Chess Master Magnus Carlsen's Curious Decision Follows A Long Line Of Champions

Chess exploded in popularity in 2020 and 2021, according to the New York Times. Two things drove that explosion in popularity: One was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many to limit human contact and find ways to amuse themselves, and chess, which can be played online and without direct human contact, fit the bill (and it isn't the only popular board game used as an escape during times of crisis). The second reason was the popularity of "The Queen's Gambit," a Netflix limited series about a fictitious American chess player named Beth Harmon.

In real life, the world chess champion has, for the past decade, been a Norwegian named Magnus Carlsen (pictured above). He was champion before the pandemic and "The Queen's Gambit," and he remained champion after the pandemic was no longer news and Netflix users moved on to the next big thing. However, his tenure atop the highest levels of chess is coming to an end: In July 2022, he announced that he would not be defending his title, effectively marking his retirement from the World Chess Championship (though he'll continue to participate in competitive chess in other ways), according to the Washington Post. He leaves this part of the sport at the top of his game and joins a long list of other chess players who have done the same.

Magnus Carlsen, chess prodigy

Magnus Carlsen didn't just appear out of nowhere in the chess world when he claimed the title of world champion in 2013. He'd been a child prodigy for 17 years by that point, having learned the game from his father at the age of 5 and, within a few years, was consistently beating his father, his older sisters, and other adults. When he took the title in 2013, he was 22, the second-youngest person to do so, according to Britannica.

However, he's been at the top of the chess world for nine years now, and he's decided that chess has nothing left to give him. "[I am] not motivated to play another match [at the World Chess Championship]. I simply feel that I don't have a lot to gain," Carlsen said, per the Washington Post.

Carlsen is not the first world chess champion to call it quits while on top. Famously, American Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title in 1975, and then disappeared into obscurity for the next two decades, according to the New York Times. Garry Kasparov, quite possibly the greatest player to ever play the game, and the last of the great chess players produced by the Soviet machine, also quit at the top of his game — in 2005, according to The Guardian, in order to concentrate on politics.

What's next for chess?

It bears noting that Magnus Carlsen will continue to play chess, just not at the World Championship level. Further still, he has his YouTube channel, which has 742,000 subscribers, as well as branded chess products bearing his name.

Meanwhile, the matter of identifying the next world champion will go on just as it was scheduled to, only without Carlsen. According to the Washington Post, the Candidates Tournament, which was won by Ian Nepomniachtchi (pictured above on the right), would have featured the Russian against Carlsen. But with Carlsen's withdrawal, Nepomniachtchi will instead play the second-place finisher in the Candidates Tournament, Ding Liren of China (pictured above on the left), according to "I am very excited about playing a world championship match to fight for the crown next year," said Liren of the championship game, currently scheduled for July 2023.

Carlsen, for his part, hasn't ruled out returning to chess at this level, but for now, he says, the time isn't right.