Magnus Carlsen has shocked chess by withdrawing from the global body Fide’s elimination series to decide the 2012 world title challenger. The 19-year-old Norwegian was the favourite to qualify to meet India’s Vishy Anand, the reigning champion.
Carlsen cited as factors in his decision the official body Fide’s frequent rule changes during the qualifying process, the short four-game quarter and semi-finals played in quick succession, and the holder’s privilege to be excused until the final match. He proposed that future championships should be decided by elite tournaments of several players.
His withdrawal brought a mixed reaction from grandmasters and fans. Some applauded his principled stance, most opposed his wish to change the traditional match format in place since 1886, while some claimed that Carlsen was afraid of defeat by the experienced Vlad Kramnik and Levon Aronian. Aronian’s reaction was that “the world will not collapse”, while another candidate, Israel’s Boris Gelfand, said that he had earned his own place by “blood and sweat”, hinting that Carlsen should do likewise.
In a field where all the other candidates are East Europeans, ex-Soviets or both, Carlsen was a young and dynamic Western contender and the heir apparent to Bobby Fischer, who in his time also withdrew from the world series and got his wish to have the candidates tournament replaced by matches.
Did Carlsen write his own script or was he advised by managers and sponsors? Probably a bit of both. Garry Kasparov recently grumbled that Carlsen lacked a strong offboard chess work ethic, while the Norwegian’s father is a known advocate of tournaments over championship matches.
Significantly, too, Carlsen has strong media and sponsor links. His statement was front page news in Norway, and he was an ambassador for Tromso’s successful €15m bid for the 2014 Olympiad. His one-man breakaway carries strong echoes of Fischer’s 1975 attempt to play Anatoly Karpov outside Fide and the 1993 coup by Kasparov and Nigel Short. Appearing a rebel against the system will do his marketability no harm at all.
The organisers of the London Classic at Olympia on 8-15 December, which has both Anand and Carlsen in the field, have previously bid for the option to stage the 2012 title match, in the hope that it would be Anand v Carlsen. This cannot now happen. So the bold move could be for London, as in 1993, to go for a high profile breakway series in 2011 which would still allow the winner to play the official match a year later.