Carlsen has held the title since 2013 when, aged 22, he snatched it from Indian chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. Carlsen has won every World Chess Championship since then, but had previously expressed frustration with the format of the competition.
Carlsen, now 31, said Wednesday winning the championship for the fourth and fifth time “meant nothing” to him. “I was satisfied with the work I had done. I was happy not to have lost the game. But that was it,” he said.
While fans and chess officials lamented Carlsen’s decision, it’s not unprecedented. Carlsen joins several other chess champions who left competition at the top of their game, including Garry Kasparov.
Arkady Dvorkovich, president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), said staying motivated can be difficult for those at the top.
“Many other great champions, in other sports, have gone through something similar: over the years it is more difficult to find the motivation to train and compete at the highest level, whereas the reward of winning is never as intense as day one,” he said in a statement.
Psychologists have argued that it can be difficult for people to stay motivated after a major achievement if they don’t have a sense of continued growth or suffer from burnout.
Chess officials say they offered to change the format of the championship during talks with Carlsen in Madrid last month. But the player could not be swayed – leaving two other chess grandmasters, Ian Nepomniachtchi from Russia and Ding Liren from China, to title battle in 2023.
Carlsen may also have been affected by a lack of enthusiasm for his opponents. He had previously said he was not interested in the next world championship game unless his opponent was Alireza Firouzja, the current world No. had impressed. However, Firouzja was eliminated by Nepomniachtchi, whom Carlsen had previously beaten, at the Candidates Tournament in Madrid in June.
Every dominant champion has dropped out at some point: Morphy, Lasker (he resigned the title in 1920 and insisted on playing the 1921 match as a challenger), Fischer, Kasparov. No FIDE, weak FIDE, strong FIDE. Has no importance. As sad as it is, Carlsen is in line with his great predecessors.
— Emilchess (@EmilSutovsky) July 21, 2022
FIDE said in a statement that Carlsen had not yet officially retired as preparations for the championship match – including deadlines and Carlsen’s contract – had not been finalized. Still, the world chess body said it knew the player’s decision was final.
Dvorkovich said Carlsen’s departure would leave a “big void” and would be “a disappointment for the fans and bad news for the show”, although he stressed that the sport remained “stronger than ever” and that the championship would continue.
Fans can be happy to know, however, that Carlsen isn’t retiring from the sport – in fact, he said on Wednesday that he was traveling to Croatia to take part in the Grand Chess Tour and that he enjoys playing chess tournaments “a lot. more” than at the championships.
He has also left open the possibility that he could one day return to the World Chess Championship – although he doesn’t seem particularly keen. “I’m not ruling out a return in the future, but I wouldn’t particularly count on it,” he said on the podcast.