Understanding Carlsen: Why has he given up his world champion status?

Jul 21, 2022 09:19 PM IST

In choosing not to be limited and defined by what the world thinks should be his legacy, Carlsen has broken free.

On the night of his World Championship win last year, Magnus Carlsen faced a particularly pointed question. Would he rather walk away as world champion on his own terms or await a natural end. Carlsen heard the journalist out, his nearly Neanderthal brows barely moving. He knew the answer, so did his family and team of trainers. The rest of us had something of a lucky hunch. His response then: “It’s a very good question, I cannot answer it right now.” The speculations only grew in the months that followed. On Wednesday, also International Chess Day, Carlsen gate-crashed the happy hashtags with his formal announcement of what later appeared to be an inevitable call – that he will not defend his world title in 2023.

Magnus Carlsen of Norway (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Magnus Carlsen of Norway (REUTERS)

To many, even if expected, this may appear a whimsical decision. Why would one of the best chess players in history give up his world champion status? What may seem inexplicable to others though comes as a natural, perfectly logical choice for Carlsen. The Norwegian – with five world titles at the age of 31 – is something of a non-conformist with a low boredom threshold. He decided to forgo university education because it didn’t interest him enough and went on to turn a fringe sport in Scandinavia into prime-time material. In his podcast revelation to buddy Magnus Barstad, Carlsen spoke of having played his first Candidates tournament on a whim and with no major World Championship ambitions other than to win it just once.

Carlsen’s trainer Peter Heine Nielsen anticipated he’d refuse the match eight years ago. “Quite honestly, I didn’t expect him to play the 2014 match (against Anand),” Nielsen tells HT. Carlsen – who was unhappy with the choice of host city (Sochi), schedule, among other things – signed the match contract only on the last day of the extended deadline.

“I can understand where Magnus is coming from,” Viswanathan Anand who’s been world champion as many times as Carlsen, tells HT, “There was a point I was tired of playing these matches every second year. Somehow you never get to break away from it. Magnus’ problem ironically is that he kept winning it,” he laughs. Anand’s five-title streak ended after he lost to Carlsen in 2013.

The intensity and drudgery of World Championship preparation – spending half a year with a team of trainers drawing up battle plans focused on one opponent, looking for novelties and minuscule advantages in an engine-powered face-off, has consumed the greater part of Carlsen’s 20s. He was never a fan of the current 12-14 classical game World Championship format. To him it isn’t exactly the most accurate or exciting way to determine a world champion.

During last year’s match against Ian Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen’s tiny band of trainers led by Nielsen, knew it was their final huddle as a team. “We tried to savour it a bit more since we understood it was going to be the last time,” he says. With the world No 1’s decision to step aside, the Danish trainer’s World Championship run also comes to a pause with a staggering eight world titles to his CV – four each with Anand and Carlsen.

Carlsen’s decision to forfeit isn’t unprecedented. In 1975, the brilliant American world champion Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title after his demands for changes in format weren’t met. Challenger Anatoly Karpov was declared champion. In March this year, a ‘spent’ Ashleigh Barty – world No 1 tennis player, fresh off an Australian Open title – announced that she was quitting the sport at 25.

Carlsen's case isn’t the same. He promises to continue to play other tournaments, just not the World Championship for now. It smacks us how badly Carlsen wanted out on it when he opens up to Barstad that the world titles he kept winning on a roll ‘meant nothing’ to him beyond perhaps satisfaction over a job well done.

At its core, a dip in drive after reaching the top comes down to “competing against the feeling of having achieved life’s goal already,” as Kasparov puts it succinctly. Much like “staying motivated after climbing Mount Everest a second time, or sixth,” he offers. Kasparov had, in his time, broken away from FIDE and set up a parallel World Championship cycle. Carlsen who straddles his superstardom with a vast chess empire, already has his own battery of tournaments. What shape and scope they’d assume in the future, there’s no way of telling just yet.

For now, he’d be relieved to be finally off the conveyor belt of ceaseless World Championships that had become his life over the past decade. He enjoys being more than just a guy who plays chess goddam well – his Twitter bio brags of his brief top spot in the Fantasy Premier League and he turns pocket aces into a bluff at poker championships like a pro. In his absence, the next World Championship – between Ding Liren and Nepomniachtchi dims in shine but perhaps turns into a more even contest.

Through his five title matches, Carlsen wasn’t quite put through the wringer. Barring perhaps some inspired play by Fabiano Caruana in 2018. Carlsen was undefeated but lonely at the top. He hoped for a strong challenger, trawled through next-gen names and briefly wished promising teen Alireza Firouzja would come through in the Candidates. It fizzled out quickly enough. Carlsen never had to toil too hard for a title to love it enough. Had he met his match in a rival, who knows.

He will now perhaps look for joy and purpose in chasing his personal Everest of 2900 Elo. In choosing not to be limited and defined by what the world thinks should be his legacy, Carlsen has broken free. He walked away knowing he could have stayed.

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