Carlsen’s doubts over title defence leave chess facing uncertain future

Carlsen’s doubts over title defence leave chess facing uncertain future

Magnus Carlsen is “unlikely” to defend his world title in classical chess again unless his opponent is the rising star Alireza Firouzja. The Norwegian’s statement, in a podcast made public on Tuesday, opens up an uncertain future where the game could have two rival No 1s, as occurred in the years after Garry Kasparov broke with Fide, the world governing body, in 1993.

Carlsen cited lack of motivation as the main factor: “ It’s been clear to me for most of the year that this world championship should be the last,” he said. “It doesn’t mean as much anymore as it once did. I haven’t felt that the positive outweighs the negative”.

He will be far from retiring completely; indeed his next action over the board is almost imminent. From Christmas to the New Year, Carlsen will be at the World Rapid and Blitz championships in Warsaw, where he will attempt to win the Rapid for the third and the Blitz for the fifth time and to hold three world titles simultaneously.

After that, starting with Wijk aan Zee in January, he has set himself a new target in classical chess-to become the first player to reach the stratospheric target of a 2900 rating. The all-time list on the 2700chess website shows that while 15 players have achieved lifetime peaks above 2800, only three – Carlsen, Kasparov and Fabiano Caruana – have made it beyond 2850.

Carlsen has already reached 2882 twice, in 2014 and 2019, and even higher, 2889, on the live ratings. But he still looks at the task like the early Everest mountaineers just a few hundred feet from the summit:

“I have never had it as a goal before, because I felt it was difficult. I have raised my rating a bit again now, to 2865, and it is at least a goal you can set,” he continued. “It does not feel completely impossible, but at the same time I know I have to be at the top of my game every time I play. There is no room for error. It is something to motivate oneself for.”

The 31-year-old is interested in another classical title defence only if his opponent is Firouzja, the 18-year-old who is favourite for next year’s Candidates and who has already broken Carlsen’s record as the youngest ever to achieve a 2800 rating. Carlsen won his previous five championship matches against India’s Vishy Anand (twice), America’s Fabiano Caruana, and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi. His decision to stop after at most one further defence means he is passing up the chance to surpass the record of six titles held jointly by Emanuel Lasker and Kasparov.

If Firouzja does win the Candidates next summer, he will then challenge Carlsen for the world crown in early 2023, and all is clear; but other scenarios are possible. By naming the former Iranian, who now represents France, in this way, Carlsen has put extra pressure on the teenager and also gives Firouzja’s opponents in the Candidates an incentive to make a special effort against him.

If Firouzja is knocked out of contention in the eight-man tournament next summer and Carlsen refuses to play the Candidates winner, then the regulations say that there will be a match between the winner and the runner-up, not just for first place, but for the world championship itself. The glittering incentive for the other seven will be that two of them would then take part in the lucrative (€2m prize fund in 2021) match for the title.

A plausible scenario is that Fabiano Caruana wins the Candidates. The American, 29, was No 2 in the ratings behind Carlsen for a long time, and has been the most consistent Candidate since 2014, finishing successively second, first and fourth. If he wins in 2022 and Carlsen then declines to play him again, it seems between quite likely and very probable that the US chess Maecenas Rex Sinquefield will step in with a sizeable increase in the prize fund. Sinquefield could even consider doubling it, as Jim Slater famously did in 1972 to save the Bobby Fischer v Boris Spassky match in Reykjavik, and offering his and Caruana’s home city of St Louis as the match venue.

Another unlikely but possible scenario is that Firouzja is half a point ahead of a rival before the final round, with the pair clear of the field. If Firouzja wins, he will probably lose the match to Carlsen due to inexperience. If he loses and Carlsen declines to meet the rival, then under the regulations the rival and Firouzja would play a match for the world title which the 19-year-old could win and thus become champion while avoiding Carlsen.

Whatever the consequences of Carlsen’s decision, the Norwegian has earned the right to make an unorthodox move. He has exceeded all previous world champions in promoting chess as a popular mind sport by being an active and involved player all year round and in a variety of formats. He has played classical, rapid, blitz and banter blitz, bullet and Chess 960 at the highest level. He has brought new sponsors to the game, organised important tournaments, and overall has shown a positive and articulate respect to the chess community, in marked contrast to the self-centred Fischer and the divisive Kasparov.

British chess has just had its first casualties from Omicron. The traditional Hastings congress scheduled to start on 29 December has been cancelled, a rare break in the series launched in 1920 and staged annually since, apart from the war years and the 2020-21 online version.

GM Gawain Jones won last week’s 10-player English Rapidplay in Central London, beating GM Luke McShane in the play-off after the pair tied on 7/9.

There have been no reported Covid-19 illnesses yet among the players, but Nigel Short, who was present as a commentator, tweeted a selfie on Tuesday from his hospital bed. The Guardian joins in wishing the 1993 world title challenger a speedy recovery.

3794: 1…Rxd5! 2 Qxd5 Qf6+ 3 Kg1 Qxf1+! 4 Kxf1 Nxe3+ and Nxd5 leaves Black a knight ahead with a simple endgame win.