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World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen is photographed at the United Nations.
Mark Garten/UN Photo

Chess Can Make the World a Smarter Place. Here's How.

When you picture the game of chess, you might envision a boring, uneventful game played mostly by older people. But this Norwegian chess phenom will prove you wrong.

Magnus Carlsen, 27, isn’t your stereotypical chess player. Rather, his prowess at the board game chess is matched only perhaps by his advocacy for global education.

Called "The New King of Chess" by the New Yorker and "Chess Wunderkind" by TIME, Carlsen became a chess grandmaster in 2004, at the age of 13 years old, making him the third-youngest grandmaster in history. Today, he is the undisputed No. 1 chess player in the world.

On top of his accomplishments in chess, Carlsen is also a spokesperson, model, and philanthropist. A strong supporter of education, his mission is to use chess as a fun tool to make the world a smarter place. And he’s doing so with Play Magnus.

Carlsen started the company in 2013. Driven by his passion for chess, he wanted to use his influence to encourage others, especially kids, to love the game as much as he does, and to make it “cool” for younger generations.

In 2014, the company launched its first app, also called “Play Magnus.” The world’s first custom-built chess engine, the app is fine-tuned to play just like Carlsen. But the wider purpose of this app is not just to teach people how to play chess; it serves a greater mission — to support quality education worldwide.

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Over the next few years, the world will face a shortage of people with deep analytical skills. Play Magnus aims to remedy this by building the next generation of STEM leaders using the game of chess.

Research also shows that children who play chess do better in school. Chess is thought to improve academic and cognitive skills. And, according to the UN, getting people to play chess is a valuable way to achieve the fourth Global Goal for Sustainable Development: quality education for all.

To promote this idea, Carlsen brought the game straight to the source: the UN. Playing 15 players simultaneously over the course of 30 minutes, he displayed his chess skills at #MagnusPlaysUN on May 10.

His competitors ranged from the Mayor of Oslo and the Ambassador at Permanent Mission of I.R. of Afghanistan to a 12-year-old kid whose mom works at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

The backgrounds of the players varied considerably, with one contender saying, "I learned chess in a bomb shelter in West Beirut at the age of 9" and another boasting, "I can beat my mother, and look forward to humiliating myself."

Inevitably, none of the renowned opponents could beat the World Chess Champion. But a few fought until the end, including 9-year-old Jed Sloan.

Global Citizen was lucky to catch up with Carlsen after the game, in between interviews and photoshoots, to have a quick chat with the chess legend. We asked him a few questions about the game, quality education, and his role as a citizen of the world. Here’s what he had to say:

Did you enjoy school as a kid? What are some of your earliest memories of school?  

“I remember thinking it was quite easy at first, and then I spent all my time playing chess and it became difficult.”

Speaking of the Norwegian education system, would you change anything about it?

“The Norwegian education system is pretty soft, but it’s also good in a sense that kids are not being left behind and it goes with the mentality that we have in Norway of including everybody in society.”

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How can we engage more children in learning more sciences and math globally?

“Chess is a great tool for learning to think critically, to be analytical, so I think chess will help.”

Why do you think access to quality education is important?

“I think education is important around the world because informed people don’t do as many bad things. To put it very simply.”

How can you, as a public figure, play a role in spreading access to education globally?

“Myself and my company are trying to promote education through chess. That’s what we are doing, that’s what I’m doing.”

What does “global citizen” mean to you? Are you a Global Citizen?

“Yeah, I guess I identify as both, Norwegian and a member of the world.”  

The world needs more Global Citizens like Magnus Carlsen, doesn’t it? Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals and end extreme poverty by 2030. We campaign for providing access to quality education around the globe, aligned with the UN SDG 4. You can join us by taking action on education, and more, here.