Magnus Carlsen finds the champion toughness that could prolong his peak, define his 30s

There are two stages legendary teams and players experience in sports: The span of championship success in which opponents are obliterated with ease, followed by the desperate fight to stay on top for as long as possible.

Magnus Carlsen, the world champion since 2013, senses his switch between phases will come at some point in the next decade. He turns 30 in November. He believes the game’s youngsters have him beat in mental quickness. For now, his experience keeps him a step ahead of the field.

Despite appearing vulnerable at times over the past two weeks in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational tournament he hosted to add to the competitive chess slate amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Norwegian won his championship matchup against Hikaru Nakamura on Sunday. He defeated five of the six top-20 players he faced in the competition. His lone loss came at the end of the round-robin stage with his advancement to the semifinals already secured.

Carlsen’s performance in the tournament — in particular his stunning come-from-behind semifinals win over Ding Liren —  exemplified the traits he will need to demonstrate consistently in order to prolong his chess peak. He might not be untouchable for much longer, but if he respond to blows with champion-level composure and toughness, he could continue to beat back challengers to his perch for the foreseeable future.

“It’s becoming harder to be relevant,” Carlsen in an interview with Sporting News after getting past Ding on Saturday. “At some point, I’m gonna be surpassed. There is no question about that. I’m just trying to delay it as much as I can.”

Carlsen entered the Invitational having just been bested by 16-year-old Alireza Firouzja, an emerging long-term threat, in the Banter Blitz Cup final. 

Tied with Ding in the semifinals, he appeared on the brink of defeat and back-to-back tournament disappointments until a late blunder by his opponent gave him an opening to storm back. When he clinched victory, he pumped his fists and grinned. He said he felt extra satisfaction from successfully overcoming the type of pressure he doesn’t receive often.

It’s territory he’ll probably become accustomed to soon.

“I’m not ancient yet, I should still be in my prime,” Carlsen said. “But I do feel that some of the youngsters are a bit quicker than I am. It does bother you. It sort of reminds me that I’m very, very human. I don’t like that.”

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