Today is World Chess Day, and today Magnus Carlsen at once stunned the chess world and confirmed earlier suspicions by announcing today that he would not defend his title of World Chess Champion in 2023.
Over the past year the five-time world champion has made a number of comments that led to this bombshell. In early 2021 he said: “I will most probably play in 2021, and if I were to win, I’ve no idea whether I would play the next one.”
Later, after defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi for his fifth title, he said: “If someone other than Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament it’s unlikely I will play the next World Championship match.”
As we reported earlier, Nepo won the 2022 Candidates Tournament and earned the right to challenge Carlsen for a second time in 2023.
On his new podcast, The Magnus Effect, Carlsen stated:
I am not motivated to play another match. I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain, I don’t particularly like it, and although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons and all of that, I don’t have any inclination to play and I will simply not play the match.
Carlsen clarified that he had spoken of his decision to both Nepo and FIDE officials after the Candidates Tournament, and stressed that he is on good terms with FIDE.
He was also quick to emphasize that he was not retiring from chess. His stated goal is to become the first player to break the 2900 rating barrier. He has been the highest rated player on earth since 2011, and with a peak rating of 2882, he is the highest-rated player of all time.
Carlsen first became world champion in 2013 by defeating Viswanathan Anand, and defended his title four times: in 2014 in a rematch against Anand, in 2016 against Sergey Karjakin, in 2018 against Fabiano Caruana, and in 2021 against Nepomniachtchi.
Only two players have more World Championship titles than Carlsen: Emmanuel Lasker and Mikhail Botvinnik both have six. The first Women’s World Champion, Vera Menchik, earned her title nine times.
Playing for the world championship is an extremely gruelling process, requiring months of training and preparation, followed by weeks of high-stakes classically-timed games. Having to do this every two years is exhausting; some think that the system in general needs to change, and that Magnus’ decision may precipitate some change.
The last world champion who declined to defend his title was Bobby Fischer back in 1975. Back in those days, the winner of the Candidates Tournament automatically became World Champion, and the age of Anatoly Karpov thus began.
A coronation like that is not especially satisfying; one expects a player to have to compete for the World Championship! And so today the system is different. FIDE rules state that should a current world champion not defend their title, the top two finishers from the Candidates Tournament contend for the championship.
This means that Nepo will face Chinese super GM Ding Liren, who narrowly edged out Hikaru Nakamura for the runner-up spot this year. As we have reported before, Ding overcame a number of obstacles to be able to play in the Candidates, after having replaced the suspended Sergey Karjakin in the tournament.
In response to today’s news, Ding said: “I am very excited about playing a world championship match, to fight for the crown next year. I knew [Carlsen] had doubts, but I expected him to play.”
And so on World Chess Day, we are reminded that the world of chess is anything but dull!