Carlsson reflects on Sweden’s Racial Climate

Much has been said about racial intolerance in recent years. The contentious election season in the U.S. had everyone discussing the tension between the supporters of Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Campaign rallies were filled with commotions between protesters, racial epithets and sometimes fists flying.

In Europe there has been a debate about immigration with many politicians and pundits taking a hard line against the wave of emigrants from Syria and immigrants from other parts of the world. Amidst several terrorist attacks, many governments are beginning to echo the sentiments of the right-wing. There are some nations that are reputed to be relatively free from racial strife.

GM Pontus Carlsson
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Sweden is a country of approximately 10 million people, fairly homogeneous with an immigrant population of about 15%. However, is Sweden the racial utopia it’s cracked up to be? The chess world may know that GM Pontus Carlsson was adopted at age one by a Swedish family and has lived his entire life there. He still has ties to his native Colombia and was approached by a national magazine Semana for an interview. Colombia was preparing a 122-page special on Sweden and it was thought that Carlsson would make the perfect interview subject.

Carlsson then submitted to a lengthy interview, but what he revealed was not consistent with the multicultural utopia often told of Sweden. His narrative echoes that of many “minority immigrants” in the west… one with racial slights, discrimination and occasional confrontations with police. Carlsson told The Chess Drum that he had been forthright in the interview, but many of his harsh comments were nixed from the issue.

He wanted to share the gist of what he had to say and said, “It’s time for Sweden and the other countries to wake up!” Here is the Semana interview in its entirety.

1. You were born in Colombia, do you have memories of our country?

Pontus: I left Colombia when I was 1 year old so therefore I have no memories of that time. But I have understood that it was a good thing that I don´t have any memories since my Colombian parents died.

2. Have you been back in Colombia? If you have done so, what struck you the most and what is your relationship with Colombia today?

Pontus: Yes I have been back and of course I liked it a lot. I enjoy going to Colombia and of course Cali since I’m from there, but there are many beautiful places in Colombia. The climate, food, atmosphere, beaches, nature, I like almost everything apart from the violence that has to come to an end once and forever and the whole country has to understand that!

I have a good relationship with Colombia, where I have several friends. Unfortunately, I do not go there often due to the distance, but if I received serious invitations to make public exhibitions like playing simuls or blindfold chess I would go more often.

It was also a great honour for me to be elected as one of the 100 best Colombians and be invited to meet President Juan Manuel Santos. A pity that I had the European Championships at the same dates, because I really wanted to go and receive my order personally. I hope there will be a new possibility. I also would like to have a Colombian company as a sponsor, I would be proud to help a company in my country to expand and spread its brand, so if someone contacts me on the subject I will listen.

3. You also have Colombian nationality. Why?

Pontus: Because I am Colombian by birth and heart. For some things I like Sweden too, but as a black guy in Sweden I have received a lot of racism there, and thus I will never say that I am proud to be Swedish. I just cannot do it because it would be a lie.

I like the organization in Sweden and the manners that people almost always help unknown people who have problems, but there is a lot of racism against black people. As a player of the Swedish national team representing the country, I have been wrongly accused of stealing clothes in a shop where I had previously spent 2000 euros a year. I have been detained by the police who accused me of stealing my own car! I have been detained for just sitting in my car with another black friend, talking about the issue of racism in Sweden. I have been detained for crossing the street, falsely accused of raping a woman because they confused me with another black guy (who did not rape that woman). I have been racially insulted several times on the street, and on internet forums, discriminated against in restaurants, shops and so much more but I think that’s enough for people to understand that I will never say that I’m proud to be Swedish.

Now in Sweden there are many black people, and in the Swedish boards of directors there is one black person. It is shameful! The Swedish government always talk about the equal rights and diversity that they say are so good in Sweden, and they say they treat minorities and foreigners well, but that’s just not true! It is just a disaster and the integration is another disaster. And the politicians and Swedish people always deny that there is racism against black people and that the integration is a disaster, but everyone can see it all the time, it is very frustrating, and many treat me differently now due to my good sports achievements and it have been the same people who was discriminating against me before. Now the racial party is one of the biggest here and the Swedish people and their politicians still deny that there is racism and that the country has problems.

Sweden’s Tess Asplund stands with raised fist opposite members of the Nordic Resistance Movement, a right-wing nationalist group (article). Photo by David Lagerlof.

In addition, after more than 20 years living in Sweden, I have never been able to adapt to the weather and the cold winters, and I hate the so-called Law of Jante, which is very present in Sweden, it is a disaster and has destroyed a lot in Swedish sport and so many Swedish athletes.

To conclude I want to say that I am proud to be Colombian, but I also cannot adapt to the violence in Colombia. It is a failure of our country and everyone should do everything possible to stop it.

4. Did you know that the Swedes in recent times have adopted 15,000 Colombian children? What do you think of that?

Pontus: I did not know the exact amount, but I knew it should be quite a lot. I think it’s a good thing if the children are without parents and future in Colombia. And I know that they control adoptive parents very hard before they approve the adoptions. Sweden is a very well-structured country and all other countries in the world could learn from that organization. The bad thing is that the children will have to learn to survive the Swedish winters and that is not easy (laughing) … and also to live with the racism that is always present in the Swedish society.

5. Your father taught you to play chess as a child. What did he teach you that you can pass on to people?

Pontus: Well my father is a great man, very smart, with good manners and values in life. I’ve learned a lot from him, both on and off the board, though I think more off the board (laughing) … Besides teaching me the rules and my first openings, he explained the basic chess strategy to me. Later I of course learned much more, but he was the one who gave me the basic knowledge. And it was good, since afterwards I have developed everything from that base.

Something also important was that we started early. At the age of four I knew how to move the pieces and at five I started to compete! I think it’s important to start early since then you have more chances to become very good.

GMs Pontus Carlsson and Maurice Ashley
at 2016 Millionaire Chess Open (Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA)
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

6. What is your most memorable victory and defeat in chess?

Pontus: It’s hard to answer since I’ve won a lot of things. I have more than five hundred trophies in my house and I really enjoy to win!

The last tournament I won was for example this week. Maybe when I won Torneig Internacional Ciutat de Sóller in Spain, because with that victory in a high-level international tournament I claimed the title of Grandmaster and also the Mayor of Soller took me to see the football match between Mallorca and Zaragoza from the VIP section, and I like soccer a lot so I remember that I was very happy that day. It was a great day. But I also like to win for others, and in teams since I know that it makes a lot of people over the world happy. I have noticed that since people comment on my triumphs in the streets, on internet and in social medias. I feel very good to know that I can do people in Colombia, Sweden or other places in the world happy with good results.

2007 European Team Championships: 5th board medal winners, Dmitry Jakovenko (Russia – Silver), Alexander Areshchenko (Ukraine – Bronze), Pontus Carlsson (Sweden – Gold) Photo by greekchess.com.

Of defeats I do not remember anything … No, it was a joke. I have one defeat in my childhood that I will never forget. I was about to win a medal at the European Under 10 Championship in Slovakia in 1992, I was a knight up in an endgame but relaxed and did a serious blunder that lost my knight in one move, which cost me the game and my medal. I was off the podium and it was so painful. I also had to be present at the ceremony looking at the podium and I remember that I was crying in my mother’s knee. It was horrible and I could not do anything nor any exercises in my school the next two weeks since I was so sad about it.

7. What is the most valuable thing that this sport has taught you?
Pontus: The respect that exists between the players. In chess there is more or less no racism, it is not like in soccer where people shout racist insults and throw bananas at the black players. It is a clean sport and I have always received respect, although I have always been the only active black player at high level. In addition, chess has allowed me to discover the world. I have played tournaments and championships in more than forty countries and it has been great. It is a good way to meet new cultures, to see beautiful places and to make friends.

GM Pontus Carlsson with chess players in Doha, Qatar.

Chess is also a sport where you work with your brain and become more intelligent. You get a better memory since you train it all the time, improve your calculation, concentration and your strategic ability, which is very useful both in school and in business.For children it is always a good idea to start with chess since they get better in school and especially in math.

In business there are also many things about chess that one could use, such as being able to “read” people, quickly analyzing situations, solving problems, calculating quickly and designing a good strategy. This are very important abilities in many jobs, but perhaps more than anything in investments and negotiations. But I think the most valuable thing is that everyone can play it, both young and old, and that there is no racism.

8. You became Grandmaster one of the most important titles of this sport. If I had to choose three fundamental characteristics that a great player should have, what would they be?

Pontus: Good memory, good nerves, and good strategy, but the most important thing for young players aspiring to be Grand Masters is to train right and to train hard.

GM Pontus Carlsson giving a blindfold simul at a community event in Sweden.

9. Your career has led you to become a member of the Swedish Chess Academy. What advice would you give to a child who wants to practice this sport?

Pontus: Yes, it is an honour to be a member of the Swedish Chess Academy where everyone is prominent business people or celebrities. What I like a lot there, is that everyone really loves chess and that they are very nice and humble. I have made some very good friends there who it is always a pleasure to meet.

And in collaboration with the Swedish Chess Academy, I organize “Näringslivet möter Förorten” which has become a major event in Sweden. The concept is that every child from the suburbs teams up with a “business executive” from the Swedish trade & Industry to play chess in pairs in a tournament with twenty teams. It is an initiative to improve and facilitate integration in Sweden and towards segregation. I think it is very important to bring different people together to remove many prejudices that exist, and then chess is a perfect tool because everyone can play it, poor as rich, old as young, white, as black.

It would be very nice to organize such an event in Colombia as well, and all companies and entrepreneurs interested in sponsoring or supporting it are welcome to contact me.

10. In addition to chess, you used to play soccer, so Zlatan Ibrahamovic or William James? And Why?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
By Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0

Pontus: Yes, I really like football and as a youth I was playing in the highest national category of Sweden. And I have several friends who are soccer players. I follow the Colombian national team and I’m a big fan. I am very happy that we now have a strong team that can do something in the World Cup and Copa America.

Zlatan or James … well, to choose! I take both. A very good number 10 with one of the three best strikers in the world. That combination could not end in anything other than successes, titles and a lot of goals.

But to tell the truth, I like James a lot but my favorite in the selection is Juan Cuadrado for his dribbling skills.it is a pleasure to see him playing and I hope he will soon return to his best form. Before I also liked Camilo Zúñiga much when he was playing, and in the nineties Faustino Asprilla of course! A fantastic player and great idol that I hope to meet one day.

Note: Semena did not publish the interview in its entirety, but included quotes from Carlsson. The article appears at https://especiales.semana.com/especiales/suecia/ on page 50 and 51.

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

4 Comments

  1. Great interview. Love the straightforward way GM Pontus answers questions. It was an honor to meet him and hopefully see him inspire African Chess players as well.

  2. Insightful interview on GM Pontus early years and racial climate in Sweden. Also, a nice picture of GM Ashley and Pontus together in Millionaire Chess Tourney! This short interview will help Black kids understand the struggles of becoming a grandmaster and the racial injustice that they must overcome. Why not, get this out to the thousands of Black kids who play scholastic chess?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button