Carlsen has held the title since 2013, when, at 22, he wrested it from Indian chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. Carlsen has won every World Chess Championship since then but had already expressed frustration with the format of the competition.
Carlsen, now 31, said on Wednesday that winning the championship for the fourth and fifth time “meant nothing” to him. “I was satisfied with the job I had done. I was happy I had not lost the match. But that was it,” he said.
While fans and chess officials have lamented Carlsen’s decision, it is not unprecedented. Carlsen joins several other chess champions who quit the competition at the top of their game, including Garry Kasparov.
Arkady Dvorkovich, president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), said that staying motivated can be difficult for those at the very top.
“Many other great champions, in other sports, have experienced something similar: with the passing of the years, it is more difficult to find the motivation to train and compete at the highest level, while the reward for the victory never feels as intense as the first day,” he said in a statement.
Psychologists have argued it can be difficult for people to stay motivated after a major achievement if they do not have an ongoing sense of growth, or if they experience burnout.
Chess officials said they offered to tweak the championship format in discussions with Carlsen in Madrid last month. But the player couldn’t be swayed — leaving two other chess grandmasters, Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia and Ding Liren of China, to battle for the title 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 match unless his opponent was Alireza Firouzja, the current world No. 3, because the 19-year-old’s fast rise impressed him. However, Firouzja was knocked out by Nepomniachtchi, whom Carlsen had previously defeated, at the Candidates Tournament in Madrid in June.
Every dominant Champion quits at some stage: Morphy, Lasker (he resigned the title in 1920 and insisted on playing 1921 Match as a challenger), Fischer, Kasparov. No FIDE, weak FIDE, strong FIDE. Does not matter. 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FIDE said in a statement that Carlsen had not officially withdrawn yet, since preparations for the championship match — including deadlines and Carlsen’s contract — had not been finalized. Still, the world chess body said it knew that the player’s decision was final.
Dvorkovich said Carlsen’s departure would leave a “big void” and be “a disappointment for the fans, and bad news for the spectacle,” although he emphasized that the sport remained “stronger than ever” and that the championship would go on.
Fans however may be glad to know that Carlsen is not retiring from the sport — in fact, he said Wednesday he was headed to Croatia to compete in the Grand Chess Tour and that he enjoyed playing chess tournaments “a lot more” than championships.
He also left open the possibility that he might one day return to the World Chess Championship — although he did not sound particularly enthusiastic. “I don’t rule out a return in the future, but I wouldn’t particularly count on it,” he said on the podcast.