Friday 5 November 2010

Carlsen Puts Himself En Prise

The big news of the day... Magnus Carlsen has withdrawn from the World Championship cycle.

Carlsen at the 2009 London Chess Classic - he plays again in 2010

Here is the content of his letter to FIDE:

Letter to FIDE
To: FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov & FIDE World Championship Committee.
Reference is made to the ongoing World Championship cycle.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you of my decision not to take part in the planned Candidate Matches between March and May 2011.
After careful consideration I’ve reached the conclusion that the ongoing 2008–2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need to go through a lengthy process of preparations and matches and to perform at my best.
Reigning champion privileges, the long (five year) span of the cycle, changes made during the cycle resulting in a new format (Candidates) that no World Champion has had to go through since Kasparov, puzzling ranking criteria as well as the shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept are all less than satisfactory in my opinion.
By providing you with four months notice before the earliest start of the Candidates as well as in time before you have presented player contracts or detailed regulations, I rest assured that you will be able to find an appropriate replacement.
Although the purpose of this letter is not to influence you to make further changes to the ongoing cycle, I would like to take the opportunity to present a few ideas about future cycles in line with our input to FIDE during the December 27th 2008 phone-conference between FIDE leaders and a group of top-level players.
In my opinion privileges should in general be abolished and a future World Championship model should be based on a fair fight between the best players in the World, on equal terms. This should apply also to the winner of the previous World Championship, and especially so when there are several players at approximately the same level in the world elite. (Why should one player have one out of two tickets to the final to the detriment of all remaining players in the world? Imagine that the winner of the 2010 Football World Cup would be directly qualified to the 2014 World Cup final while all the rest of the teams would have to fight for the other spot.)
One possibility for future cycles would be to stage an 8-10 player World Championship tournament similar to the 2005 and 2007 events.
The proposal to abolish the privileges of the World Champion in the future is not in any way meant as criticism of, or an attack on, the reigning World Champion Viswanathan Anand, who is a worthy World Champion, a role model chess colleague and a highly esteemed opponent.
Rest assured that I am still motivated to play competitive chess. My current plan is to continue to participate in well-organised top-level tournaments and to try to maintain the no 1 spot on the rating list that I have successfully defended for most of 2010.
Best regards,
IGM Magnus Carlsen

This sensational move is a very big deal for the world of chess. Magnus Carlsen is the biggest thing to happen to chess in the western hemisphere since Bobby Fischer in the 1960s and represents a major chance to see the game back in the limelight. For most of 2010 Carlsen has been ranked world number one player, aged only 19. He is likely to regain that position very soon and in time could go on to establish the sort of dominance enjoyed by the young Garry Kasparov. This decision means that he now cannot become official world champion for another four or five years.

From the point of view of the world chess championship itself: although it will undoubtedly proceed without him and produce a challenger to Vishy Anand, much of its credibility as a competition will have gone, as well as its saleability to prospective hosts and sponsors, particularly in Western Europe. The Candidates' competition is due to be played in Russia and most of the competitors are from Eastern Europe. They, and the World Chess Federation, may feel that Carlsen's withdrawal doesn't really affect them and is just a problem for those people in the western hemisphere who are trying to boost the popularity of chess in that part of the world. However, this is very short-sighted thinking: a high-profile championship challenger from the west would lead to a major boost for chess worldwide, thus enhancing all professional chessplayers' incomes and status.

It is hard not to make comparisons with Bobby Fischer, who several times withdrew from world chess championship qualifying cycles following disputes with organisers and officials. But how far does this comparison stand up? By the time he came to challenge for the world title, Fischer was very much a man alone, listening to advice from few and not always following it when it was given. Carlsen, one suspects, is very different: managed by his father, recently coached by Garry Kasparov, sponsored by Arctic Securities, he cuts a more worldly and well-rounded figure, and it has to be imagined that some, if not all, of the aforementioned agencies would have played a significant advisory role in the decision-making process.

But, in another sense, perhaps Fischer and Carlsen are more alike. After winning the championship in 1972, Fischer had promised he would play more but he actually failed to play at all (save a rematch with his rival-cum-buddy Spassky in 1992). Though unquestionably obsessed with chess (he still analysed and studied the game after he had stopped playing), Fischer may simply not have enjoyed taking part in competitions. This is not uncommon at all levels of the game: plenty of people have an interest in the game, and can be remarkably strong players, despite a distaste for entering chess competitions, for all manner of reasons. As for Carlsen, although he has amply recovered from his recent slump in form, his body language at the board is not always that of someone who enjoys the grind of elite-level chess. He sometimes looks bored or fed up whilst in play. His choice of unorthodox openings in some recent games is another symptom of possible ennui. It appears as if he is trying to rekindle his passion for the game by putting aside the same old openings for something a bit livelier. 

Perhaps Carlsen’s second career, as a model for G-RAW clothes, has given him the taste for the high life, and making big money with far less exertion than spending all day slaving over a hot chessboard. All speculation, of course, but perhaps there is something in it. His sporting analogy was to football, but tennis may be more to the point - an attritional game like chess, where prodigies often burn out at a young age or move into lucrative fringe activities. There must now be a slight worry that, after a few more tournament victories but with no new worlds to conquer, Carlsen may simply walk away from chess. Let's hope not.

Carlsen drops a fairly large hint in his press release that he would prefer a tournament-based championship system to matchplay. As mentioned above, his analogy is to football, where all teams start championships on the same footing, but others would analogise with boxing, where challengers have to win through a number of challenges for a chance to take on the champion. The latter format is closer to the long chess tradition, still favoured by Kasparov, Karpov and Kramnik, though it is possible Anand and Topalov might side with Carlsen. One is forced to agree with Carlsen that the particular arrangements envisaged for the 2011 Candidates’ competition, with four-game deciders building up to a six-game Candidates’ final, seem totally inadequate, and he is surely right about the World Chess Federation’s general mismanagement of the cycle to date. However, this particular part of the press release arguably weakens his overall argument. A lot of rank and file chess fans won't like it. The matchplay format for the world championship still enjoys a good degree of popularity in the chess world at large. As well as antagonising traditionalists, Carlsen's revelation of his own preferred format signals a possible ulterior motive to his withdrawal. It starts to look like a unilateral bid to change the championship system to one of his liking - all too reminiscent of some of his great (but none too democratically-minded) predecessors’ attempts to adjust the championship format in their own favour.

The timing of the press release is interesting, coming a month or so after Anatoly Karpov’s defeat in the FIDE Presidential election. Would Carlsen have stayed in the competition had Karpov been FIDE President? Very possibly, but we cannot be sure. Even had Karpov been elected, it may have been too late for him to change the 2011 Candidates’ competition arrangements.

It is hard to judge the likely effect on professional chess of Carlsen’s withdrawal. Some will argue that it will do damage - they will say that the reconstituted world championship cycle, though still far from ideal, was in the process of being repaired after the major schism of 1993 and that this will set back progress.

The likely counter argument of the Carlsen camp is that another four years of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov at the helm, with his long history of arbitrary, ill-judged decisions and long-delayed, underfunded competitions, will soon lead to more trouble anyway. Their thinking is that the fight to reform professional chess is inevitable and may as well start right now. Carlsen has already proved he is a great chessplayer but this is his first major move on the chess politics board, against the so far unbeaten ‘world chess politics champion’, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Carlsen has placed himself, the strongest piece on the board, en prise. Will his risky gambit pay off? Your move, Kirsan...

1 comment:

  1. This is a very cogent summation, although perhaps the comment, "Carlsen's revelation of his own preferred format signals a possible ulterior motive to his withdrawal" is in error; you jump from an assumed "hint" to a statement of fact. The knockout tournament was mentioned as "[o]ne possibility for future cycles." The letter begins by addressing flaws in the current system that too many falsely assume bears a close resemblance to the candidate process of old. Magnus references in his letter that his critiques are a consistent with and a continuation of a dialog that began earlier, namely at "December 27th 2008 phone-conference between FIDE leaders and a group of top-level players." Perhaps the letter could have dwelled on that past dialog a bit more for clarity, because those critiques of the current system have remained consistent and valid, and seem to be at the core of his decision.

    First, the winner of Grand Prix series (6 tournament series) was supposed to play winner of World Cup 2009 in a match to decide the challenger for the 2012 world championship, although this was in the middle of the "process." Magnus dropped out at that time, leading to all sorts of further tinkering to the process being adopted (including to get Magnus back into the fold based on rating, a concession he never asked for). Suffice it to say that the further tinkering only added to the arbitrary nature of the process and created other problems. Second, for the Candidates matches, Magnus wanted a set of 6 initial matches up to the semi-finals and a set of 8 matches for the final. The current schedule accommodates 4 match series before the final and a set of 6 matches for the final. Third, Magnus wanted a gap of 2 months between the semi-finals and the final. Forth, the champion should not receive undue privileges.

    Note that at least the first three of these critiques advocate eliminating from the current process elements that make it closer to a de facto knockout tournament rather than a more robust traditional candidate process before Ilyumzhinov made a hash of everything in an continual effort to degrade the title so as to avoid dealing with a powerful and influential champion. Thus, I read Magnus's comment about "[o]ne possibility for future cycles" as something along the lines of: "since FIDE has made of complete hash of it, and since my criticisms of this candidate cycle have not been addressed, a more modest knockout tournament is something I would consent to instead." In other words, isn't the comment about a tournament of necessity a suggestion made it light of the current FIDE-created fiasco, referred to earlier in the letter, rather than an approach necessarily preferred in the hypothetical abstract?

    Also, I am not sure that this is a great political gambit as opposed to simply declining to go into a line with unclear complications and instead simplifying the position. Magnus is extricating himself from a process politicized by others. Magnus says he is not bargaining and accepts that the current process will not change to suit him. He also graciously states that he is at parity with the best of the elite players and suggests that he just wants to get better and establish a clear level of separation between his performance and that of his current piers. While one might expect that Magnus's regard for FIDE's current leadership is in accord with the view of most, his decision reflected in this letter is not a hostile act.

    - Calvin Amari