Magnus says that playing for the world title has become tedious, but the matchplay system produces champions with longevity and we should resist the seductions of annual knockouts or chess ‘majors’
The world championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi was in the end a disappointment. Once Carlsen had won the glorious sixth game, the contest was over, with poor Nepo collapsing in a heap. What an anti-climax. The great Fischer-Spassky match, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate next year, has lived for half a century in the memory. Indeed, one might argue that it was too vivid – overshadowing most of what followed. The Carlsen-Nepo match will be lucky to last for a fortnight in chess aficionados’ collective imagination.
But the fallout has been interesting. First, the suggestion that Carlsen’s easy win and his fifth title (fourth title defence) means he is now unquestionably the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). With all due respect to Carlsen, who is of course a wonderful player, this is manifest nonsense. You simply can’t compare today’s players – in any sport – with those of the past.
In many sports – cricket, golf and tennis spring to mind – the equipment gets better, so naturally Kevin Pietersen will hit the ball harder and further than Don Bradman. That certainly doesn’t mean he is better. In other sports, football and rugby say, players are bigger, stronger, fitter. In rugby especially they are playing a game that the players who were around when I was growing up and following Wales avidly in the 1960s and 70s wouldn’t recognise. The great Gareth Edwards might struggle a bit against today’s behemoths, but then the great Gareth Edwards would also be spending six hours a day in the gym and would still be great – just in a different way.
So it is with chess players: today’s elite have computers and access to all the games played by their forebears. They stand on the shoulders of these pioneers. How on earth can you compare Carlsen with Philidor or Bourdonnais, Morphy or Steinitz, Capablanca, Alekhine or Fischer, or even with Kasparov, most of whose career was in the analogue era? You can’t: all these players were great in their own ways and their own eras.
Don’t take my word for it. I asked John Saunders, doyen of British chess journalists, what he thought, and he was emphatic that comparisons across the generations were of little value. “The GOAT concept is suspect,” he told me. “It’s not really possible to form meaningful judgments on players from different eras. The basic rules may be the same, but so much has changed – time controls, computers, communications, money, other resources. Carlsen is obviously one of the greats, with a natural gift on a par with Capablanca and Karpov. Then we have the natural attackers – Kasparov, Alekhine. And what to do with Lasker and Fischer? Botvinnik? I think those are my top eight, but I can’t choose between them.”
A top eight without Mikhail Tal – very controversial. But you get the point: all these players are great; they all brought something new and different to the chess party. Identifying a single GOAT suggests the rest are mere sheep, and that is ludicrous. Let’s celebrate them all, perhaps establishing a collective pantheon, but under no circumstances crowning a single all-time champ. That is to misunderstand the nature of sporting evolution.
More intriguing is the suggestion that this title defence might be Carlsen’s last; that he might now bow out, as Fischer did in 1975, as the undefeated champ. He gave an interview to a podcast earlier this week and shocked the chess world by saying this: “It has been clear to me for most of the year that this world championship match should be the last. It does not mean as much any more as it once did. I have not felt that the positive has outweighed the negative. I want to quit when I am at my best.”
Whether he carries through with this threat is moot, and he gave himself some wriggle room: “If someone other than Firouzja wins the Candidates Tournament, it is unlikely that I will play the next world championship match.” In other words, if Firouzja is the challenger, count him in. The whole chess world wants to see a Carlsen-Firouzja match, and much now rides on the latter’s performance in the Candidates. The world championship doesn’t seem to motivate Carlsen any longer, but a match with the young pretender does. “I have to say I was really impressed with his performance in the Grand Swiss and in the European Team Championship,” he has previously said of Firouzja, “and I would say that motivated me more than anything else.”
Carlsen is clearly bored by the world championship format, and may also feel that he could be making more money from sponsorship and on social media than from competing every two years for the world title. His principal objective now seems to be to get above 2900 Elo and, by the sound of it, he would welcome an annual tournament – perhaps featuring the world’s eight top-rated players – to determine that year’s champion.
This arrangement would be very detrimental to chess. The sport benefits by having a long-term champion that the broader public can identify with. Who now remembers all the here-today, gone-tomorrow Fide champions of the 1990s and 2000s. Fide had its own champions at a time when Kasparov broke away from the governing body’s embrace. At first, champions were decided via a match, but then a bi-annual knockout tournament crowned each new champion. Your starter for 10: name the six players who held the Fide title between 1993 and 2006 (answers at end of this blog).
A separate champ every year or two just doesn’t work. They come and go so fast, the public lose all sense of who is top dog. Obviously, the present set-up gives the champion a big advantage: challengers have to slog through the Candidates and will face a champion practised in matchplay. That was in part the undoing of Nepo: Carlsen had been through this four times before. But why shouldn’t the champion have that advantage? Having climbed the mountain he deserves it, and now some other bold Alpinist has to knock him off his perch.
That there have only been 16 official and undisputed – that is the key word – world champions is a huge plus for chess. They form a kind of apostolic succession, to use chess writer Bernard Cafferty’s lovely and very apposite term. Any chess lover worth his or her salt can name the lot. In order of course. Let’s do it aloud: Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Carlsen. The change of world champion really matters. It’s a seismic moment for chess, the changing of the guard, the ushering in of a new era, and matches to determine the title can be dramatic: not just Fischer-Spassky, but Capablanca-Alekhine, Botvinnik-Tal, Karpov-Korchnoi, Karpov-Kasparov. Chess loses that climactic moment at its peril.
A tournament once a year or once every two years – in effect the Candidates but determining the champion rather than the challenger – wouldn’t be the same. It would be exciting, but it would just create a champion for a brief time and then the process would start up again. Rinse and repeat. We would soon grow tired of this. In any case, the Candidates Tournament is already exciting enough: a great event in its own right with the job of producing a worthy challenger for the champion. It is the step beneath the summit, and both stages of the climb are momentous. Leave well alone: whatever Carlsen in his ennui thinks, the system is not broken.
Others have suggested a format, such as that in tennis and golf, where you have, say, four great annual tournaments and a range of satellite events, and those determine the world number one. But chess is not like tennis or golf. Those sports have four “majors” which have been hallowed by a century of tradition. In chess, events come and go as cities and individuals put up money and then lose interest. What would these four great chess events be? Would they be opens or invitationals? It would all be hopelessly messy.
These rival systems may have superficial attractions, but in reality they would produce a panoply of different champions and the public would lose all sense of where true greatness lies. To have a Lasker as world champion for 27 years or players such as Botvinnik, Kasparov and Carlsen dominating their eras gives the sport a flagbearer, a brand name with global recognition. That should not be given up lightly in exchange for the superficial excitement of a maelstrom of different talents competing for the title.
Admittedly the matchplay system means that some very great players never became world champion – Rubinstein, Bronstein, Korchnoi, Aronian, Shirov, Ivanchuk. With an annually crowned king, they would no doubt have been multiple champions. But even their failure to win the crown has its own drama and pathos. To share round the rewards to every “great” player would mean something was lost. Everyone must have prizes. Sorry, but life isn’t like that. When undisputed world champions are so few and getting a crack at the title so hard to come by, it makes winning the crown all the more significant. There is something magical about the golden 16, each handing on the title to the next. Truly an apostolic succession.
The method might seem perverse: people laugh now when they hear that the Wimbledon tennis championship did something similar in the late 19th and early 20th century – playing an entire tournament to produce a challenger to face the previous year’s champion, who would presumably come on court fresh as a daisy to beat a rival who had struggled through a number of tough rounds (this so-called challenge-round format was not abandoned until 1922). But somehow in chess it works. Please don’t change it just because the current champion is getting bored. Let’s hope Firouzja wins the next Candidates, Carlsen is galvanised by the prospect of facing him, and we get a world championship that sets the pulses racing and rivals 1972 for banner headlines. What a present that would be for chess.
FIDE champions 1993-2006: Karpov, Khalifman, Anand, Ponomariov, Kasimdzhanov, Topalov