The clock now shows 12:18 am where I am sitting in Oslo. 19 minutes past a devastating day.
I just got home from a very eventful day at work, and my initial plan was to pour a glass of wine and finish off the second article in this column. It lacked no more than a finishing sentence and a click on "publish." Instead I had to hit "delete." ... and pour a larger glass of wine.
I was supposed to tell you about the resurrection of Magnus Carlsen in Norwegian media. When I met him and interviewed him on the opening day of Norway Chess, like most Norwegian journalists, I had not seen him since 2016. We are used to getting invitations to meet Magnus on a monthly basis, but in 2017, there has not been a single one.
My heart was pumping and my pad with questions was a big mess when the World Chess Champion—on this first Monday in June, and the second day after the Christian holiday Pentecost—like the Holy Spirit descended upon us.
Magnus on TV2. | Photo: Maria Emelianova.
Unlike a spirit, he was very visible with a new hair style and glasses. In my interview, I focused on what the past six months have been like. He told me he felt completely exhausted after the World Championship Match. His dad, Henrik, followed up and said Magnus acted differently in the following four months after the match. "You can sense when Magnus' mind wanders off, and he thinks about chess moves. It was less of this in the months after the match," Henrik Carlsen told me.
But exhaustion is not the sole reason Magnus Carlsen has avoided the press. His mind now also wanders off to a girl. His girlfriend. And I guess that just like when a sports team is undergoing a generation shift, a chess player entering a new phase in life will experience failing results. He has not seemed quite as brilliant in the tournaments he has played in 2017 and he has yet to win one. On the FIDE rating list, he is at his lowest since November 2011! 2825 today when he was 2826 just before his 21st birthday. After that, it only went up—and down from time to time, but never as low as this.
According to my favorite chess book, Chess or Life written by Atle Groenn, the American professor Kenneth Regan one day decided to calculate God's rating number. He ended up at 3600, which means that at some point (May 2014, with a rating of 2882) Magnus Carlsen was only 718 points away from being God. Now he is only 13 points away from being world number-two on the live-rating list, and he no longer seems untouchable.
Magnus, first among equals?
He did however seem very focused and motivated before Norway Chess. He played fantastic chess in the opening blitz tournament, crushing the opposition. The first classic game, against world number-two Wesley So, was a solid draw. The second game, against Fabiano Caruana, ended in another respectable draw. Then came the third game and the media's favorite clash: Magnus Carlsen versus Hikaru Nakamura. But no one in Norway will remember who Magnus played on this day or how it ended.
15 minutes after Carlsen opened with 1.e4, Agon Limited (organizer of the World Chess Championship cycle events) made a surprise move. They published a press release saying next year's World Chess Championship will not be held in Norway.
Not many weeks ago, the headlines all over Norwegian media was that the event was well on its way to Oslo. It was thrilling news! New York City was spectacular, but to host the event in Norway with reigning champion Magnus Carlsen would be like nothing you have ever seen before in chess. Perhaps only Norwegians will get this, but do you remember what it looked like on the University Square during the medal ceremonies of the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2011? 100.000 spectators gathered with flags and loud cheers. Google it, it was magical! And I seriously believe it would look just like that if Magnus Carlsen defended his title in Oslo. We are all missing out, but especially Magnus himself. He has attracted so much positive attention to chess worldwide, but rather than being rewarded, a dirty culture crash is killing what must be his biggest dream.
The 2011 Nordic Ski Championships in Olso. | Photo: rroffemix.blogspot.com
In Stavanger, Magnus continued playing, unaware of the drama going on outside the door. By the time the game against Nakamura had finished, we had interviewed his manager, Espen Agdestein, the general secretary of the Norwegian Chess Federation, Geir Nesheim, the Norwegian Minister of Culture, Linda Hofstad Helleland, and Ilya Merenzon from Agon. It became clear that the reason Agon had stopped the process was because the Norwegian Government refused to give financial guarantee to the event. They initially welcomed the World Chess Championship to Oslo but could not accept Agon's refusal to show transparency when it comes to how they select the host city, and what each penny the government would contribute would be spent on. I guess it also does not help that the situation in FIDE right now is messy. A president (or is he?) that is on a sanction list in the U.S. does not look good.
Magnus received the news with grace but did admit it made him very sad. And maybe it affected the following game against Levon Aronian. What a devastating loss! Winning Norway Chess will be extremely difficult, and 2017 is turning into an awful year for the chess player Magnus Carlsen. MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This" definitely is not the theme song of his career right now.
Carlsen, on TV2: "I had certainly hoped the world championship to be in Norway. It is a pity that it won't happen." | Photo: Maria Emelianova.
The Candidates Tournament is less than a year away and after that Magnus will play his fourth World Championship Match. My bet is that it will take place in London - which is nice. If he manages to win again - which does not seem certain at the moment - then maybe he can dream about a match in Norway again. But a lot has to change for that to happen.
Right now the culture differences are too massive. Norwegian bureaucracy and fastidiousness versus FIDE's and Agon's strictly-business approach and suspicious hesitation to show transparency. Stuck in the middle: Magnus Carlsen's dream of winning the World Chess Championship title where it all started. The dream of gathering the entire nation around chess—because it would. Nothing could match the intense pressure, success, eventual lifting of the trophy, and singing the national anthem together with 100.000 Norwegians, showing him how proud he makes them.
Oh, how I wish sports could just be sports.
Kaja Snare, 27, lives in Oslo. She is a sports journalist for NRK and has been covering chess and hosting chess shows for Norwegian television for three years. She worked on the international broadcast during the world championship in New York. Kaja has been to the Olympics in Brazil covering handball, and has traveled covering winter sports, cycling, tennis and football (soccer). When at home, Kaja is a sports anchor.