Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen has been playing brilliantly lately, but now even many of his longtime supporters in Norway are wondering whether his success and position in the chess world may be going to his head. Critics are accusing him of both paying for influence over the national chess federation and sabotaging plans for a World Chess Championship at home.
Carlsen first stirred controversy this month by starting his own chess club aimed at getting 40 delegates who could vote at the Norwegian chess federation’s congress next month. His goal is to control enough votes to approve an agreement with a rival to Norway’s gambling monopoly that has traditionally funded Norwegian sports. He thinks the NOK 50 million that Kindred Group is offering to pay Norges Sjakkforbund is worth being effectively banned from the national athletics organization because the latter has never offered enough funding for chess.
Then Carlsen’s father Henrik, who has guided his son’s chess career from childhood, wrote on social media that he, Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein and Magnus himself want to halt all Norwegian efforts to organize the next World Chess Championships next year. His son, it seems, doesn’t want to play in a championship on his own home turf after all.
‘Too much pressure’ on home turf
The news dashed the hopes of the Stavanger-based organization that organizes the Norway Chess tournament and had long been working to win the rights to host the international event. The bid to host a world championship had also won the support of local government officials, but suddenly they were faced with Norway’s reigning World Champion refusing to defend his title on Norwegian soil. While most other Norwegian athletes from skiers to cyclists love competing at home in front of cheering Norwegian fans, Carlsen apparently prefers to perform abroad on more neutral territory.
Henrik Carlsen wrote that a world championship in chess is the “most demanding challenge” a chess player can face. If the player also feels the match must be won, Carlsen continued, the pressure becomes “nearly inhumane” both during the weeks when it takes place and during the time leading up to it.
There had been efforts to split the event between Stavanger and Oslo, where Carlsen lives and could have stayed in his own home, but Carlsen didn’t see that as “optimal” either. It also would have been much more expensive for the organizers, who always wanted to “create something special in Stavanger.”
Norway Chess, faced with the threat that Carlsen would refuse to take part, saw no choice but to withdraw its application, and took it hard. “It’s very disappointing when we had come so far in the process,” Kjell Madland, chairman of Norway Chess, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. “There was always a risk that we wouldn’t win the bid, but we have used lots of time and energy on this. This is really hard now.”
Asked whether a player should be able to have such influence over a championship venue, Madland indicated his organization has always worked hard to accommodate the players. “When the biggest star doesn’t want this, the whole floor falls through,” Madland told Aftenposten.
Other Norwegian chess experts were also disappointed, with state broadcaster NRK’s commentator Torstein Bae saying he thinks it’s sad that the “dream” of hosting the World Chess Championships in Norway has been shattered.
“It was really time to hold a championship at home,” Bae said. “I think this could have shown how chess has become a popular sport in Norway. The framework that could have been created would be something new.” He called it a “lost opportunity” after there finally had been enough public support to justify the expense, until the champ himself ruined all the plans.
More sparks fly over his new club
Carlsen, meanwhile, was also drawing criticism from those who don’t like how he’s basically bought votes at the upcoming chess federation congress. He paid the membership fees for the first 1,000 people signing up to join his new chess club, in order to control enough votes that the congress will approve a funding agreement with the Kindred Group gaming company worth NOK 50 million. Kindred, which owns Unibet, would in turn extract an agreement that the federation will lobby for ending a state monopoly on gambling.
Carlsen thinks the money that could help finance young chess players is more important than abiding by Norway’s traditional sports policy that prohibits athletes from teaming up with or being sponsored by any gaming organization other than Norsk Tipping and Rikstoto, which hold the monopoly in Norway. Most of the money from the state lotteries and race betting goes towards funding sports.
“You have consciously used your position to trample us,” wrote four Norwegian chess players in an open protest entitled “Turn around, dear World Champion.” Bjarte Leer-Helgesen, Espen Lie, Kjetil A Lie and Geir Sune tallaksen Østmoe lashed out at Carlsen over how he’s amassed voting rights through his new club.
Several other chess experts in Norway including Bae, Hans Olav Lahlum and Atle Grønn have also expressed opposition to any agreement between the federation and Kindred.
“I wish Magnus and his team all the best,” Leer-Helgesen, who writes a chess column for Aftenposten, “but now I implore him to stop what he’s doing. I hope he’ll come forth soon and clarify any possible misunderstandings around this.” He and the others questioned whether Carlsen realizes what he’s doing.
Carlsen has been reluctant to answer questions, but told newspaper VG that his new club doesn’t merely have the one goal of securing votes. “We have received lots of interest from folks who want to be members also after the first 1,000 signed up for whom I’ll cover their membership fee. We will be a fully operative chess club that takes part in league play.”