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The King in the Endgame

Magnus Carlsen’s legacy is still being written

Nate Sweitzer,

The World Chess Championship is currently happening in Kazakhstan, but the world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, isn’t participating. He has chosen to abdicate his throne, surrendering the title he first won in 2013 without defending it for a fifth time. Instead, the match—a best of 14 games (plus tiebreaks, if needed)—is between Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, who faced Carlsen for the title in 2021 and is the second-ranked player in the world, and Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren, the world’s third-ranked player. When asked before the start of the match who he thought would prevail, Carlsen replied, “I don’t care.”

It’s a strange situation. Discounting the schism in the 1990s that created a separate chess federation and champion for a brief time, a world champion hasn’t voluntarily walked away since Bobby Fischer disappeared from competitive chess after winning the title in 1972.

What makes the situation even stranger is that while Fischer stopped playing competitive chess, Carlsen says he will continue participating in tournaments. When Fischer refused to defend his title and vanished from the public eye, Anatoly Karpov was awarded the championship and went on to dominate the world of chess for the next decade. But whoever wins this year’s chess championship will be forced to reign in Carlsen’s incredibly long shadow.

For the last 10 years, Carlsen has stood head and shoulders above the world’s best chess players. The 32-year-old Norwegian currently holds chess’s top Elo rating, 2853, more than 50 points higher than either of the current competitors for the world championship. He achieved the rank of grandmaster at the age of 13 and at 19 was the youngest player to reach the no. 1 ranking. He has won five world championship titles, four World Rapid Chess Championships, and six World Blitz Chess Championships. His peak Elo rating of 2882, achieved twice in 2014 and 2019, is the highest in chess history. Magnus Carlsen is without rival, living or otherwise.

Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2023
Magnus Carlsen of Norway competes against Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa of India in Round 12 of the Masters Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2023 on January 28, 2023
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Why, then, would he walk away from the title he spent much of his life pursuing and then defending? “The conclusion is—it’s very simple—that I’m not motivated to play another match. I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain,” Carlsen said last year on an episode of his podcast, The Magnus Effect. When he says “match,” he is referring to chess’s match play format, which is admittedly unusual. The world chess champion faces a challenger once every two years in a series of games over a period of weeks. The challenger is the winner of a qualification tournament called the Candidates.

Carlsen said he doesn’t enjoy spending a year or more preparing for a match against a single player. Nor does he think the format is particularly fair, for himself or for his challengers. In fact, when Carlsen was 19, he turned down an invitation to play in the Candidates, decrying the “shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept” and “puzzling ranking criteria” as “less than satisfactory.” By that time, in 2010, the International Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, had been tinkering with the format of the world championship cycle for many years. The organization wanted a new template to pull the sport out of the chaos created by former world champion Garry Kasparov’s decision to break away and start a rival chess federation in 1993.

In 2011, after trying something different in each of the previous two cycles, FIDE went with a knockout tournament for the Candidates, in which eight participants played a best of four format in each round. Carlsen objected to this configuration and argued the world champion should have to defend their title in a round-robin tournament, a “fair fight between the best players in the world, on equal terms.” Had he played in 2011, he would have been a favorite to win and then would have been expected to win the world championship. He also would have broken Kasparov’s record as the youngest player to ever become world champion. Finally, in 2013, FIDE changed the Candidates format to a round-robin event, and Carlsen agreed to play. Unsurprisingly, he won the tournament and then defeated Viswanathan Anand in only 10 games of a 12-game match to become world champion. Since then, Carlsen has defended his title four times. In the 63 total games he played in those five matches, he lost only two.

Less than a week after his successful title defense in 2021 against Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen hinted on a podcast that he was considering hanging up his spurs. “If someone other than [Alireza] Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament, it is unlikely that I will play the next world championship match,” he said, referring to a young Iranian French prodigy who rapidly climbed the rankings and broke 2800 at the age of 18—beating Carlsen’s record to the milestone by five months. Carlsen, who had just turned 31, said he only wanted to defend the title against someone from the younger generation of players, and Firouzja was widely considered to be Carlsen’s next great rival.

Firouzja didn’t win the Candidates, however. He finished sixth out of eight players. Nepomniachtchi prevailed once again, earning the right to challenge Carlsen this year in a rematch of 2021—a match Carlsen won in a 7.5-point to 3.5-point rout. (Draws are worth half a point.) Nepomniachtchi, the same age as Carlsen, came up through the ranks with him. (Nepomniachtchi defeated Carlsen in the World Youth Chess Championship when they were 12.) It’s easy to see why Carlsen felt another match against Nepomniachtchi wasn’t exciting in contrast to a potentially new, epic rivalry with Firouzja.

In addition to heightened intrigue for Carlsen, a match with Firouzja would have held deeper significance for the broader public. It could have served as a battle between the last champion of the old generation of grandmasters and the first champion of the new one. Carlsen’s generation is the last to have learned chess on a physical board, without the benefit of today’s powerful computer engines. While Carlsen has certainly utilized and benefited from technology in his career, he was born in an era when the best chess players could still defeat the best chess computers. That has since changed, and Carlsen’s ascent to the top of the chess world coincided with the development of chess engines that have changed the way humans play and think about the game.

Setting aside IBM’s Deep Blue, which was designed in the mid-1990s specifically to play and defeat one person (Kasparov), the best publicly available chess engines were still only playing top players to a draw by the mid-2000s. By the mid-2010s, however, chess computers were unbeatable. In 2017, a neural network chess engine called AlphaZero took things to an otherworldly level. Programmed with nothing more than the rules of chess, AlphaZero played itself 44 million times. In 24 hours, it was strong enough to defeat the best chess computer on earth with relative ease. After getting a chance to review games played by AlphaZero in 2019, Carlsen declared himself changed. “I have become a very different player in terms of style than I was a bit earlier, and it has been a great ride.”

According to Peter Heine Nielsen in the magazine New in Chess, these changes in Carlsen’s game came from new ideas that AlphaZero uncovered about the value of sacrificing valuable pieces to gain an advantage, aggressively pushing the h-pawn up the board, and using the king as a more active piece.

This last idea is illustrated in a game Carlsen played against Levon Aronian during the 2019 Croatia Grand Chess Tour.

Carlsen was playing white, and in this position, many chess players would consider castling kingside, meaning the king on e1 would move to g1, and the rook on h1 would move to f1. This move secures the king, the most important piece in the game, behind three pawns and a rook. It’s a fortress for the king to hide in while other pieces continue to fight.

AlphaZero, however, didn’t make moves like that. Despite chess theory’s centuries-long notion that a king should be secreted away from the action until the endgame, AlphaZero preferred to have empty squares surrounding its king; to have the king out in open space meant the piece could be more mobile and would even be able to assist in the fight as needed. So in this case, Carlsen chose to castle queenside, meaning he moved his king to c1 and his rook on a1 to d1, putting his king on the more exposed side of the board. “A spectacular move, at least by our traditional understanding of chess,” Nielsen wrote. “But AlphaZero might approve!” Like AlphaZero, Carlsen believed the king would be more powerful when it had room to breathe.

Games like this showed how chess heretics were unshackling themselves from dogma—exposing their kings and pushing their h-pawns with abandon! While this required Carlsen and other older players to unlearn things ingrained in them for most of their lives, Firouzja and his generation were born into this world. They, and those who will come after them, won’t need to undo what teachers and books taught them. It’s all but certain that modern technology will have a profound impact on how the next elite chess players and world champions play the game.

Carlsen probably won’t be the one to pass the baton to those up-and-coming players—at least not formally, so long as he refuses to participate in World Chess Championships. But no matter how the lineage of official champions shakes out, history will likely remember Carlsen as the bridge from the old world to the new—a champion whose reign and playing style represented a shift in our understanding of chess.

How history remembers Carlsen, however, is a subject perhaps best put on ice. Despite refusing to defend his title, he has no intention of retiring from chess. “I enjoy playing tournaments a lot,” he said on his podcast last year, referring to other chess competitions with varying formats. “Obviously, I enjoy them a lot more than I enjoy the world championship, and frankly, I don’t see myself stopping as a chess player anytime soon.”

Back in 2019, following his victory over Fabiano Caruana in the World Chess Championship, Carlsen played in a slew of tournaments around the world. He went on a phenomenal tear, increasing his rating from 2835 to the record 2882 in a matter of months. It was enough to get the world’s no. 1 player talking about reaching 2900, a feat he once believed was impossible. Along the way, he racked up eight major tournament wins; earned the distinction of holding the World Blitz, Rapid, and classical titles all at the same time; and put together an undefeated streak that stretched to 125 games.

The coronavirus pandemic brought over-the-board tournaments to a halt in 2020 and interrupted the world championship cycle. Carlsen, however, played more than ever. He became a prolific Twitch streamer, broadcasting himself playing online while narrating the action and thinking out loud—perhaps the most access the public has ever had to the inner workings of a world chess champion’s mind. Carlsen decided the pandemic might not be a disaster for chess; it might be an opportunity. The lack of live sports meant that chess, which can be played online, could continue with a captive audience. “This could be a significant moment for chess,” he said. “As the world champion, I feel a responsibility to be involved and try to make it happen.” He created an online tournament with a $250,000 prize fund—by far the largest ever offered for an online event—and agreed to play in the competition himself. (He won, naturally.)

Carlsen was right: The pandemic marked the start of a chess boom that has shown no sign of subsiding. From October 2020 to April 2022, saw its monthly users increase from 8 million to over 16 million. Around the world, sales of chess boards and books, membership in chess clubs, attendance in chess classes, users on online chess platforms, and prize pools at chess tournaments are all at levels never seen before, thanks in large part to an army of content creators on Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok. They, like Carlsen, stream themselves playing the game while commentating on their strategies. These chess players have become minor stars in their own right: Chess has garnered the attention of celebrities, worked its way into the rotations of popular video game streamers, made the Instagram pages of famous athletes, and even garnered mainstream media attention with the intrigue of an international scandal.

After yet another successful world title defense in 2021, Carlsen went back to tournament play, winning four major events around the globe. The champion’s hot streak looked set to continue when he traveled to the United States last September to play in one of the most lucrative and prestigious tournaments in the world, the Sinquefield Cup, an invitation-only tournament held at the Saint Louis Chess Club with a $350,000 prize pool. But in the third round, Carlsen lost a game with white—which statistically has a slight advantage as the first player to move—to a young American grandmaster named Hans Niemann. It was a shocking upset. Carlsen subsequently withdrew from the event and posted a cryptic tweet that many interpreted as an insinuation that Niemann cheated.

The fallout from the game was immense, resulting in international press coverage and weeks of breathless debates among chess fans and the patzer public alike. Many new fans and casual observers (and a few grandmasters as well) saw Carlsen as a sore loser, a diva, and a poor sport whose ego prevented him from accepting that he was outplayed. Niemann, however, had a reputation among the top echelon of chess players as a nefarious character. He had been caught cheating before, as had one of his coaches, and he was known for his own poor sportsmanship and brash and cocky behavior at events. While some in the chess world familiar with Niemann initially supported Carlsen, the international chorus of boos grew louder from those who felt it was wrong to accuse someone of cheating without proof, and many of those chess insiders developed a more nuanced “both sides” position. Two weeks later, during an online event in which Carlsen was once again paired with Niemann, the former resigned the game after his first move, further baffling viewers. The chatter has since died down, though Niemann in October sued Carlsen and four others for defamation, seeking $100 million in damages. (Multiple motions have been filed to dismiss the lawsuit.) Niemann continues to play tournaments, and it’s likely the two will be paired together again at some point, giving extra life to this new albatross around Carlsen’s neck.

Still, as Nepomniachtchi and Liren continue to battle in Kazakhstan for the World Chess Championship, the specter of Carlsen hangs over them. After Nepomniachtchi won Game 5, he was asked about Carlsen potentially showing up to watch the remaining games. He replied by repeating Carlsen’s line, with an extra bit of flair—“I literally don’t care”—and adding, “I think he is turning into a streamer or something.” After Liren won Game 6 with a spectacular mating net, commentators noted that this year’s championship felt more exciting than usual. Already, four of the six games have finished with a decisive win or loss, more than any of the last 12 world championship matches. When Liren was asked why the contest was producing fewer draws and, some might argue, more exciting chess than any of Carlsen’s title matches, he replied, “I guess the reason is maybe we are not that professional as Magnus.” Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, the fifth-ranked player in the world and perhaps the most popular chess streamer on the internet, had this to say on his livestream about the match:

Magnus Carlsen is the best player. There’s no stopping that unless Magnus does a Bobby Fischer and he completely loses his mind and he retires and falls off the face of the Earth. The world champion is not going to be treated as a world champion. I don’t care if Nepomniachtchi wins. I don’t care if Ding wins. Both of them will be very deserving of winning the match, but that will not make them the world champion in anybody’s book. That’s the simple reality.

And during all of this, where is Magnus Carlsen? He doesn’t appear to be coming to Kazakhstan after all. Instead, he’s in Los Angeles, at the Hustler Casino, playing $100 to $200 no-limit poker against TikTokers and YouTubers. Like a lot of elite games players, Carlsen is a bit of a polymath, and he has a proclivity for gambling on games of skill. He excels at poker, has crushed fantasy sports, has a sponsorship with the sports betting site Unibet, and hosts a podcast with sports bettor Magnus Barstad. It’s yet another reason to forgo the intense yearlong preparation for a World Chess Championship defense. Perhaps Magnus simply has other things he’d rather be doing. After all, playing chess has already made him incredibly wealthy. He’s already reached the highest pinnacle of the game and etched his name in the history books. There might be something to be said for remaining king of the hill for as long as one possibly can, but that doesn’t appeal to Carlsen. “Four championships to five, it didn’t mean anything to me,” he said about his last title defense. ”It was nothing. I was satisfied with the job that I’d done. I was happy not to have lost the match, but that was it.”

From the top, there’s nowhere to go but down, and there’s a major price to stay up there. One of the broader points Carlsen has tried to make about the way the world championship is decided (and the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it) is that it doesn’t lend itself to great chess. And the preparation for the cycle keeps Carlsen out of action, at the chessboards in other tournaments or otherwise. There’s no reason why professional chess shouldn’t mirror professional golf, for example, where there is no “world champion” who squirrels themselves away for a year to practice in secret on a private course, waiting for the world to deliver them a challenger. There are simply tournaments throughout the year where the best players continually compete. Sure, some of them are more prestigious and lucrative than others, but such is the case in chess as well. When Tiger Woods was in his prime, was there any doubt that he was the best in the world? Did he need to be officially crowned the world champion? Didn’t his results speak for themselves, even if he took a month or a year off?

Magnus Carlsen will continue to play chess. He will lose a game here and there. He will stumble into controversies. Mostly, he will win. He will swat away whoever the next world champion will be. He will continue to be at the forefront of humanity and machine’s collaborative investigation into the frontiers of the most ancient of games. He may never reach 2900, but he is going to try. And, unshackled from the obligation of being a world champion, he will follow his curiosity wherever it takes him. Perhaps this, more than anything else, will be Carlsen’s lasting legacy from his decade as world chess champion: He was the one who showed us it doesn’t matter. The most powerful king, after all, is the one with room to breathe.

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