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Looking Back On Magnus Carlsen's Dominant Decade As World Champion
Left Carlsen photo: Frans Peeters/Wikimedia, CC.

Looking Back On Magnus Carlsen's Dominant Decade As World Champion

NathanielGreen
| 177 | Chess Players

GM Magnus Carlsen won't be the official world champion of classical chess for much longer, but he has proven again and again in events outside of the FIDE-managed classical world championship that he is the best player in the world.

Carlsen's reign has included a 125-game unbeaten streak, five of his six World Blitz Championship wins, all four of his World Rapid Championships, the all-time records for live rating (2889) and official FIDE rating (2882), five of his eight tournament victories at Wijk aan Zee, all five of his victories at Norway Chess (including four in a row during 2019-22), and 114 consecutive months (out of a possible 114) as the world's highest-rated player.

Carlsen in January 2013, left, and December 2022, right. He accomplished far more in that time than most players do in their entire careers. Left: Intel Free Press/Wikimedia, CC. Right: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

This article is a look back at all those accomplishments and more as the FIDE World Championship enters its post-Carlsen era. And make no mistake—it's not the other way around (Carlsen entering his post-FIDE-championship era). You'll see why.


The Title

Carlsen officially became the 16th world champion on November 26, 2013, defeating defending champion GM Viswanathan Anand three wins to zero in their match, with six draws.

Freshly crowned world champion Magnus Carlsen in 2013 after his infamous swimming pool moment. Photo: Mads Nyborg Stostad/NRK.

Soundly defeating an all-time great like Anand confirmed what everyone had known for years: This guy Carlsen was pretty damn good at chess.

The Ratings

In fact, Carlsen's 2872 rating when he became champion was already the record. The big question was, How high could his rating climb? He answered the question almost immediately.

Carlsen won the inaugural Vugar Gashimov Memorial (Shamkir Chess) in 2014, an event he'd also win in 2015, 2018, and 2019. In the second game of the 2014 tournament, Carlsen defeated GM Hikaru Nakamura and reached a live rating of 2889.2, the highest ever.

Carlsen, right, during the game that set the highest rating mark ever. Photo: Peter Doggers/Chess.com.

By the end of the tournament on April 30, Carlsen had scored five wins against two losses and three draws. That put him at an official rating of 2882 on the May 2014 FIDE rating list, the highest ever recorded in more than 50 years to that point of FIDE ratings.

Carlsen's rating chart with the month he became champion marked.

Of course, Carlsen has never fallen below a 2800 rating after reaching the mark in November 2009. No previous champion, even GM Garry Kasparov, has been above 2800 for the entire duration of his time with the title. (Kasparov did become the first player to reach a 2800 rating, in 1990, then set a new career high of 2820 in 1997, after which he never fell below 2800 again. And to be fair, with rating inflation Kasparov could probably have pulled it off too.)

Nor is Shamkir Chess, which became a rapid and blitz event in 2021, the only tournament Carlsen has made a habit of winning while he has been champion.

The Classical Tournaments

The best player at slow time controls doesn't just prove it in matches. As rapid and blitz have become more popular (see the above about Shamkir), the number of high-profile classical tournaments has declined somewhat. However, three super prestigious annual standalone classical tournaments remain: Tata Steel, the only remaining holdover from the glory days of classical, and two events that debuted in 2013: Norway Chess and Sinquefield Cup. 

Carlsen has won Sinquefield twice, once as champion (2018 co-winner), but he has dominated the other two. He had already won Tata Steel in 2008, '10, and '13 by the time he became champion, and then added 2015, '16, '18, '19, and '22 as world champ.

Carlsen after winning a playoff in 2018 to claim yet another Tata Steel trophy. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Norway Chess, held in Carlsen's home country, took a little extra time. He finally won in its fourth iteration in 2016, then repeated in 2019. He has not lost the tournament since then, adding victories in 2020, '21, and '22. The 2023 edition of Norway will be Carlsen's first major tournament after giving up the title.

All that consistent domination has led to some impressive streaks.

The Streaks

Previous records for undefeated streaks belonged to GM Jose Capablanca (63 games), GM Mikhail Tal (95 games), and GM Ding Liren (100 games). GM Sergei Tiviakov also went 110 games without a loss once—against weaker competition—and Carlsen broke that record regardless.

Carlsen crushed all of them with a 125-game streak. One hesitates to say it will never be broken against top-level competition, but it sure looks tough to beat.

After losing in the ninth round to GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov at Biel 2018, Carlsen went nearly two years without losing again before GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda won in the fifth round at Norway 2020.

Tournament Year Games Wins Draws Losses
Biel (round 10) 2018 1 1 0 0
Sinquefield Cup 2018 9 2 7 0
European Club Cup 2018 6 1 5 0
World Championship Match 2018 12 0 12 0
Tata Steel Masters 2019 13 5 8 0
Shamkir Chess 2019 9 5 4 0
GRENKE Classic 2019 9 6 3 0
Norway Chess 2019 9 2 7 0
Zagreb GCT 2019 11 5 6 0
Sinquefield Cup 2019 11 2 9 0
Grand Swiss 2019 11 4 7 0
Norwegian League (rounds 1-2)* 2019-20 2 2 0 0
GCT Finals London 2019 4 1 3 0
Tata Steel Masters 2020 13 3 10 0
Norwegian League (round 11)* 2019-20 1 1 0 0
Norway Chess (rounds 1-4) 2020 4 2 2 0
Total 125 42 83 0

Source: ChessBase, Chess.com. *Carlsen does not count the Norwegian League games as they came against significantly lower-rated opponents.

There is also Carlsen's streak as the number-one rated player in the world, which began before he became champion and will continue after he is no longer the FIDE world champion. The chart below includes only his months as the champ.

Month Rank Total Months Carlsen No. 2 Gap No. 2 Player
November 2013 1st 1 2870 2801 69 Aronian
December 2013 1st 2 2872 2803 69 Aronian
January 2014 1st 3 2872 2812 60 Aronian
February 2014 1st 4 2872 2826 46 Aronian
March 2014 1st 5 2881 2830 51 Aronian
April 2014 1st 6 2881 2812 69 Aronian
May 2014 1st 7 2882 2815 67 Aronian
June 2014 1st 8 2881 2815 66 Aronian
July 2014 1st 9 2877 2805 72 Aronian
August 2014 1st 10 2877 2805 72 Aronian
September 2014 1st 11 2870 2804 66 Aronian
October 2014 1st 12 2863 2844 19 Caruana
November 2014 1st 13 2863 2839 24 Caruana
December 2014 1st 14 2862 2829 33 Caruana
January 2015 1st 15 2862 2820 42 Caruana
February 2015 1st 16 2865 2811 54 Caruana
March 2015 1st 17 2863 2802 61 Caruana
April 2015 1st 18 2863 2802 61 Caruana
May 2015 1st 19 2876 2804 72 Anand
June 2015 1st 20 2876 2805 71 Caruana
July 2015 1st 21 2853 2816 37 Anand
August 2015 1st 22 2853 2816 37 Anand
September 2015 1st 23 2853 2816 37 Anand
October 2015 1st 24 2850 2816 34 Nakamura
November 2015 1st 25 2850 2803 47 Topalov
December 2015 1st 26 2834 2803 31 Topalov
January 2016 1st 27 2844 2801 43 Kramnik
February 2016 1st 28 2844 2801 43 Kramnik
March 2016 1st 29 2851 2801 50 Kramnik
April 2016 1st 30 2851 2801 50 Kramnik
May 2016 1st 31 2851 2804 47 Caruana
June 2016 1st 32 2855 2812 43 Kramnik
July 2016 1st 33 2855 2812 43 Kramnik
August 2016 1st 34 2857 2816 41 Anand
September 2016 1st 35 2857 2816 41 Anand
October 2016 1st 36 2853 2817 36 Kramnik
November 2016 1st 37 2853 2823 30 Caruana
December 2016 1st 38 2840 2823 17 Caruana
January 2017 1st 39 2840 2827 13 Caruana
February 2017 1st 40 2838 2827 11 Caruana
March 2017 1st 41 2838 2822 16 Wesley So
April 2017 1st 42 2838 2822 16 Wesley So
May 2017 1st 43 2832 2815 17 Wesley So
June 2017 1st 44 2832 2812 20 Wesley So
July 2017 1st 45 2822 2812 10 Kramnik
August 2017 1st 46 2822 2810 12 Wesley So
September 2017 1st 47 2827 2804 23 Vachier-Lagrave
October 2017 1st 48 2826 2801 25 Aronian
November 2017 1st 49 2837 2801 36 Aronian
December 2017 1st 50 2837 2805 32 Aronian
January 2018 1st 51 2834 2811 23 Caruana
February 2018 1st 52 2843 2814 29 Mamedyarov
March 2018 1st 53 2843 2814 29 Mamedyarov
April 2018 1st 54 2843 2814 29 Mamedyarov
May 2018 1st 55 2843 2822 21 Caruana
June 2018 1st 56 2843 2816 27 Caruana
July 2018 1st 57 2842 2822 20 Caruana
August 2018 1st 58 2842 2822 20 Caruana
September 2018 1st 59 2839 2827 12 Caruana
October 2018 1st 60 2839 2827 12 Caruana
November 2018 1st 61 2835 2832 3 Caruana
December 2018 1st 62 2835 2832 3 Caruana
January 2019 1st 63 2835 2828 7 Caruana
February 2019 1st 64 2845 2828 17 Caruana
March 2019 1st 65 2845 2828 17 Caruana
April 2019 1st 66 2845 2819 26 Caruana
May 2019 1st 67 2861 2816 45 Caruana
June 2019 1st 68 2875 2819 56 Caruana
July 2019 1st 69 2872 2819 53 Caruana
August 2019 1st 70 2882 2818 64 Caruana
September 2019 1st 71 2876 2812 64 Caruana
October 2019 1st 72 2876 2812 64 Caruana
November 2019 1st 73 2870 2822 48 Caruana
December 2019 1st 74 2872 2822 50 Caruana
January 2020 1st 75 2872 2822 50 Caruana
February 2020 1st 76 2862 2842 20 Caruana
March 2020 1st 77 2862 2842 20 Caruana
April 2020 1st 78 2863 2835 28 Caruana
May 2020 1st 79 2863 2835 28 Caruana
June 2020 1st 80 2863 2835 28 Caruana
July 2020 1st 81 2863 2835 28 Caruana
August 2020 1st 82 2863 2835 28 Caruana
September 2020 1st 83 2863 2835 28 Caruana
October 2020 1st 84 2863 2828 35 Caruana
November 2020 1st 85 2862 2823 39 Caruana
December 2020 1st 86 2862 2823 39 Caruana
January 2021 1st 87 2862 2823 39 Caruana
February 2021 1st 88 2862 2823 39 Caruana
March 2021 1st 89 2847 2820 27 Caruana
April 2021 1st 90 2847 2820 27 Caruana
May 2021 1st 91 2847 2820 27 Caruana
June 2021 1st 92 2847 2820 27 Caruana
July 2021 1st 93 2847 2806 41 Caruana
August 2021 1st 94 2847 2806 41 Caruana
September 2021 1st 95 2855 2800 55 Caruana
October 2021 1st 96 2855 2800 55 Caruana
November 2021 1st 97 2855 2799 56 Ding Liren
December 2021 1st 98 2856 2804 52 Firouzja
January 2022 1st 99 2865 2804 61 Firouzja
February 2022 1st 100 2865 2804 61 Firouzja
March 2022 1st 101 2864 2804 60 Firouzja
April 2022 1st 102 2864 2804 60 Firouzja
May 2022 1st 103 2864 2806 58 Ding Liren
June 2022 1st 104 2864 2806 58 Ding Liren
July 2022 1st 105 2864 2806 58 Ding Liren
August 2022 1st 106 2864 2808 56 Ding Liren
September 2022 1st 107 2861 2808 53 Ding Liren
October 2022 1st 108 2856 2811 45 Ding Liren
November 2022 1st 109 2859 2811 48 Ding Liren
December 2022 1st 110 2859 2811 48 Ding Liren
January 2023 1st 111 2859 2811 48 Ding Liren
February 2023 1st 112 2852 2793 59 Nepomniachtchi
March 2023 1st 113 2852 2795 57 Nepomniachtchi
April 2023 1st 114 2853 2795 58 Nepomniachtchi

Not only has he been the highest-rated player this whole time—which is rarer than you might think—the margin has often been significant. He has had an edge of 50 or more rating points on the number-two player for 40 of these months (35 percent) and 25 or more points for 89 of the months (78 percent).

And no fewer than 12 GMs have held the number-two spot: Levon Aronian, Fabiano Caruana, Anand, Nakamura, Veselin Topalov, Vladimir Kramnik, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Mamedyarov, Ding, Alireza Firouzja, and Ian Nepomniachtchi. Not one of them has caught Carlsen yet, and with his current 58-point edge on number two, no one at the moment is close to doing so.

Carlsen, left, agreeing to a draw with Kramnik at Tata Steel 2018. Kramnik is one of just two players to come within 10 points of Carlsen in the number-one rating spot since 2013. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The Rapid And Blitz

Carlsen has readily noted in interviews that he will still be the world champion after the 2023 FIDE World Championship, just not the classical champion. Having won both the World Rapid and the World Blitz Championships in 2022, Carlsen is still atop the other two major time controls as his classical reign ends.

In fact, 2022 was the third time during his reign as classical champion that Carlsen also claimed both the rapid championship and the blitz championship in the same year, previously achieving the feat in 2014 and 2019. Carlsen also won one of the events four times in five years during 2014-18. The year he did not, 2016, he tied for first place in both the rapid and the blitz but lost out on tiebreaks.

With five blitz championships during 2014-22 (2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022), Carlsen has won more than half of the blitz championships held during his time as world champion—the event not held in 2020. For rapid (2014, 2015, 2019, 2022), it's merely almost half.

The Title Defenses

And yes, there are the four additional world championship matches Carlsen won to retain the title for nearly 10 years. While certainly significant, Carlsen clearly felt the returns diminish over time.

Carlsen is on record saying the 2018 match vs. Caruana was his most interesting match in defense of the title. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Anand In 2014

Unlike their first match, Anand won a game in this one, but that just meant he lost 3–1 instead of 3–0. The match wrapped up Carlsen's dominant first full year as champion (that year's Rapid and Blitz Championships were held in June) and confirmed that it was up to the next generation of players to try and stop him. Spoiler: They could not.

Karjakin In 2016

The only times Carlsen ever trailed a world championship match were after the eighth and ninth games in 2016, but he won game 10 to tie the match which he won in rapid tiebreaks. And how, with an astounding queen sacrifice for checkmate.

Caruana In 2018

Carlsen and Caruana were separated on the classical rating lists by just three points for this match, the closest Carlsen has ever come to losing his grip on first place during his time as champion. Carlsen held him off for 12 games and then wiped the board in rapid tiebreaks. Carlsen was so confident in his fast playing ability vs. Caruana that he took a draw when most experts believed he had a large advantage in the final slow game.

Nepomniachtchi In 2021

Characterized by Nepomniachtchi's blunders in games eight, nine, and 11, the 2021 match was an easy win for Carlsen. So easy that when Nepomniachtchi earned the right to a rematch, Carlsen's time as world champ was probably sealed.

Conclusion

The decision to leave the world championship is entirely his. Carlsen has nothing left to prove by winning yet another match, so the months of work that go into preparing for such matches outweigh the reward for winning them.

Carlsen no longer needs the official designation of FIDE for his validation. Arguably, that happened a long time ago. 

What is your favorite Magnus Carlsen moment from his time as world champion? Let us know in the comments!

NathanielGreen
Nathaniel Green

Nathaniel Green is a staff writer for Chess.com who writes articles, player biographies, Titled Tuesday reports, video scripts, and more. He has been playing chess for about 30 years and resides near Washington, DC, USA.

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