Magnus Carlsen has announced that he is stepping down from the throne on World Chess Day (July 20), as recognized by the United Nations. His decision can do enormous damage to the sport that has made him famous and a millionaire, precisely when it is fashionable in large parts of the world due to the sum of four main factors: the restrictions, the success of the series Queen’s move, its great potential as a teaching tool and its usefulness in delaying brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. One wonders whether the Norwegian is violating a moral responsibility.
“Staying at the top is harder than getting there because you’re competing against the feeling that you’ve already achieved your goal in life. Staying motivated after climbing the Chess Olympus is like climbing Everest twice (or better six). People need reasons,” explains Gari Kasparov a few hours after Carlsen’s resignation in a tweet that can no longer reach one of Kasparov’s two biggest marks: seven duels unbeaten in a row for the title (the Scandinavian has five). The other is still possible, but stratospheric: to be that Number one twenty consecutive years (1985-2005) until his retirement; Carlsen has had ten or eleven depending on how you rate it since January 2010, falling to second in November 2010 and March and May 2011.
These reasons cited by Kasparov make him the champion who contributed most to the popularity of chess, during a quarter of a century in the elite and even later, after his retirement. He made serious mistakes; the largest causing a schism in 1993 when it broke away from the International Chess Federation (very corrupt and ineffective at the time, but necessary). However, the Azerbaijan-born Russian’s exploits weigh more: he had the greatest rivalry in the history of any individual sport with Anatoly Karpov; he took the banner of humans versus computers in his duels against Deep Blue (IBM) that made universal headlines; wrote my great predecessors a monumental work about all world champions; and he has always fought and continues to fight for the popularity of chess as a sport, as well as for its important educational, social and therapeutic uses.
It is fair to acknowledge that Carlsen had no rival comparable to what Karpov was to Kasparov. And also that a few weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic, in April 2020, he made a difficult, risky and very useful decision for the public interest: Chess24, one of the companies in his group, Play Magnus, promoted a series of quick tournaments for the Internet, when much of the world was at home. So it is true, as FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich notes in his statement this Wednesday, that the Norwegian has helped bring chess into fashion.
It’s also understandable that it’s very difficult as a human being to prepare for a single opponent for several months every few years, with the added pressure that comes with a title shot. Although it should be made clear that this commitment has made him a millionaire and a very privileged person compared to the vast majority of people who have to work every day in order to make a living in something they are not passionate about. On the other hand, it is also true that he has been calling for a change in the format of the World Cup since 2018. And he’s right about that: The enormous impact of training with computers that calculate millions of moves per second means that games at the highest level are rather boring for the average fan and do not serve to attract new followers.
However, the latest information suggests that Carlsen’s decision is not consistent with his own beliefs. He himself admits in his statement that FIDE has made suggestions that he likes, which can only mean a mixture of slow games with other fast ones. One that Carlsen would welcome is the one that has just been successfully experimented with in Stavanger, Norway, at the Norwegian Elite Chess Tournament: every draw game is immediately followed by one sudden death, Phone call Armageddon: ten minutes for the white player forced to win and seven for the black player. Answering questions from EL PAÍS, neither FIDE nor Carlsen’s father and representative Henrik have denied (although they have not confirmed it either) that Dvorkovich made this proposal at the Madrid meeting two weeks ago.
That said, FIDE, a very conservative and very slow-moving organization, most likely made Carlsen the most innovative offer, and the champion turned it down. The consequences will be severe. The duel between Niepómniashi and Liren Ding cannot be played in Russia due to sanctions and it is doubtful whether it will be played in China under the zero-Covid policy of this government. In any case, it will have a much smaller spread than with Carlsen, who will therefore appear much less in the press, because the World Championship is the most conspicuous showcase to talk about chess on all continents. It wouldn’t be surprising if Carlsen decides to reclaim the throne in two years’ time because that will motivate him. But two years is a precious time in which the chess world needs to capitalize on the capitalized MOMENT, which can be short-lived if not done well.
In his interview with EL PAÍS last November in Dubai, Carlsen emphasized that the contemporary world does not encourage thinking. As he explained, “I mean the rush, the abuse of social media, the amount of messages that are coming at you everywhere and you’re supposed to answer… I totally agree. And I think that more and more people are concerned about the misuse of new technologies. In this context it is obvious that chess can be very useful.”
One of the tools that chess has for the great goal of teaching thinking while playing is the biennial world championship. All rowers on this boat must row in the same direction. But suddenly it turns out that the boss is doing it backwards.
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