Carlsen’s Next Moves

Andrew McGettigan

The 44th chess Olympiad concluded in Chennai last week with Ukraine’s women edging out Georgia and Uzbekistan winning the open competition with a team fielding only one player over the age of twenty. A raft of teenagers dominated the headlines with the sixteen-year-old Indian sensation Gukesh D taking the gold medal for best performance on the top board and almost leading India’s B-team – in effect an under-21 side – to gold. He was left to rue a blunder in the penultimate round against the Uzbeki seventeen-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov. Gukesh was so distraught he held his head in his hands and allowed his clock to run out rather than resign. His team left with bronze, one place ahead of India A.

It was giddy stuff. But as the jamboree moved towards its conclusion, Arkady Dvorkovich, a former deputy prime minister of Russia (2012-18), was re-elected president of FIDE, the game’s administrative body. He secured 157 votes in a secret ballot of nearly two hundred member nations. FIDE is probably the most high-profile international sporting federation headed by a Russian. Chess is a key plank of the country’s soft power strategy. The news agency TASS quoted the Kremlin’s line: ‘clearly very good news and a very significant victory’.

Dvorkovich has tried to downplay his connections with Putin, but he took over FIDE after handling the 2018 football World Cup and until March chaired the Skolkovo Foundation. Skolkovo was placed on the US sanctions list at the beginning of August for its research ties to the Russian military.

The official FIDE website took a few hours to acknowledge the Ukrainian achievement, perhaps after a PR wrangle over the wording: ‘The 2022 victory, arriving at such a difficult time, is particularly valuable.’

The overwhelming vote for Dvorkovich suggests either that few chess administrators care much about geopolitics or, more likely, that they have seen India is on board with him and prefer to have well-connected and well-resourced presidents. India has taken a neutral position over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, abstaining from votes at the UN.

Chennai stepped in to hold the Olympiad after sanctions barred Moscow from acting as host city. The rising power in world chess, India seems to have decided that its interests are best advanced by palling up with Dvorkovich. His new deputy will be Viswanathan Anand, a former world champion who grew up in Chennai.

The individual World Chess Championship has been dependent in recent years on Russian sponsors such as PhosAgro, prominent in London 2018 and Dubai 2021. The founder of PhosAgro and his son, the former CEO, have been sanctioned, though the company continues to operate as before. The challenger for the 2023 match was again scheduled to be the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi, who cruised through the recent qualifying tournament. But he will not play the reigning champion.

In 2013, Anand was defeated by the young Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who has held the crown ever since. Last month, in a widely trailed announcement, Carlsen declared that he would no longer defend FIDE’s flagship title. Next year’s match will therefore be missing the player who has dominated the game for more than a decade: Carlsen has been ranked number one without interruption since 2011.

He is not walking away from chess. Aged 31, he would be expected to maintain his place as the top player for the next few years. But he has long expressed frustration with the classical time controls of the championship. A series of games with each player allotted hours for thinking has been the standard format to establish the best player for two centuries. Carlsen has played five such matches in the last decade and has had enough of the grind.

He would prefer to up the tempo, believing the best player should be decided by a faster game. He has tested the idea for its fan and broadcast appeal with his own rapid chess grand prix, which originated in 2020 as a lockdown experiment. The burgeoning popularity of chess on streaming platforms such as Twitch has led to a new set of sponsors, many of them from the fast-money mix of gambling, crypto, NFTs etc.

There’s an obvious parallel with cricket and the tension between the popular twenty-over format of the Indian Premier League and the traditional five-day test match. But there’s another factor undercutting ‘proper’ match-play chess. It’s five years since the appearance of DeepMind’s revolutionary self-learning AlphaZero. There has since been an explosion in chess-playing software based on neural net principles. When you have to face the same opponent up to sixteen times in three weeks, a better computer strategy – and setup – can compensate for weaker playing strength.

Nepomniachtchi and his team were reported to have had access to a Russian supercomputer, ‘Zhores’, housed at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. Its speed has to be measured in petaflops: 1015 floating point operations per second (a petaflop is a thousand teraflops, the measure for even the most sophisticated home gaming consoles). The institute, like the eponymous foundation, is now sanctioned by the US.

Carlsen doesn’t fear any player, but he doesn’t want to walk into a computer-prepared ambush and resents the time and resources that have to be poured in to countering such measures. More games at faster play militates against any strategy based on memorising inhuman lines and gives opposing teams less time to pick apart each other’s approach.

Next year’s World Championship title match will be between Nepomniachtchi and the Chinese number one, Ding Liren. There are as yet no host city and no sponsors; the only certainty is that whoever wins will not be regarded as the best player in the world: Carlsen crushed Nepomniachtchi in Dubai last December, defending his title for the fourth time.

What this all presages is unclear. Will FIDE now support – tacitly or otherwise – a world championship held in Moscow? Would Nepomniachtchi want to play in Beijing? Will FIDE announce a revised format to tempt Carlsen back? The flashpoints are obvious, the outcomes not. But India is now sitting in the box seat whatever unfolds in the short run.


  • 20 August 2022 at 4:22am
    James Mccall says:
    It sounds as if the Chess World Championships have become a hybrid human/computer contest, a sort of mixed doubles. How long will it be before the grandmasters are jettisoned entirely in favour of computer vs computer chess championships? A bit artificial, wouldn't you say?

    • 20 August 2022 at 12:54pm
      Andrew McGettigan says: @ James Mccall
      Hi James
      There are computer championships running continually.
      This is the best place to follow:

      The play is alien, but best interpreter is Matthew Sadler. He runs a youtube channel covering events.
      His book with Natasha Regan on AlphaZero was reviewed in the LRB a few years back.

    • 20 August 2022 at 12:57pm
      Andrew McGettigan says: @ James Mccall
      "Advanced Chess" was a thing a few years back - Kasparov experimented with it.
      It hasn't been so popular in the last decade as the computers are just so much better now.
      If you imagine a hypothetical opponent who would score about 9.5/10 against Carlsen, then the current software would beat that hypothetical opponent 9.5/10.

    • 21 August 2022 at 9:41pm
      nlowhim says: @ James Mccall
      This has always been the claim, but human like playing each other and watching flawed humans play each other (the narrative going into that is something else and one not easily replaced by a computer—story of the team behind it not withstanding).
      Because of cars do we stop watching people race? Or even if a robot was made to run like a human but faster I still think it would be a separate achievement in our ape minds.

      That being said, there are other ways to get around computer prep (studying for the game being a “problem” for a while now) and that includes variants such as the ones I like (chess960 being the main one) that randomize the back pieces and put opening move studies to bed… for now. I also personally like non-perfect information variants like fog of war chess (you don’t see squares that your pieces can’t move to) that would also minimize prep (combine that with chess 960 for an especially good time but there are few players out there). We’ll see how everything goes