With his trendy look and athletic physique, Norway's Magnus Carlsen has brought an injection of cool to the normally sedate world of global chess - extending its popularity beyond its niche following. The 22-year-old's home country is buzzing with excitement as he competes in a tournament here just months before he tries to crack the greatest prize in the game: the chess World Championship.
In November, the young Norwegian challenges the reigning world champ, Viswanathan Anand, for the title, which typically is contested every other year. The inaugural Norway Chess competition in Stavanger, starting Tuesday, is being widely touted as a dress rehearsal for the championship that is tentatively slated to be played in Chennai, India, where Anand enjoys home court advantage.
With the lure of Carlsen and the 43-year-old Anand, and the 275,500 euros prize money, the competition has attracted one of the strongest lineups ever assembled for a chess tournament. Even with the withdrawal in April of world No. 2, Vladimir Kramnik, the 10-man competition will feature seven of the world's top 10 players, and nine of the top 16, all vying for the 100,000 euros top prize.
"It is very good timing for us. It is very big for Norway that Magnus is doing so well and this probably wouldn't have been possible without him," said Norway Chess chairman Kjell Madland. "We hope it will be the first of very many big chess moments in Norway."
The competition is the first example of oil and gas-rich Norway, today one of the most successful welfare states in the world, leveraging Carlsen's brilliance to try to earn a place alongside more traditional chess superpowers like Russia, Armenia and the United States.
"It is right to say that when nations are in good shape, they tend to throw up good chess players," said Simon Terrington, a British chess writer, evoking Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov's observation that every world champion is a representative of the geopolitical age.
Russian mastery in the shape of Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in the 1980s helped prop up an otherwise creaking Soviet ideology. Later, Viswanathan Anand's triumph in the World Championship in 2000 and his reign as world champ since 2007 has coincided with the re-emergence of India as a great world power. Carlsen took Anand's place at the top of the monthly world rankings in July 2011. Anand has since slumped to 5th.
Now Carlsen's prodigious brilliance is seen by some as bringing intellectual and cultural heft to the social welfare models of Nordic Europe, particularly Norway.
"Chess is connected to what you can call a kind of prestige in the sense that many people look upon the best players as very intelligent and many countries would like to be associated with this," said Joeran Aulin-Jansson, president of the Norwegian Chess Federation. "We hope that the next Magnus Carlsen will come from Norway, though the chances in such a small country are fairly slim."
If not a necessarily a geopolitical shift, the tournament here certainly represents chess' generational shift bringing into sharp focus the edge afforded by youth.
In a game rarely associated with feats of physical endurance, Carlsen prepares for tournaments by mentally revising openings while pounding a treadmill. He will be the youngest competitor at Norway Chess. But he is among six of the world's top eight, all competing here, who are still under 30.
"These long tournaments are quite tiring and long games are very tiring, especially at the end," he told The Associated Press. "If you are in good shape and can keep your concentration you will be the one who will profit from your opponents' mistakes. In general towards the end of the tournaments younger players have that advantage so the other players will have to try to equal that by having good fitness as well."
His fitness matches his unusual style of favoring the middle and long game over obsessive strategizing about opening exchanges.
"I do focus quite a bit on the opening," Carlsen said. "But I have a different goal. Some people try to win the game in the opening. My goal is to make sure I get a playable position and then the main battle is going to happen in the middle game and the later game."
The strategy has worked. Earlier this year, he passed Kasparov's record to attain the highest chess rating ever in the world governing body FIDE rankings. With his modeling contract alongside Liv Tyler for fashion label G-Star Raw, soccer-style sponsorship slogans on his clothing and unnervingly fast and aggressive decision making, the emergence of this telegenic young chess superstar has also helped spur interest in the game not seen since the '70s and '80s - the heydays of the Russian masters and the American Bobby Fischer.
Norwegian grandmaster Simen Agdestein, who will provide commentary on the Stavanger tournament over the Internet, says the interest in Carlsen has been astounding.
In April's Candidates tournament in London, in which top players faced off for the right to play Anand in November, Agdestein's Internet connection became patchy whenever Carlsen was competing.
"All of the top players around the world, and lots of other interested people, were watching him. I don't think the bandwidth could handle it," Agdestein said.
In Stavanger, the round-robin format, in which each of the 10 players will accumulate points by competing against every other competitor, ensures Carlsen will face Anand.
"I don't think it really matters which of us wins that game in Stavanger," Carlsen said. "The kind of momentum that I have going into the November match will be decided by the tournaments I play. I can disassociate the earlier match whatever the result."
Aulin-Jansson is not so sure.
"Whoever wins that game, going into the World Championship, it will be like having a 1-0 lead in a soccer match," he said.