Magnus

Six months ago or so marked my second foray into the Tribeca Film Festival: Cheap Day Pass (6 tickets for $40ish) experience. Even though it took some incredibly creative schedule maneuvering — so much so that I actually emailed people asking them to take tickets off my hands in a moment of desperation, but recovered nicely and saw five movies — I think it’s a worthwhile, cost-effective way to experience something otherwise exclusive and Hollywoodlandy.

The first flick I saw was Magnus, a fascinating documentary with an odd chronology about current World Chess Champion and quasi-sex-symbol Magnus Carlsen. It’s kinda like Boygeniushood.

Now, I know very little about chess, and this movie woke precisely no latent passions for it, but it also didn’t bore me to hear so much about something I don’t understand. Really, it just built up my respect and admiration for the dudes and dudettes who spend their lives staring at checkerboards and contemplating pawn moves. It’s an odd sport, filled with nerds, and that’s why Magnus is so unique.

So many stories — about spelling bee champions and the like — focus on wunderkinder with zero social skills, probably on “the spectrum,” and they intend to invoke some sort of sympathy for their otherwise empty lives. It’s a sad but true formula. Magnus is not like that, though it does make you glad not to be the subject of media scrutiny and constant camera attention if you aren’t already. Magnus himself is highly intelligent, but he’s relatively glib and humorous, with an ego that only comes out when he’s playing. He doesn’t take himself so seriously that he becomes a caricature — he’s a young kid with a gift, a supportive family and a real personality and maturity that’ll help him get by if he chooses to live a non-grandmaster lifestyle. (The guy is only 25, after all.)

I’m the type of person who enjoys watching sports, but I’ve never taken a liking to watching poker or anything table-focused. It doesn’t interest me, mostly because I don’t know how to play. I also think feats of physical athleticism — amazing baseball catches, incredible basketball dunks, powerful tennis aces — make for way better television. As I alluded to before, Magnus piqued my interest in watching chess, and even though I don’t intend to learn, I have a newfound appreciation for watching others play. There’s a pace, an excitement, a palpable tension to watching two geniuses try to out-genius each other, no matter the venue for it.

I imagine Magnus doesn’t need more exposure; though I’d never heard of him before seeing this movie, it’s pretty clear that his star is shining brightly. But his story is one worth knowing about, and I hope this movie gets more widespread attention. Chess is a foreign world to most, and he does all the traveling so we don’t have to.

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