Apr 11, 2023 - Sports

Chess is at a crossroads

Illustration of a chess board featuring two chess pieces with a start sign between them

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The World Chess Championship is underway in Kazakhstan, but it's missing a key figure: Magnus Carlsen, the No. 1 player and five-time reigning world champion.

State of play: Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi (World No. 2) — playing in his second straight world championship and competing under a neutral flag — faces Ding Liren (No. 3), the highest-rated Chinese player ever.

  • A win for Nepo, as he's known, would be the first by a Russian since 2006, while a win for Ding would give China its first men's chess champion.
  • Either way, the winner will not be the Norwegian Carlsen, giving Russia or China quite the prize amid heightened geopolitical tensions between their countries and the West.

How it works: The match is best-of-14, with daily action aside from an off day every third day. Nepo leads, 1.5-.5, after two games (draws are worth a half-point). First to 7.5 wins.

The backdrop: You'd have to go back to Bobby Fischer's absence in 1975 to find the last time the chess worlds were held without the undisputed champ.

  • In Fischer's case, he had basically stopped playing chess after his 1972 title. In Carlsen's case, he simply lacks the motivation. "[I] feel that I don't have a lot to gain," he said in July.
  • "I can hardly call it a world championship match," says former world champ Garry Kasparov. "For me, the world championship should include the strongest player on the planet, and this match doesn't."

The big picture: Carlsen's absence from the game's marquee event isn't the only evidence that chess is at a crossroads. There's also the question of how classical chess — the format played at worlds — fits into the game's future.

  • Online play boomed during the pandemic, and speed games were a big reason why: They require less time from viewers and less preparation from players, who can now make good money playing from home.
  • But it's not just online where classical chess is being phased out — some over-the-board (in-person) events have also moved to speed games in recent years.

ICYMI ... Carlsen's final match as world champion last week — an online game — ended with an epic blunder when his mouse slipped and he accidentally dropped his queen on the wrong position. Whoops!

♟️ Watch: Game 1 and Game 2 (YouTube)

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