UPDATED: Has Norway’s World Chess Champion lost his touch? That’s been the question swirling in his homeland this past week after Magnus Carlsen risked ending up dead last in the Norway Chess tournament that played out in Stavanger. Carlsen himself said his play was “among the worst I’ve ever done,” and those closest to him didn’t see any quick fixes.
Carlsen won a reprieve on Thursday when he fought back and finally won his first of eight games at Norway Chess, notably against his rival for the world championship last year, Sergej Karjakin of Russia.
“It means something to win, of course, so I should begin to do a bit more of it,” Carlsen told Norway’s TV2 when it was all over. Carlsen said he never felt he was in danger of losing to Karjakin, “but I lost a bit of momentum along the way.” And then Karjakin basically ran out of time.
The victory secured Carlsen’s status at the top of the world rankings, which he’s held for the past six years. He was threatened by another Russian player, Vladimir Kramnik, but newspaper Aftenposten noted that Thursday ended up as a “perfect day” for Carlsen: Not only did he beat Karjakin but Kramnik lost to Maxime Varchier-Lagrave.
Carlsen’s reprieve came after he’d lost two matches and tied five others in Stavanger, and after he’d learned that Norway was out of the running for hosting the next World Chess Championships where Carlsen will need to defend his title. That may not be a bad thing for the young Norwegian who seems to play better abroad than he does at home. He didn’t perform well at last year’s Norway Chess either, and he left the Chess Olympics in Tromsø in disgust in 2013.
‘No simple recipe’ for renewed success
That doesn’t seem to be much comfort to those around Carlsen, with even his manager expressing concern to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday as Carlsen headed into his final match against Vishy Anand, who lost his championship title to Carlsen on his own home turf in India later in 2013. Carlsen and Anand ended up with remis (tie). That left Carlsen with four of nine points when the tournament ended Friday night, just ahead of Karjakin with 3.5, meaning Carlsen at least avoided being at the absolute bottom of the heap.
“There’s no simple recipe right now,” Carlsen’s long-time manager Espen Agdestein told NRK. “It’s not easy to come out of such a dip. You lose your self-confidence and it becomes more difficult to make decisions, so it affects all your energy.”
2017 has been a tough year for Carlsen so far. After the hard work and euphoria of winning his third straight World Championship in New York last year, Carlsen slumped into what Agdestein called his “dip” just weeks later and remains far from his top form.
“It’s a challenge to come back from doing your very best,” Agdestein said, “and that’s what he trying to do now.” Karjakin, too.
‘State of emergency’
Carlsen wasn’t very talkative on Thursday, even after beating Karjakin, and wouldn’t answer NRK’s questions. He told TV2 when it was all over on Friday, however, that he’s definitely “under par.” His victory on Thursday “reduced the damage a bit,” Carlsen said, “but there’s a long way to go” before he’s back up to par.
Agdestein said Carlsen is taking his slump hard. “He’s disappointed over himself and he’s irritated,” his manager said. “He has said earlier that losing is like being in a state of emergency, and that’s what it’s like now.”
Carlsen’s calm and ever-present father Henrik, his greatest supporter since his days as a child prodigy, noted that being at the top for as long as Carlsen has is not easy. “There’s nowhere to go up,” the senior Carlsen told NRK, and he’s the one everyone is trying to bring down. “That builds a lot of pressure over time.”
Henrik Carlsen added, though, that he doesn’t think his son is worried about losing his top spot in the rankings. He, like Agdestein, is also struggling to find a solution, to turn things around.
“He’s clearly in a difficult period,” Henrik Carlsen told NRK. “How that can be turned around, isn’t easy to say. I think he is worried about his play, that’s what counts. But if he pulls together, he’s normally number one.”