In this extended section from Wrestliana, I am on my way up to Carlisle, to have a go at Cumberland Wrestling. I am nervous, and thinking about losing, and getting hurt. I watch a lot of chess videos on YouTube. One of them comes to mind.
23rd March 2016.
All the way up, on the train, I read and reread William Litt’s Wrestliana and thought about how – in five hours, then four hours, then three – I could be riding in an ambulance.
And I thought of Magnus Carlsen. I had a catchphrase in my head which I blamed on him.
It had come from an affably terrifying clip of Magnus, future World Chess Champion and highest-rated player ever, beating Grandmaster Laurent Fressinet at bullet. (A chess variant where each player gets 60 seconds to play all their moves. If they run out of time, they lose.)
The video was posted to YouTube on August 9th, 2013. As of today, it has over a million views.
‘You can’t handle the truth…’ Magnus begins the trash-talking, eating a Pink Lady apple, bashing out a move a second – often disturbing pieces around the piece he’s swooshing up or banging down. Then he says it, the ultimate thing: ‘Too weak, too slow.’ Fressinet is too weak, too slow. All Magnus has to do is win the game, and prove it.
Magnus is relaxed; a laptop to his left with, on top of it, the book Fundamental Chess Endings by Frank Lamprecht and Kersten Müller. Tennis balls are on the white formica table, beside the board. A tennis racquet, in cover, on the floor behind Carlsen’s chair. Waterbottle, orange juice bottle (this was before Magnus switched from o.j. to water, during tournaments).
Carlsen is athletic; Fressinet (Grandmaster, peak rating 2718, 50th in the world rankings, no patzer) is a nerd. He could be a particle physicist, or a World of Warcraft champ.
Fressinet makes very French blowing noises with his lips; Carlsen smirks.
There are other people around, commenting, reacting, but for most of the clip they are off-camera.
‘You can take on D4. Take on D4. Let’s go!’ bullies Carlsen.’
‘Let’s go,’ echoes Fressinet.
Fressinet to whoever is behind the camera: ‘You’re taking a photo? [You’ve got photo?]’ Then, to Carlsen: ‘He’s streaming you. You should behave yourself – for a change…’ says Fressinet, hopeful.
LF: ‘I’m going to trick you,’ he says, none too convinced or convincingly, ‘as always.’
MC, impatient: ‘Queen A6, c’mon!’
Fressinet plays that move.
MC: ‘Really? You think this is great?’
Fressinet: ‘I’m just… enjoying… myself.’ (Basic liar.)
MC: ‘You wanna play H5?This is what you wanna play?’
Audience to Fressinet: ‘You wanna go faster.’
MC: ‘So you wanted to exchange Queens after all, huh?’
Audience: ‘Too slo-oo-ow!’
MC: ‘Too weak, too slow. C’mon. C’mon. E4. Do you want a draw? No draw for bad Fressinet!’ Laughs.
MC: ‘Ah, you’re taking my rook.’
Without realizing it, Fressinet has put his king on a square where it can be checkmated in one move.
Without hestitation, MC makes the right move. It’s not, to me, clear whether it takes him a fraction of a second to check there’s no way out.
MC: ‘What do you wanna play? Do you wanna play? Ah – ha ha – ha!’
(It looks like they’re in the corner of a science classroom. White desks.)
Someone online, on Reddit, annotated the move Bd5# ‘Carlsen – maniacal laughter’.
When this happened, Fressinet, 36th in the world, was helping Carlsen prepare for the World Championship match against Vishwanathan Anand. Carlsen went on to win.
Carlsen has an imploding face – as if there is a black hole somewhere behind the bridge of his nose, drawing his features back and in.
If you look online, you can find plenty of trash talking about Carlsen. Bobby Fisher would have beaten him. Kasparov, at his height, could have taken him apart. He’s arrogant, haters say. He’s an arrogant little piece of shit.
But how can it be called arrogance when Carlsen knows, objectively, that he is the strongest chess player of all time – and has achieved that at a time when there are more strong chess players than ever before in history?
It is a fact. In comparison to him, everyone other player – apart from computers – is too weak, too slow. We humans just don’t take kindly to being told so bluntly that’s what we are.
What the public likes to hear most is that everything’s a scam, and that if they were only tipped the wink, they too would be a winner.
There are no Faking It-style reality TV shows where a complete beginner, thanks to eight weeks intensive training, enters a grandmaster tournament and achieves a win. Neither are there such shows for mathematics, nor short stories, nor poetry.
You can’t get good that quick; if you could, others would.
Getting good quick is being Magnus Carlsen – becoming a Grandmaster aged 13 years, 148 days.
If you can’t do this, you’re too weak, too slow.
But however badly he loses, Magnus Carlsen doesn’t risk an ambulance-ride.