The Russian threat to Magnus Carlsen’s crown

The showdown has prompted parallels with the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match for the 1972 world title


Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin. Photo: AFP
Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin. Photo: AFP

Russian chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin dismisses the geopolitical overtones of his showdown against Norwegian reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen—insisting it’s just a matter of sporting pride.

But the 26-year-old from Crimea—who supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula—adds a special dimension to the 11-30 November match in New York.

“He has to prove that he’s better than me,” Karjakin told AFP during an interview last month. “If he tries too hard, I can beat him on the counter-attack. That’s my plan.”

Carlsen will defend his world title against Karjakin in New York, in the €600,000 (around Rs4.3 crore) match some are hyping as a clash between East and West that echoes the Cold War.

The showdown, the youngest ever by cumulative age, has prompted parallels with the 1972 world championship match between American grandmaster Bobby Fischer and Soviet star Boris Spassky, at the height of the Cold War, a comparison Karjakin dismisses.

“I don’t see the same kind of rivalry,” said Karjakin. “But of course we all want to show that our chess school is stronger.”

Karjakin was born on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and grew up playing for Ukraine until he moved to Moscow seven years ago and took Russian citizenship.

The youngest grandmaster in history at the age of 12 years and seven months, Karjakin admits he is the clear underdog against an opponent he says has “practically no weaknesses”.

Carlsen was introduced to chess by his father. He played in his first tournament at the age of 8 and burst on to the chess scene in 2004 at the age of 13, when “The Mozart of Chess” was born, according to The Washington Post at the time.

That was the year Carlsen first defeated former world champion Anatoly Karpov, and pushed legendary chess champion Garry Kasparov to a draw in March. He became a grandmaster the following month.

In 2013, Carlsen dethroned his Indian rival Viswanathan Anand as world champion. That same year, he made it to the TIME magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Karjakin grew up in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea. He stumbled upon the game as a five-year-old when he saw a chess-themed commercial on television.

“I asked my father what a pawn and a queen were,” Karjakin said. “We started playing that night.”

When he trains with the Russian national team, Karjakin practises at least 6 hours a day, immersed in chess computer programs with an entourage of least five coaches.

One of them is Yury Dokhoian, a Soviet grandmaster who trained Kasparov for a decade.

“They were born with computers. This leaves its mark,” Dokhoian said. “They play a very similar game. They have strong technique, good openings and make quick decisions.”

And while the Russian admits he is clearly not the favourite, he is hoping that he might be able to turn the tables this time.

“I still think he can be beaten,” Karjakin said. “No one is unbeatable.”

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