The Talented Mr. Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen has long been regarded as the world’s greatest chess player. An early notice came when he was just 13. Back then, around 2003, Carlsen won a major tournament by deploying a complex series of innovatively played traps. Those moves flummoxed his twentysomething opponent and led the Washington Post to declare Carlsen the “Mozart of chess.” Some 16 years later, while still riding high as one of history’s greatest practitioners of that complex game, Carlsen made headlines for approximating another type of game-winning wizard: The Mozart of Premiere League fantasy football.
In mid-December, he drew acclaim for scaling to the top rung of the highly competitive pack of soccer fanatics. Just behind him was a team headed up by the former Bristol Revolvers defender Nick Tanner. While Carlsen made no secret of his fantasy playing or elite standing – the bio section of his Twitter account was retooled to cockily read, “World Chess Champion. The highest ranked chess player in the world. Current (live) #1 Fantasy Premier League player” – he also has the classic quality of any good gambler: Carlsen is slow to explain how he does what he does or even to take a whole lot of credit for it.
Like a sharp blackjack player who insists to a battered casino boss that the cards simply fell his way, Carlsen told a Norwegian TV interviewer, “It’s hard for me to take praise for fantasy league, when I’ve just been lucky.”
Nevertheless, according to The Guardian, a friend of Carlsen’s chalks up the consistent success to the same faculty for deep thinking that makes him so deadly over a chessboard. “His knowledge about English football is amazing,” said the friend, “which must help him a lot.”
Carlsen is further assisted by his usage of Opta data, which collects and distributes game-playing information and is employed by many serious Fantasy Premier League players – though not everybody uses the info as cannily as Carlsen does. In a one-line response to an email from the Guardian, Carlsen cheekily wrote, “In fantasy football I’m both an optimist and an Optamist.”
While one can assume that he applies the same mental acuity and strategising to FPL as he does to chess, in figuring out Carlsen’s preparation it is worth considering what he once told me about how he gets ready for the head-game aspect of chess. “The mental [component] is getting myself into the right mood,” Carlsen said. “It is also about being in good shape physically to be able to last through long games for several days in a row.”
The FPL selection process – key to anyone’s success at fantasy sports – is fairly straightforward. Operating with a budget of theoretical 100-million-pounds, competitors buy the players who comprise their virtual teams. For example, among the most expensive right now: Sadio Mane, a winger for Liverpool Football Club, whose price exceeds 10-million-pounds. Lots of people, of course, have him, and Carlsen might be among them. But his strength lies in picking players nobody else is looking at and successfully predicting that they will exceed all reasonable expectations.
Carlsen’s chess coach, Peter Heine Nielsen told the Wall Street Journal that Carlsen is “ahead of the curve. He is good at getting good players early.”
As Nielsen continued to explain, it’s all part and parcel of the way Carlsen strategizes: “Everybody will do [one thing] and he will do something else that basically has the same value, but has a much better variance. He’s courageous in that sense and good at finding possibilities. He trusts his own opinion, most of all.”
Nielsen would know. In addition to training Carlsen for the game that he famously plays, the coach also heads up a private Premiere fantasy league that parallels operations set up by, say, a group of lawyer or carpenters or computer programmers. However, this one is comprised of chess’s international grandmasters. The Journal described it as “a little club of geniuses.”
As fellow grandmasters have learned the hard way, Carlsen is formidable in the game of kings and rooks. But some are nevertheless surprised to learn that he is just as competitive at fantasy sports. “It would be harder for me to beat him at fantasy soccer than at chess,” admitted Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, a top-ranked chess player. Another in their circle seems unable to get over the fact that Carlsen’s competitive spirit and desire to innovate extend to a relatively inconsequential game that he plays as a hobby rather than as his profession.
While Carlsen has described his approach to fantasy as “part stats and part gut feeling,” the combination – which, pretty much, all fantasy players claim to employ (and they do, to varying degrees) – is particularly effective as deployed by the chess great. For example, during the 2017 season, Carlsen took an interest in a seemingly flopped striker by the name of Mo Salah. Carlsen bought him for a bargain-basement price (which left him with more theoretical money to spend on other players to build a stronger team). That year, Salah somehow led Premier League in goals scored. He’s currently the seventh most expensive player on the league’s fantasy roster.
Aiding all of this is the fact that Carlsen is a football fanatic nonpareil. He’s been known to travel across Europe to sit in the terraces at important games, provided the ceremonial kickoff for a Real Madrid match back in 2013 and routinely boots around a soccer ball to unwind between chess showdowns. When critical football meets coincide with high-caliber chess matches, Carlsen will have Nielsen log onto the games via his laptop. Carlsen then track what’s happening on the field as he works to shut down chess opponents. “People expect me to win – and I expect myself to win,” Carlsen told me about his eye-of-the-tiger approach to chess, which also rolls over into his fantasy sports ambitions.
For all of Carlsen’s success, though, Nielsen has pointed out that his acumen at corralling statistics and predicting outcomes could have been put to more profitable use. “If he could do the same thing in the stock market, “ the coach marvelled, “he would have earned a bunch of money.”
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ABOUT MICHAEL KAPLAN
With four books (and more on the way) plus hundreds articles, Michael Kaplan is one of the most experienced writer in gambling related subjects.
He have covered big stories including famous gamblers such as Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth for publications including Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. Based in New York, where he regularly writes for the Post.