Does chess have a world champion?

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Does chess have a world champion?

Well do we? There have been interregnal  precedents, in the days of the proto-champions; after Philidor, for example, in the late 18th century,  there was no obvious successor, until the advent of Labourdonnais in 1834 (obit. 1840). Staunton became the preeminent champion in 1843, followed by Anderssen, 1851, Morphy, 1858 and Steinitz, 1866. Thereafter, the empire was only unpossessed from 1946 until 1948, the period from Alekhine’s death as champion, until Botvinnik’s accession. Technically there was no interval when the mercurial Bobby Fischer declined to defend his champion’s title in 1975, since Fischer remained champion until Karpov’s coronation by default on April 3, of that year.

Now, however, the situation is far less clear. Magnus Carlsen has declared his intention not to defend his championship, but has he already resigned? Is the chair already empty, is the sword unswayed, is the king dead? Or does he remain the champion until one of his two potential replacements emerges victorious from the Ersatz title match, now set for Kazakhstan in the coming Spring?

What is clear is that Carlsen seems to have suffered something of a relapse in classical chess, if his consecutive losses from the current tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Holland, are to be credited. As if to demonstrate the scope of the malaise, he succumbed with both the black and white pieces.

Against his relatively old adversary, Anish Giri, he lost with Black. Notably, having failed (with the single exception of Alireza Firouzja) to acknowledge any of the new cohort of youngsters, he lost with White against his latest arch-rival, Nodirbek Abdusattorov.

He had not lost two games in a classical tournament since Norway 2020, where he also lost with Black, to Duda and then with White, to Aronian.

It is also clear that Carlsen lends more weight to his rapid and blitz world titles than he does to traditional chess at classical speed limits. Finally, it is abundantly manifest that by deciding to continue competing at all levels (rapid, blitz, classical) while lesser and lower rated mortals strive for the classical title, Carlsen has struck a dagger at the heart at the validity of the classical world title.

Frankly, I am astonished that any country has offered to host the forthcoming so-called championship match. Nevertheless, FIDÉ (the world chess federation) has pulled off the feat of encouraging several bids, from which Kazakhstan has been selected.

What follows is extracted from the latest FIDÉ press release, which makes the most of a patently unsatisfactory situation, where it is not even transparent whether we are within an interregnum period or not.

According to FIDÉ, the World Championship 2023 is due to take place in Astana, Kazakhstan, from April 7th to May 1st.

A new World Champion will be crowned, as Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) and Ding Liren (China) will battle to seize the throne left vacant by Magnus Carlsen’s withdrawal.

The sponsor of the event, which boasts a prize fund of €2 million, will be Freedom Holding Corp, a US-based corporation with Kazakh roots that provides financial services. Sixty percent goes to the winner, with forty percent to the runner-up.

FIDÉ go on to claim that “since almost five centuries ago, the question of who the best chess player in the world is has been resolved over a match, a face-off between two players competing over the course of several weeks, usually with a large purse at stake.”

This is about three centuries more than most authorities would confirm. Be that as it may, the impression left is of two dwarves (relatively speaking) scrambling for the laurels, while a nearby giant decides to rest on his.

On October 31, 2022, the reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen officially confirmed that he would not defend his title as Classical World Champion against his challenger, the world’s number 3, Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Chinese Grandmaster Ding Liren, the runner-up in the Candidates tournament and current number 2 in the world ranking, received the unexpected opportunity to play for the highest recognition in the chess world. But does that mean the end of Carlsen’s reign as from 31/10/2022, or merely the announcement of the end once the new match is decided? A matter for future historians, perhaps?

The FIDÉ press release, making the best of a bad job, and resorting to hyperbole, write: “With no defending champion and two challengers, the event promises to be one of the most thrilling [sic] and open championships of recent times, as none of them is a clear favourite.”

Ding Liren is the slightly higher-rated player, with an Elo rating of 2811. However, Ian Nepomniachtchi, who is currently rated 2793, has the head-to-head score slightly in his favour: of 13 classical chess games played between them, “Nepo” has won 3, lost 2, and drawn 8. Nepomniachtchi’s lead increases to 13-9, with 17 draws, if we include rapid and exhibition games.

More importantly, Nepomniachtchi, having been annihilated in the previous world championship match against Carlsen, came ahead of his rival in the Candidates Tournament, held in Madrid in June-July 2022, with an impressive score of 9½ points in 14 games. There, Ding could only score 8 points – a result good enough, though, to secure him this golden opportunity.

“Nepo” would go on to become the outright winner, achieving the rare feature of winning the Candidates Tournament twice in a row, following his victory in Yekaterinburg 2021.

The World Championship match in Astana will once again be played over 14 games. In case of a tie, the Champion would be determined in a rapid chess playoff.

To my utter astonishment, given the absence of the defending champion, Argentina was the other main contender to host the FIDÉ World Chess Championship match, while Mexico and China also expressed an interest. However, given the nationality of the contenders, the last-moment bid received from Kazakhstan’s capital had obvious advantages, due to its geographical situation and its track record of hosting world chess events. This  was the option preferred by the FIDÉ Council.

“It is the first time in history that a Chinese Grandmaster reaches the final and fights for the World Championship title. We anticipate an enormous interest from China in this event, and that’s an opportunity we must capitalise on to promote chess in Asia,” said the FIDÉ President, the Russian Arkady Dvorkovich. “Kazakhstan is a thriving country with a flourishing economy and a privileged geographical situation, which made it perfect for hosting this match.”

A decisive figure in bringing the World Championship match to Astana is Timur Turlov, a former trader who, in 2008, founded Freedom Finance, the foundation stone over which he would build a financial empire. Turlov is now the CEO of Freedom Holding Corp., a US-based group whose affiliated companies operate in all of Central Asia, Europe and the US, trading on the NASDAQ (FRHC) since 2019.

In conclusion, I congratulate FIDÉ on achieving an astounding outcome, given that they are faced with the problem of staging Hamlet without the Prince. Kazakhstan is an inspired venue and the prize fund is impressive. Doubtless the games will be well contested, but I cannot but lament that Carlsen did not exhibit the tenacity of a Steinitz, an Alekhine or a Karpov, who fought to the very end to uphold their championship credentials.

We leave with the further breaking news about the road to recovery for our former British Ladies champion, Dinah Norman. In a recent statement, Dinah talked about her experience:

“I was in hospital for 7 weeks 3 days and it was a complete nightmare.  Now I am having carers in twice a day.  Full recovery is a long way off, I fear, but I was lucky to survive the accident at my age.  I was hit by a moped driver aged 22 who was on drugs.  In January a married man aged 40 with two young children was hit and killed by a drunk 18 year old in a car a few yards from where I was knocked down.  I was only walking to my weekly Duplicate Bridge Club when I was hit.” A sad commentary.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwell’s . His 206th book, Chess in the Year of the King, with a foreword by The Article contributor Patrick Heren, and written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, is in preparation. It will be published later this year.  

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 98%
38 ratings - view all

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