Will Magnus Carlsen defend his world championship title in 2023?

Only he can know for sure.

Screengrab via chess24

The Norwegian chess prodigy has been sitting on the throne since 2012 and is widely considered to be one of, if not the best players of all time. Having triumphed in five successive world championship matches and looking to face a potential challenger of his generation that he’s all but crushed, he has publicly stated that it is unlikely that he will submit himself to yet another grueling match. Whether he will follow up on this threat-slash-promise is the biggest storyline in chess at this moment in time.

Magnus Carlsen and the chess world championship title

The “GOAT of chess” discussions regularly revolve around Carlsen and Garry Kasparov, with Bobby Fischer getting the occasional mention. Though the Norwegian still can’t match some of his historical counterparts’ remarkable longevity, the results and records he’s posted across the years are nothing short of incredible.

A 125-game undefeated streak, the highest-ever ELO rating (2882 officially, 2889 “unofficially” in the middle of May 2014), crushing records against fellow super-GMs and the general level of play shows that, based on objective metrics, he’s been the best chess player in the world for a long time.

Indeed, he’s been the highest-rated player in the world for ten years straight now and he’s gunning for the unprecedented 2900 rating barrier: only twelve players reached 2800 in the history of chess and no one’s even got close to this next peak – apart from Magnus himself, of course.

Should he achieve that goal (which would require incredible accuracy and precision, even from him, considering how a dominant tournament win at Tata Steel Chess against some of the best players of the world with a 9.5/13 score got him 3.1 ELO and a single draw against an International Master cost him 4.1), it would be even more difficult to argue against him as the best chess player of all time on an objective basis. There’s still a subjective side of things though, and it solely has to do with the longevity of his domination.

All this could be waved away as pointless fan fodder, if not for the shocking fact Magnus may not decide to defend his world title against his next challenger in 2023.

Magnus Carlsen’s world championship matches so far

2013: challenging for the crown

Carlsen emerged as the narrow winner of the 2013 Candidates Tournament, earning the right to challenge Viswanathan Anand, a five-time world champion in his own right. Despite the fact the match took place on Anand’s home turf in India, Carlsen scored back-to-back wins in games 5 and 6 to secure an unassailable lead, winning the title in just ten of the twelve scheduled matches.

2014: a rematch

As the loser of the previous world championship match, Anand was automatically invited to the next Candidates Tournament. He defied expectations by topping the field at the age of 44 despite having three higher-rated opponents to contend with. Though the rematch was a much closer affair, Carlsen still retained his title in just eleven games with a score of 6.5-4.5.

2016: a proper grind

Sergey Karjakin, now a pariah in the chess community due to his vocal support of the war in Ukraine, emerged as Carlsen’s next challenger. His defensive style and conservative approach served him well and his victory in game 8 after seven draws clearly destabilized the world champion. However, Carlsen struck back in game 10 and steered the series to the rapid tiebreakers, where he won 3-1, defending his title again.

2018: the narrowest of margins

Carlsen’s match against Fabiano Caruana marked the first time in world chess championship history where all the classical time control games ended in a draw. That isn’t to say it was a boring affair: the games were closely-fought and tense, but it was clear Carlsen was going to rely on his significant advantage in the faster time controls over Caruana rather than push for an all-out win. Winning three out of three rapid games played proved his strategy right.

2021: a crushing victory

Like so many other aspects of life, the Candidates Tournament for the next cycle was disrupted by COVID-19, forcing the organizers to postpone the event midway through due to lockdowns in Russia. This greatly benefited the mercurial Ian Nepomniachtchi, who’s been well-known for starting strongly in tournaments and fading towards the end.

Ultimately, he managed to leverage his strong performances in the first half of the event to make it past the finish line, but this tendency of his has been ruthlessly exposed by Carlsen. Five draws were followed by the longest game in world chess championship history, where the Norwegian grinded out a crucial win. Nepo self-destructed soon thereafter, losing games 8 and 9 to shocking and uncharacteristic blunders, and yet again in game 11, losing 3.5-7.5.

2023: a mystery for all of us

If Carlsen decides against defending his title, the top two finishers of the Candidates Tournament would duke it out in a match to determine his successor. That remains a big if, for now.

Will Magnus defend his title in 2023?

Defending his title again would equal Emanuel Lasker’s six championship match victories, though he’s not likely to catch up to him in terms of overall reign, which lasted 27 years. Modern chess features much more frequent world championship matches, and there was also the small matter of World War I that threw a wrench into the sporting works in the case of Lasker.

The more reasonable targets of Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1963, 13 years in total, non-consecutively) and Garry Kasparov (1985-2000, 15 years consecutively) are both in his sights now, having won the world championship title in 2013 and holding onto it ever since.

So far, the world champion hasn’t said anything definitive, but he has immediately floated the possibility of not participating in the next world championship match after defeating Ian Nepomniachtchi in their match in 2021. Interviews with his team suggest that they have long been planning for the Nepo match to be a sort of “last hurrah,” but the best indication we’ve got so far is Carlsen’s own words:

“I haven’t come closer to playing another match than I was before, but there also have been times when I am not 100 percent certain. I will make that decision later. But if there is anyone who expects and still hopes that I will say yes to playing, I will have to prepare them to be disappointed. […] At some point I made a decision that I was motivated to play for the World Championship title, and that worked, but I felt in many ways that too much of my identity was linked to the World Championship title, and I never enjoyed that.”

Magnus Carlsen

Right now, it seems like only the success of Alireza Firouzja, a prodigy from the next generation of players and current world #2 would be an interesting enough challenge for him to reconsider his stance. Looking at his current stats against the field in the Candidates Tournament somewhat confirms his point: the lifetime records show that Carlsen’s scored 51 wins and 14 losses (with 116 draws) against the field, which is seen as one of the strongest of all time.

It is an incredible record and shows just how large the gap between the world champion and his rivals is – and it also explains away why he may not be interested in the grueling affair that is the championship match.

As disappointing as it would be for chess fans all around the world to see him relinquish his title, at least we can all take solace in the fact Carlsen has no plans to stop playing chess competitively: in fact, he’s stated the 2900 rating barrier seems like a much more interesting pursuit for him than yet another title defense.

It’s tough to imagine how any other “world champion” would be taken seriously with Carlsen still around as a competitor. Most likely we won’t know for sure what’s next for the chess world until after the Candidates Tournament, when Carlsen and the rest of the world learn who his next potential challenger would be.