To perform like Magnus… relax like Magnus?

Magnus Carlsen is the world’s highest-rated chess player, and he doesn’t spend all day playing chess. What role does that play in his success?

Magnus Carlsen, 27, is the highest-rated (human) chess player of all-time and has been world chess champion since 2013. His first championship victory is captured in the very-enjoyable Magnus, now available on Netflix everywhere.

Magnus, as one might expect, puts in hours of deliberate practice in trying to become the best at chess. He is quizzed by his head coach about historical positions; he analyzes his own games; he reads chess news to understand developments in other players.

But something else stands out about Magnus in the documentary: He spends a good amount of time doing things that aren’t quite chess-related.

Soon-to-be-World Champion Magnus Carlsen at his training camp in South Norway. Magnus asks “Why do I do that?” about a missed volleyball hit — but he could also be asking a more meta question.

Repeatedly in the film, Magnus is shown playing volleyball, ping pong, and swimming, even in the run-up to critical matches. At times when many others would be inclined to hunker down and cram, Magnus seems to find continued ‘distractions’ in other domains.

Now, I will not pretend to have a comprehensive accounting of Magnus’s practice hours; perhaps this is only a trivial subsection of Magnus’s week. Additionally, Magnus is certainly not a slacker; he is shown studying chess when surrounded by family, for instance, when it would be easy to study just a bit less.

But Magnus’s overall preparation style — and the varied activities — does not escape notice of his head coach, particularly compared with the documentary’s portrayal of then-World Champion Vishy Anand: “You know, [Magnus] may not always be the most serious guy in training. But in his head, he has stuff going on. It’s a different kind of approach than maybe other kinds of schools.”

Magnus plays ping pong with his head coach in lead-up to the chess world championship.

Magnus without question puts in legwork for chess, but he also finds room for other activities. Without getting overly-rigorous (and at risk of leaning too pop-psychological), I think there are a few questions to consider for one’s own performance after observing how Magnus spends portions of his preparation time:

Would your performance benefit from time for more-complex realizations to form? As Magnus’s coach notes, his time playing ping pong is not dead time from training, but rather time to gradually work over things without full-force thinking. Plenty of activities involve insight problems that aren’t necessarily best solved by thinking harder or longer; many innovations arise from taking a concept in one domain and applying it to another. For Magnus, sports provide this ‘idle work’ time, just as many people find that taking walks encourages their best thinking. As an additional upside, sports help to keep the body active and healthy.

Would your performance benefit from time to mentally recharge? Though this is not explicitly discussed as a factor in the documentary, I suspect a large reason for Magnus’s breaks is that studying chess is exhausting. On a biological level, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky contends that grand masters can burn thousands of calories per day in the course of a chess tournament (though it need not be several thousands to be significant). Even without the calorie consideration, many workers are only capable of peak productivity for stints of ~3 hours — though this isn’t ironclad, and someone like Magnus very well may retain focus for longer. At some point, however, everyone will face diminishing returns — and when faced with diminishing returns, why not play ping pong? (Or sleep.)

This red-lined engine is at a balmy 37C, just like the human body. Coincidence? I think not.

Would your performance be more sustainable with allowances for ‘sub-optimal’ activities? This question is also not discussed in the documentary, but I do wonder if Magnus’s working in more time for sports and friendships will allow him to sustain peak performance for longer. On one hand, time spent in these ways might trade off with time spent training on chess and could in theory lead to worse short-run outcomes (though as discussed above, perhaps not). On the other hand, Magnus is a human being, and if these interests keep him happy, healthy, and motivated to keep pursuing his goals, his hobbies may well end up being instrumental to his success even if locally suboptimal. Put more simply, this is a question of avoiding burnout: If taking on certain stresses and time pressures will cause you to redline, perhaps they aren’t the right path for your long-term career goals.

I continue to be inspired by Magnus’s journey to the top of the chess world, as well as by the feats of winetasters in Somm and friends of mine from the national debate community. (Not to mention my friend Max, who recently traveled to Germany to play Magnus in a game of chess… Max lost but clearly hasn’t been playing enough ping pong.)

Wine: It’s serious business. (Screenshot from Somm)

There’s something fascinating about peak performance and the focus it inspires in people — and particularly when people seem to have found a balance between that focus and continuing to achieve their goals.

Of course, in the future, computers might not face these tradeoffs that can constrain human performance today. (The Stockfish and AlphaZero chess engines, for instance, don’t step away from chess to have dinner with their loved ones, at least as far as we know.)

It’s worth considering, then, how demands on human performance may evolve over time, particularly as computers expand deeper into the realm of human activities and things previously considered art.

At chess, we can say with confidence that Magnus aka “The Mozart of Chess” and the highest-rated human ever < Stockfish (the go-to chess engine for human preparation) < AlphaZero (a self-playing reinforcement learning agent that ran for less than a day [on incredibly high-end hardware]).

Unfortunately for Magnus’s computer-beating prospects, no amount of sleep or time training in other domains is likely to reverse that — but he might pose a model for us to increase our own productivity in the interim.

Steven Adler is a strategy consultant focused across AI, technology, and healthcare. His most recent project is — an effort to build a strategy game and the AI to master it.

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