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.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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