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April 10, 2017

Movie Review: Magnus [Warden]

I don't have much interest in politics these days. Recently, I've been binge watching documentaries on Netflix. Last Friday, I posted a movie review of the documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Own. Later, I realized that I've watched enough interesting documentaries to put together a series of reviews. I think this is a worthwhile exercise. While documentary filmmaking is my favorite genre, it's a hit-or-miss category. Hopefully I can save some time for readers who are looking for new entertainment by filtering through all the junk for them and finding the gems.

I tend to favor movies about extreme events and people, so it's not surprising that I was drawn to Magnus, a documentary released in 2016 about young Norwegian chess grandmaster, Magnus Carlsen, and his quest to win a world title.

Before I get too far into the review, I have to add a disclaimer: I know next to nothing about chess. My experience playing the game is limited to a handful of times in college. I can't even remember the rules.

The chess players here like OregonMuse may have a radically different take on this movie. Certainly there's will be more informed and nuanced. But, like with most good documentaries, you don't have to have any expertise in the subject matter to enjoy Magnus. In some ways, unfamiliarity might make for a more entertaining experience. Certainly, it adds to the tension when Carlsen plays for the world title if you don't know the outcome ahead of time.

Magnus begins with video of Carlsen as a toddler. Carlsen's father, an engineer like his wife, discusses how he worried that Magnus was developmentally delayed because it was so difficult to teach him physical activities and he often seemed lost in his own world.

The worry didn't last. Carlsen's father, an apparently intelligent and observant man, recognized after his four year old boy became obsessed with a book about flags, that his son had a capacity for deep, intense thought and a gift for recognizing patterns.

He mentioned to his wife that Magnus might be good at chess. It turns out that he was, in fact, a prodigy--earning grandmaster status by the age of 13.

There's a pointed scene where Magnus, a mere boy, plays the great Gary Kasparov in a tournament and manages a draw in the game shown. Throughout the game, Kasparov, head buried in his hands, appears to be vexed with Carlsen's style, although this effect may have simply been achieved through editing.

As the filmmakers showed the boy progress through boyhood, youth and young adulthood, I was struck by how normal he seemed. Yes, there was some problems with bullies and he didn't always fit in, but he was also handsome, articulate and at-ease with the camera.

The movie's climax is a tournament that leading to an opportunity to play the top ranked player in the world, an man from India named Viswanathan Anand. Anand, the documentary informs, is a genius with computers and employs a brute force style of gameplay that utilizes number crunching computers analyzed by a team of grandmasters to calculate the correct play in common situations.

My limited understanding of Anand's technique is that he studies opponent's tendencies and basically memorizes the correct play against them.

This sets up an interesting dynamic. Carlsen is more of an old school player whose intuition and creativity guides his game. As such, his play tends to be more erratic. Some days, it seems the pressure gets to him and his intuition fails--a situation he compares to losing fluency in a language that you've mastered.

Although, I don't play chess, I used to be a half decent Hold'em player. My best understanding is that Carlsen's style would be more similar to a loose/aggressive poker player--big swings, a lot of creativity and a pressuring style that forces opponents into mistakes. Anand seems more the tight/strong type--a more by-the-book style that minimizes mistakes and leans more heavily on probabilities.

Other players accuse Carlsen of being unprepared, but it seems to be a misreading of his process. When asked if he ever stops thinking about chess, Carlsen explains that he's unable to turn it completely off--that even in the middle of a conversation, his brain is analyzing past positions and problem solving in the background.

This was fascinating to me and I'd love to see what a brain scan of Carlsen reveals, as he doesn't appear to process things in the way that normal people do. At one point, he describes how he can look at chess pieces and see nothing but possibilities. His incredible gift is amply displayed when he puts on a blindfold and takes on 20 different players at Harvard at once, beating all of them by somehow tracking and memorizing all of the games simultaneously.

Carlsen believes he can beat Anand, but admits that the world's best player has an intimidating game. The best path, Carlsen believes, is to drag him outside of situations where he's comfortable and actually make him play the game rather than spit out pre-memorized moves.

Chess competitions are not resolved with a single game between players, but a series of them. The winner of the world champion match between Carlsen and Anand will be determined by a points system based on wins and ties. Basically, it's a race to hit 15 points first, with matches being played over several days.

The first few games are disastrous for Carlsen. With the match being played on Anend's home turf in India, Carlsen wilts under the pressure of the moment and his opponent's tireless assault.

After regrouping, something seems to change in Carlsen's mindset and he begins playing with the kind of unorthodox and freewheeling creativity that makes him so formidable.

I won't spoil the ending, but the competition becomes much more closely fought than what anyone would have guessed based on how it began.

I enjoyed Magnus enough to spend a few hours reading more about high level chess players. While I wouldn't put this documentary on a best in class list, it was interesting enough to hold my interest and give me some things to follow up on later, which is all I really ask of a movie like this. I give it a B to B+.

You can find Magnus on Netflix. It runs an hour and 18 minutes.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:00 PM

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