Q & A: GM Peter Heine Nielsen, The Second Of The World Champion, Magnus Carlsen

Where Grandmasters Advise Young Players

What is the advantage of someone starting to play chess at an early age? When is it best to start? And for those who might be late in learning the game, are they able to get back on track to becoming a titled player?
I think the best comparison of chess is to a language. It’s certainly possible to learn it later in life, but to excel at it, it’s essential to learn it as a child. It has to be understood intuitively, not taught as an academic subject. Later of course one has to study seriously, but the starting point has always been the curious mind of a child. The Japanese shogi legend (Japanese chess) whose career is incomparable to any other, learned chess in his 20s and got to the level of IM. But that is very much the exception, and of course he is limited exactly because of his late learning of the game.
I have no knowledge on when precisely one should learn the game, Magnus Carlsen is an example of starting at a rather late age (I forget when exactly…). I think the right age is when the kid is ready and curious.

If there are three main departments of the game – opening, middlegame and endgame – what portion of our time should we spend on each? And what is the most important?
I spend most of my life studying openings, both as a player and especially as a second. So I really hope it’s an important phase! That being said it’s clear that it should be studied with the aim of understanding plans, subtleties of move–orders and broadening one’s general understanding of several openings. Too often you see kids having a narrow opening repertoire and focusing on short–term success. Opening and middlegame are very much connected with no clear border, and also literature on the middlegame is somewhat limited despite it being perhaps the most crucial phase. Dvoretsky pointed out to me at a camp, and later in his books, that in fact there are “only” about 50 really essential positions to learn by heart. And I guess that even these are mostly only relevant for professionals. Overall in all phases there are general principles to understand, and again I think curiosity should be the driving factor.

From your own experience can you recall any specific type of opening position or endgame theme that an aspiring chess player should be sure to study because of its particular importance?
Nothing is really “essential” but I would say obviously focus on understanding subtleties instead of memorizing long lines. You should ask yourself a lot of “why” questions. Also I think it’s important to be curious in a broad aspect. If you think, I do not play this opening so it is not relevant, you will not grow sufficiently.

Not everyone can be a chess world champion. But how can chess be of benefit in life and business?
I have no experience of real life business, being a chess–player all my life! But I would think so. Chess teaches us to study and to learn from mistakes. It is very competitive, and if you make systematic errors, they will definitely be punished. It’s clear in Denmark that those players who did play competitively at a high level in their youth, but decided on a civil career, have done much better than average. One problem for chessplayers, I would say, we have a “black and white” attitude. Life is not a zero–sum game, business is helpful and can make both winners, but in that respect chess teaches us otherwise.

Why would you recommend chess to youngsters? What joys may they expect to experience on this thrilling journey?
Thrilling journey I think is a great description. The reason chess is not widely popular may be precisely because it takes effort to appreciate it. But that’s the thrill of it. The rewarding feeling of understanding new aspects and being intellectually curious is what attracts me the most. “Chess like like love, like music, has the power to make men happy“ is Tarrasch’s great quote. Chess does that, of course, by the thrill of winning, (though that’s not unique to chess) but also by the gift of being a lifelong intellectual challenge.

Read More in American Chess Magazine #05

American Chess Magazine

American Chess Magazine