The challenger's tale

The challenger's tale

Chess : Russian Karjakin will look to write his own script when he faces champion Carlsen for the world title

The challenger's tale

Sergey Alexandrovich Karjakin was not even a Grandmaster when he was the official second of 18-year-old Ruslan Ponomariov fighting for the World Chess Championship title in 2002 at Moscow. For that matter,  Sergey had not even entered his teens when the chess world took notice of him as a 12-year-old then, more so as fellow Ukrainian, Ponamariov went on to script history by being crowned as the youngest ever FIDE world champion in the history of chess.

Perhaps that whetted his appetite, perhaps that set the goal post for him or probably the writing was already on the wall when like many Russian kids, he too was introduced to the game as a five-year-old by his father. Hankering to be a World Champion as a youngster, Karjakin is now poised on the last rung, at the highest stage of the game, after he emerged the Challenger by winning the Candidates 2016 to set up a title clash against reigning champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway. Incidentally the venue once again was Moscow where Karjakin had taken his first bow and earned many ‘wows.’

The Candidates is a gruelling eight-player double round robin event and Karjakin, second last in the ratings and apparently unfazed by the fact that he was not amongst the favourites, decided to write his own script. Displaying consistency and holding on to his nerves when most favourites lost way, Karjakin emerged a clear-cut winner. The Candidates field had boasted of two former world champions, Viswanathan Anand and Veselin Topalov, hot favourite Levon Aronian and top-ranked talented youngsters like Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Anish Giri. Karjakin had gained entry to the Candidates by winning another gruelling event, the World Cup 2015.

Interestingly in an era where chess is getting younger, with records being eclipsed by wonder kids, Karjakin remains the youngest ever in the history of the game to become a Grandmaster at 12 years and seven months, a record that stands tall, despite the passage of 14 years. He next hit the limelight as a 14-year-old when he defeated the then reigning world champion Vladimir Kramnik in a Blitz game at Dortmund Chess Classic. His next big milestone was winning his first Grand Slam title, the Corus (nee Tata Steel) in 2009. Karjakin, born in Simferopol, Ukraine, by then had realised that his progress had slowed, he lacked sponsorship, coaches and facilities and that if he had to fulfil his cherished dream, he had to make a new move. And this time around, it was not on the chequered board but with bag and baggage in 2009 to Moscow, to adopt Russian citizenship.

It is from Moscow, a city known as the Mecca of chess, that his journey into the elites gathered momentum even though Karjakin had broken the 2700 Elo barrier, one which separates the elite from other GMs, in 2008. He won the prestigious ACP World Rapid Cup in 2010 and then tied for the top place with Carlsen in the Bazna King’s tournament in 2011. Karjakin then surprised everyone by winning the World Rapid Cup in 2012, a full point ahead of Carlsen, who by then had propelled himself up the ladder as the highest rated player in the world.

That same year Karjakin shared the first place at Dortmund with Fabiano Caruana and later with Alexander Morozevich and Wang Hao at the FIDE Grand Prix. He then claimed the Norwegian Super tournament in 2013 and 2014 when Carlsen also was in the fray. In 2014, Karjakin finished second to Anand at the Candidates and missed the chance to qualify but doggedly returned to win it this time.

It is interesting and fascinating to trace the career graphs of Karjakin and Carlsen, both born in 1990, Karjakin elder by a few months. Initially Karjakin promised much more as a 12-year-old but Carlsen pushed past in their teens to break early into the elite section. Karjakin was more sedate probably due to the lack of opportunities or invitations and started taking rapid strides after his teens.

Karjakin prefers positional play, a hallmark of the Soviet School and does not believe in setting the board on fire. He once candidly admitted, “You can’t throw yourself headlong at your opponent without sufficient justification.” On the personal front, Karjakin married Galia Kamalova in 2014 and became a proud father last year and also took some time off from professional chess. He was earlier married to Ukrainian WGM Kateryna Dolzhikova in 2009 but they divorced after a couple of years.

Most chess players agree that chess has changed fundamentally and so has the approach. So how would Karjakin handle Carlsen at the title match this November in New York? Karjakin in all probability will stick to what he once said: “The main concept is to get a playable position and maintain the tension. And then just see what happens….”

Karjakin factfile

Name: Sergey Karjakin
Born: January 12, 1990
Nationality: Russian
FIDE Rating: 2779
Peak Rating: 2788 (July, 2011)
FIDE titles: Grand Master: 2003; International Master: 2002.
Major achievements: In July 2012, won the World Rapid Chess meet.
In March 2014, finished in second place in the FIDE Candidates meet.
In 2015, won the Chess World Cup.
In March 2016, won the 2016 Candidates meet.

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