Magnus Carlsen is bored. The five-time classical world chess champion has won almost everything there is to win. He’s the best player in the world at every format of the game, he just won the greatest and longest game of the modern era, and he’s been the top-ranked player in the world for over a decade straight. Carlsen still has some greatness to chase, though he’s at the point where he’s competing against historical greats for feats of longevity: longest time at the top of the rankings, most title defenses, highest ranking all-time. Interesting, sure, for the fans, though Carlsen himself is being ground down by the lack of serious challengers. Only teenage sensation Alireza Firouzja can entice him back for another title defense.
Perhaps because his most recent championship win over Ian Nepomniachtchi was so easy, Carlsen began hinting in post-title pressers that he might not come back for another go. One week later, he said on a podcast that it would be “unlikely” that he’d defend his title if Firouzja didn’t win the next Candidates Tournament. On Tuesday, Carlsen wrote in a blog post, “It is unlikely that I will play another match unless maybe if the next challenger represents the next generation. (Alireza Firouzja is at 18 already ranked 2nd in classical chess and has qualified for the next candidates.)” The appeal for Carlsen is obvious: he’s already crushed everyone else in his cohort. Sure, Fabiano Caruana gave him a real run in 2018, but he’s already faced that challenge. Firouzja, however, represents a different sort of opponent.
In the past year, the Iran-born 18-year-old has vaulted up the rankings all the way to No. 2. He’s the only player besides Carlsen rated over 2800, and last month, he broke Carlsen’s record when he became the youngest person ever to achieve that ranking. He’s already qualified for next year’s Candidates Tournament, where he’ll be the favorite. Winning said tournament is far from a sure thing, as Firouzja is not yet head and shoulders ahead of players like Caruana, Ding Liren, and Anish Giri, though given his trajectory as a player over the past two years, he looks way more like a young Magnus Carlsen than another top-10 grandmaster. He looks like a future champion.
As Carlsen wrote, Firouzja represents the best of the next generation. His game has matured over the course of 2021, and his only identifiable weakness (endgame maneuvering) has smoothed out. The two played last January at the (rather eventful) Tata Steel tournament, and Carlsen beat him by leveraging a trio of brilliant sacrifices to checkmate Firouzja. Since then, both players have improved, and Firouzja seems like he’s the only living player who could meaningfully challenge Carlsen. On one hand, it would be a shame to see Carlsen shrug his shoulders at the classical chess championship when he’s clearly in a position to chase history. On the other, the chasing of history has gotten boring for him, and while it’s satisfying to see someone operating at his level, there’s less joy in it now.
Firouzja is the best possible solution to Carlsen’s problem. He’s a safe bet to win a title at some point in the next decade, though it would be a shame if he didn’t have to go through Carlsen to earn it. Carlsen will not be the best player in the world forever, and it would be immensely more satisfying if whoever succeeds him snatches his crown away instead of simply stepping into his shoes after he moves on. Maybe that player is Firouzja. I’d love to see him try.