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Master class...

When Magnus Carlsen was four, he enjoyed assembling Lego sets meant for 14-year-olds. When he was five, he took up chess and found his calling. He was a Grand Master by the age of 13 and the world's youngest world No 1 at 19. This year, at 22, in a display of youthful energy and tactical brilliance that left his 44-year-old rival floundering, he became world chess champion.

The loser, Viswanathan Anand, is a player of infinite subtlety and remains the local hero in Chennai, where the tournament was played. But it is Carlsen who has the potential to inspire beyond his native Norway and his sport. He is blessed with prodigious natural talent, but is also a study in good manners and the power of application. He is modest and a triumphant reminder, in the age of the iPad, of what brainpower and concentration can achieve unaided.

Carlsen can teach young people how to win with grace and generosity.

The tournament in Chennai was sometimes dazzling and always instructive, even for amateurs. One of its revelations was that at this expert level, the human brain still outperforms the computer. The skills of grandmasters have been complemented and enhanced but not replaced by machines. For a generation that has integrated addictive video games into everyday lives, this is an important lesson.

Chess at almost every level calls for reflection; the video game trains little more than eye-thumb reflexes. Chess is a dynamic, often beautiful game, celebrated by writers of the calibre of Vladimir Nabokov and Stefan Zweig. It is a safe bet that Grand Theft Auto will not be transmuted into great art. Nor will it be used to guide politicians, generals and investment strategists.

Chess, by contrast, provides an intellectual tool box. Studies show that pupils become better and sharper decision-makers after regular play. Concentration, speed of recall, the ability to identify patterns of attack and act on them are the qualities needed for success.

As a teenager, Carlsen could play 10 simultaneous games behind a blindfold. Not everyone will be able to draw on the memory such a feat requires, but his will to win is something that can be learnt. We do not see a realistic chance of discovering a genius of his calibre in every classroom, but we do suggest that certain disciplines that chess requires can augment the lives of his generation.

The bane of Europe is youth unemployment, with all it entails: Forced migration and accepting jobs well below the individual's capabilities. It is a generation in need of role models.

Not all chess champions qualify, of course, but Carlsen has managed to combine a certain charisma with a sense of proportion.

Garry Kasparov, who has served as his coach, has said that he blends the talents of Anatoly Karpov and Bobby Fischer, two of the greatest chess masters of all time. If so, it has not turned his head. To celebrate winning the world championship, he went bowling. He rarely forgets to thank his father and convincingly argues that mental concentration is helped by physical exercise.

Chess is a great mental gymnasium. It deserves to be brought in from the margins and be acknowledged as part of a civilised education for all children. If there is one person who can spark the necessary curiosity it is Magnus Carlsen.

Chess lover

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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