Karjakin - Carlsen's contemporary and a worthy contender

Sergey Karjakin’s solid game, great defensive skills, deep preparation and fighting spirit make him a perfect challenger to World champion Magnus Carlsen.

Sergei Karjakin will challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World title in November.   -  Getty Images

From the time Sergey Karjakin became the world’s youngest Grandmaster in 2002, he was seen as a prodigy who could one day become the World chess champion. Now, he is just one match away from claiming the ultimate crown in the sport of kings.

He earned the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World title by winning the Candidates tournament in Moscow. Unlike World championships in other sports, in chess the defending champion is sent directly – so to speak – to the final, while the rest of the world has to fight it out to determine the challenger.

Beating the best

Those challengers play in the Candidates tournament, which is now an eight-player, double round-robin affair. Most of the best talents in world chess were in Moscow. The world’s No.3, 4 and 6 were there. So were the five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand and the 2005 World champion Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. Karjakin, ranked world number 13 when the Candidates began, pushed them all behind.

The Ukraine-born Russian finished his campaign in style too, beating Fabiano Caruana of the United States in the final round.

That final round game was a virtual final. Only Karjakin and Caruana were in a position to take the Candidates title — all the other six players were out of contention by now. While it was a must-win situation for the American, unless Anand beat Peter Svidler of Russia, Karjakin needed only a draw. He won the game, with a rook sacrifice to boot. He finished with 8.5 points, one more than Caruana and Anand, who finished second and third respectively.

While Caruana’s strong show was expected, many were surprised by Anand’s performance. The 46-year-old Indian proved once more that he could still beat the strongest of players. Karjakin himself was at the receiving end of Anand’s mastery in the 11th round. But he recovered from that loss in no time and defeated Topalov in the 12th round. Then, he drew with Levon Aronian of Armenia in the penultimate round to set up that final showdown with Caruana.

He won four games in Moscow, with his only loss coming against Anand. The Indian Grandmaster won as many but suffered three defeats. It was that solid play that separated Karjakin from the rest of the field. Yes, Anish Giri of the Netherlands also didn’t lose a single match, but then, he didn’t win any. He drew all his games and did no harm to his reputation.

Unlike Giri, Karjakin is willing to stretch himself to score a victory when it is needed. Yet, he can be as solid in defence as Giri or any other top player. He is also a great fighter. Such qualities should serve him in good stead against Carlsen in the World championship match, to be held in New York in November.

The underdog

Karjakin would begin as the underdog, no doubt. The Norwegian is clearly the stronger player (in the latest rating list of world chess governing body FIDE, he has 2851 points, against Karjakin’s 2779).

Carlsen is also much more experienced at this level: he has won two World title matches, both convincingly against Anand, while this will be Karjakin’s first shot at the title.

Carlsen, however, cannot afford to take Karjakin lightly. The Russian has the talent and the capacity to work hard. He prepares deeply for his opponents and he has proved time and again that he can rise to the occasion.

If Anand was older than Carlsen by more than 20 years, Karjakin is a contemporary. In fact, both were born in 1990. Karjakin became a Grandmaster when he was 12 while Carlsen got his title at 13. A world title match between them therefore looked almost inevitable.

While Carlsen raced to the top of the world with stunning speed, Karjakin has had to be content being one of the pretenders for the crown. He has been a mighty good one at that, though.

Even at the age of 12, he knew what it was like to prepare for the World championship, as he was chosen to be i n the team that helped Ruslan Ponomariov win the 2002 World championship. Ten years later, he became the World Rapid Chess champion. Interestingly, he had pushed Carlsen to the runner-up spot in that inaugural championship in 2012.

He has also won the World Cup in 2015, when he showed great resilience to comeback from 0-2 down in the final to defeat Peter Svidler. Such a never-say-die attitude is only one of the reasons why he could make such a worthy challenger to Carlsen in New York later this year.