their decks.

The ratings system in chess is what makes it easy to get a competitive game.

You just have to play a handful of games in order to get a rating (whether in real-life tournaments or online), and then you know that playing somebody with a rating within 100 points of your own rating will usually result in a good game where both sides have chances to win and neither will consistently steamroll the other.

Is the ratings system really that useful even at lower levels? Is there not a lot of non-transitivity, where three players would consistently beat the next like A>B>C>A?

Yes, I agree with dmurray that it shouldn't happen consistently. I haven't seen it, and I've found the ratings system to work really well in practice. I'm roughly an intermediate level player, so can't speak to lower levels in particular, but I've never heard anybody complain about not being able to find competitive games against others with comparable ratings.

The only times that happens as far as I know are when the rating really doesn't reflect the current skill, which can happen over the board with juniors that are improving so quickly that their rating hasn't caught up yet, or people who haven't yet played enough games for the rating to be accurate (e.g., a brand new account on a site that starts with a rating of 1200, which is solved by not playing people who haven't played enough games yet).

Not at all. I'd say it's practically impossible if you need each of those relationships to be a 70%+ favourite.

Interesting coincidence - I bumped into a game design article earlier today about balancing luck and skill in games. http://gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com/articles/when-i-win-its-...

The article discusses how different players prefer different ratios of luck vs skill, so making the most "fun" game in this regard really depends on who your target audience is. Similar to your thoughts on randomness. :)

David Sirlin has a lot of great articles on designing competitive games: http://www.sirlin.net/article-archive/

Fascinating, thanks!

> To me, this is more "fun".

I think that makes a game more fun to participate in but significantly less fun to watch at a competitive level.

The opposite seems to be true. Poker is very popular on television. Chess is not.

I am someone who enjoys poker and watching chess on TV (usually an internet broadcast). The problem with chess as a spectator event is that, at least for me to enjoy it, it takes a lot of time and effort, and there is no social aspect. For example, I enjoy analyzing a game of chess myself, but it takes hours of my time and also computer analysis, and then eventually I get many "aha!" moments, once I understand why a move was (or was not) played. That's really hard to translate to a general viewing audience.

Compare that to athletic events. Anyone can watch and marvel at those who are bigger, stronger, and faster because those properties are well understood. Even without any knowledge of the sport, you can watch a sporting event with your friends while having a beer and have a great time. Probably not going to happen with chess.

With poker, at least you can cherry pick the improbable outcomes and daring bluffs, and add drama due to the high stakes often involved. It makes for very suspenseful watching when a guy risks more than our annual income with a junk hand, and he pulls it off.

I'd have to agree. Great magic players (kibler, finkel, lsv, anyone in the hall of fame) will often have lifetime win rates that are slightly higher than 50% with 60% in a single season being an extreme outlier.

Wow, really? Do you have a source for that?


So my memory is failing me and I was off by a decent amount, seems mid 60's is an average ceiling for win rate.

This is just an example from the 2013 season at the world championships. You'll want to sort it by Con(structed) Win %. Even the best players in the world win slightly more than they lose over an entire season.

EDIT: Actually individual hall of famers might be better to look at, especially since these are lifetime stats.



If yo go to the career stats page you'll see that kibler has a lifetime win rate of around 60% and finkel is slightly higher than that.

Have you compared e.g. Mage Wars? I was thinking about this earlier today; there's still a little randomness (the dice), but because you always have your whole spellbook to choose from, it feels like the game's more towards the chess end of the spectrum.

> The issue with a game like Magic is that you can play perfectly and still lose.

This may also hold for chess.

If by "playing perfectly" you mean making the right moves, not really. If the goal of chess is to win, the perfect player can't lose. If a person plays perfectly and loses, what does that make the winning player?

The point here is obviously that Magic has an element of chance that chess lacks.

In real terms it does happen, since branching factor makes true perfection impossible in chess.

You can play theoretically superior chess and calculate more positions than your opponent and still lose the game, although it's very unlikely. Both player have a horizon and sometimes they can bump in a position of clear superiority for one side that none predicted.

I'm not sure I understand. Wouldn't this mean there is a sequence of moves I can memorize that will result in a winning game, every time?

If such a game could be foiled by the other player making a "bad" move, then it would by definition not be a bad move.

Maybe the winning player is white and chess is a win by force for white. Or the same could even be true about black! (Probably not.)

That is a good point. White has an advantage at least statistically, and in a match I think that your color is decided by chance.

At grandmaster level a match will consist of a large number of games, sometimes an even number, with the players alternating between white and black.

When I am feeling good, I train a lot. When I feel bad, I don’t bother.

I can definitely relate to that when it comes to my studies, too bad it's not yielding any good results.

I'm currently reading a fascinating book on world-class performance, "The Art of Learning" by Josh Waizkind, a chess and martial arts champion. It gives some really great insights into the world-class players' psychology. Highly recommended!

Yeah, Waitzkin is a good read. I've got this book, too.

I first heard about him when I got Chessmaster, which came with his video tutorials. And these were the best I've ever seen, in terms of insightfulness and pedagogical skills.

His quote was "tend to be lazy". When he feels good he trains a lot. No amount of brilliant talent, that is lazy, is sufficient to be world champion in any endeavor. There's too much competition from the others who want to be champion.

I wonder what his 4 letter personality type is.

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