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On Chess: World Champion Carlsen Had Extra Pressure While In St. Louis

Magnus Carlsen in St. Louis earlier this month
Lennart Ootes| Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St.Louis

It’s not often that the World Champion of Chess gets his thunder stolen but, while here in St. Louis, GM Magnus Carlsen's moment away from the spotlight allowed him to tackle a serious decision.

GM Fabiano Caruana’s historical performance at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for Carlsen, who had flown into Lambert International chased by dark clouds of controversy. In fact, before anyone even smelled smoke from Caruana, Carlsen was the storyline, not just for being the World Champion but, more importantly, for his intentions -- if any -- of maintaining that title.

When he arrived, Carlsen had on his table a contract still to be signed, which would confirm his appearance in the 2014 FIDE World Championship to defend his title against GM Viswanathan Anand in November. And looming over the reigning champ was a deadline set by the World Chess Federation, known by its French acronym FIDE, which governs all international competition among the elite. Rumors of the impending storm had been swirling for months before his arrival, ever since FIDE had announced the World Championship match, and ever since its details had provoked the ire of Carlsen.

It is too easy to eye-roll our way past such disagreements between FIDE and its diva champions, especially here in the U.S. Having watched Bobby Fischercallously toss his World Champion title aside in 1975 after failing to reach an agreement with FIDE over match conditions, we understand prima donnas perhaps better than others. But in this case, an eye roll wasn’t exactly dismissing Carlsen’s point of view.

Among other concerns that stemmed from a lack of transparency was FIDE’s Russian leadership announcing that the match would be held in Sochi, Russia -- despite neither of the players being Russian. The venue location immediately brought to light security issues during a time of military conflict in the region, and Sochi itself seems to have quickly lost its appeal as a vacation spot: the Olympic host this past winter is now described as “abandoned” and a “ghost town.” And yes, the stray dogs are back.

Furthering issues was FIDE’s initial inability to find a sponsor for the 2014 title match (not a single bid was received), an issue only resolved by setting a budget $1 million short of the amount provided for the World Championship match just a year ago. And if hearing World Champions complain about millions of dollars is also eye-rolling, the emergency-sponsor of the event has been sanctioned by the European Union for involvement in a breakaway group in eastern Ukraine. It is not clear if any prize money, a million dollars short or not, will even be able to be collected.

All this was enough to make Carlsen, at the very least, balk. At one point, the World Champion’s camp seemed to be resigned to the fact that the match would be held in Sochi, but requested that the match be postponed until 2015 to wait out the tense political situation in the Ukraine.

But FIDE more than denied the request, instead announcing that Carlsen’s failure to sign the contract by its deadline would result in the stripping of his World Champion title. The federation went even further by stating it would move on just fine without Carlsen, suggesting that his designated seat in November’s World Championship match was to be given to Russian GM Sergey Karjakin.

About to compete in the strongest-rated tournament ever, Carlsen arrived in St. Louis amid an extremely tense stand-off with FIDE, and some felt that the ordeal had him a bit rattled through the first portion of the Sinquefield Cup. He shut down all media inquiries about the decision while he was here, so he could focus on chess -- but it didn’t seem to have that effect. Some uncharacteristic oversights led to draws in the opening rounds, and he fell famously to Caruana in the third round as part of the tournament’s new headline. FIDE showed mild leniency by extending its deadline one week to Sept. 7, to the closing ceremony of the Sinquefield Cup.

There have been rapidly growing concerns over FIDE, corruption among the leadership and confusion about its direction, and this complete breakdown on every level of the chess world’s most important match is just another for the pile. Despite Carlsen’s repeating that he had not yet come to a decision while in St. Louis, many felt that he had indeed come to just that -- and that the World Champion was about to make a stand. Some even welcomed and celebrated it.

Thus, it came as a shock to hear that the World Champion will defend his title. Before he left town, on the day of deadline, Carlsen signed the contract -- tweeting: It has been a pleasure signing autographs for the fans in St. Louis. After the tournament I found the time for 1 more -- with a picture of him signing his autograph to FIDE.

Most will agree that chess does not need yet another schism, which is exactly what would have happened had Carlsen rejected the World Championship and been stripped of his title -- so there is relief in that regard. But frustration with FIDE continues to mount. Despite the signed contract, none of Carlsen’s original concerns over November’s match has been dealt with (at least publicly), and this widely discussed disgruntlement of chess’ poster boy is not exactly quality PR for the organization.

Of larger concern to FIDE should be Carlsen shifting into a role of enemy to the state. After all, he is a chess player -- and knows how to pick his battles.

Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.