Peter Zhdanov
27 July 2022

What Does the Future Hold for Magnus Carlsen?

On International Chess Day, Magnus Carlsen left everyone dumbfounded by announcing that he would not be defending his World Champion title. This historical decision will tremendously impact his life and the chess world in general. Let's breathe out and discuss some possible scenarios that could await us.

A Passion Rekindled

As a chess fan and admirer of Magnus Carlsen's games, this is the scenario I would love to see most. There is a certain chance that getting rid of the burden of having to defend the title will positively affect Carlsen's play. He will no longer have to function in siege mode, preparing for one challenger after another. Then he could qualify for one of the next Candidate events by rating. Get sucked in and, knowing his competitive spirit, aim to win the tournament. Then maybe Carlsen will be willing to fight for the chess crown again, especially if the format changes. This would be a highly unconventional path that should help Carlsen become the GOAT in the eyes of most of his contemporaries. And, more importantly, in his book.  

Please show me the chess GOAT in this picture! 🐐

Image: Lennart Ootes, Grand Chess Tour

Talking about the GOAT status, most experts were expecting Magnus to play it safe. He would probably beat Nepo again. Then in a couple of years, maybe defend the title again versus a peer or one of the relatively inexperienced young guns. This would amount to a record seven titles. By that time, he would have been on top of the rankings for like 15 years. Coupled with other spectacular achievements, this should have been more than enough to shush all the critics and catapult Carlsen to the #1 spot on the all-time rankings of chess legends. Well, I guess the pundits were wrong! Magnus has his own ways, and that's one of the qualities that makes him such a dominant champion.

Probability: moderate

From what I have noticed, most people tend to underestimate how tough it is to keep winning matches one after another.

For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that Carlsen has an 80% chance of beating the challenger in a match. That is 4 to 1 odds, which most of us would find insanely good. However, under such circumstances, the probability of winning two matches straight is already 64%. Three matches – 51.2%, which is essentially a coin toss. Four matches – 40.96%. Still not bad, but more likely not to happen than to occur. Five matches – 32.768%, less than one-third. This is where Carlsen is currently at. To break Lasker's record, Carlsen needs seven titles, so let's keep crunching numbers. Six matches – 26.2144%, down to almost one out of four. Seven matches – 20.97152%. As you can see, even if you are a huge favorite in each individual match, the odds keep decreasing rapidly if you have to go through a chain of trials.

The Beginning of the End

I spend hours playing chess because I find it so much fun. The day it stops being fun is the day I give up.

Magnus Carlsen

This option is the evil twin of the scenario described above. Switching to playing chess less professionally could have a negative impact on Carlsen's motivation and focus. Without clear goals in sight, other "distractions" could take over his life – poker, fantasy football, bullet, alcohol, dating – who knows what! Also, part of the reason why most opponents are intimidated by Carlsen is his dominance as a World Champion. Will they give him the same level of respect over the board once he concedes the title?

 Also, there is an inevitable change of guard happening. Carlsen was successful in crushing the older generation (Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, etc.). For them, it was natural that he was the guy to replace them at the top. Now, he was also able to beat into submission his peers and GMs aged 25 or so. Most of them seem to have become complacent and more interested in retaining/securing a top-10 spot or recording a best-selling Chessable course than realistically shooting for the #1 spot. The young guns, however, have a different mindset. It is not even personal. For them, it is just a rule of life that to climb to the top, they will have to overcome everyone already there. And as history tells us, this is what will happen eventually. In other words, they don't have this piety towards Magnus and will probably have even less fear of him once he loses the crown.

While we are at it, I don't believe that the "go for 2900" goal is effective enough. First of all, it is not process-oriented. Secondly, it seems shallow and lacks a purpose behind it. Whenever chess players bring up rating goals, they usually have something very specific in mind. "I need 2800 to qualify for the Candidates tournament". "I have to become 2750+ to get invitations and make a living as a pro player". "Getting to 2650 should be good enough to represent my country along with my friends". "If I hit 2500, I will become a Grandmaster and will be able to make an efficient transition to coaching and writing books". What will change in the world or in Magnus's life if Carlsen pulls off an inhuman feat of chess strength and reaches 2900? We will probably see some articles in mainstream media. I will check out his PM bio section and change 2882 to 2900. And that's about it. 2900 is just a random number!

Anyway, I fully understand that Carlsen has won pretty much everything there is to win in chess, apart from the Chess Olympiad gold and the World Cup. Hence, it is painstakingly difficult for him to come up with new competitive goals for himself.

Probability: moderate

Sorry, I Have Changed My Mind

There were some speculations that Magnus would try to postpone his decision and wait until the FIDE elections in August were over. If the Baryshpolets/Nielsen ticket wins, Carlsen should be able to tweak the World Chess Championship format whatever way he likes.

However, it looks as if Carlsen has made up his mind and is unlikely to reconsider his decision in the nearest future, regardless of who becomes the next FIDE President. Also, there are a few other "ifs" in this narrative, which makes the outcome rather unlikely.

Let's combine this scenario with the one where Magnus reconsiders his decision due to financial concerns. For people who don't care too much about the game itself, it is inconceivable how Carlsen could let go of a more or less "guaranteed" paycheck of another €1.2 mln or so. Well, first of all, WCC matches require a few months of preparation and a large team. If you factor in the expenses, you may as well be left with peanuts. Secondly, if you are someone who doesn't care too much about money and you have reached financial independence, you would probably not do something you don't enjoy just because it allows you to deposit some more cash into your bank account. You have no actual use for that money anyway!

It's nice to be financially secure. Apart from that, I don't really care too much about money.

Magnus Carlsen

Probability: low

The Split

Generals are always prepared to fight the last war. It is tempting to think by analogy, recalling the period when Garry Kasparov was no longer the official FIDE World Champion, yet most people perceived him as the best player in the world.

Compared to Garry Kasparov in 1993, Magnus Carlsen has arguably more resources for an efficient split from FIDE. There are plenty of voices out there chanting that FIDE needs Carlsen more than he needs FIDE. Suppose the general public keeps seeing Magnus as the clear #1 in the world. In that case, there is a possibility that Magnus will, officially or unofficially, compete against other challengers, putting his reputation on the line.

I find this scenario rather unlikely because smart people tend to learn from the mistakes of others. Carlsen's former mentor, Garry Kasparov, was rather vocal in criticizing himself for the decision to split from FIDE, which resulted in a period of mayhem. Even nowadays, some people still ask whether there are different federations in chess, similar to boxing, and which title exactly Magnus owns.

Summarizing, I believe there is a chance that Magnus will play some unofficial commercial matches against the players he finds worthy challengers. Still, I doubt that he will go as far as Fischer in 1992 and try to portray those as World Championship matches.

Probability: low

The Superhero

What if the aliens that reportedly abducted former FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov challenge the Earth to a chess game, Mortal Kombat-style? Magnus Carlsen will probably lead the team of our realm's champions, and we will have to keep our fingers crossed that this will be enough for our planet to win the contest!

Under such circumstances, people will stop caring about the puny title of the World Champion. Instead, Carlsen could potentially become the best chess player in the Galaxy!

Probability: science fiction 👽🚀

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