Magnus Carlsen not Mozart of chess

Brilliant virtuosity is not genius


Carlsen routs Anand at the 2013 World Championship in Madras


Carlsen, the world’s third youngest ever Grand Master

by Kumar David

Some people’s minds are really weirdly wired; a gift that defies explanation. Ramanujan’s way with numbers bewildered his Cambridge mentors Godfrey Harold Hardy and John Edensor Littlewood, both outstanding mathematicians. The way theorems and theories of numbers, sometimes far ahead of their time, floated into his mind led some to suggest that "The mind of god was speaking to the mind of young Sirinivasa".

Seven Magnus Oven Carlsen, Magnus Carlsen hereafter, born in 1990, a chess Grand Master at the age of 14, inflicted defeat on former world champion Anatoly Karpov and then drew one game and lost one to Gary Kasparov the then reigning world champion. An effusive Washington Post columnist was moved to call Magnus the ‘Mozart of Chess’. My unromantic soul is wont to correct the excess; dazzling are Ramanujan and Carlsen, but Mozart’s was genius on a more exalted planet. So this piece continues a recent bee in my bonnet; genius, science, maths, and the weird.

Carlsen was one of the youngest World Champions at 23 when he routed Viswanathan Anand in 2013 in Madras – Gary Kasparov became world champion at age 22 and Mikhail Tal at 23. He successfully defended the title against Anand in 2014 and in 2016 against Serjey Karjekin. In 2013 he reached a rating of 2,882 points computed by FIDE (international chess federation), the highest ever by any player, surpassing the peak of greats like Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov. (I think these ratings did not exist at the time of Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca and Mikhail Botvinik).

An episode which bears on the theme of this essay is that Carlsen played blindfolded against ten players at Harvard, calling out his moves (Table 6 "knight to king’s-bishop 4", etc.) and the moves of his opponents were called back to him. So he had to picture in his mind the position of the pieces on all ten tables as the games progressed. He won all, but his opponents were not champions just the best at the university. This wizardly ability at mental visualisation reminds me of how equations in number theory would float into Ramanujan’s mind. Stupendous as these achievements are, I would still search for another word than genius to denote them. Magnus Carlson is not the Mozart of chess, nor Ramanujan of mathematics. Why?


Glitterati does not

mean genius

Incredible faculties, powers of calculation and the ability to perform improbable mental tasks is not the same as genius. Genius is comprehension, formulation and enunciation of a body of thought or art that will impact collective human life for generations. On this measure Aristotle, Newton and Einstein are winners – Archimedes, Gauss and Darwin too, though they were one dimensional. What about writers, artists and philosophers? Sure we must accommodate the likes of Shakespeare and Dante. Was Marx a genius? I think we can find a better term like ‘game-changer’ for the old Moor.

These are spanking shinning stars, but a few stand above this glitterati – I have two in mind Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci. Those who know classical music – I only listen to the stuff – say Beethoven was more profound and Bach more weighty. True, true, but there is something ethereal about Mozart, there is genius; albeit only musical genius unlike Leonardo a polymath. Mozart’s first biographer Franz Niemtschek writes in a vein no one could employ for any other:-

"In the quiet repose of the night, when no obstacle hindered his soul, the power of his imagination became incandescent with the most animated activity, and unfolded all the wealth of tone which nature had placed in his spirit. Only the person who heard Mozart at such times knows the depth and the whole range of his musical genius: free and independent of all concern his spirit could soar in daring flight to the highest regions of art".

Leonardo of course is everyone’s choice for numero uno in the genius stakes. Wikipedia is good enough for me:-

"Italian polymath whose areas of interest included invention, painting sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. He has been called the father of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. He is credited with the invention of the parachute, helicopter and tank. Leonardo epitomised the ideal of the Renaissance Man".

[Disclaimer: As befits today’s modest storyline I take no account of heavyweight spiritual and moral personages and law-givers. Hence going from ancient to recent times, I omit Zarathustra, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed and the Sikh Gurus. It makes no sense to spin them into today’s simple yarn or provoke bigots to gouge out my eyes if their aspirant is not awarded an A*].

Physical basis of


It seems that the vast differences in mental ability between humans cannot be reduced to physical determinants such as brain size or convolution (folding) alone. I have, to the extent I could understand, read both popular and nerdy stuff in Stanford Neurosciences, Scientific American, Smithsonian and ever obliging Wikipedia. The consensus is that the correlation between brain size and IQ is only 0.3 to 0.4 – no better than what we expect between the recommendations and results of our friends the economists! A 0.3 correlation is only slightly positive and in many samples there was less correlation. The neuro experts then bluff us with: "The brain’s underlying organisation and the molecular activity at its synapses (junctions between neurons) is what seems to dictate intelligence" - which is to say that they are as clueless as the rest of us and can be precise about bugger-all.

The brains of the Prince of Mathematics, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), Vladimir Lenin (1817-1924) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) were removed and studied in autopsies. Einstein’s was extensively examined in many laboratories by teams who received slices.


The weight of the brains, Gauss (1,492 grams), Lenin (1,340 grams) and Einstein (1,230 grams), are not unusual compared to the average weight of a human male brain (1,334 grams). Lenin had big frontal lobes, Gauss had highly developed convolutions (folds) and Einstein’s showed a stronger than usual connection between left and right hemispheres and increased glial cells which provide nutrients to neurons and protect them from pathogens. All are sorts of one-off variations, but no pattern!

Neanderthal brains are on average 15% larger than human; sperm whale brains weigh 8,000 grams (18 lbs) and most interestingly it seems that the hominid brain, after getting bigger for two million years, has been shrinking in the last 20,000 years according to John Hawkes anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin. This is all very confusing; what on earth is going on? This neuro stuff is not exact, that we know; but it is not even reliable science.


Intelligence and the mob

I have often argued in this column that racism is inbuilt in the psyche of homo sapiens and overcoming this prejudice will be a long and difficult task. I think readers will agree that a majority of humans (sic: that is themselves!) are racially or religiously prejudiced. People active in civil society and progressive politics refer to the task of overcoming prejudice as building social consciousness and pluralism and creating an awareness of the obligations of democracy. Since the brain in involved in both intelligence and prejudice I suppose there is some overlap between these concerns and the topic of this essay. Be that as it may, the madness of the mob is not something I wish to pursue today.

There is another more explosive side to this story which I want readers to chew upon. The New York Post reported in April or May 2013 that a Jason Richwine argued in his 2009 Harvard PhD thesis that "the average IQ of U.S. immigrants is substantially lower than that of the white native population and the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component in IQ". He reckoned "no one knows whether Hispanics will reach IQ parity with whites and new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren". In a study co-authored with the reactionary Heritage Foundation, Richwine proposed IQ screening for immigrants and said amnesty for illegal immigrants would be a $5 trillion burden on the U.S.

So you see the race-intelligence debate is not dead. Its protagonists such as Richwine ask: ‘If there is a genetic basis to intelligence (smart kids, statistically, come from families with smart parents and grandparents) then by extension cannot there be a racial basis to intelligence as well?’ Granted, intelligence here is measured by tests with a heavy cultural overload and biased in favour of wealth and privilege, but still there is a problem. So why not I leave you to cogitate as you sip your Sunday morning coffee?




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