A LOT IS MADE out of 16-year-old Indian chess prodigy R Praggnanandhaa having defeated the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen twice this year. But what is glossed over in the media reports here is that these were victories in the Rapid 10-minute format of the game. It is a little like what One-Day Internationals is to Test cricket but without the legitimacy. No one who follows chess would think that in the long classical format of the game, where players have ample time to think through moves, Praggnanandhaa, at present, would be a serious contender against Carlsen. He could evolve with time, as Carlsen, another boy prodigy himself did, but that would still be at least five to 10 years away. Carlsen is more or less undefeatable in a classical series and that is what makes his recent decision to not defend his title so remarkable.
Most great sportsmen are reluctant to let go, especially if they are the world’s best, and in this they invite tragic memory when they finally exit. Because by then abilities have tanked so much that they look as ordinary as anyone else in the field. From the player’s point of view, it is the only legitimate course of action because there are people who start on the game when they are around five or six years old and if they stop competing, then there is nothing really left as a purpose. They don’t know what else to do. It is why Roger Federer still plods along. Carlsen is not giving up chess but he won’t participate in the world championship in 2023 because he has no motivation in it. He is not playing because he knows he is certain to win.
He is right. Ian Nepomniachtchi won the FIDE Candidates Tournament to earn his place as the challenger but the chess world could see the gulf between him and Carlsen in their previous contest in 2021. Carlsen won by 7.5 points to 3.5. The margin couldn’t have been wider. Even before the Candidates Tournament this time, Carlsen had announced that he would only play if a young grandmaster called Alireza Firouzja won. That didn’t come to pass but few thought Carlsen was serious to just give up on an easy title. But in his newly started podcast, he announced his decision would remain. The New York Times quoted him saying: “‘I am not motivated to play another match; I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain,’ he said on the first episode of his new podcast, the Magnus Effect.”
To get over the ‘what-to-do-next syndrome’, Carlsen has found a new hobby—playing competitive poker. He is never going to be as good in it as he is in chess but we can still take a lesson from it that one doesn’t have to be the best in anything to find meaning in an activity. That enjoying what you do and doing what is possible is enough even if one is not gifted with extraordinary talent.