Carlsen's withdrawal: reactions from candidates and readers

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The fan reactions to Magnus Carlsen's withdrawal from the 2011 Candidates matches has been extraordinary. Heated debates are ongoing at chess sites and here at ChessVibes it blasted our comment record to a staggering five hundred plus. It's about time for an update. We have reactions from candidates Aronian, Gelfand, Mamedyarov and Kramnik, and made a selection of your comments.

The discussion that followed upon Magnus Carlsen's letter to FIDE, in which the Norwegian announced his withdrawal from the upcoming Candidates matches, was unprecedented for this site. There are Carlsen supporters and naturally there's also criticism. However, the sheer number of comments make the quite interesting discussion almost unreadable, so below we give a brief summary of what our readers have pointed out so far.But before that, we give the floor to four candidates who will play in the Candidates matches next year. Over the last few days Macauley Peterson spoke with Levon Aronian, Boris Gelfand, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Vladimir Kramnik, the four candidates who are currently playing in the Tal Memorial in Moscow. (The other three candidates are Veselin Topalov, Gata Kamsky and Teimour Radjabov.)

Levon Aronian

[audio: Aronian-32Khz-mono.mp3]Levon AronianAronian: It's a pity, I think. I don't know -- I actually like the system with the Grand Prix and this candidate matches. I think bringing back this tradition is not a bad idea, but, everybody can have their own view on this. I remember once we had this big conference [call] with Illymzhinov and then we were all telling our view to the president, and then one of the players, I won't mention him, said, "oh, but I think this system is unfair. We should have two World Championships in a year, and they should be knockout." So, you know all the great players have a different kind of understanding.Macauley: The analogy that he was drawing was with the [football] World Cup and the main substantive point was that he felt that the world champion was getting too many privileges going into the cycle. Do you think that analogy holds water?Aronian: Somehow I think we're playing a different kind of game than football, and it takes a tradition, and becoming World Champion is -- I mean, I don't know, I will not be objective on this one, but, I think it takes much more effort. After all, it's a thing you do alone, without a -- I mean with a team as well but not with a team that plays alongside with you. And doing something that big alone is much harder, so I'm not sure that analogy is correct.Macauley: You think it's fine for the World Champion to have the privileges of not having to compete in the full cycle with potential challengers.Aronian: I think so. After all there are not many World Champions, and -- I don't know -- I kind of have a different view on this. Maybe I'm just too -- you know I think the World Champion is too great. But some people look on it with different eyes and they think there should be more of a challenge for everybody.Macauley: And for the candidates matches themselves. Obviously, to a certain extent as the Grand Prix winner, in one version of the cycle you would play a match with Gelfand to directly challenge Anand, and now you have to play matches...Aronian: Well, definitely I was unhappy, but seeing that all the players agreed, I didn't really want to start defending my interests in such manner, and especially I think that candidate matches in general are good. They are fair, and -- it's not something that, OK, you've won some event and you're the champion, no, here you have to go all the way, and show that you're made of steel in a way, to win all these matches.Macauley: Even with the initial short four-game matches, you still think it's a good system?Aronian: Maybe in the future the number can be changed, but I don't see anything wrong with four games as well. I mean, you know it's still a match, after all. Maybe in the next years it can be altered, but now I don't really see a -- I mean I think that six games would be better or eight games would be better, but... you should look at the financial side of it, and since I'm not one of the sponsors, I don't really care. The system is right. If you're willing to change the number of games, that's fine with me.

Boris Gelfand

[audio: Gelfand-32Khz-mono.mp3]Boris GelfandGelfand: Very strange to withdraw from the cycle with no obvious reasons. OK, he'll be here you can ask him, but I don't see any reason. Actually it's one of the best cycles for many years. It's more or less returning to the historical cycle, what was praised also by Kasparov and Karpov, whom Magnus supported during [the FIDE election] campaign. So I don't see [an] obvious reason. I remember, lets say, seven or eight years ago there [was] no cycle whatsoever. And I am an old man, I have a good memory, yeah? While now it's a very decent cycle, so I see no reason whatsoever for him to withdraw. But it's his choice, maybe he'll be here, he'll explain.Macauley: Well at one point in the cycle you, as the World Cup winner, would go directly into a semi-final match, and now that it was changed to the candidates -- from his letter it seems like these kinds of changes in the cycle are one reason for withdrawing, but you're happy with the candidates matches?Gelfand: Well, OK, I would be happy as the winner of the [World Cup final] match to play with the winner of the Grand Prix. But this collision occurred because Magnus withdrew from [the] Grand Prix, so they changed this [system] to motivate him again and seat him. So, actually I won all the seats on the board, not on letters. So, that's what I'm going to do -- I'm going to prepare for the matches. I hope to know the opponent soon. Fortunately we know the place already. Of course I told a hundred times what I think about FIDE management, but again, this is one of the best cycles for many years, and to discuss what's better -- tournament or matches -- both are very decent system[s]. I, for example, proposed to shift -- once cycle to have tournament, once cycle matches, but lets say, we remember that one of the reasons Fischer withdrew from the cycle [was] because he said [a] tournament is not good. After Curacao [1962 Candidates Tournament in which the Russian players drew against each other, to conserve energy, according to Fischer. -CV] he insisted on matches. So, history repeats itself, yeah?Update Nov. 10: As Macauley pointed out in the comments, FIDE proposed to change the cycle to include candidates matches before Carlsen withdrew from the Grand Prix in December, 2008. So clearly the change was not in any way an effort to bring Carlsen back into the cycle -- as Gelfand implied -- but rather the change became the main rationale for his withdrawing from the Grand Prix. In fact the change created the possibility to include the other top players who had declined for the Grand Prix, e.g. Morozevich and Topalov, and would later become a way for Carlsen to get back into the cycle as a rating qualifier.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov

[audio: Mamedyarov-32Khz-mono.mp3] Shakhriyar MamedyarovMamedyarov: I don't know, it really is bad news for all because he won all tournaments -- last tournaments -- but he decided not to play in world championship. It will be not easy for FIDE and for all. We will see, yeah.Macauley: Do you agree that the cycle is not modern and not fair?Mamedyarov: Maybe he's right about -- it's more interesting eight players and seven games. I like it because all players will play against all and it will be a good tournament like San Luis and Mexico. But now is quite OK -- for me it's very dangerous to say something, because -- I don't know -- it's the first time if I will play, and for me [it's] not easy to say something. But I think it is very bad that Carlsen [will not] play. It's very bad.

Vladimir Kramik

[audio: Kramnik-32Khz-mono.mp3]Vladimir KramnikKramnik: I saw, yesterday I read his letter -- well it was very surprising to me... I still didn't really understand the real reason because he mentions a lot of different reasons, but I don't actually understand exactly why, so -- anyway, of course it's his choice although of course it's a pity for the whole world of chess. I guess there are a lot of fans which he has and... it was pretty surprising, I mean I didn't expect this because now it seems that at least, well, everything seems to be more or less under control -- this candidate tournament seems to be fixed, and everything is there, it's a pretty nice tournament -- OK, I see there can be different systems, but it's all right, this system is not the worst one -- we've seen worse with knockouts and everything so, it's all a bit confusing and strange. I don't know what to say about it.Macauley: Well obviously there may be some reasons that are not stated, but at least dealing with the ones that are stated in the letter, your opinion on the privileges of the World Champion -- is that normal, or would it be better to not have them?Kramnik: Well, I think it's OK, you know it's been like this for more than a century. We can discuss whether it can be changed or not, but it's been like this -- I don't have any problem with it. I think it's OK the World Champion has certain privileges -- I mean it's just a different structure, a different idea. In a way it's like a monarchy, a World Chess Championship is like a monarchy. In football, in soccer it's a bit different, but here the chess king has some kind of value, and he stays there, and you have to come and to beat him. This kind of general idea -- well, you might of course argue with it. You can say whether it's good or bad, but it's been like this for the whole history of chess, so I think it's OK. At least for sure, in my opinion, it's not a reason not to play the World Championship.Macauley: Presumably the way the candidates matches are being organized with very short matches immediately after each other, is another factor. As someone who will have to go through that, do you think that system is OK, or would you rather there were longer matches.Kramnik: I think it's totally OK -- I mean longer match -- I wouldn't mind to have longer matches, but it's quite OK, it's pretty long, it's four games. Also, Magnus is stating that he would prefer a tournament, but basically I don't see any differences. Basically it IS like a tournament, more or less, it's just a slightly different format whether you play a tournament, two games with each other, lets say double-round, or you play four games with three of the players, I mean it's not a big difference, so any of these reasons, I don't find big enough not to play. But, of course, I fully respect his wish, and his choice. It's his choice of course. But again I'm a bit confused, and I would say it's a bit of a pity, because I would like to see him competing, I guess like everyone, of course.

Summary of readers' comments

In his letter, Carlsen states that he can't motivate himself enough because the current World Championship cycle A) not modern enough and B) not fair. The Norwegian supports this with the following points:1) The current cycle is not fair because it's not a fight on equal terms; the reigning champ has one out of two tickets to the final. Carlsen suggests an 8-10 player World Championship tournament, like was held in 2005 and 2007. He doesn't like the "shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept". 2) Five years is too long for a cycle. 3) Changes made during a cycle are not tolerable. 4) At the moment there are puzzling ranking criteria.Carlsen's first point triggered most comments, as it basically undermines the long tradition of matches to determine the World Champion. The Norwegian supported it with the following comparison: "Imagine that the winner of the 2010 Football World Cup would be directly qualified to the 2014 World Cup final while all the rest of the teams would have to fight for the other spot."To many of our readers, this comparison is flawed. For example, Joe writes:

The comparison with soccer and the World Cup is ludicrous. Isn’t it the culture of chess that in order to be World Champion, you have to defeat the regining Champion?

To this, Dave adds:

An important distinction between chess and football is the latter is a team game. The players in a team can change, so it makes no sense to have a system where the existing champions plays challengers.

Many of our readers have made the comparison with boxing, where the World Champion has similar privileges. However, as Momomomo mentioned, there are many counter examples of individual sports with no privileges for the World Champion:

Individual sports where you have to compete from the start to finish. 1. Cycling (all kinds actually) 2. Skiing (all kinds actually) 3. Running 4. Shooting 5. Fencing 6. Any other sports except boxing.

It's an important point, that has been under discussion since Steinitz (we suggest you have a look at the famous London rules, mentioned by mdamien): should a World Champion have privileges, and if yes, to what extent? It's a complicated matter.Our readers seem to agree with Carlsen's second point of criticism, which is that a cycle of five years is too long. However, it's not exactly clear which five years Carlsen is referring to. Stanley Peters:

He had already qualified for the 2011 Candidates and had every opportunity to clear this field and take on Anand in 2012.

frogbert responds:

It’s probably only a small matter of getting the maths wrong: Slightly depending on when in 2012 the match will be held, the cycle will have lasted for somewhere between a little less than 4 and a little less than 5 years:2008 First games played April 21st in Baku 2009 WCC won by Gelfand 2010 2011 Candidates (?) 2012 WC Match when?

Our readers seem to agree with Carlsen's third point of criticism, which is that changes made during a cycle are not tolerable. However, several would like to see longer candidates matches that the four-game matches currently scheduled. There has been little debate about Carlsen's fourth point of criticism, that at the moment there are "puzzling ranking criteria". An interesting meta-discussion that's taking place is whether the chess fans have the "right" to "blame" Carlsen for "damaging chess". For example, Thomas wonders:

Maybe he isn’t unhappy with his current situation, and doesn’t want to sacrifice other things in life for chess, could or should we blame him?

cip says:

I agree that we can and should blame him for expressing such opinions and making them public. We can be disappointed by his decisions.

To end this summary of reactions to the Carlsen letter on ChessVibes, we'll mention that several people have expressed their wish to see other players follow suit, in an attempt to influence FIDE. Besides, several people share the thought that it's Garry Kasparov who's behind Magnus' decision. And, as ebutaljib pointed out, after withdrawing from the Grand Prix at the end of 2008, this is the second time Carlsen withdraws from the same cycle. The Norwegian won't be World Champion soon, but he must have scored a world record there.

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