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From representing Norway at football to coaching Magnus Carlsen - the incredible story of Simen Agdestein

Before he was Magnus Carlsen's coach, he won eight caps for Norway's football team and is also his nation's first-ever Grandmaster in chess.

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen has is one of the greatest chess grandmasters of all time, but who aided him in the early days?

There have been very few sportspersons in history who have managed to play two sports simultaneously at the highest level. Denis Compton is one who springs to mind in an instant, having been an accomplished Test cricketer for England with over a hundred first-class centuries to his name as well as making 60 appearances for Arsenal and scoring 16 goals for the Gunners, along with 12 games for the English football team during the World War period.

A more recent example would be the supremely talented Aussie Ellyse Perry, who at just 16 years old, made her debuts for the national cricket and football teams. She was part of the Australian side that won the 2013 Cricket World Cup and was the Player of the Series in the 2015 Ashes after scoring the most runs in the competition as well as taking the most wickets. She has been capped 18 times for her national football side and played in defense at the 2008 Asian Cup, where she also scored a goal.

Both the above cases include the outdoor sports of football and cricket, but how about this – let’s take the example of Norwegian Simen Agdestein, who has been capped by his national football team and is his country’s first-ever chess grandmaster. And that is not all, perhaps his biggest claim to fame is that he was the first coach of reigning world champion and fellow compatriot Magnus Carlsen. Let us get to know more about this incredible sportsman!

Footballing days and a tragic injury

Agdestein playing for the Norwegian national team

It was the beautiful game that started Agdestein’s sporting journey at the age of eight and it was only three years later that he started taking up chess seriously as well. Talking about his hectic routine, he once remarked, “When I came home from school I slept a little, then it was out to football training, and when I got home I sat up and read chess into the night.”

In 1984 at the age of just 17, he made his professional debut with his hometown club Lyn Oslo. Standing at 6’2” tall, he played as a centre-forward for his side and was known for his strong and physical play. Just four years later, he picked up his first ever international cap for Norway and scored against Czechoslovakia in a 3-2 loss in Bratislava.

He went on to make over 100 appearances for his club before he was struck by a horrible knee injury (cruciate ligament) in 1992 that forced him to quit the game for good. Despite this devastating setback, he now focused all his energies on chess and reached great heights in the sport.

Bossing the board and creating history

Agdestein is still Norway’s third-best ranked player

While still in school, Agdestein started focussing seriously on his chess skills and the results were soon to follow. He became Norwegian champion at just 15 years of age, a record which stands to date, and created history by becoming his nation’s first-ever Grandmaster at 18, the same year he made his professional debut in football. International success was not far away either as he finished second at the 1986 World Junior Championship ahead of future world champion Viswanathan Anand.

After his injury, he devoted all his time to chess and was victorious in the famous Cappelle-la-Grande Open tournament in 1999 where he won in a field of 615 players after finishing with 7.5 points. He has represented Norway seven times at the biannual Chess Olympiad, where he won an individual gold medal in 1982.

He was the leading Norwegian player for many a year and won the national chess championship seven times, the last of which was in 2005. He was subsequently dethroned next year by his own student – a 16-year old Grandmaster named Magnus Carlsen, who is the current world champion and is widely known as the ‘Mozart of Chess’.

Coaching the prodigy

Agdestein (R) faces off against his 14-year old student at the 2005 Norwegian Championship

Norwegian GM Lief Johannessen once said, “There probably would have been no Magnus Carlsen without Simen Agdestein. Norwegian chess owes a lot to him for his vision.” Agdestein introduced chess at the Norwegian College of Elite Sport and in 2000, he took under his wing a nine-year-old Carlsen and during the course of the year, his rating jumped from 904 to 1907 – a jump of a thousand ELO points!

Agdestein was instrumental in his ward’s meteoric rise, as he attained the Grandmaster title at the age of 13-and-a-half in 2004. Carlsen, who showed signs of his genius from the age of two, was seen as his country’s as well as the sport’s greatest ever prodigy and it was Agdestein who ensured that he fulfilled his potential and progressed in the right manner.

Perhaps due to his football experience, Agdestein has laid immense focus on physical training for himself as a player as well as his students. A habit of remaining in top physical shape has been drilled into his wards and can be seen in the way Carlsen possesses the unique ability of grinding out victories from drawish positions with his incredible endurance. This can be seen prominently in his match against Hou Yifan at the Tata Steel Tournament earlier this year.

It can be easily said that Agdestein’s achievements are incredibly hard to match. He is perhaps the only person ever to reach such heights in football and chess and is the only Grandmaster to have scored a goal in international football. From a young age, he balanced two incredibly competitive sports with ease and is now guiding his country's next generation of footballers and chess players to international success. 

At the age of 49, he is still active as a player in international competitions, holding an impressive rating of 2610 ELO points and is ranked the third-best Norwegian behind Carlsen and Jon Ludvig Hammer. He has written several chess books, including a biography of the reigning world champion. He is also a teacher at a secondary school, plays the piano and was a contestant in a dance reality show. Truly, he is a man of remarkable talents and must be lauded for his immense contributions towards sport.

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