The Magnus Carlsen effect: When a humble Macedonian GM felt the butterflies

Zvonko Stanozowski, 58, ranked 1707 in the world, rested his chin on his hand as a swarm of cameras covered him. Usually playing in Hall 2– where teams still finding their way into the tournament and sports are kept there for games–is not used to this flurry of activity.

Stanozowski’s opponent, five-time world chess champion and world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, took center stage. Perhaps only at the Olympiad does a match of such agreed proportions come. Despite Carlsen’s result, which had two queens on the board after 55 moves, Stanozoxi—in his ninth Olympiad—hung on longer than expected before finally resigning.

As the Round 7 pairing between Norway and North Macedonia unfolded on Thursday night, Stanojovski felt a rush of anxiety. He never played anyone half as celebrated before and talks about discovering his odd quick game on YouTube with a hint of accomplishment. The refusal of his younger, higher-class compatriots to play the team’s tournament puzzles him but he doesn’t worry about it.

Carlsen was the first to arrive – a respectable finish slim though he’s soldiered on for his team – and wore a labored smile as the elite scrambled for DP-worthy frames. He appeared relaxed as the balding Stanzoski arrived, shook his hand and sat across from him.

“When I spotted a bunch of cameras around the table, I suddenly panicked,” laughs Stanozowski, rated a modest 2412. “I’ve never experienced that before. You could say I didn’t sleep well the night before, when I knew I was going to play Carlson. But after the first few moves, it felt like any other game. He’s a player who likes to play for small advantages. A little closer, I noticed he was a little restless. I checked to see if there were any options left for me, but couldn’t spot any.

Unlike Carlsen—who turned GM at age 13 and was raised on computers—Stanojowski’s grandmaster title reached age 40, a rarity in a sport of prodigious talent and early peaks. He first stumbled upon the online blitz two years ago. “Chess is my second job, if we can call it that. It’s not paying my bills,” explains Stanozowski, who spent most of his life as an engineer juggling factory work hours at chess. “I don’t mind the GM title but it wasn’t my first goal. It doesn’t matter if I don’t either. I think I used to play when I could and the norms happened. I’m still playing because it’s still fun.

The successor state from the former Yugoslavia’s northern Macedonia became independent only three decades ago. Chess is nowhere to be found in the sporting landscape of the small landlocked nation in Southeastern Europe, where football leads the numbers, followed by handball. Total GM count is under 10.

Stanozowski started playing chess because he watched his father spend hours on the board with friends. His daughters did not follow his path in sports. Stanozowski says it’s probably because it doesn’t look good enough.

He no longer works at the factory and has made his transition to becoming a full-time chess coach. “My grandson is a few months old now,” she says. “When she’s a couple of years old, I hope I can introduce her to chess. Maybe she’ll fall in love with it like I did.”

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