Magnus Carlsen’s decision on Sunday to defend his chess world championship title against Vishy Anand in Sochi, Russia in November wasn’t entirely well-received in Norway. Some say Carlsen conceded too much to the Russian power brokers behind the tournament, and has too much at stake, while others called it “a good day for chess.”
After weeks of resisting the Russian-led international chess federation’s plans to move forward with a new championship tournament in Sochi, Carlsen finally signed the contract committing him to play in it, to defend his title. “He is a chess player, he is the world champion and had a very good experience playing in Chennai last year and winning there,” his manager Espen Agdestein told Norwegian Broacasting (NRK) on Sunday. “So defending his title is something he of course had a very, very strong desire to do.”
He did not, however, want to play in Sochi but was vague about the reasons. Carlsen and his team wanted to move the match out of Russia and postpone the world championship at least until January.
“It has been a difficult decision for him,” Agdestein told NRK. “We have tried to move the tournament from Sochi and postpone it because of the difficult and unstable political situation.” Agdestein also said the decision on Sochi as a venue was made fairly recently, “and Magnus has been busy” playing in the major Sinquefield Cup tournament in the US, right when the FIDE was pressuring him with a contract-signing deadline.
“We got a little extra time to make the decision, but otherwise they (the officials at chess federation FIDE) haven’t been willing to budge on the issues we think have been important,” Agdestein conceded.
Carlsen hasn’t been doing well at the Sinquefield Cup, nor did he do well in the recent Chess Olympiad in Tromsø. But instead of refusing to play in Russia, which would have resulted in the Russian reserve player effectively taking his place, Carlsen is now game for the games in Sochi.
“I’m very satisfied that he signed,” FIDE vice president Israel Gelfer told NRK. “He had a lot of questions that were answered by FIDE, myself and the (FIDE) president. We are very glad that he understand that it was not logical to postpone the tournament.”
Torstein Bae, a Norwegian chess commentator, said Carlsen’s decision was “positive for chess, both for Norwegian chess because we can get a Norwegian world champion for many years ahead and not least for international chess, that we avoid another new split like we once had that was unfortunate for chess. It’s a good day for chess.”
Not everyone agreed. Commentator Mads Nyborg Støstad, for example, claimed that Carlsen went along with “unreasonable terms” to play in Sochi. World champions have historically had more power to decide where and when new title matches would be played. Many feel a fight for the title would be meaningless without the person currently holding the title, but the Russians were seriously pushing for a solution that could have left Anand, who qualified to play once again for the championship earlier this year, facing the Russian reserve player.
Støstad wrote on nrk.no Sunday evening that Carlsen, however, was forced to go along with “one hopeless condition after another.” World championship matches are usually played every other year, so the first surprise was that the championships would be played again after just one year, just three months after the Chess Olympiad and when many players already had other major commitments. Then, when other cities failed to bid to host the tournament, FIDE came up with Sochi in a year when Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused an international uproar over his military intervention in Ukraine, not very far away from Sochi.
Now, even if he wins, Carlsen then must face the prospect of being photographed with Putin, after years of trying to drum up more interest for chess in, for example, North America and Europe. Appearing with Putin will now be a liability either place.
Agdestein indicated that Carlsen and the team around him will try to make the best out of a bad situation. “This hasn’t turned out the way we’d hoped, but now Magnus wants to put that behind him, build up positive energy and positive feelings before the match,” Agdestein said. “He has to feel like he’s in great shape when he comes to Sochi, that’s what’s important now.”