Although Magnus Carlsen’s decision to pull out of next year’s Candidates Matches came as a great shock, perhaps we should have seen it coming. It’s worth revisiting this summer’s press, where Veselin Topalov was making the headlines, but Carlsen’s name kept cropping up.
Back then it was easy to dismiss the mention of Carlsen’s demands and threats – by Silvio Danailov and Zurab Azmaiparashvili – as an attempt to deflect criticism from Topalov, but now it looks like we missed the real story. Below I’ve tried to briefly recount what happened, adding the quotes that concerned Carlsen:
22 July: This awful pun was the headline for Kommersant’s article revealing the Russian Chess Federation’s proposal (read: done deal) to switch the Candidates Matches from Baku to Kazan in Russia. I reported on it here: Candidates Matches once more in turmoil.
The justification was that Levon Aronian would be unable to play in Azerbaijan (because of the conflict with Armenia). Andrey Selivanov of the RCF made a statement he may later have regretted: “If the event’s switched to Kazan no problem will arise with participants refusing to play”.
Topalov, Russia and “that player”
Veselin Topalov immediately published an open letter which included the seemingly clear statement: “I would like to declare that I would not participate in any stage of the cycle of the World Chess Title that takes place in Russia”. GM Emil Sutovsky almost simultaneously published another open letter arguing for a change in the structure of the Candidates Matches.
July 29: Danailov was interviewed by Yury Vasiliev for Sport Express. I translated most of the interview here: “The Russian player we played a match against in 2006 in Elista doesn’t exist for us!” This is where Carlsen comes into the picture, with the first mention of his refusing to play:
And what do you think of the proposal of Grandmaster Emil Sutovsky, a member of the committee for running the World Championship and Olympiad: to play the quaterfinals and the semifinals over six games instead of four? And then after almost a half-year break to have a final over eight games, and already for a different, larger amount of money?
It’s not only Sutovsky who thinks like that. Topalov also holds the same opinion and, as far as I know, so does Magnus Carlsen. But it would be enough for the break between the semi-finals and finals to be 20 or 30 days. In a match over four games the players who are weaker will aim to bring the “long” games to a draw and decide the fate of the match in a tie-break, where the element of chance is greater. In matches over six games it’s harder to do that. Carlsen, as far as I know, won’t sign a contract if they propose playing 20 days in a row in Kazan. If the first and second place players in the world ratings won’t take part in the event then we’ll see what sort of a candidates tournament we’ll have…
But if everything you mention is satisfactory to you then Topalov can travel to Kazan?
Why not? We’ll study the proposed contract, and if everything suits us then Topalov, of course, will travel to Kazan.
But if Kramnik gets to the final, then Topalov won’t play him in Russia. Correct?
Veselin expressed it clearly in his letter.
I couldn’t resist including the “clarification”, but it’s also worth noting that the above gives no absolute guarantee of Topalov’s participation in the Candidates Matches.
July 30: Zurab Azmaiparashvili was interviewed by T. Tushiev for the Azerbaijan website, extratime.az. He comes out with a whole list of Carlsen’s demands, which include the surprising suggestion that Carlsen was unhappy playing an Azerbaijan player in Azerbaijan:
There was also something of a question mark over Magnus Carlsen. The Norwegian is prepared to play in Russia in principle, but demands that everything’s clear. His main demand is that the number of games is increased to 6-6-8. Moreover, the final match should take place separately, a few months later. Let’s say the quarterfinals and semifinals would take place in April, and then a couple of months later you’d have the final match. Carlsen’s second demand is that FIDE provides a guaranteed contract that encompasses the 2012 match with the World Champion, including the prize fund. He doesn’t agree with the existing rule according to which FIDE guarantees a prize fund of 1 million euro i.e. he wants to sign a contract from the beginning to the end, from the Candidates Matches directly to a World Championship match with Vishy Anand. On our side we promised that we’d work on that and all the candidates would be given a contract before the World Chess Olympiad begins.
What was the main reason for changing the location – Aronian’s position or the information about an impressive prize fund of almost half a million euro?
The main point was that the whole tournament couldn’t take place in Azerbaijan because of Aronian’s position, which would mean FIDE had to find a second city. But to find a second city that would declare its desire to run part of the tournament without their own nominee was very difficult. There was also Magnus Carlsen’s letter, where he stated that he didn’t want to play in Azerbaijan against an Azerbaijan grandmaster. But in fact that didn’t have any significance for FIDE, as those are already just whims that bear no relation to reality. Aronian’s problem, though, has some foundation unless the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict is resolved. As for Carlsen, that wasn’t his official position. He expressed his unwillingness, let’s put it like that, in a mild form, but it was explained to Magnus that he had no grounds for his wish. For example, if the Candidates Matches were held in Norway then neither an Azerbaijan or a Russian player or anyone else would have the right to express an unwillingness to play in Norway. It really would be complicated for Aronian to play in Baku, and that gives him a moral justification.
July 31: Ilyumzhinov was also interviewed by Vasiliev for Sport Express, and responded to the suggestion that something was amiss with Carlsen:
As for Magnus Carlsen, he came to the Presidential Council meeting (in Tromso) and took part in its work, but I didn’t hear about any protest from his side. If there were protests one of the Norwegian organisers would definitely have told me. Besides, I met with Magnus’ father, Henrik Carlsen, and even played in the same blitz tournament. He didn’t express any dissatisfaction with the tournament being held in Kazan either. (…)
So that means there’s no doubt that Carlsen will take part in the tournament in Kazan?
Just as there’s no doubt that the tournament will be organised to a high standard.
“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost, “What then?”
Almost the final twist in the story, until now, was when Anatoly Karpov proposed moving the Candidates Matches, again, to Kiev, Ukraine.
August 7: Karpov proposes holding Candidates Matches in Kiev. Karpov’s justification was a little confusing (or confused) but the interesting point was that when it was formally announced it included a proposal to increase the length of the matches. Given Magnus Carlsen’s support for the Karpov/Kasparov team in the FIDE Presidential Election we have to assume that Carlsen would still have played if Karpov had won – though I’d have paid to be a fly on the wall when Carlsen explained his “Why should one player have one out of two tickets to the final?” idea to the two former World Champions…
In any case, Ilyumzhinov won the election, and we’ve come to where we are today.
A (preemptive) response from Ilyumzhinov
November 2: A few days ago Ilyumzhinov gave an enormous interview to Kommersant. I considered translating some of it at the time, but decided I’d translated enough similar pieces before the FIDE Election. Still, if you applied the policy of the promising new Russian chess site, Chess-News.ru, and produced multiple news items from one interview, you could literally come up with 10 stories. For example: “Chess originated in Bulgaria”, “Ilyumzhinov serious about chess at Ground Zero”, “Europe voted for Ilyumzhinov”, “I invested $60 million in chess (but nothing in the last 3-4 years)”, “Grand Slam wants to be part of FIDE”, “I’ll give Karpov a pension” and… “Someone else will take your place”. The latter refers to Carlsen:
But didn’t it worry them (the Grand Slam organisers) that in FIDE events the rules often change after things have begun? That was how it was, after all, with the championship cycle and the Grand Prix series. Some chess players were upset. The number one player on the rating list, Magnus Carlsen, went as far as to abandon the series.
You have to understand that it’s not a case of I wake up and suddenly want to change something. There are continual discussions with the chess community, it’s simply that the press can’t see that. (Ilyumzhinov goes on to give a long justification…)
Aren’t you afraid that Carlsen might turn into a new Kasparov, in the sense that the Norwegian, by quitting the Grand Prix series, has already demonstrated that he’s prepared to protest if something in FIDE’s strategy doesn’t suit him?
I’d like him to play in tournaments and draw attention. In general I’m against anyone organising protests. But even if there are some it won’t break the established system. It’s working smoothly: Grand Prix, World Cup, Candidates Tournament… If you want to pull out of it – pull out. But your place will be taken by someone else. Gone are the days when Bobby Fischer was able to impose conditions on FIDE: you’ve brought the wrong chair, the prize fund is too small. Today that’s impossible.
15 responses to “Carlsen and the Candidates – a retrospective”
mishanp, do you remember that right after the elections were over Karpov and Kirsan got together “informally” and Kirsan agreed to increase the number of matches to 6-6-8? What happened to that agreement?
Good question, b3wins.
I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but I’m pretty sure Ilyumzhinov agreed to longer matches… but only for the next cycle – as of course FIDE would never consider changing things in mid-cycle :)
I saw it on chessbase:
but now I see that indeed they didn’t say it was for the current cycle. ..
I am bemused, but not surprised, that you view Ilyumzhinov’s July 31 unambiguous statement that Magnus was not protesting as a clear sign that Magnus in fact was protesting.
As with so much on this much appreciated website, thanks for offering light rather than heat on this much confused topic. In fact, Magnus’s criticisms of the the current candidate “process” have been consistent. Indeed, perhaps because these criticisms have been part of ongoing and unvarying dialog, Magnus presumably felt no need to fully recite they yet again in his recent letter, which no doubt has led to some confusion by outsiders now.
I don’t think you can say I express any opinion at the point where I quote Ilyumzhinov. It’s just interesting to see what he said back then, and of course “Just as there’s no doubt that the tournament will be organised to a high standard” is quite ironic (or unintentionally comic) in hindsight.
To sum up my feelings on Carlsen’s letter: I think it’s confused and contradictory. The problem is that if you’re going to take a decision that will harm chess and disappoint thousands of fans (ok – you can argue the first point, I suppose, but certainly not the second) you need to give some clear and logical justification – ideally in a way that leaves open the door to further negotiations.
If he’d just said: “I won’t play because you refuse to give us longer matches and a gap between the semi-finals and final”, then fine. I agree in principle, but also see Gelfand’s point about not wanting to change things again. If he’d said that then who knows, maybe they might make changes, maybe he can still play. At least I can see where he’s coming from.
But instead he also adds – “the cycle’s lasted five years”. Well ok, depending what you count as the start & finish that’s true – and obviously not ideal. But on the other hand all we have left is the Candidates and then we have a match with Anand. And Anand’s played in 2008 & 2010 & will play in 2012 – despite the long cycle at least we’re getting regular matches. Anyway, that argument’s by the by… the question is – what good does bringing this up now do!? As Aronian said, you can’t speed up the cycle by dropping out. It’s a pointless statement in this context and just muddies matters (yes – it goes towards the general, FIDE is incompetent issue (agreed), but that doesn’t get us anywhere in practical terms). This complaint can’t be solved – would Carlsen play if we had longer matches (and a longer cycle). We already don’t know.
He adds: “the ongoing 2008–2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need”. Sorry, but this is ridiculous – if you can’t get motivated for mini-matches against the best players in the world followed by a match with Anand what on earth could motivate you!?? Again, this is a complaint that can’t be solved, and it’s by no means clear where the “problem” lies – in his character or in the chess world (I can understand Kasparov not being motivated when he has no likely route to the World Championship, but Carlsen has 4 months to wait…).
And then he presents “ideas” – this is just utterly pointless here (at best). Sure, he might have the opinion that the champion shouldn’t be a champion in the sense he’s been for a hundred years – and the idea of which many of us love – but that’s just a personal opinion. I accept that dissatisfaction with FIDE can be objectively justified, and a reasonable subject for a protest, but what on earth is Carlsen’s personal opinion on an arguable topic doing in this letter. At the very least he should have a little respect for his colleagues or chess fans who might not share his views.
And again, in practical terms, it totally muddies the issue. If there were longer matches and breaks between matches, but Anand still got to meet the winner of the candidates (that privilege that gives chess a champion in a sense different from golf, tennis or football) – would he play!?? You must see the problem. Are Anand’s privileges the deal-breaker? Or is it the length of the matches? Or having no break? Or that it’s gone on too long? What would he actually be satisfied with? It’s an incredibly frustrating piece of writing (or to add more from the quotes above in my article – would playing against a player in their home country be a deal-breaker, or not having a contract including the WC match itself, and how much money does he need etc. etc.).
Carlsen talks about the mess FIDE is in, but this WC cycle is now very clear. Matches in Kazan next year (I think you can rely on the resources of the Russian government to guarantee it will happen), then a match with Anand, probably in London, in 2012. It’s been an awful mess in the past, but we’re nearly there now and 7 out of 8 players (not fools or lackeys) have agreed to it. I can’t help but see Carlsen as utterly in the wrong here. Plus he adds in the mini-interview: “It takes too much effort to deal with the political part of the process.” To which the obvious reply is: just play chess. Prepare and go to Kazan, and if you win prepare and play Anand. I wonder why he’s ended up so involved in politics when he’s 19 years old.
Perhaps I need to add, in the context of all the internet discussion, that I’ve never had anything against Carlsen before this – and thought his appearance was a great thing for chess. Hopefully he can rethink his approach a little and we can return to that – he’s still young enough.
I don’t disagree with you, mishanp, about the letter. It references that his views are a consistent with and a continuation of a dialog that began much earlier, namely at “December 27th 2008 phone-conference between FIDE leaders and a group of top-level players.” And, as your main story notes, there have been other consistent and valid criticisms of the current system from the Carlsen camp in the interim that are not fully reflected in the current letter or the December 2008 statement (e.g., short number of games, lack of a gap between matches, etc.). Perhaps the letter could have recounted that past dialog a bit more for clarity, because those critiques of the current system have remained and seem to be very relevant to this decision. Some of the issues that are specifically addressed in the current letter plainly appear to assume that the elements of the prior dialog were already in evidence and hence did not need to be recited again. That is true from FIDE’s perspective, to whom the letter was addressed, but not from the perspective of the public at large, which is why your principal article is quite useful.
The fact remains, however, that the current odd “process” for the championship that has been cobbled together is a product of FIDE’s general mismanagement of the cycle — with numerous arbitrary and ill-judged decisions, long delays, and characteristic lack of transparency and predictability. I think we can agree that players shouldn’t place themselves above the system, but here we have no semblance of a system whatsoever.
To say that the “WC cycle is now very clear” notwithstanding the fact it is the end result is a decision-making process that defies any rule-based explanation misses a good part of the point. Perhaps, by reason or happenstance, the process this time is in the mind of many better than many prior FIDE efforts over the last 15 years, but isn’t that damnation by faint praise — an indictment in itself and very relevant to what is occurring now? It is an incomplete analysis to look at only one side of the equation (this version of the candidate cycle) without looking at the other (the nature of the FIDE championship). It is a cost benefit analysis without regard to the benefit. For 15 years, Ilyumzhinov has worked steadily to erode the championship. Apparently wanting to be unencumbered by the natural and rightful influence of a clear world champion, he has strived to demean and diminish the game’s highest title. FIDE under Ilyumzhinov minted as many world champions in one six-year period as there were in the first 60 years of the title. Many view Ilyumzhinov’ behavior in this regard as wildly erratic; viewed properly, it is quite single-minded. In short, rather than the idealic view that many of us unrealistically maintain, Magnus is declining a chance at something of diminished value.
Beyond that, of course, close association with FIDE, the institution, now hardly brings luster. A recent headline from the largest circulation daily in the UK is not atypical: “Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has dragged chess into ill repute.” (Guardian 9/30/10). There is no need to recite the myriad of reasons that is the case, but events of recent months have only added to that litany of embarrassments. And if everyone acknowledges that FIDE scares off prospects of commercial sponsorship for chess, what do you suppose is the natural reaction to the problem might be?
You say that you “wonder why [Magnus] ended up so involved in politics when he’s 19 years old.” I am not sure that this is properly viewed as a great political gambit as opposed to simply declining to go into a line with unclear complications and instead simplifying the position greatly. Magnus, who has been a full-time chess professional for scarcely a year, is extricating himself from a politicized process. He plainly says he is not bargaining and accepts that the current process will not change to suit him. He also graciously states that he is only at parity with the best of the elite players and suggests that he just wants to focus on getting better and establishing a clear level of separation between his performance and that of his current peers.
Is all this cause for disappointment? Of course. That is a given. Fans want their favorite players to play no matter what the circumstances. But if the path Magnus has chosen is better suited for him to reach his potential, I suspect fans will be rewarded in the long run.
That was an excellent comment, Mishanp. It should end all discussions. Carlsen is simply doing wrong here, or more so, so are his advisors.
Thanks, Esalen – it’s also a relief to see I haven’t alienated all my Norwegian readers! I’ve generally avoided getting involved in the Carlsen debate but just needed to vent my frustration… :)
calvin – the thing is I agree about FIDE, but I just don’t see how any good can come of this action now. Maybe if he’d announced, before the elections, that he’d only play if Karpov won that might have had some influence. At the very least it would have been a truly brave decision. But now – whatever happens the events will just take place without him and it’s hardly going to change the FIDE leadership.
Much as I think Ilyumzhinov should be totally unelectable in any normal organisation (though e.g. FIFA is almost as bad – e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/9099326.stm), he’s actually stepped back from the brink with the World Championship. We’re now getting back to something closer to the classical system – and if the promises to Karpov hold up we should have longer matches in future. Actually Carlsen seems to be a much greater risk to what I’d consider the optimum system at the moment than Ilyumzhinov, crazy as that sounds.
Even with some of the things FIDE are rightly criticised for like changing the cycle mid-way… I can’t bring myself to regret that this Candidates was introduced instead of the Grand Prix winner playing the World Cup winner. The coming matches, with most of the people we’d want there, are great, or at least they were until Carlsen pulled out. Now we’ll have these tedious discussions continuing ad infinitum and whoever wins there’ll always be people adding a footnote about Carlsen.
Actually that’s another thing. You say he can now focus on improving his chess… but how would preparing for a match tournament in April possibly hurt!? Surely it’s useful experience. Then if he loses he’s free to do what he wants, and if he wins he’s got the wonderful challenge of a title match with Anand – what could possibly help him improve more!? What may well happen is that he’ll now improve his rating relative to the others as he’ll be free to use any opening prep in the coming tournaments while his main rivals will be keeping stuff back. That’s great for his PR etc., but of no lasting benefit for his chess.
There are certain criteria of greatness and a true champion:-
1. You have to beat the best and convincingly.
2. You have to hold onto your title for a reasonable length of time.
3. You have to be a true warrior, never running away from challenges.
4. You have to try, even when the odds are against you.
Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, Borg, Sampras, Federer, Schumacher are a few who complied “often enough” to set themselves apart as legends whom the world respects.
Amongst the surviving chess chamions, there are only three who qualify – Karpov, Kasaparov and Anand.
Kramnik or Topalov will be there, if either beat Anand in this cycle. Anyone else will be there if they win and can hold on for five years.
I wish Carlsen had the guts like a rising Anand who valiantly faced Karpov and Kasparov at their peak. Anand fulfilled criterion #3 and #4 in 1995 against Kasaparov at his peak. He could have easily found excuses because the Chess universe was split midway between FIDE and Kasparov’s PCA. Perhaps it was Anand’s credibility in both the FIDE/PCA systems that reinforced Kasaparov’s status as a legend.
Anand again underwent a rigorous qualifier for his match with Karpov in 1998 who was the rival FIDE champion (Kramnik withdrew). Anand eventually lost in the tie breaker despite being “brought in a coffin” for the match, as he’d later say. Anand basically fulfilled criterion #3 and #4 again. Mind you, Karpov beat Kasparov as late as 2002.
In the above examples, a young Anand (quiet like Carlsen today) was beaten by Kasaparov absolutely and by Karpov slightly unconvincingly. Yet, you get the feel of a “new King” rising in the ranks and when you see this video of Kasaparov’s eyeballs falling out of their sockets during one of their matches…those are the “forever” moments of Champion vs Challenger that the world remembers.
Kramnik was finally the one who beat Kasparov in 2000 and fulfilled many of those criterion which make players legends. Topalov earns his place amongst the greats with his recent classic duels with Kramnik and Anand that meet several a criterion.
I beg to ask you all, whether Anand would have had the same exalted status he enjoy’s today if he had chickened out of those duels with Kasparov and Karpov? Or if he had not proved himself consistently in a much more confused Chess world split between FIDE and PCA or the multiple formats (match, tournament, rapid, blindfold, vs computer etc). That too over so many years? Ditto for Kramnik and Topalov despite all the rivalry. That’s the spice of the game.
The young yuppie Carlsen knows he can’t win in the face of Kramnik, Topalov or even Aronian and then go on to beat the big daddy of em all – Anand.
He’s simply chickened out based on weakness / ill advise / immaturity / sponsorship considerations. The only reason why the news is making headlines is because he has been rated World #1 for most of the year despite never being convincing against any top player.
Carlsen is 21 years younger then Anand (not even half his age!) and he is 15 years younger then Kramnik and Topalov. Therefore, much like Anand beating Karpov today is a non-event; so would be Carlsen beating Anand / Kramnik / Topalov five or ten years hence. Perhaps even I can knock out Muhammad Ali today and my grandchildren beat Carlsen in the year 2050! Carlsen has missed his chance of proving himself against truly great players of a wonderful generation. This was his chance to prove that he is a man and not a boy, a true legend and not merely a pretender, but he lost it!
A Carlsen that had conquered Anand, Kramnik, Topalov at their peak and the future generation thereafter would have been a much much greater champion then one who ran away from these great players and merely won once they faded away. It will undoubtedly go down in his history.
Carlsen may yet become world champion in the future – though I think he won’t – he isn’t a true warrior and he runs away from the four criteria of greatness.
Hope Carlsen still proves himself. I “was” one of his fans.
No question that you make some valid points, mishanp. But you say that you don’t see how any good can come of this action now and that, maybe if Magnus announced before the elections that he’d only play if Karpov won, that might have had some influence. Agreed, but Magnus makes very clear that he is not in the least trying to gain bargaining leverage and, practically speaking, he probably can’t do so effectively acting alone. You seem to acknowledge that FIDE has made its usual mess of things and institutionally is either corrupt, incompetent, or both. However, you give Magnus only two options: work to fix FIDE (beyond being the sole! member of the elite to lend active public support to the Karpov campaign) or embrace it by dutifully jumping through whatever hoops FIDE concocts for top level players. I guess I’m puzzled why keeping FIDE at a respectful but safe arms length isn’t a totally valid and respectable third option. I don’t begin my assessment of this development with the assumption that top players are obligated to jump when FIDE says “jump.”
As I’ve said before, I don’t see anything wrong with Magnus simply saying he doesn’t want to take part. I just object to the horribly conflicted letter/interview/clarification. It doesn’t work on any level – not as an explanation, or a protest, or a proposal.
I think it’s a little (or maybe a lot…) offensive to say the other players are jumping when FIDE says jump, by the way – why not just accept that they seem happy enough with the current format at this particular moment in time. As a chess fan I am, and ultimately for chess players the chess has to come first (as historically it will too). If given a choice between the current FIDE with a match system or a new FIDE president but Carlsen getting the WC system he wants I’d actually choose the current FIDE every time. Alas.
p.s. Calvin – would you be very upset if I left out “much as weightlifters, coffeehouse patzers, and literary editors give off BO” when forwarding your question to Peter Svidler!? I’m not sure it adds anything, and I can just see my e-mail exchange when I explain it to the guy who’ll have to translate the question into Russian…
“I think it’s a little (or maybe a lot…) offensive to say the other players are jumping when FIDE says jump, by the way …”
I do suspect that (1) some players believe that kowtowing to Ilyumzhinov is their best, or at least easiest, chance at a meal-ticket and (2) FIDE has become accustomed to the leverage that results from this dynamic. However, I most assuredly never came close to saying what you suggest. I said that “I don’t begin my assessment of this development [Carlson’s decision] with the assumption that top players are obligated to jump when FIDE says ‘“jump.'” Indeed, I very much believe this should be the case for all professional chess players. If they decide to play, they should not be deemed to be following a FIDE command in subservient fashion. If they decide not to play, as Magnus has, this likewise should not be deemed an outrageous act of uppity defiance of their lowly status and of what is expected of them. Rather, they should be regarded as unique professionals who may or may not be enticed to participate in a particular event based on whatever decision-making criteria they choose.
As for my question to Svidler elsewhere on this terrific site, I was, in effect, only acknowledging (in a manner I thought Peter might appreciate) his own extraordinarily playful way with the English language. Among his other atributes, perhaps he should be regarded as the Nabokov of chess commentators.
Ok, in that case I think I agree with you on FIDE and the players! And I’ll probably leave the question untouched. By the way, Svidler should get all the questions (not a selection) though especially with Russian and English questioners not having been able to compare questions there’s bound to be some repetition and a few might be left out (or at the very least grouped together). But hopefully it’ll all work out!