Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen has announced that it wasn’t a bluff — he is stepping down as FIDE’s World Champion and will not play the rematch against Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Speaking on a podcast, Carlsen confirmed that he will not seek a sixth world championship. He had previously suggested that he would only be interested in defending his title if France’s Grandmaster Alireza Firoujza had won the Candidates, and in recent weeks had been complaining that the format was too hard as he negotiated with FIDE on format changes that would include shorter games.
Rivals like GM Fabiano Caruana believed the claim to be a ruse. Theories at chess clubs and online ranged from Carlsen’s attempt at a psychological edge to preparing a defense in the event of a loss as this would be evidence Carlsen’s heart was not in it.
FIDE will perhaps be called upon to make changes to their process as this fiasco has now tainted the Candidates. The elite grandmasters who were vying for first place might have altered their tournament strategy if they knew in advance that second place would also put them in a world championship match — risking losses in pursuit of wins instead of accepting draws for example.
Carlsen’s decision exemplifies the need for a declaration of a champion’s intent to defend his title prior to the Candidates for other reasons as well. For example, Nepomniachtchi was at a disadvantage as he did not know which opponent to focus on in recent weeks. If changes are not made, feigning retirement could become a strategy among defending world champions with the hope of splitting their challenger’s attention as they prepare only for that challenger.
Nepomniachtchi can now give all of his attention China’s top grandmaster, Ding Liren. Ding, after a shaky start in the Candidates, was able to climb to second place with a score of 8.0.
The FIDE World Championship will now be decided by this match between Nepomniachtchi and Ding as Carlsen will apparently pursue the uncharted territory of a 2900+ FIDE rating.