Magnus Carlsen’s announcement that his victory over Ian Nepomniachtchi may have been his last world championship match sent shockwaves through the chess community. Would he really only accept the bright new star Alireza Firouzja as a challenger? Where is his respect for players like Fabiano Caruana, Ding Liren or Anish Giri? Does an arrogant champion expect chess to change its ways to please him?
Chess had world champions who didn’t bother about winning tournaments and cared only about the privileges that come with their title.
Wait a second. Chess had world champions who didn’t bother about winning tournaments as long as they kept the title, whereas Carlsen strives to win every single competition he is participating in. Chess had its fair share of world champions who cared only about themselves and the privileges that come with their title, whereas Carlsen very much cares about the welfare of the chess community. The Play Magnus Group he helped to built is raising millions for those who play, present and explain chess. Carlsen also made it clear in the past that in his opinion the world champion title comes with too much privilege. From a historical perspective, having a world champion who is ready to part with his privileged position, is actually an opportunity.
During the late 1980s Karpov and Kasparov came close to monopolising the world championship. From 2007 to 2010 FIDE rigged the system in the interests of Kramnik, Anand and Topalov and shut everyone else out, even though these three were not even ahead of their rivals. Among those left out during those years was a young Norwegian who refused to take part in the next ill-conceived world championship qualifier that was based on short matches in 2011.
Matches produce quite different chess from other formats. The key to winning a round robin or Swiss tournament is to win games. They key to winning a match is avoiding to lose. World championship matches do not any more take their legitimacy from the attractivity of the games they produce but from the recent acceptance of breaking a tie at shorter time limits. Mixing classical and rapid chess in a world championship had been unthinkable in the past, when many of the outstanding games were produced in title matches which is clearly not the case today.
The key to winning a round robin or Swiss is to win games. They key to winning a match is avoiding to lose.
The classical world championship is by far the most visible and high-priced event in chess. Instead of cursing Carlsen for questioning the system and clinging to a 135-years-old tradition of matches for the highest title, the chess community should reconsider how it wants to present itself to the world. Since there is no trivial fix, chess needs a proper debate across players, organisations and media.