Pep’s admiration for world chess champions Magnus Carlsen

Franz Beckenbauer famously said that “Football isn’t chess”; however, these days the word Rasenschach is to be found in many German dictionaries. Translated word-by-word, the expression could be broken down into lawn chess, but – before you start thinking about chess pieces standing in a park being moved around by old geezers – the actually meaning of the phrase translates to a battle between two teams who are playing a tactically apt game. In the new book Pep Confidential written by Martí Perarnau, it is revealed that Bayern’s coach does see many similarities between chess and football.

During a dinner with chess legend and former world champion, Gary Kasparov, and his spouse in New York back in 2012, Guardiola and his own wife had a pleasant time talking about chess and how the Russian had secretly coached the Norwegian (and current world champion) Magnus Carlsen overcome his weaknesses. The former Barca coach immediately wanted to know why Kasparov couldn’t beat Carlsen in a match, despite having coached him. After having asked the question three times it was in the end Cristina (Pep’s wife) and Daria (Kasparov’s wife) who came up with the answer: It was all a matter of concentration. Whilst one player could play at his best for two hours, the other could go on for another three.

Pep’s fascination with Magnus Carlsen

And even though Der Kaiser may be of the opinion of football and chess being different, there seems to be multiple elements the two of them have in common, at least in Guardiola’s thinking. The way in which Pep and Carlsen think and analyse their opponents isn’t different according to Perarnau:

His analytical approach is similar to that of Magnus Carlsen, world chess champion who likes to study the thinking behind every chess move without using a computer. He then reaches his own conclusions and instructs his assistants to find alternatives using powerful computers. In just the same way, Pep prefers to scrutinise the information himself before consulting his assistants, Carles Planchart and his team of analysts. Only once he has examined his rival in depth does he exchange ideas with the technical team. The final conclusions are usually a combination of both parties’ work. When I pointed out the similarity with Carlsen, Pep seemed pleasantly surprised with the comparison: ‘I’m getting more and more interested in chess.’

In a game of chess, the players are required to think ahead of time to reach their conclusions. Good amateur chess players can think two or three moves ahead, whilst professionals like Magnus Carlsen or Gary Kasparov even can think as many as 12 or 14 moves ahead (depending on the position they are in). Any football coach, who can do the same from his position on the sideline, would gain a massive advantage by similar thinking. Therefore, it doesn’t seem strange that both Carlsen and Guardiola would like to figure out the thinking behind a move made by an opponent themselves, as it gives them a deeper understanding of their opponent than any computer could provide them.

However, searching for those answers means that Guardiola has to scrutinise every option available to him, Perarnau writes:

I also realised that Guardiola’s eternal doubts are not part of his character, nor a sign of a lack of decisiveness or nerve. No, his doubts come from his determination to calibrate all the possibilities. My thoughts automatically turned to the chess player who analyses all the possible variables before making his move and I decided to share this with him. ‘The process of picking a line-up is a bit like sitting in front of your chess pieces.’

‘You’ve no idea how similar the two things are,’ said Pep. ‘You didn’t read the interview Leontxo García did with Magnus Carlsen [the world chess champion] in El País by any chance? There was one thing Carlsen said that I loved. He said that it doesn’t matter if he has to make some sacrifices at the start of the game because he knows that he is at his strongest in the latter stages. It really got me thinking and I must learn how I can apply it to football.’

Magnus Carlsen – A chess genius with a soft spot for football

The Norwegian world chess champion might not necessarily have enjoyed Guardiola’s reign at Barcelona; Carlsen is a stern Real Madrid fan after all. His fame and success have brought the chess master the honour of being the first Norwegian celebrity mentioned by name on Real’s homepage when he visited a match and Real Madrid have even allowed Carlsen to take the unofficial kick off in the match between the Los Blancos and Valladolid in 2013.

Despite his love for Real, Carlsen agrees with Guardiola’s notion about chess and football being similar from a tactical point of view. The 23-year-old told back in 2011:

“Absolutely, for starters it is as important to control the pieces of the centre of the board in chess as the centre of the midfield in football, and in both sports it is as important the different pieces work as a unit, not one by one or two by two, which is a mistake often times made by chess novices.”

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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