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Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Magnus effect: In the land of the midnight sun, chess is 24/7

"Almost everyone in Norway has some relationship to chess nowadays. It’s on TV and in newspapers all the time." A software developer scanned the overflowing room. “It’s bizarre.”

By: New York Times | Oslo |
Updated: November 21, 2018 4:36:25 pm
At a club in Oslo, people gathered to play chess and watch the world championships on television. (Source: NYT/Linda Bournane Engelberth)

Late on Friday night, a couple hundred people were packed into a dimly lit, stylishly decorated bar in the heart of Oslo’s downtown nightlife district. The place already was generating considerable buzz. It had been open for only a week, but one recent night the line to enter had snaked down the block. Inside, it felt like so many of the other hip spots in downtown Oslo — candlelight illuminating framed artwork on the walls, conversation humming over the clink of beer glasses — except for one small detail: the chess games happening at every table and countertop.

“That’s the Magnus Effect,” said Martin Mortensen, a 32-year-old software developer at the bar, referring to the Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen. “Almost everyone in Norway has some relationship to chess nowadays. It’s on TV and in newspapers all the time.” He scanned the overflowing room. “It’s bizarre.”

Carlsen, 27, has been the world’s top-ranked chess player for the past eight years. He has won the past three world championships, and this month in London he has been locked in tense competition with Fabiano Caruana, a 26-year-old American, in a bid to claim a fourth title.

The Magnus Effect, as it were, describes the various sociocultural phenomena accompanying his rise: the way Carlsen, a nebbish young man from Tonsberg, became one of the country’s most famous people; the way television producers here turned a notoriously dawdling activity into a rollicking spectator sport; the way millions of Norwegians, most of them casual or new fans of the game, have integrated it into their lives.

The effect then, can be seen everywhere. In a country of around 5 million people, close to half a million play chess regularly online, according to the Norwegian Chess Federation. Stores struggle to keep chessboards on their shelves. Chess podcasts hover atop the download charts in Norway, and trams are full of people playing on their phones. Children play chess on play dates. Adults play chess-themed drinking games at chess-watching parties.

Chess is omnipresent, Norwegians say. And, somehow, it has become cool.

“I think per capita Norway is now the most chess-crazy country in the world,” said Lars Petter Fosdahl, 50, one of the owners of the chess-themed bar, The Good Knight.

Carlsen became a chess grandmaster at age 13, and first topped the world rankings in 2010. But that was not enough, initially, to make Norwegians catch chess fever. The chess god, it turned out, needed someone to communicate his gifts, and the joys of the sport, to the masses.

That responsibility was undertaken by NRK, the government-owned television broadcaster, which over the years has developed a reputation for playing by its own rules and following its own weird instincts. In 2013, with Carlsen preparing to compete in his first world championship, the station made the audacious decision to broadcast the entire event.

It was a gamble. The average professional chess match consists of little more than two men in dark suits staring down at a table with their heads cradled in their hands. The world championship unfolds as a best-of-12-games series. A single game can last hours, and the whole thing can take more than two weeks to finish. In 2012, the U.S. news program “60 Minutes” aired a segment on Carlsen in which the correspondent, Bob Simon, mused that watching an elite chess match, for nonplayers, “would be like watching paint dry.”

Undaunted, NRK developed a talk show-style program — filmed on a soundstage in front of a live audience — that employed colorful graphics and running analysis from a panel of chess experts, television personalities and national celebrities curious about the game.

The show was a hit. That first year, the final game drew an average of 335,000 viewers. The year after that, the deciding game drew 572,000. And in 2016, an average of 764,000 viewers, a 56 percent share of the national television audience, watched Carlsen clinch his third world title.

“It was confirmation that anticipation can be action,” said Reidar Stjernen, the show’s producer.

In some ways, the chess broadcasts mirrored one of the most distinctly Norwegian innovations of the 21st century: slow television.

Line Andersen, one of the hosts of the chess program, described a slow television show as one in which “almost nothing happens over a long period of time.” In 2011, millions of people tuned in to watch a live transmission of a cruise ship chugging north along the country’s coastline. Since then, long-form broadcasts devoted to chopping wood, knitting and herding reindeer have drawn comparable audiences.

“We’re weird in many ways — so many ways,” Andersen said a few hours before the show last Friday. “We like things that no one else likes.”

The chess game that night, the sixth between Carlsen and Caruana, was an 80-move draw that lasted 6-1/2-hours. NRK said it drew a quarter of the national television audience.

“That was some of the most exciting television I’ve seen in years,” Edvin Dybvik, a 54-year-old postal worker from Trondheim, said about the marathon broadcast.

Dybvik said he liked to watch the show at home with a chessboard in front of him, so he could mirror the moves as he listened to the analysis.

Others in Norway watch at home with family or groups of friends; the show has spawned various drinking games, even as the interminable chess broadcasts have been known to interrupt professional plans and social obligations.

“I watch every day, screaming at the TV,” said Sonja Krohn, 77, a painter from Oslo, who has been struggling with her latest project while watching the games in her studio. “My work has to wait.”

The continued success of Carlsen, and the broadcasts, has led even more Norwegians to take up the game themselves.

Oystein Brekke, who owns a chess store in Drammen, said he had handled about 12 online orders a day in the years before NRK began broadcasting chess. In 2013, during one of Carlsen’s games, his son called him over to show him something on the computer: They had received 200 orders in a single hour.

“In our shop, it has never been the same again,” Brekke said.

Since 2015, the Norwegian bank DNB has financed a project through the Norwegian Chess Federation to provide chess education in 500 primary schools, an initiative that would have been unthinkable before the chess boom, according Hanne Evensen, a federation spokeswoman. But the payoff is showing up in other numbers: Sjakklubben Stjernen, a 95-year-old chess club in Oslo, has nearly doubled its membership in recent years after decades of stagnation.

“Smart is the new sexy — or something like that,” said Vegard Ramstad, the president of the club.

The chess boom even has served as a muse for some of the nation’s most famous artists. Earlier this year, the Henie Onstad museum in Baerum, just outside Oslo, put on a retrospective for the conceptual photographer Dag Alveng. Alongside other work from his four-decade career, Alveng exhibited new photographs he shot around the world at the grave sites of former world champion chess players.

To mark the opening of his show, Alveng organized a Fischer Random-style chess match between Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura that took place over five days on the museum floor. It was broadcast, naturally, on NRK.

“Conceptual art, where art is an intellectual pursuit, exists on a purely intellectual level,” said Alveng, 65, who said he was inspired by the recent surge of interest in the game. “I think the beauty of ideas has a lot in common with the act of finding a new or interesting move in a chess game, that abstract thought.”

For all of the buzz the game has garnered in the past five years, chess enthusiasts speak in wary tones about the life cycle of another national fad: curling.

Back in 2002, Norwegians became obsessed with the game as the country’s men’s team won a surprise gold medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Norwegians stayed up late every night to watch the event on television, and eventually many ventured out to try it themselves. But time passed, and interest waned. Curling lost its cool.

Thus, the question of whether chess one day will experience the same parabolic run in popularity has divided players here.

“You can’t play curling on your cellphone while you’re on the bus to work, while you’re baby-sitting, or in the five minutes before you go to sleep,” said Kristoffer Gressli, one of the owners of the chess bar. “So even if the worst happens in this world championship — that is, Magnus Carlsen loses — I don’t think the craze is going to fade.”

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