World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen made that admission about what he called a “blind spot” in a 2.5-hour podcast interview with AI researcher Lex Fridman.
You can watch the long and fascinating interview below.
Magnus was asked what makes him so good at chess.
"I feel like I’ve had two peaks in my career, in 2013-4 and also 2019, and in those years I was very different in terms of my strengths. Specifically in 2019 I benefited a lot from opening preparation, while in 2013-4 I mostly tried to avoid my opponents’ preparation, rather than it being a strength."
"I think my intuitive understanding of chess has over those years always been a little bit better than the others, even though it has evolved as well. Certainly there are things that I understand now that I didn’t understand back then, but that’s not only for me, that’s for others as well. I was younger back then, so I played with more energy, which meant that I could play better in long drawn-out games, which was also a necessity for me, because I couldn’t beat people in the openings."
This is when Magnus turned to calculation, and a surprising admission.
"In terms of calculation, that’s always been a weird issue for me.
I’ve always been really, really bad at solving exercises in chess.
That’s been a blind spot for me. First of all, I find it hard to concentrate on them, and to look deep enough…
Usually you have to look deep, and then when I get these lines during the game I very often find the right solution, even though it’s still not the best part of my game, to calculate very deeply.
For me it’s more that I’m at the board trying to find the solution. I understand the training at home is trying to replicate that, you give somebody half an hour in a position — in this instance you might have thought for half an hour if you played the game. I just cannot do it!
But Magnus does, of course, have some strengths when it comes to calculation!
"One thing I know that I am good at is calculating short lines, because I calculate them well, I’m good at seeing little details, and I’m also much better than most at evaluation, which I think is something that sets me apart from others.
You calculate a few moves ahead, and then you evaluate, because a lot of the time the branches become so big that you cannot calculate everything, so you have to make evaluations based mostly on knowledge and intuition, and somehow I seem to do that pretty well."
Fabiano Caruana is the classic example of a player who relies on very deep calculation and has struggled in blitz, though he is currently ranked world blitz no. 3! | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour
Magnus explains that by short lines he means 2-3 moves each.
"Blitz is a lot about calculating forced lines. You can see pretty clearly that the players who struggle at blitz and are great at classical are those who rely on deep calculating ability, because you simply don’t have time for that in blitz. You have to calculate quickly and rely a lot on intuition."
We'll soon see Magnus back in action when he plays the classical Sinquefield Cup from September 2nd.