History came full circle when Magnus Carlsen landed in Chennai this week to take part in the 44th Chess Olympiad: it was here that the Norwegian prodigy had outplayed five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand nine years ago.
Though Anand was no match for Carlsen in Chennai then, he had bounced back within months to win the Candidates Tournament, earning the right to challenge Carlsen in the next world title match in November 2014.
Ageing Anand lost again and miserably enough to give up the fight for the world title once and for all.
Carlsen, now aged 31, has since defended his title thrice in the classical format. During this time, he has won the world title in shorter formats of the game eight times. For 11 years since July 2011, he has remained the world’s highest-rated chess player. And after nine years as the world champion, Carlsen announced last week that he didn’t care about the thorny throne any more.
No, he isn’t quitting; it is just that he has had enough of this game of thrones.
Coming from the world’s greatest ever chess player, the decision wasn’t surprising at all. Several times in the past year, he had hinted at the possibility of simply walking away, only to pursue further excellence in chess.
After his second loss against Carlsen at Sochi in 2014, Anand had to refocus his energies to remain competitive. He was already 44 and a bit burnt out. By giving up the hunt for the world title, Anand was simply conserving himself to play better chess in the same manner as James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who gave up white-ball cricket to extend their test careers.
After two massively unequal contests against the much younger Carlsen, Anand opened up on Twitter in November 2014, saying playing head-to-head matches almost every year to defend his world title cost him dearly in terms of time to experiment and expand his repertoire.
The burden of playing head-to-head matches could be quite stifling: it demands months of tireless homework with narrowed focus on a particular opponent. Their playing styles, strengths and weaknesses are closely analyzed with the aim of developing a strategy that would work best against them.
The same strategy, however, might not deliver the same results against other opponents, which means preparation for a match could come at the cost of working on broader basics. After his loss at Sochi, Anand revealed he was looking to make changes to his playing style in 2011-12, but didn’t have the time to work on it because he had to focus on an upcoming match.
For Carlsen, too, the experience of playing matches every alternate year could have been similarly exasperating, especially if he didn’t see them as challenging enough. “I am not motivated to play another match… I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain,” Carlsen said in a podcast on July 20, announcing his decision to give up his world title.
Carlsen’s post-world championship journey, then, is going to start in Chennai with the Chess Olympiad. He will be playing the Olympiad, which takes place once every two years, for the first time since 2016.
Carlsen is still the world’s best chess player, who will dominate the playing field for years to come. He is only taking fresh guard in his own style to take his game to the next level. And it couldn’t have started at a better place than Chennai, which in Carlsen’s words “is the hottest hub of chess in the world now”.
He was referring to the large pool of talented young chess players that Tamil Nadu has churned out over the past 50 years or so, starting with Anand.
At this momentous juncture, the Seven Kingdoms should have come together to pay their respects to the Elvis Presley of world chess. But two of the strongest teams, Russia and China, are not taking part in the Chess Olympiad—Russia barred by the world chess federation for waging war in Ukraine; China pulled out due to Covid concerns.
That means the next two contenders for the world title, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi and China’s Ding Liren are out, and Carlsen will have company at the top from only the US’ Fabiano Caruana—the challenger to his world title and the one who almost dethroned him in 2018.So near, yet so far, but the gap between them has only widened.