Chess player Magnus Carlsen in deep thought looking for his next move on the board
Magnus Carlsen in the match against Poland’s No2 Radoslaw Wojtaszek © Lennart Ootes

Magnus Carlsen, now the ex-world champion though still the No1 ranked player, returned to chess this week after a brief period at the poker table.  The occasion was the Superbet Rapid and Blitz in Warsaw, part of the St Louis-organised Grand Chess Tour, so Carlsen, partly as a gesture to his hosts and partly to escape main line theory, opened as Black with the Polish Defence 1 d4 b5.

His opponent, Poland’s No2 Radoslaw Wojtaszek, had a poor previous record against the Norwegian legend, but was fully prepared. The Polish can easily transpose into 1 e4 a6, 2 d4 b5, the Birmingham Defence with which Tony Miles famously defeated the then world champion Anatoly Karpov in the 1980 European teams.

Evidently Wojtaszek knew Karpov v Miles well, as he chose a harmonious formation with Nbd2 to guard his e4 pawn where Karpov had preferred the less precise Qe2.

The sequel was devastating for Carlsen, as the Norwegian’s king was trapped in the centre by move 13 and subject to increasing pressure from White’s better coordinated pieces. After Wojtaszek opened up the c file for his rooks and his queen broke into the defences via the long black diagonal, Carlsen’s position collapsed

Warsaw continues daily until Friday, and can be viewed live and free starting 1pm. There are many rounds still to go, so Carlsen has ample time to recover, but his rivals will be encouraged by his early fallibility.

Ding Liren was scheduled to compete in Poland, but China’s new world champion withdrew, citing fatigue after his marathon world title match and his failure in Bucharest earlier this month. On his return to Beijing, Ding told a press conference that he plans to retire in three or four years because “I can’t find more fun, and I want to find new happiness elsewhere”.

Is this the new trend for world champions? Long ago, Emanuel Lasker and Max Euwe continued to compete into their sixties,  while Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik kept going into their late forties or early fifties. Now, Carlsen is starting to ease down at 32,  while Ding, at 30, implies that he will be giving up by 35.

The triggers for shrinking careers at top level are clear. The hugely increased amount of openings database information means that the top grandmasters can analyse an opponent’s repertoire in great depth and, with the help of Stockfish or another engine, can highlight a potential weakness. Successful preparation can go 20 moves deep, but to do it consistently means many hours a day before games.  

At the same time, rewards in major tournaments, both online and over the board, are at historically high levels, so that a world top-10 player can earn enough to retire on within a decade or so.

Scenarios such as a change in the rules or the adoption of Fischer Random or Chess 960 with different starting positions have not gained sufficient momentum to challenge the existing format. So the outlook seems to be for more teenage grandmasters, who can quickly absorb new information, and for older GMs to abandon the game or to prefer senior tournaments for over-50s and over-65s.

Puzzle 2521

From an Olympic esports game, 2023. White to move and win.

Click here for solution

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