Carlsen On The Candidates, His Classical Chess Future, Freestyle Chess, And More


In a fresh podcast interview released Monday, GM Magnus Carlsen talked about his two favorites for the Candidates Tournament that begins in Toronto on April 4, his future in classical events, his new motivation, the Chess960 tour, and much more.

The former world champion has frequently appeared on podcasts over the last few years, mostly in his native language, but the latest episode of Sjakksnakk (“Chess chat”), run by his Norwegian friends Askild Bryn and Odin Blikra Vea, was released in English on Monday.

Carlsen Considers Nakamura And Caruana Candidates Favorites

The Candidates will decide the challenger for the reigning world champion GM Ding Liren and it does not come as a surprise that the former world champion intends to follow it closely.

“I am a chess fan after all,” he says. Carlsen feels the eight-player field can be split into two, with the “old guys” considered favorites against the young guys.












# Player FED Nation Rating Age Qualified By
1 Ian Nepomniachtchi FIDE 2771 33 World Championship Runner-Up
2 Praggnanandhaa R India 2747 18 World Cup Runner-Up
3 Fabiano Caruana United States 2804 31 World Cup 3rd
4 Nijat Abasov Azerbaijan 2632 28 World Cup 4th
5 Vidit Gujrathi India 2747 29 Grand Swiss Winner
6 Hikaru Nakamura United States 2789 36 Grand Swiss Runner-Up
7 Gukesh D India 2747 17 FIDE Circuit
8 Alireza Firouzja France 2760 20 January 2024 Rating

“Nakamura and Caruana are the best and most consistent players there. If anybody else wins, it would be a bit of a surprise. If Alireza wins, it would be surprising, but not shocking. If any of the other four wins, that would be a shock.”

When asked whether there are players who would suit Ding’s strength, or be a more tricky opponent for him in a match, he said:

“Nakamura has always been a very difficult opponent for Ding specifically. Ding has always done quite well against Caruana. But again, these things may change. I also think that if Ding plays the way he has played recently, he will obviously have no chance. If he plays the way he played against Nepomniachtchi, I also don’t think he will beat either of these two guys. That’s obviously a huge factor there.”

I also think that if Ding plays the way he has played recently, he will obviously have no chance.

—Magnus Carlsen

“I feel like Caruana on average is a better classical player than Nakamura, but so far Ding has done a lot better against him.”

The five-time world classical champion thinks there are a couple of players missing in the Candidates this year, in particular GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov, who shot up to world number-four with an impressive series of results.

“It’s missing some people for sure. Abdusattorov with his recent results. You can argue people like Wesley So, Anish Giri, even with their fairly obvious psychological shortcomings.”

“The Candidates is unusual in the sense that there are normally a lot of decisive games, because usually only first place counts. Compared to other super-tournaments with similar strength of the field, you are going to see more fighting chess.”

“The Candidates is psychologically, for me, almost as tough as the world championship, for sure.”

Asked whether there are specific players he hopes are going to win, he says:

“I don’t particularly hope for anybody. I feel like anybody who is going to be classical world champion who is not me, is always going to be a bit weird.”

Is there a player he would feel “less weird” about if they become champion?

“If Caruana becomes world champion, that would be both quite deserved, and it would probably feel the most normal of all.”

If Caruana becomes world champion, that would be both quite deserved, and it would probably feel the most normal of all.

—Magnus Carlsen

It would be quite deserved and
It would be quite deserved and “feel the most normal” if Caruana wins the Candidates, Carlsen says. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The former world champion abdicated his world championship title in 2021, saying he would not return to the cycle under the current classical format. FIDE included him in the lineup for the Candidates Tournament as he qualified by winning the 2023 FIDE World Cup, but in January Carlsen formally declined the invitation to take part.

Carlsen says he is happy about not having to prepare for a grueling match, and he is not eager to return to the world championship cycle, noting: “I haven’t retired. I chose to step away, and that’s fine, but it’s always going to be slightly weird. But I also think… good for the others!”

Carlsen May Have Played His Last Traditional Classical Event

Carlsen has long been clear that he intends to focus less on playing classical chess, and more on speed chess and Chess960/Freestyle Chess, in the future. This year he skipped the traditional Tata Steel Chess for the first time since 2014, and only the second time since 2004.

While the 33-year-old will play the 2024 Norway Chess that takes place on home soil in Stavanger for the 12th time from May 27 to June 7, the former world champion reveals he “rarely found classical chess exciting” in the last few years and we may have seen him play a traditional classical super-tournament for the last time.

Magnus Carlsen in Freestyle Chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
Magnus Carlsen in Freestyle Chess. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

“Honestly, I am not sure I am actually ever going to play just a normal round-robin classical chess tournament again, like the types they have in St. Louis and Bucharest for the Grand Chess Tour. Having the Armageddon, also the time control where the games are likely a little bit shorter, is important to me.”

Honestly, I am not sure I am actually ever going to play just a normal round-robin classical chess tournament again, like the types they have in St. Louis and Bucharest for the Grand Chess Tour.

—Magnus Carlsen

Despite having two “disastrous tournaments” with Qatar Masters and Norway Chess, events that cost him 35 rating points, Carlsen remains the world number-one in all three formats. However, he has this to say about his current 2830 classical rating:

“My classical rating sucks right now. Or comparatively. I don’t know if I am actually better than that at the moment. But generally I want it to be high enough that I don’t have a problem with it remaining the highest in the world.”

Carlsen Really Excited About Freestyle Chess

Instead, Carlsen has found a new motivation with Chess960, rebranded Freestyle Chess by German entrepreneur Jan-Henric Buettner. The Norwegian won the inaugural event in Germany in February, and last week the duo unveiled an extravagant Freestyle Chess Grand Slam Tour across five continents, with the first event taking place in India in November.

“I plan to play as much as I can,” he says about the tour. “I can’t wait to play. I think it’s going to be an awesome new opportunity for players and fans.”

Carlsen won the inaugural 2024 Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge in Germany. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.
Carlsen won the inaugural 2024 Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T. Challenge in Germany. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Carlsen is clearly excited: “I talked to Buettner for quite a while, my dad did as well. I do think the other players are quite enthustiastic about this. Some more than others, Aronian for example. That’s why he was invited to the tournament. He is extremely enthustiastic about it, and has been for a while. But it also feels like a lot of players like the format. For now, I am definitely trying to push it as much as I can.”

Chess960 has the advantage, or perhaps disadvantage, that you can’t prepare as the pieces on the first and eighth rank are shuffled almost randomly. The number 960 comes from the number of possible positions for how the game can start. 

Carlsen talks about how different the variant is, compared to normal chess, highlighting how you enter the middlegame already from move one. “You sort of have to unlearn patterns from normal chess, on the fly. It’s also easy to get too excited. I wanted to sacrifice pawns all the time!”

“The positions are so different. The good thing about normal chess is that the starting position is awesome.”

Carlsen On His ‘Huge Competitive Advantage’

Carlsen comes off a particularly good run, having won his last five tournaments. The highlight was his double gold in Uzbekistan, winning both the World Rapid and Blitz Championships for the second year in a row. How long will he dominate these events?

“I’ve won four events in a row now. It’s something you cannot expect. I’d say at least for the next five years, I will be a contender at worst. I mean, let’s say I am two years from now… it’s very hard to imagine that I won’t be the biggest favorite.”

Reflecting on the achievement, he says he considered himself a “very significant favorite” in the blitz with more than a 50 percent chance of winning, and with a “decent chance” in the rapid. He noted that a lot of games on the top boards ended with short draws in the final rounds, and highlighted what he considers a problem with how the prizes are distributed.

Carlsen's best game from the World Rapid & Blitz Championship, was his game against Vladimir Fedoseev, he says. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
Carlsen considered his best game from the World Rapid and Blitz Championship to be the one against Vladimir Fedoseev. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

“The prize structure is one that doesn’t really incentivize you to go very hard for gold. A lot of people end up trying to secure a medal, or even a top-five finish, rather than to go for gold.”

Carlsen mentioned Dubov, who won the 2018 World Rapid Championship, but took draws in the last two rounds of both events in Uzbekistan.

“He thinks that it suits him to make draws against players he considers very difficult, and then rather sometimes try to counterattack as Black. He has also won a title there before, so getting another one is not neccesarily a big deal for him. It seems like that for some other players as well. To secure the biggest pay-day of the year, they’d rather do that than go for gold. In that sense, I have a huge competitive advantage, since for me first place is all that matters.”

Carlsen Unsure About Chess Form

Today Carlsen will be back in action at the Grenke Chess Classic in Germany, an event that has returned with a new “slow rapid” format, with two 45-minute games each day.

“I am a bit unsure about my chess form at the moment. I am always doubting it when I feel like I haven’t played for a bit. It’s certainly important to have some time to not think about chess, or not very much—I always think about it!”

Responding to a question about his motivation, which he says “comes and goes”, he said:

“I still love to play. I still play casual online games quite a bit. That is usually a good indicator that you love to play. It’s a lot of fun to play and the motivation comes and goes a bit for big tournaments, but I have periods where I absolutely love the game. I think having some lows that I have had now where I hadn’t really played tournaments, or haven’t thought too much about openings, or which openings to play, is quite healthy to have as well.”





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