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Colin McGourty

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It’s official! Magnus Carlsen will NOT defend his title

Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlsen on "The Magnus Effect" podcast, where he talked about his trip to Las Vegas... and no longer playing for the World Chess Championship

Magnus Carlsen, the 5-time World Chess Champion, today ended months of speculation by announcing via his sponsor Unibet that he will not defend his title. The 31-year-old Norwegian is not retiring and vows “to be the best in the world, and not care about the World Championship!” That means Chinese world no. 2 Ding Liren’s last-round Candidates Tournament win against Hikaru Nakamura has earned him a lucrative match against Ian Nepomniachtchi.

Carlsen's World Championship doubts

Magnus Carlsen, who has spent over a decade unbroken as chess world no. 1, has long had a love/hate relationship with the World Chess Championship. In The Magnus Carlsen Story, released in early 2021, he commented, “I will most probably play in 2021, and if I were to win, I’ve no idea whether I would play the next one”.

He did play in 2021, but almost immediately after winning his 5th title against Ian Nepomniachtchi in Dubai, he gave a podcast interview to his friend Magnus Barstad for his sponsors Unibet where he commented, “if someone other than Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament it’s unlikely I will play the next World Championship match”.   

Magnus announces his decision

19-year-old Alireza Firouzja didn’t come close, and in a new podcast with the same host entitled "The Magnus Effect", Magnus now reveals that his World Championship adventure is over, at least for now.

The World Champion explains:

"Ultimately the conclusion stands, one that I’m pretty comfortable with, one that I’ve thought a lot about for a long time now, I would say more than a year, probably a year and a half almost, since long before the last match. And I’ve spoken to people in my team, I’ve spoken to FIDE, I spoke to Ian as well. And the conclusion is, yeah, it’s very simple, that

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."

Anatoly Karpov and Hou Yifan both gave up FIDE World Championship titles as they didn’t agree with the title being decided in a knockout, but you have to go back to Bobby Fischer in 1975 for the last player to give up the title rather than defend it in a match. The difference, however, is that Magnus had no demands that weren’t met.

Carlsen’s last-minute “negotiations” with FIDE

It was reported that Magnus Carlsen had a 40-minute meeting with the President of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) Arkady Dvorkovich and FIDE General Director Emil Sutovsky in Madrid on the final weekend of the Candidates Tournament, when it was already clear that Ian Nepomniachtchi would earn a World Championship rematch.

That meeting was widely thought to have been a discussion of what might make Magnus playing a new match possible, but Magnus explains it was mainly about communicating his decision.

"As many know, I was in Madrid for the conclusion of the Candidates Tournament. After the conclusion I did agree to meet with Dvorkovich and Sutovsky from FIDE to talk a little bit. I did not have any demands or suggestions for that meeting. They did have a couple of suggestions, but the gist of it was that I was there to tell them that I would not defend my title in the next World Championship match, and we had a small discussion. They had some suggestions, some of them I liked, some of them I did not."

Magnus Carlsen chessboard

Magnus Carlsen in Madrid during the Candidates Tournament | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

Carlsen began World Championship career “on a whim”

Magnus Carlsen has been surprising onlookers since November 2010 when, already clearly the world’s best player, he dropped out of the 2011 Candidates Matches. He published a letter complaining about the system, but few found the explanations convincing, and Magnus himself later confessed it was more about motivation.

His suggested changes were implemented, however, and he did play in the 2013 London Candidates Tournament, but he revealed in the podcast that he very nearly didn’t.

"It’s been, obviously, an interesting ride since the moment I decided to play the Candidates in 2013, which was, to be honest, on kind of a whim. I just at some point decided that I’m going to give the Candidates a try, could be interesting, and ever since the World Championship title has obviously given me a lot, it’s opened a lot of doors and I’m happy about that."

World Chess Champion: 2013-2023

Magnus scraped to victory after a last-round thriller when both he and Vladimir Kramnik lost, and the Carlsen era began in earnest on November 22, 2013, when Magnus drew against Vishy Anand in Game 10 of their match to clinch the title 6.5:3.5 in Chennai, India.

Magnus was asked if he’d achieved everything he set out to achieve in the nine years battling for the World Championship title.

"It’s more than nine years since the Candidates. It’s hard to say, I don’t think I had any other goals than to win it once. Then I thought I’ll try and keep it as long as I’m motivated, that’s fine. To be honest, in 2016 I was not very motivated. I feel like I mostly played that match because other people sort of relied on it, expected me to, which was fine, it was not their fault, it was all on me for feeling that responsibility."

That match in New York could have been the end of the road, since after seven draws, Sergey Karjakin took the lead with just four games to go.

The sense of things falling apart was completed by Magnus storming out of the post-game press conference before it began, but he hit back and went on to win the match in tiebreaks.

Magnus, perhaps surprisingly, identifies his win over Fabiano Caruana in 2018, after 12 draws in classical chess, as his most enjoyable.

"But the matches themselves have been at times interesting, at times a little bit of fun. The most fun match probably was the one in 2018. At least that was the most interesting one, and probably also for me it had the least stressful moments, because it was the closest one, and it was one that I felt that obviously losing would have been very bad, but it wouldn’t have been the disaster that I considered losing any of the other matches. But overall, I feel like it’s my time to go from the World Championship matches. I don’t rule out a return in the future, but I wouldn’t particularly count on it either."

Carlsen and Kasparov: World Championship legacy

Magnus made a cryptic post in the wake of defending his title against Vishy Anand in Sochi, Russia in 2014.

In the new podcast Magnus explains:

"I did have an Instagram post after the match in 2014, which was ‘two down, five to go’. I can reveal now that that was just to mess with people! I never had a goal of winning seven championships! I understand the whole thing about legacy and all of that, but to be honest, the last match, four championships or five championships, I understand for people who haven't been in that situation it sounds weird, and I understand that I’m very, very privileged to have been there when a lot of people spend their life trying to do the same thing, but four championships to five, it didn't mean anything to me. 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."

Is Magnus Carlsen retiring from chess?

No! The other big difference compared to Bobby Fischer is that Magnus is very much intending to keep on playing.

"Just so there’s no ambiguity here, I’m not retiring from chess, I’m still going to be an active player. I’m leaving later today to go to Croatia to play the Grand Chess Tour. From there on I’m going to go to Chennai to play the Olympiad, which is going to be a lot of fun, and the Norwegian team are seeded as number four there. Then to Miami to play one of the real highlights of the year, I feel, the FTX Crypto Cup, which is going to be awesome, and then right after that the next event in the Grand Chess Tour, the Sinquefield Cup. So yeah, I’ve got a lot of chess coming up. I enjoy playing tournaments a lot. 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 any time soon."

Magnus Carlsen shakes hand simul

Magnus Carlsen joined Garry Kasparov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and more players in giving a simul in Zagreb before the start of the SuperUnited Rapid & Blitz | photo: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Unprecedented 2900 rating remains Carlsen’s goal

Magnus Carlsen, currently rated 2864 and with a record peak rating of 2882, isn’t just planning on playing for fun, however. He commented:

"I hope to be able to edge closer to one of my other big goals, which is to make a 2900 rating. It’s going to be tough, obviously, but at the very least I’ve managed to keep my rating this year, which is at least something. It means that the goal is not further than it was earlier, although it’s tough. But we’ll see, I’ll just try and do the right things, trust the process and enjoy, and frankly I’m excited to get back to where I was back in 2011, 2012, start of 2013, where I was all set on trying to improve, trying to be better, do the right things, play the tournaments, be the best in the world… and not care about the World Championship!"

It's going to be a new era in chess to have Magnus Carlsen no longer as the World Champion, but there will be a 17th World Chess Champion.

Ding Liren vs. Ian Nepomniachtchi for the title

Ian Nepomniachtchi vs. Ding Liren

Unless there are new twists, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who won the 2022 Candidates Tournament, will play Ding Liren, who finished 2nd, in the next World Championship match | photo: Stev Bonhage, FIDE

“I throw away what would have been one of my greatest results ever,” said Hikaru Nakamura after losing a game he only needed to draw against Ding Liren, and that Candidates Tournament last-round battle has now taken on hugely greater significance.

With four wins in the last six games, Ding Liren finished half a point clear of Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov to take 2nd spot in the Candidates. That should now mean a €2 million+ World Championship match against Ian Nepomniachtchi next year for the world no. 2 — an amazing outcome, given Ding didn’t even qualify for the Candidates until Sergey Karjakin was banned from chess and the tournament. 

"It's hard to believe, I need to calm down a bit!" said Ding Liren in a quick interview with chess24.

Other players in the event may have regrets, including Fabiano Caruana, who finished the 1st half in second place, just behind Nepo, but crashed and burned as he battled to finish 1st.

The chess world keeps on turning

We’re sure to see shockwaves spread around the chess world after Carlsen’s decision to renounce his throne but, as Magnus mentioned, there’s little time to pause. Today he’s playing the SuperUnited Rapid & Blitz in Zagreb, Croatia and, as fate would have it, his first-round opponent is none other than the player he beat but now won’t defend his World Championship title against, Ian Nepomniachtchi.


Reaction to Magnus Carlsen's decision:

Ding Liren
Arkady Dvorkovich
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave
Garry Kasparov
Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen (in Zagreb)

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