Magnus Carlsen has reasons to cherish the London Chess Classic triumph in 2012. He achieved one of the finest tournament results of his storied career, accumulating 18 points to finish ahead of Vladimir Kramnik, besides breaking Garry Kasparov’s rating record of 2851. But he recounts to his friend Odin Blikra Vea in a podcast, about a drunken night at a London bar that almost cost him the tournament.
He was dueling British Grandmaster Luke McShane on his 22nd birthday, but the night before the game Carlsen, his second Ian Nepomniachtchi and friends went out bowling. But it did not stop there. “We were supposed to just go out bowling and have a nice dinner to celebrate my birthday — then it turned into something else,” Carlsen recollects.
Nepo wisely left after bowling, but Carlsen and his friends drank through the night. He hardly slept and staggered onto the hall totally hungover. “In London they have this thing where they call you up on the stage before the round starts, and you have to show up 10 minutes in advance. I napped, before I suddenly heard them calling up my name and I was like “Oh!” and I had to get up on stage,” he says.
A piercing headache struck. He felt the world around him crumble. “It’s the first and only time I’ve played classical chess where I’ve been really hungover. I hadn’t slept at all,” he says. Needless to say, he struggled to get his thought pattern going. McShane opened strongly and was close to winning. Carlsen then took a boring but risky variant. McShane started advancing on the kingside and eventually reached an almost winning position by move 26.”One time during the game I wanted to resign, because I got outplayed so badly,” he says.
But he did not quit, and as luck would have it, the Irishman blundered on move 27 and Carlsen was back in the game. “All of a sudden I felt like my whole hangover just got cured. The adrenaline started pumping. I took my chance instantly,” he said. He then went backstage and washed his face and thought to himself: “’Okay now we’re gonna play and it would be epic if I managed to win the game. It turned out to be a really long game as well.”
It lasted 62 moves and six hours, with Carlsen clawing back and winning with black pieces. As soon as the match ended, he rushed to his hotel room and slept for 14 hours at a stretch. “Then I won in great style. I didn’t stay up much longer after the game.”
Any recollection of the match still gives him a hangover. “It’s not recommended, to put it mildly. I still remember how absolutely horribly I felt during that game. It turned into a fun story at least.”
The main organiser of the tournament Malcolm Pein remembers a half-awake Carlsen: ”The only thing I remember is he appeared to be snoozing in the front row — I assumed he was focusing on prep or something. He stirred when he heard his name,” A few days later, he topped a tournament that included some of the finest chess players of all time like Vladimir Kramnik, Hikaru Nakamura, Michael Adams, Viswanathan Anand, Levon Aronian, Gawain Jones, Judit Polgar and McShane.
However, there was an instance when alcohol therapy worked as well. Sergey Kariakin, New York in 2016. Magnus Carlsen had gone to that game, feeling he “was the superior” player but after seven drawn games, he lost the eight. That night, he got drunk with his team. “It’s the only time I’ve done it as therapy, and it worked. I won one and drew three of the next four, and then I won convincingly in the rapid tiebreaker,” Carlsen told Elpais.
There is another story of his wherein he dealt with a disappointing performance in the 2012 World Rapid & Blitz Championship in Astana by hitting the mini-bar to drink as much vodka as he could manage in 15 minutes. Then his fortunes changed. “At that moment, I felt like a God. I had a good “buzz” and thought I played incredibly well and also so fast. Having looked at it afterwards, I didn’t really play that well (laughs). But apparently I managed to psych them out completely.
But Carlsen maintains that he is not an alcoholic. “I won’t say I’ve been an alcoholic. I don’t drink much. A bit on weekends with friends, but I figured out that this year if I am going to travel a lot and play a lotC, and if I am going to have enough energy, I need to have different priorities.”