Monthly Archives: Dec 2022

Are the Days of Classical Chess Numbered?

It’s a valid question that crops up more and more lately. The latest impetus for asking it was Carlsen’s statement from his recent interview with chesscom when they spoke about the purchase of his company Play Magnus Group.

Carlsen openly stated that he expects classical chess to be phased out at his level. This is different to what Kasparov predicted more than 10 years ago when he said that classical chess will be played only by the elite, while for everybody else it will be just entertainment.

First we have to realise that Carlsen spoke as a shareholder of his company that was bought, so he had to play to the tune – chesscom is all about faster time controls. However, I think there is a deeper issue here.

Chronologically, Carlsen has called for change of the format of the World Championship to matches with faster time controls. Then this year he officially withdrew from the classical championship, something I wrote about in my previous post, where the main reason was the gruelling hard work necessary to play these matches. Then in the interview with chesscom he openly said that he expects classical chess to be played less. He said the reason for this was the difficulty of finding new ideas in the opening at his level.

Another notable thing he said was that he would like to play Fischer Random at classical time controls.

If we connect the dots of all of the above, we can come to the logical conclusion that Carlsen doesn’t want to work hard anymore.

Chess has always been very hard at the highest level. There was no World Champion who complained about that while they were still in their prime. They knew they had to work extremely hard to overcome their competition and come up with “new ideas in the opening.”

The comment about Fischer Random serves as proof of the above. Carlsen isn’t against classical chess per se, he likes to delve deeply in a position if he can just play from the beginning, not being burdened by preparation and memorisation.

But at 31 Carlsen became tired. He’s been working extremely hard for almost 20 years and doesn’t want to do that anymore. He wants to have fun, play on fast chess on chesscom and entertain himself and the world. He knows that his theoretical baggage from his matches is more than sufficient to keep him afloat, especially at faster time controls when even sub-optimal opening ideas can be tried without being punished.

I have to add that this doesn’t bide well for the still reigning World Champion. The moment you stop working hard you start going down. He is still head and shoulders above the rest, but that won’t last for long. That goal of 2900 will never happen.

After Carlsen other players also came out with the same preferences for faster time controls. With chesscom injecting vast amounts of money in their events, it’s easy to foresee a never-ending string of online tournaments which are financially more beneficial than any classical over-the-board event.

Who will care about classical chess then?

I care about classical chess and I know FIDE does too. But can anything be done to stop the tide?


Carlsen’s Pressure

Several months passed since Carlsen announced that he will not defend his title next year. The chess public accepted the fact and life moved on. In this post I’d like to give my view on the possible reasons for Carlsen’s decision.

When it comes to feeling the pressure and the fear of losing, I think the turning point was his match with Karjakin in 2016. That was the first time that he realistically felt that he could lose the match and the title. The scare was so big, that it left a mark on his psyche, a realisation that the title can depend on a single game and that he was, after all, not invincible.

Then came the proposals to change the format of the match and play a big number of a rapid games to determine the title of a World Champion.

When you add to the pressure of the match the months of gruesome pre-match preparation, it’s easy to understand that the amount of pressure that Carlsen feels for many months is incredibly high.

This is all understandable. However, the intriguing part for me was the match in 2018 against Caruana.

This was the match that Carlsen enjoyed. It was the first time that he felt that losing would not be the end of the world. Caruana had an almost equal rating to him at the time and was playing great chess, so Carlsen thought that losing to such a player would be sort-of acceptable. Caruana was worthy.

In other words, he didn’t feel the pressure to avoid losing to somebody he didn’t deem worthy. Something which was the case both with Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi.

The match with Nepomniachtchi was different in the sense that Carlsen had already made up his mind not to play another match and it was a “farewell affair.” The Challenger indeed showed that he wasn’t worthy in the way he collapsed.

Carlsen had been playing matches from 2013 to 2021, 5 matches in 8 years. Preparation, stress, tension, pressure were constant companions during these years. He proved everything he could and decided to stop. He couldn’t take the pressure any longer. It may not look like it, but he doesn’t have nerves of steel and some of his games have shown that he is quite susceptible to cracking under pressure. So it’s a safe bet to run away from all the trouble and play tournaments where the stakes are lower, at the same time undermining the legitimacy of the title of World Champion.

I don’t think any other World Champion would have done the same. They felt responsibility towards the chess public and felt it their duty to defend their title against the Challenger, whomever that may be. Carlsen is different and doesn’t seem to operate within these categories, which is his right. The chess public may lament this decision, but it will have to accept it.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think he will play another match. He will like the (almost) stress-free atmosphere of the tournaments he will play in so going back to the gruesome routine of match preparation and then match play will feel like a horror movie from the past that he will not look forward to relive again.