Magnus Carlsen Is the World’s Best Chess Player, but He Shouldn’t Be the World Champion

The stadium scene.
Nov. 4 2013 1:21 PM

No More Kings

Magnus Carlsen is the world’s best chess player, but he shouldn’t be the world champion.

Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand
India's Viswanathan Anand (R) plays against Norway's Magnus Carlsen during the Norway Chess 2013 Blitz on May 9, 2013. While Anand is a great player, he’s definitely the underdog.

Photo silhouette by Slate. Photo by Kent Skibstadt/AFP/Getty Images

Starting this week, challenger Magnus Carlsen will face champion Viswanathan Anand in a best-of-12 match in the latter’s hometown of Chennai, India, with the winner to wear the crown of World Chess Champion. The event has the feel of a coronation; even at the age of 22, the Norwegian Carlsen is already spoken of in the same breath as Paul Morphy, Jose Raoul Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, and Garry Kasparov, generally considered the very best of those who’ve played the royal game.

To illustrate his dominance with one statistic: The gap in points between Carlsen and Armenia’s Levon Aronian, the No. 2 player in the world, in the current World Chess Federation ratings is greater than the gap between Aronian and the world’s No. 19 player. Only a very few have dominated the game like this, so while Anand is a great player and a fine human being, he’s definitely the underdog in Chennai.

Even though Carlsen is the world’s best active chess player, he should not be trying to unseat Anand in a winner-take-all event. Chess has had a world champion since 1886, but this one-off, mano-a-mano event is now an anachronism, one that’s more harmful than helpful to the game. It’s time for the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to shelve it. With Carlsen looking likely to become chess’s new king, now is the perfect time to make a switch—and I know just the system to fix the game’s current championship woes.

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Before we get to solving chess’s problems, it’s necessary to walk through how it got stuck in such an untenable position. The first person with the nerve and talent to credibly label himself World Chess Champion was a fellow from Prague named Wilhelm Steinitz. Before Steinitz, chess had been mostly a romantic game where the swashbuckling ideal was to sacrifice a boxful of pieces to chase the opponent’s king around the board, finally checkmating him so beautifully that centuries hence, students would marvel at your derring-do. Lovely as it was, Steinitz—who ruled the game starting in the 1870s—turned that notion on its head, accepting his hell-bent opponents’ proffered pieces and living to tell the tale through calm, rational defense. He wasn’t anyone’s favorite player, but he got things done.  

For the next 60 years, the World Championship title was like a boxing belt: You had to beat the current holder to get it. This wasn’t a great system, since a champ could hold out for pretty ridiculous conditions, like a guaranteed rematch if he lost and retaining the title in case of a drawn match. Champs could also choose their opponents to a large extent, ducking dangerous contenders when at all possible. Consider Alexander Alekhine, world champion for almost 20 years from the 1920s to 1940s, who preferred beating up on his old punching bag Efim Bogolyubov to facing more credible opponents.

An unchewed piece of steak did what Bogolyubov could not. When Alekhine choked to death in 1946, FIDE sensed its moment and stepped in to standardize the World Championship process. They first held a tournament among the world’s top eight players, which was won by a Soviet electrical engineer named Mikhail Botvinnik, who was proclaimed world champion. Future world title matches would be held every three years, the challengers decided by a series of zonal tournaments, followed by a knockout round of head-to-head matches from those tournaments’ winners. 

The new system was certainly an improvement on the haphazard decades that preceded it, but it had its own flaws. The three-year cycle was criticized as being too long, most vociferously by Bobby Fischer, who had been the best player in the world for seven years before getting his title shot in 1972. Match specialists—players who draw a large percentage of their games, rarely beating anybody but even more rarely losing—were favored over tournament specialists who racked up large numbers of both wins and losses. For example, retrograde rating analysis (FIDE didn’t launch its rating system until 1970) shows that although Tigran Petrosian was world champion from 1963 to 1969, he was the highest-rated player in the world for less than a year of that span, and at times was ranked as low as 10th. That’s because Petrosian was a middling (for a world champion) tournament player but a brick wall in matches: Drawing him was easy, but beating him was extremely tough.

In 1993, the chess world flew into chaos: World champion Garry Kasparov and his challenger, England’s Nigel Short, told FIDE to go fly a kite. They found funding and played for the title under the auspices of their own, newly formed organization. Embarrassingly, FIDE was then forced to stage its own world championship match between two other players, both of whom Short had just trounced en route to facing Kasparov.

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