Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen shocks chess world by withdrawing from Candidates matches.
IF you are waiting for the next world chess championship match to be played between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen (pic), you can forget about it.
It’s not going to happen any time soon, not after the gifted 19-year-old Norwegian (he’ll be celebrating his 20th birthday on Nov 30) pulled out from the Candidates matches that are due to be played next March.
It was a decision that shocked the chess world. The Norwegian grandmaster is currently the highest rated player in the world. Certainly, a match between him and defending champion Anand would have captured the world’s imagination.
But in order to reach Anand for the title, Carlsen would have to go through the series of elimination Candidates mini-matches. First off would be the Candidates quarter-final match and if he was successful, then the Candidates semi-final match and then the Candidates final match itself. The winner earns a ticket at a tilt with Anand in 2012.
Last week, Carlsen informed the World Chess Federation (Fide) that he was withdrawing from the Candidates. He claimed that the current world championship cycle was unfair to him. Also, the rules were not sufficiently modern enough. As such, he would not be able to motivate himself to compete.
What Carlsen wanted was an end to the Candidates matches. He preferred an eight to 10 player world championship tournament to decide who would be the world champion, like what was played in 2005 and 2007. He didn’t like the idea of a series of knock-out matches.
Well, maybe to a teenager, the matches are not exciting or appealing enough. But to the rest of the world – and when I say the “rest of the world”, I mean the top-ranked professional chess players – the return to the Candidates matches were what they demanded and received from Fide.
Few of the professional chess players wanted the world championship title to be decided on tournament play. There are tournaments a-plenty to satisfy the professional players throughout the year but a true test of a worthy champion, they said, is the ability to go through a series of games in a match with his challenger. For example, if two players were to play for the very highest stakes, would they want to stake everything on only one game or on a series of games?
Therein lies the other argument in Carlsen’s withdrawal: the world championship is not a fight on equal terms. While players have to slug it out in the Candidates quarter-finals, semi-finals and final matches, the champion only needs to sit pretty and wait for a challenger to emerge.
Why should one player have one out of two tickets to the final, which is to the detriment of all remaining players in the world, he asked. Curiously enough, he then made a puzzling comparison. Imagine, he said, if the winner of the 2010 Football World Cup directly qualifies for the 2014 World Cup final, while all the rest of the teams fight for the other spot.
To me, this comparison with the World Cup is simply not spot-on. World championship chess and the football World Cup are two different creatures. World championship chess is a contest between individuals whereas the World Cup is a team game.
In any tournament for individuals, the players do not change once the event had started. In team events, the players in a team do change from game to game. Even if two football teams play each other in quick succession, in all practical likelihood, the make-up of the teams on the two occasions would be different. Thus it makes little sense to make this sort of comparison.
Another of Carlsen’s argument was that five years was too long to complete a world chess championship cycle. To me, this is certainly true. However, one must understand the turmoil that the world chess had undergone in the last two decades.
Since the days of Wilhelm Steinitz (the year was 1886), there had been a long chain of undisputed world chess champions. This chain snapped in 1993 when Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short chose to play their world championship match outside Fide. For 14 years, there were two parallel championship cycles.
Although unification of the two titles eventually happened in 2006 after a lot of intense negotiation, the stakeholders still had much to demand from Fide. You can say that Fide had to tread a fine line to satisfy everyone involved and that needed time. But eventually, everything settled down and there is now again one accepted format and one undisputed world chess champion in Anand. It was a tough lesson learnt. Would anyone want to repeat the same mistake?
But of course, it is all up to Carlsen. If he chooses to withdraw from the Candidates matches, that is up to him. Nobody can force him to accept a system which he dislikes. So without him playing, there is no potential Anand versus Carlsen world chess championship match to look forward to.
Nevertheless, the situation is still okay by Fide. All this had been anticipated and one or two days later, the world body announced that Alexander Grischuk has replaced Carlsen in the Candidates.
The Candidates matches will be world class with or without the Norwegian grandmaster. Only difference is that it will have less glamour.
In fact, come next year, I’ll be looking forward to Veselin Topalov vs Gata Kamsky, Vladimir Kramnik vs Teimour Radjabov, Levon Aronian vs Alexander Grischuk, and Boris Gelfand vs Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.