The chess world is still in a state of disbelief and bewilderment over the announcement on Wednesday that Magnus Carlsen has abdicated his world crown and will not play Ian Nepomniachtchi in next year’s title match. As per the Fide rules, the two-time Russian challenger will now play Candidates runner-up Ding Liren from China, with the world Nos 3 and 2 set to duke it out in a more low-key contest for the now vacant title.
Carlsen’s announcement shouldn’t really have come as a bolt out of the blue to the chess world, as the Norwegian five-time champion trailed heavy hints in several interviews after beating Nepomniachtchi in 2021 that the brutal gladiatorial contest of a World Championship Match was increasingly becoming devalued, and that he was unlikely to defend his crown again.
Some criticised the timing of Carlsen’s announcement, saying he was just trolling Fide on what was supposed to be the international governing body’s happy hashtag day of ‘International Chess Day’ – but the reality is that Carlsen is as straight as they come and the no-nonsense Norwegian stuck rigidly to Fide’s own request to make a decision to whether he would be defending his title by the deadline they set of Wednesday 20 July.
So why did Carlsen announce he wouldn’t be defending his title? The big problem seems to be that being world champion was becoming something of a burden for Carlsen, with the strenuous work needing to be put in every two years in order to defend his title – this was increasingly becoming too much of a strain for Carlsen, who wanted to free up his time to do other things.
Carlsen, through his Play Magnus Group, has created a more professional sponsorship image for chess with the multimillion-dollar online Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. Over the board, he’s can now have a serious tilt at his new challenge of becoming the first player in history to breach 2900. Not having to worry about the pressure of a title defence every couple of years makes him footloose and fancy free to pick and choose what tournaments he now plays in, and over the next two months Carlsen will be competing in major tournaments in Zagreb (SuperUnited Rapid & Blitz), Chennai (44th Chess Olympiad), Miami (FTX Crypto Cup) and St Louis (Sinquefield Cup).
The day after Carlsen’s title retirement announcement, there was just no respect shown to the world champion from his fellow professionals! Carlsen was brought back down to earth by Shakh Mamedyarov in round five of the SuperUnited Rapid in Zagreb, the third leg of the $1.4m Grand Chess Tour, as the big Azeri ‘rooked’ the Norwegian’s world with a timely exchange sacrifice.
But with a brace of wins over Jorden van Foreest and Ivan Saric, Carlsen fought back on the third and final day of the rapid contest, to end it in the chasing pack a point behind the Dutch tournament leader Van Foreest, with all the scores now carrying over to the blitz contest.
SuperUnited Rapid final standings:
1. J. v Foreest (Netherlands) 12/18; 2-4. M. Carlsen (Norway), A. Firouzja (France), W. So (USA) 11; 5. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 10; 6. I. Nepomniachtchi (Fide) 9; 7. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 8; 8. L. Dominguez (USA) 7; 9. I. Saric (Croatia) 6; 10. V. Topalov (Bulgaria) 5.
Photo: Magnus Carlsen gets no respect from Shak Mamedyarov! | © Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour
GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov – GM Magnus Carlsen
SuperUnited Rapid, (5)
Grünfeld Defence, Quiet System
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.e3 This is usually a quiet backwater for Grünfeld theory – the sort of line that in the past was a favourite of both Tigran Petrosian and Paul Keres. 5…0-0 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.Bc4 Nb6 A good alternative is 7…Nxc3 8.bxc3 c5 9.0-0 Qc7 an essential Grünfeld finesse, forcing 10.Qe2 Bg4 11.Ba3 Nd7 that I often played myself. 8.Bb3 c5 A timely and energetic break in the centre that’s become a theme in the Grünfeld. 9.0-0 cxd4 10.exd4 If 10.Nxd4 Nc6! keeps the strategic fight for the centre without the loss of time. 10…Nc6 11.d5 Na5 12.h3 Back in the day, Keres preferred 12.Bg5 here. 12…Nxb3 What’s the rush? More promising – and very much in the spirit of the Grünfeld – was 12…Bf5! activating all of Black’s pieces. Now, after 13.Be3 Nxb3 14.axb3 Qd6! 15.Bd4 (White can’t rush into things here. Tempting is 15.Ra5 but after 15…Rfd8 16.Bc5 Qc7 With the indirect attack on the Ra5, White’s d-pawn becomes a big target. 17.d6 Jettisoning the problem pawn now is best, as (17.b4? Nc4! 18.Ra2 b6 19.Bd4 e5! 20.dxe6 Bxe6 and Black has a dream Grunfeld position.) 17…exd6 18.Bd4 a6 19.Bxg7 Kxg7 20.Qd4+ f6 21.Qf4 Be6 22.Nd4 Bf7 and Black has a solid position – and an extra pawn to boot!) 15…Rfd8 16.Bxg7 Kxg7 Black has complete equality with no issues. 13.axb3 e6?! It was not too late for 13…Qd6 14.Be3 Bf5 as in the above note. 14.d6 Bd7 Carlsen has opted for a risky plan of blockading the d-pawn and trying to play around it with his pieces – but Mamedyarov soon spots the flaw in the World Champion’s plans! 15.Bf4 Bc6 16.Ne5 Bxe5 17.Bxe5 f6 18.Bg3 Qd7 19.Qd3 Rad8 20.Rad1 Qf7 21.b4! Forcing a weakening move that Carlsen doesn’t really doesn’t want to make. 21…a6 22.Qd4 Na4 23.Nxa4 Bxa4 24.Rd2 e5 25.Qb6 g5 Perhaps Carlsen should have realised by now that the d-pawn was the elephant in the room and instead play 25…Bc6 with the blockade plan of …Qe6, …Rd7 and …Rfd8 etc. 26.Rc1 Bc6 27.f3 Qe6 28.Rxc6! [see diagram] The exchange sacrifice, while not directly winning, does offer Mamedyarov great promise thanks to the influence of that big d-pawn. 28…bxc6 29.Qxc6 Rb8 30.Bf2 Rxb4 31.Qxa6 Rd8 32.Qa5 Rbb8 33.Bc5 Qc4 34.d7! Further cramping Black’s game – and look how White’s queen defends his R+B whilst at the same time maintaining pressure on Black’s position. 34…Ra8 35.Qc3! Taking full advantage of the fact that Carlsen can’t trade queens right now. 35…Qf7 The problem for Carlsen trading queens was 35…Qxc3 36.bxc3 Kf7 (Even worse was 36…Rab8 37.Be7 Kf7 38.Bxd8 Rxd8 39.Kf2 Ke7 40.Ke3 f5 41.g4! f4+ 42.Ke4 Ke6 Black can’t capture on d7 as the K+P ending is easily won for White. 43.Rd5 h6 44.c4 and Black is now forced into capturing on d7 and a lost K+P ending, or watch on helplessly as the c-pawn relentlessly pushes up the board. 36.Qd3 Rab8 37.Qa6! Cutting right across Carlsen’s plan of playing …Rb7 that will safely corral the problematic d-pawn and leave Black in command – but now Black’s position is still hanging by a thread. 37…Rxd7 Forced now, otherwise Qc6 defending the d7-pawn is coming, that will leave Black totally paralysed. And while the looming danger of the d7-pawn has been removed from the equation, there’s collateral damage to Carlsen’s kingside in the aftermath. 38.Rxd7 Qxd7 39.Qxf6 Black’s kingside defences have now more resembles a wreckage – just one slip and Carlsen’s king is doomed. 39…Re8! This is no time to be greedy and hang onto the pawns. If 39…Qg7 40.Qe6+ Kh8 41.Bd6 quickly wins. 40.Qxg5+ Qg7 41.Qe3 e4! Carlsen is fighting back, not giving Mamedyarov a chance to consolidate his promising position. 42.b4 Qg6 Even better was 42…Qe5 43.f4 Qd5 and Black’s centralised queen frees up his rook to come into the game via a8 (or c8, if White pushes the b-pawn). 43.f4 Rd8 And with the Black rook coming into the game, the general consensus among the pundits was that Carlsen would hold the game – but his exposed king means he still has to tread carefully. 44.Qe2 Rd3? Oops! It’s difficult to spot, but Carlsen simply had to play 44…Rd5 to stop Mamedyarov’s next move. Now the game should peter out to a draw after 45.Qa2 Qf7 46.Qa8+ Kg7 47.Be3 Qd7 48.Qa1+ Kg8 49.Qf6 and the reality is that with the Black king exposed to the elements, it will be impossible to avoid a perpetual/repetition. 45.Qa2+! Kg7 The problem is if 45…Qf7 46.Qa8+ Kg7 47.Qxe4 and White is winning with three extra pawns and the Black king still exposed. 46.Qa7+ Kg8 47.Qa8+ Kf7 48.g4 1-0 Carlsen resigns as Qf8+ is very hard to meet. After 48…Rd1+ 49.Kg2 Rd2+ 50.Kf1 Qg7 51.Qb7+ Kg8 (If 51…Kg6 Then the reason for g4 becomes clear, as 52.Qxe4+ Kf7 53.Qe7+ Kg6 54.f5+ Kh6 55.Qh4#) 52.Qc8+ Kf7 53.Ke1! Qc3 54.Qf8+ and once again the Black king is snared in a mating net with 54…Kg6 55.Qe8+ Kg7 56.Bf8+ Kf6 57.Qe7+ Kg6 58.f5#.