Every generation or two, competitive Chess grips the imagination of the world outside of chess circles, and names like Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Deep Blue, and Josh Waitzken start appearing in headlines. If that was going to happen again in this generation, the top candidate would have been Magnus Carlsen, a 19-year-old genius from Norway.
Carlsen earned Grandmaster status at age 13, and earlier this year became the youngest person in history to hold the number 1 chess ranking in the world. His ELO rating (the standard measure of skill level), is 2801. Only 4 other people have ever exceeded 2800. Add to this books, films, and a modeling career, and you have a perfect storm for Chess celebrity.
But when you also add in the remarkably mercurial personality required to become a Chess champion, things can get strange. Morphy quit. Fischer quit and went mad. Kasparov quit, entered Russian politics, and is now making a concerted effort to be assassinated by Vladimir Putin. Even Deep Blue wound up dismantled and forgotten until a piece of it landed in the Smithsonian.
And now Carlsen has withdrawn from the cycle of games designed to name the next World Champion.
As he states in his letter:
After careful consideration I’ve reached the conclusion that the ongoing 2008–2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need to go through a lengthy process of preparations and matches and to perform at my best.
Reigning champion privileges, the long (five year) span of the cycle, changes made during the cycle resulting in a new format (Candidates) that no World Champion has had to go through since Kasparov, puzzling ranking criteria as well as the shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept are all less than satisfactory in my opinion.
The man has a point. Similar irritations resulted in Kasparov splitting from FIDE, the organizing body for the World Championships, to form his own group, the Professional Chess Association. FIDE stripped Kasparov of his World Champion title, and the controversy sputtered until a “reunification match” in 2006. Now it’s back again, and with the best player in the world opting out of the competition, FIDE stands to lose their credibility once again. After all, if the best doesn’t compete, is “World Chess Champion” a valid title?