Has Magnus Carlsen Chosen Poker Over Chess?

  • ‘The Magnus Effect’ launched this week, and Carlsen said he won’t defend his chess world title
  • The chess champ’s WSOP appearance has prompted Lappin to speculate he may prefer poker
  • Carlsen has dedicated his entire life to the game of chess and seems at peace with his decision
  • The Championship format may be too antiquated, with Carlsen still playing other chess comps
  • Speaking with VSO, Chess Master Shahade said faster games would increase enjoyment in chess
Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen has just announced he will not defend his chess world title, and a recent WSOP appearence has prompted VSO’s David Lappin to speculate he may dip his toe further into the world of pro poker. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

‘The Magnus Effect’ drops a bombshell

This week, ‘The Magnus Effect’ released its first episode, but would the highly anticipated new Unibet-sponsored podcast starring sports pundit Magnus Barstad and world chess champion Magnus Carlsen deliver the goods? The short answer is ‘yes.’ The long answer is:

oh, heck yeah!’

Right away, a bombshell was dropped as Carlsen matter-of-factly explained that he would not be defending his world title against Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in 2023: 

“I was in Madrid and met with the FIDE management in connection with the end of the Candidates Tournament. I had no demands, nor did I have any suggestions. I was there to tell them that I would not be defending the title in the next World Championship.”

This announcement has sent shockwaves through the world of chess. Carlsen has been the poster boy for the game for over a decade. He is the reigning five-time World Chess champion, a three-time World Rapid Chess champion, and has held the FIDE (the International Chess Federation) number one ranking since July 2011. 

The Chess World Championships

The first event generally recognized as a World Championship in chess was the match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannesburg Zukertort in 1886. Steinitz was victorious and for the 60 years after, the system was a sort of ‘winner-stays-on’ with the champion setting the terms, usually requiring any challenger to raise a sizable stake and defeat them in a match in order to become the new world champion. Notable reigns in this period include Emanuel Lasker who was champion from 1894–1921, José Raúl Capablanca from 1921-1927, and Alexander Alekhine for all but one year in the period 1927-1946. 

Bobby Fischer was the only non-Soviet to hold the title when he won in 1972

In 1946, FIDE took over the administration of the World Chess Championship. The organization hosted a set of tournaments, the results from which would decide a new challenger every three years. The Soviet Union completely dominated chess for the next four decades with players like Mikhail Botvinnik, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov. The US’s Bobby Fischer was the only non-Soviet to hold the title when he won in 1972. 

In 1993, the system changed when reigning champion Garry Kasparov broke away from FIDE, resulting in a rival claimant to the title of World Champion for the next 13 years. Then, in 2006, the titles were unified and the Championship was once again under the auspices of FIDE. In 2013, Carlsen defeated Viswanathan Anand to become world champion. He successfully defended his title in 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2021. 

Treading on The Chip Race’s toes 

Carlsen became a Unibet brand ambassador in 2020, extending his deal in April of this year. Full disclosure, I am also a brand ambassador for Unibet and during our time together with the Kindred brand, Carlsen and I have cultivated a very specific collegial relationship. Basically, I retweet and amplify all of his content and he is oblivious to my existence. It’s an interesting relationship but we make it work. 

It is noteworthy that Carlsen is now flexing in the podcast arena, following in the footsteps of the Unibet-sponsored GPI award-winning podcast ‘The Chip Race.’ In fact, in the premiere of ‘The Magnus Effect,’ he gets dangerously close to treading on toes as he and Barstad expound on their recent World Series of Poker (WSOP) experiences. Carlsen played the Main Event and participated in a livestream cash game with Phil Ivey.

After listening to the episode, it was certainly clear that Carlsen loves poker and one couldn’t help but speculate if that might be part of the reasoning behind his decision not to compete for the World Chess Championship. 

“I am not motivated to play another match. I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain, I don’t particularly like it, and although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons and all of that, I don’t have any inclination to play and I will simply not play the match,” he explained.

Ambition and motivation are fickle mistresses

In May 2014, Carlsen reached a peak chess rating of 2,882, the highest in history. He holds the record for the longest unbeaten streak at the elite level of classical chess. He trails only Garry Kasparov in time spent as the highest-rated player in the world. Whatever comes next, his legacy is assured. 

The sacrifices he has made are unfathomable

Ambition and motivation are both fickle mistresses. They can ebb and flow over a career and it is worth pointing out that Carlsen is just 31 years old. The sacrifices he has made are unfathomable, giving his childhood, teens, and 20s to the game of chess. Viewed through that lens, it is perhaps easier to see why he is genuinely at peace with the decision. He said:

“Ultimately the conclusion stands, one that I’m pretty comfortable with, one that I’ve thought a lot about for a long time now, I would say more than a year… since long before the last match.”

Demonstrating Carlsen’s impact on the game, FIDE’s president Arkady Dvorkovich responded to the news with a statement, paying tribute to the world champion:

“Only a handful of people in history can understand and assess the tremendous toll it takes playing five matches for the title. His decision not to defend his title is undoubtedly a disappointment for the fans, and bad news for the spectacle. It leaves a big void. But chess is now stronger than ever – in part thanks to Magnus – and the World Championship match, one of the longest, most respected traditions in the world of sport, will go on.”

Is the World Chess Championship too antiquated? 

During the episode, Carlsen does not exclude the possibility of ever returning to the World Chess Championship. His passion for chess remains and he emphasizes that he will continue to meet his other chess commitments. He is currently playing the Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb, after which he will go on to represent Norway in the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 in Chennai. After that, he will participate in the FTX Crypto Cup in Miami.

I think he’s bored with too many matches”

Carlsen’s willingness to play in other formats begs the question: ‘Is the format of the World Chess Championship the real problem?’ Last month, when there was first speculation of Carlsen’s withdrawal, Kasparov weighed in with his thoughts on the matter. “Magnus is not tired, but I think he’s bored with too many matches.”

VegasSlotsOnline News reached out to International Chess Master and poker pro Greg Shahade who provided some insight: 

“If the World Championship cycle was less antiquated and a better overall test of who the best chess player in the world was, I think it’s without question that Magnus would still be playing.”

Shahade elaborated, pointing to the variance of slow matches that result in a lot of draws. “Speeding up the time control and playing more games would result in the better player winning more often, and would also be a lot less torturous and unpleasant. It’s the funny thing where playing faster games would massively reduce the variance.” 

Whatever the reasons, Carlsen has made his decision and ‘The Magnus Effect’ is off to an explosive start thanks to the exclusive. In the coming weeks, we can expect more chess conversations, plus the two Magnuses will share their English Premier League betting predictions (Carlsen is also a top-level Fantasy Sports player). We will also find out how seriously Carlsen has caught the poker bug. As for the 2023 World Chess Championships, China’s world number two, Ding Liren, will now step up and face Nepomniachtch.