By GM Josh Friedel
There was an incident recently that momentarily rocked the chess world. It occurred at the Paris leg of the Grand Chess Tour in an interview of World Champion Magnus Carlsen by Maurice Ashley. In case you missed it, you can easily find the video on youtube. The basic gist is that Magnus was clearly irritated despite winning and leading the tournament, and when Maurice implied his wins were less than “smooth” he sort of snapped and asked what was wanted of him. I’m not really interested in analyzing the debacle, pointing a finger at Carlsen or Ashley, or discussing the challenges of chess commentary. Although I’m hardly immune from the temptation to cast aspersions, I’d prefer to focus on what, in my view, are the wider implications. Essentially, how did our lofty expectations of Carlsen get so disconnected from reality, and what can we expect from the World Champion moving forward?
For a long time, Magnus seemed to be operating on a higher plane than other chess players. He beat Anand convincingly in two World Championship bouts, won a staggering proportion of the tournaments he played, and boasted a rating that was often 50 points from his nearest rival. In the past year, despite retaining his title by narrowly escaping against Sergey Karjakin in rapids, he hasn’t had the results we’ve been used to. His rating has dipped to 2822, which is 10 points ahead of Vladimir Kramnik and is in within touching distance of several others. While calling his year disastrous is hyperbole by any standard, he’s certainly been in some kind of slump. So what gives?
Let’s endeavor to be objective about it. First of all, the dude is still the World Champion in addition to topping the rating list. This is despite the fact he’s being chased by many strong, young pursuers who are constantly improving. The older generation, including two former World Champions in Kramnik and Anand, are also not fading away so quickly and on the contrary are showing strong results. The idea that Magnus should be able to easily fend off all rivals and win games with little to no bumps in the road is simply ludicrous. Despite rumors to the contrary, the guy is still human and doesn’t have a supercomputer in place of a brain. Similar to Roger Federer in tennis, while there are times when he makes everything look effortless, there is lots of effort and preparation that goes unnoticed by the observer. In my view, it is only in times when a champion starts to stumble that you can truly appreciate how amazing it was when they dominated. I don’t doubt that Carlsen will rebound, as he’s already started to do so by winning the Paris-Leuven rapid events, and classical results are sure to come. Perhaps it’ll be at the upcoming Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, or possibly 6 months to a year from now. Regardless of when it happens, I hope we can better appreciate the rarity of what he’s doing. More importantly, we should not take his dominance for granted, and realize that expecting smooth sailing at all times is utterly and unequivocally unrealistic.