No Longer World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen Sets Sights On Poker
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Five-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen shocked the public in July 2022 when he announced that he wouldn't be defending the title he had held for a decade. And while Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren were at St. Regis Hotel in Kazakhstan last month battling to take his place as supreme leader of the chess world, Carlsen was getting ready for a trip to the sunny Mediterranean coast.
Carlsen is one of less than a hundred players remaining out of a field over 1,098 entries in the EPT Monte Carlo €5,300 Main Event as part of 2023 PokerStars European Poker Tour (EPT) presented by Monte-Carlo Casino®, proving that his analytical genius is far from limited to a 64-square grid.
In his first interview since giving up his World Chess Champion Title, Carlsen sat down with PokerNews and PokerStars for an exclusive look at what the future holds for the 32-year-old Norwegian chess prodigy.
Returning to Monte Carlo
As it turns out, the trip to Monte Carlo was not Carlsen's first. He came to Monaco 15 years ago, but it was to play a different kind of tournament.
"I came here to this exact location in Monaco in 2007," Carlsen said, "because I was playing a (chess) tournament here. And I came to watch the European Poker Tour because (Russian chess grandmaster) Alexander Grischuk, who was like back then a top ten (chess) player — (and) is still like a very, very good chess player — he was playing here in the Main Event. So I went to watch him play."
A decade and a half later, there's a new grandmaster on the felt.
Carlsen isn't the only contemporary chess star who has taken a liking to chess. Popular chess streamer Alexandra Botez is also here at EPT Monte Carlo, as is two-time United States Women's Champion and PokerStars Pro Jen Shahade.
Are there any other chess players who Carlsen thinks would excel at poker?
"I think the current World Champion Ding (Liren) here should be really strong," he said. "I know from talking to him, he calculates really quickly in chess is really, really good at math. So I'm sure he could do well."
"An Interesting Challenge"
Widely considered one of the best chess players of all time, it is tempting to draw parallels between Carlsen's pivot to poker and Michael Jordan's infamous (and short-lived) early retirement from the National Basketball Association to play professional baseball.
But Carlsen, who cited Rafael Nadal, not Jordan, as his greatest sports influence, said such a comparison would be a mistake.
"I have no ambitions in poker," Carlsen said. "I like playing, it's an interesting challenge, but I have no ambitions."
Without ambitions to be one of the poker greats, it doesn't bother Carlsen to play under the spotlight with cameras overhead and viewers at home scrutinizing his play.
"I have no ambitions in poker. I like playing, it's an interesting challenge, but I have no ambitions."
"I don't like to take a lot of pride and my poker," he said. "So I'm trying to, you know, learn a little bit, so it doesn't bother me that much. But if I do something really stupid, then that's to be expected. So that's fine."
A Natural On the Felt
Despite his lack of ambition to master the game, Carlsen has demonstrated an impressive aptitude and understanding of poker. During his appearance on Hustler Casino Live last month, Carlsen made a heroic call with just bottom pair against content creator Nick Austin to win a pot of $13,775.
Like a seasoned pro, Carlsen assessed, both in the moment and after the fact, that his opponent would be unlikely to triple barrel with many of his value hands given how the hand played out.
"I sort of thought he was the kind of player who showed who would probably show down some weak one pair of hands you had," he told PokerNews. "So I thought there was a reasonable chance he was bluffing. And, you know, sometimes ... you just feel it. And then sometimes you're right."
Even more impressively, Carlsen made these assessments naturally as he admitted that he "(doesn't) really study."
"I probably should, but I enjoy, like learning, talking to people about the hand(s) we're playing."
Different Games, Similar Strategies
Perhaps Carlsen's innate abilities at the poker table have to do with the similarities between poker and the game that earned him five World Champion titles.
"I think the similarities between poker and chess are more than people would think," he said. "Of course, there is perfect information in chess, but still, you make a lot of decisions based on, like, imperfect calculation. So in that sense, it's a little bit of the same."
One similarity between tournament poker and some chess formats is the use of shot clocks. As an accomplished blitz player, Carlson has experience making difficult decisions on the fly.
"I played like a little bit (of blitz) with my friends ... like during the pandemic," he said. "And I found it really stressful, really intense."
Carlsen said he deals with that stress the same way many poker players do: by listening to music.
"I think the similarities between poker and chess are more than people would think. Of course there is perfect information in chess, but still, you make a lot of decisions based on, like, imperfect calculation. So in that sense, it's it's a little bit of the same."
"Usually when I play ... blitz chess online or even rapid chess, I like to listen ... to music," said Carlsen. "It sort of helps me calm down and sort of just use my instinct. But here, I'm not sure of that. I feel that I have to think more because I have less knowledge. So I feel that like having some of that noise may just distract me. So I just try to, you know, sit there, follow what's happening, try and pick up as much as I can."
Playing on the televised feature table with high-stakes pro Mike Watson to his immediate left and other accomplished players like Mark Teltscher and Oleg Vasylchenko just a few seats over, Carlsen certainly has an uphill battle ahead of him. But if there's anyone up for the monumental challenge, it may just be the five-time World Chess Champion.